Specialty: Dead White Males

By Marty, Martin E. | The Christian Century, July 5, 1995 | Go to article overview

Specialty: Dead White Males


Marty, Martin E., The Christian Century


AFEW YEARS ago conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi donated his services to conduct a volunteer symphony orchestra in a fund-raising concert honoring his uncle, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German resistance theologian martyred by the Nazis. The great German-born baritone Hermann Prey and the great German-stock, Latvian-born violinist Gidon Kremer also donated their services for the event at Riverside Church in New York. Orchestra members came from New York, Cleveland, Boston, Philadelphia, Dresden, Israel, Leipzig and elsewhere.

Arthur Kaptainis, music critic of the Montreal Gazette, could not find words to praise the event sufficiently. But he reported in Christianity & Crisis (May 11, 1992) that

the event as a whole, steeped in the German and Western tradition, gave rise to some uneasiness among Union Seminary students. Did this concert accurately reflect the irreproachably multicultural school of today? The objection was not against "dead white male culture" (although such sentiments probably rumbled in the bellies of a few complainants) but against the possibility that people might conclude Union still follows Germany's lead in matters theological.

Why should seminary students' bellies rumble? Because the event was raising funds for a chair whose holder "would teach the traditional Protestant theologies of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Edwards and Barth, so much of which provided the basis of Bonhoeffer's own thinking." And everyone knows that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Edwards and Barth made no contribution to liberating the multicultures now represented at Union. Kaptainis says that the uneasy seminary students soothed themselves with the thought that "if any product of traditional Protestantism transformed that faith into something active, vibrant and fearlessly critical of the status quo, it was Bonhoeffer.

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