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Lenten Conversations: Dr. Martin Marty on Family Time

March 11, 2017

Another Way for week of March 10, 2017

Lenten Conversations: Martin Marty on Family Time

Editor’s note: Third in a six-week Lenten series of interviews Melodie Davis conducted with influential Christians.

One of the persons I felt most privileged to interview several years ago was Dr. Martin Marty, longtime editor, prolific author, and columnist at Christian Century magazine. That he would agree to an interview with a pretty much unknown writer/producer says something about his humble spirit. Among many laurels, The University of Chicago Divinity School named their institute for advanced research in the study of religion “The Martin Marty Center.”

As a Lutheran, Marty was named of course for Martin Luther, the great reformer. 2017 marks 500 years since Martin Luther wrote and nailed his “95 Theses” (on why the church needed reforming) to the door of the Wittenberg church in Germany. What an inspirational model for the young Martin Marty.

For years I enjoyed his weekly “M.E.M.O” column in the Christian Century. If Marty’s good health and remarkable mind continue, he will soon be 90 and still publishing (now contributes to the Sightings column). I will admit that his writing is sometimes too thick and academic for my inadequate brain.

Dr. Martin Marty with his trademark bow tie, and frames of family on the walls.

Yet I will forever treasure his humor, his spirit (he always seems to be smiling as if keeping a
secret joke), and his willingness to welcome me into his Chicago condo and office looking out on a glorious view of Lake Michigan. I was recording an interview for the Mennonite church’s radio program on family issues, a denominational group which Marty respects highly. Marty of course is amply familiar with Mennonites from his wide academic study of religion, but he also came to know the small denomination through Richard Kauffman, book review editor at the Century for many years.

Dr. Marty’s rather abundant personal library in his office. Photos by Melodie Davis

Marty also wrote the foreword for my book, Whatever Happened to Dinner: Recipes and Reflections for Family Mealtime. Publishers today have a bit of age bias as they look for up and coming younger names as foreword writers for books. But there’s nothing wrong, I hope, with folks pushing 90 and still publishing.

I started by asking Marty where he grew up: “I have a very strong sense of place and heritage, and though I’m very far from it, every day I somehow draw on my Nebraska roots,” he replied with feeling.

The Martys lived in a small town, but the children spent summers on the farms of relatives. It was the 1930s Dust Bowl era, and Marty says his parents had to have felt the agony of the Depression. “But we children were kind of protected from that.” His father went to summer school every year, so for six weeks he and his siblings were “farmed out” to relatives (grandfather and an aunt and uncle) on literal Nebraska farms. “They were almost a parallel family to us,” said Marty. They lived 65 miles away and costly to buy gas to go that far. “So summer was just unbroken pleasure on the farm. It was a warm, rich community environment, everybody knew everybody, and took care of each other,” Marty noted.

Marty and Elsa (his first wife, who died of cancer), also had the goal and joy of camping in almost every state with five kids plus two who joined the family as foster children. “We got to all states except Hawaii and Alaska, (and forgot Delaware!),” he recalled. Marty reflected: “If you take a three-or-so-week camping trip with each other, you really get to know each other. Each had his own assignment on tent set-ups and camping gear and so on.” Marty is happy to observe his children following the camping tradition with their own families.

At one point the Martys had seven boys aged 9-14 around the table every night. “My sainted wife managed that more than I did, although the kids always remember how every day when I came home, we’d toss the football. We lived near parks and had a swimming pool; of course a lot of friends came over.”

Even though Marty traveled a lot because of his professional life, he worked very hard to spend time with the family together, and on an individual basis. The children took turns traveling with him on business when it could be arranged. They also didn’t watch television during the week. “They’d watch hockey on Saturday some, but we watched very little during the week. We had a reading circle every night around the table.”

As Lutherans I’m sure they observed a “holy Lent” and read frequently from the Bible. They enjoyed rich discussions involving theology, the world and how Christians should put faith into action. I’m also sure they argued as well (because we all do)—even Mary and Martha in the oft-told story of Jesus visiting their home for a meal when Martha was all a flutter with meal prep. Mary, however, relished sitting at the feet of Jesus to hear his teachings and stories.

This past Sunday was “Children’s Sunday” at my daughter’s church, and we enjoyed a short children’s musical of the Mary and Martha story, ending with this reminder which is good for all of us as we find time to meditate this Lent: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away.” (Luke 10:41-42).


These Lenten Conversations will be available as a free small booklet by clicking here (Lenten Conversations PDF). Or, send your name, address, and two U.S. postage stamps and I’ll mail a copy. Send to or Another Way Media,  Box 363 , Singers Glen,  Va. 22850.

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. Another Way columns are posted at a week after newspaper publication.  




  1. singinglady37 permalink

    I am enjoying this series very much Thank you Melodie

    • Caro Claire–glad you figured out what you needed to do to send your comments through again. Very much appreciated! And I’m doubly glad to hear from those enjoying the series. Blessings to you and I hope you have a wonderful weekend. We’re expecting our biggest snow of the season–which isn’t saying much, 7-9 inches, but still! Take care.

      • singinglady37 permalink

        Yes I was having trouble with responding recently and I was pleasantly surprised when it went right through here to day!
        Also I have been terribly backed up on my mail recently with being sick and also trying to get some much need work done on my photo projects which are also way behind!
        We are still getting snow here as well . Even yesterday we got another blast of winter and i was disappointed not to be able to go to an out of town bridal shower for a long time friend. Not worth taking the chances though .
        We have had the most snow this winter since we moved here five years ago.
        Keep well XO

  2. You have churned out another good one, Melodie. Educational and entertaining too. I’m glad Dr. Marty flauts age bias.

    • I’m never sure whether “churned” is a compliment or not. But you add “good” “educational” and “entertaining” to the feeling of drudgery that accompanies my interpretation of churning. 🙂 Or perhaps you infer my turn out is prolific. Right now, after 2 days of trying to collect all the paperwork for our taxes (including my business expenses etc.) I’m feeling a little churned out. 🙂 Thanks for peeping in, Marian. P.S. Did you know many Mennonites descended on Jacksonsville this week for Mennonite Health Assembly & some affiliated meetings??

      • My verb choice may not have been the best but churn can result in sweet butter or in a fitting tribute in this case. No, I did not know about the Mennonite Health Assembly in Jacksonville. We can offer them beautiful weather – today in the 70s. Best wishes on your taxes.

  3. Melodie, what a wonderful opportunity for you to visit with one of the great Christian thinkers of our time. I liked the description of his countenance: “he always seems to be smiling as if keeping a
    secret joke.” The Nebraska childhood and the family camping trips must have left deep impressions on Marty and on his many children. I think I must agree, however, that he had a saintly wife. 🙂

  4. It was a special day indeed–such a sharp mind and gracious spirit. I’m happy to hear your comment, especially emerging from your self-imposed Lenten blogging fast.

    We (my growing up family) did not go camping each year like the Martys but hit about 28 or so states in one six-week camping expedition out west–and like you, I newly appreciate the stamina and vigor of my saintly mother! The most we managed in terms of camping with our own three daughters were a few weekends in nearby campgrounds or state parks. 🙂

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