The 16th century German reformer, Martin Luther, is much in the news of late. His name has been recently invoked in the communications media: as a lens to understand the Arab Spring; as a model for Occupy Wall Street’s assault on neoliberalism; as symbol par excellence for political or religious leadership.

The conference, Lutherrenaissance: Past and Present, to take place at Northwestern University on April 12-14, 2012, aims to explore the provocative historical comparison between two moments in global history marked simultaneously by revolutions in religion, politics, and communications media.

The deep background of this enterprise is the Lutherrenaissance of the turn of the 20th century, when major European philosophers, theologians, and social theorists, among them Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Rudolf Otto, and Ernst Troeltsch, took up the question of how to read Luther in light of developments in modern thought—principally in relation to Kant, Kierkegaard, and Schleiermacher—and contemporary society, including new technologies, innovations in the natural sciences, and the development of the social sciences. Out of this international and interdisciplinary conversation came a series of provocative insights into the interplay of religion (of religious imagination, experience, logics, and emotions) and society that proved to be pivotal in the formation of new analytics in religious and social theory. Among them were Weber’s theory of the progressive rationalization of religious cultures, for example, or Troeltsch’s influential distinction between church and sect.

The current moment presents itself as another timely, even necessary, occasion for revisiting and rethinking issues of religion and society, again looking at the intersection of religious ideas and practices with communications media, reconfigurations of political power and authority, emergent semiotic ideologies, and new patterns in the global circulation of ideas, peoples, and goods.

The keynote speaker of the conference and 2012 Crain lecturer (Medill School of Journalism) will be the well-known media critic and journalist, Michael Massing, who is writing a book on the rivalry between Luther and Erasmus. One of Massing’s objectives is to chart the origins of the contemporary American religious landscape, including the way the communications media are used to spread religious ideas and shape social movements. The conference will include an interdisciplinary book panel on Massing’s work, inviting scholars of early modern history, religious studies, journalism, American studies, and literature to discuss his questions and research.

Other speakers at the conference, working in critical relation to the original Lutherrenaissance and its theoretical legacy, will explore contemporary instances of religion and social and cultural change as these are illuminated by thinking them through with Luther and the transformations of the 16th century in view.

Lutherrenaissance: Past and Present is the second part of a cooperative enterprise between Northwestern University and Aarhus University (Denmark). The first meeting of this joint project, convened on October 21-23, 2011 in Aarhus, was concerned primarily with the history and contemporary impact of the early 20th century Lutherrenaissance, and included talks on its key figures (among them Karl Holl and Albrecht Ritschl) and theoretical preoccupations (mysticism, political theology, and the sociology of religion). The overarching question of this first meeting was genealogical: what were the origins of the Lutherrenaissance and what are its theoretical, theological, and historiographical inheritances? Included in this was a legacy of anti-Semitism, which underwrote basic constructs of the sociology of ancient Israel, for instance, and the meaning of “religion” itself. The keynote speaker of this first meeting was the distinguished systematic theologian, historian, and philosopher of religion, Heinrich Assel, from the University of Greifswald (Germany).