Y2K Top 10 -- Luther meets the printing press

The question is impossible to answer, but that hasn't kept those who study religion and mass media from asking it: Would the Protestant Reformation have happened without the invention of moveable type?

While stopping short of directly linking Martin Luther and Johannes Gutenberg, members of the Religion Newswriters Association of America have selected the Protestant Reformation and the invention of the printing press as the top events in a poll to determine the top 10 religion stories of the Second Millennium.

"There were all kinds of reform movements before Martin Luther and there were other reformers hard at work all around him," said Lutheran scholar Martin Marty, who has written 50-plus books and is, according to Time, America's "most influential living interpreter of religion."

"But Luther is a dramatic leader who comes along and is in the right place at the right time. So, for a lot of reasons, it is the revolt of the junior faculty at the University of Wittenberg that gets the attention. Luther becomes the symbol of an entire era of change."

Luther did more than nail his convictions to a church door -- he published them. His story combines a dramatic personality with dramatic ideas that set in motion dramatic events. He made precisely the kind of history that looks great in print, helping shape modernity and, especially, Western culture.

"When we talk about history, and journalism, too, we talk about great people and great stories," said communications scholar James Carey, best known for his work at the University of Illinois and, now, at Columbia University. "There have been so many great changes in this world that were never really captured as history, precisely because they were not captured in print. Our collective memories are structured by print, and we can see that in this kind of poll."

Here is the top 10 list for the millennium, as selected by the 30 religion reporters and editors who took part in the poll, which was based on a questionnaire prepared by the Religion Newswriters Association.

1. Luther publicizes his 95 theses in 1517. The Catholic hierarchy responds with its Counter Reformation, beginning with the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Meanwhile, King Henry VIII creates the Church of England.

2. The invention of movable type leads to the publication of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455. Soon, many forms of religious material are published for the laity. John Wycliffe translates the first English Bible in 1380 and the King James Version follows in 1605.

3. The great schism of 1054 divides Christendom, separating the ancient churches of the East and West.

4. Six million Jews and millions of others die in Nazi concentration camps, a Holocaust that leads to worldwide revulsion and the founding of the state of Israel.

5. In 1095, Pope Urban II authorizes the Crusades to reclaim Christian holy sites captured by the Muslims. Some of the Crusader armies slaughter Orthodox Christians, as well as Muslims in the Middle East.

6. Muslim invaders crush Buddhism in India at the end of the 12th Century, while Islam also expands into Africa and Asia. Muslim Turks capture Constantinople in 1453, ending the Byzantine Empire. But the spread of Islam fails to sweep into Europe.

7. The Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s changes the Catholic Church's relationship with the world, other churches and other faiths. It's work leads to ongoing efforts to reform the church's liturgies and some teachings, sparking an era of creativity and tensions in the world's largest Christian body.

8. Protestants settle in Plymouth, Mass., in 1620, seeking religious freedom. While establishing Rhode Island, reformer Roger Williams furthers the notion of separation of church and state. Guarantees of religious liberty are later enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights, a pivotal moment that helps shape global trends toward religious freedom.

9. Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud - a quartet of titans that Marty called the "bearded God-killers of the 20th century" - promulgate ideas that undercut centuries of belief, helping shape modernity's educational and cultural elites.

10. The Azuza Street revival in Los Angeles of 1906 launches modern Pentecostalism, which becomes Christianity's fastest growing segment in the late 20th century. This is a capstone event, coming after generations of evangelical movements that emphasize the role of personal conversion experiences.