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Winner of the 1998 University of Chicago Alumni Medal, Divinity School scholar Martin Marty, PhD'56, is...well, he's Martin Marty.
By Kerry Temple
Photography by Dan Dry


Martin Marty. A name you have heard for 10, 15, maybe 20 years. As in: "Martin Marty says."

Newsweek, Nightline, The New York Times. Martin E. Marty. Expert witness, scout, seer, sentinel. Master surveyor of America's religiocultural landscape. The "most influential interpreter of religion" in the country today, according to Time magazine. "The Thomas Jefferson of the world of theology," says former Senator Paul Simon. "The quintessential public intellectual and public historian," says Catherine Albanese, professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

You try bringing Marty into focus-bow tie, tweed vest, the mirthful eyes, and impressive bald dome wreathed thickly in tufted white-and you remember this too: When a neophyte graduate student came to the University of Chicago Divinity School back in the late 1970s, he kept hearing others-in hallways and classrooms-saying "Martin Marty this" and "Martin Marty that." Sounded, he thought, like a cartoon character.

But even then, 20 years ago, Martin Marty, PhD'56, who joined the Divinity School faculty in 1963, was the name you heard or read whenever (and pretty much wherever) theologians, pundits, politicians, and the media examined the impact of religion-or some aspect of religion-on the national psyche. In fact, in 1978 the editors of 26 religious magazines voted Marty and Billy Graham as the two people having the most influence on religion in the United States.

Today the man with the name is, quite literally, legendary.

You consider, for example, the staggering productivity. Marty is the author of 50 books (including a National Book Award winner and five or six "classics" in American religious history) as well as 4,300 articles, essays, reviews, papers. He recently retired-at age 70-as senior editor of the influential weekly The Christian Century, and still edits the fortnightly newsletter Context, which explores the role of religion in public life. Add to that, a colleague estimates, the 100 or so talks/speeches/lectures he gives each year-outside Chicago-and you have a scribe/writer/ wordsmith of near-mythic profusion. Maybe 400,000 published words a year.

And this doesn't include the quotes, statements, and sound bites accorded a national media eager for expert testimony on topics ranging from medical ethics to religion's future in the next millennium-those profound, insightful, yet accessible, opinions regarding the nature of religion, God's place (and His people's), in a pluralistic, technoscientific, largely secular world.

Then, too, there is that legend-maker Bibfeldt business. Franz Bibfeldt, the celebrated German theologian whose oft-cited doctoral thesis purportedly set upon an unresolved problem of chronological proportions-the year zero-which (scholars now must agree) doesn't exist. Yet in 1950 and 1951, at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, where a young Lutheran seminarian named Martin Marty ran the campus bookstore and edited the student theological magazine, Bibfeldt's legacy proliferated-his ideas cited in discussions, footnoted in term papers; his books on order at the bookstore, wanted at the library.

Marty himself signed a review of Bibfeldt's The Relieved Paradox about the time church officials asked him to consider serving a congregation in London that Marty happily figured would lead to the life he wanted-parish ministry. But a telegram called him back from Christmas vacation a day early. The seminary, it seemed, had caught on to the Bibfeldt hoax, was not as amused as the students, and saw Marty's contributions to the scam as a sure sign of immaturity. He'd be kept closer to home, under watchful eyes. So the scholastic prankster landed at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest-and graduate school. Marty and the University of Chicago would thereafter be joined.

"And that is why," Marty would later explain, "Bibfeldt, who didn't exist, has influenced me more than any theologian who did."

Whether divine intervention or happy accident, Bibfeldt's maneuver keyed an extraordinary career. Marty not only became one of the Divinity School's shining lights, but also the nation's foremost scholar on church history. The native of West Point, Nebraska, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Alabama, and was one of the rare Protestants participating at Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church's historic summit meeting in the mid-1960s. And, later in his career, a brief meeting at O'Hare Airport led to a lasting friendship with television producer Norman Lear, creator of Archie Bunker, Mary Hartmann, Maude, and George Jefferson.

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