A New Controversy (or maybe more than one…?)

We continue to receive lots of pre-opening publicity for the show, from travel magazines like Where, and Down Under in the Sydney Morning Herald, and a second feature in the Washington Post Weekend section, this time emphasizing the advent of “a Holocaust Play With No Jews.”

The first Post feature from May 2nd on Thomas Keneally has brought with it something of tempest in a teapot, especially in reckoning with one quote coming from our author. “Anti-Semitism may be the cultural bread and butter of Christendom,” Keneally asserts, “but when these Christian pastors in Germany see the human face, they can’t live with its obliteration.”

We’ve heard from an aggrieved party or two, even within our cast, where the comment has raised a hackle. Tom’s been taken to task for suggesting that “anti-Semitism is the essential sustenance of the culture of the Christian West” – if that’s what we’re meant to understand by “the cultural bread and butter of Christendom.”

Tom has written the following response, both to the press and to the aggrieved cast member, and I’m happy to report that we’re all very much on the same page again, having asserted crucial distinctions between the overall integrity of Christian faith and the unpleasant realities of certain faith-driven political acts of anti-Semitism through ancient and recent history. keep reading

Tom writes, “I regret that my remarks caused offence and anger. It is true I don’t admire the performance of the institutional churches in this matter of anti-Semitism. I am not so sure I have worked out as an individual how to inherit the Christian tradition that transcends the limits of the institutional…

What I was saying was this. From the time of the Roman empire onwards anti-Semitism was a tradition of Christendom and could with some justice be called part of Christendom’s “cultural” and even theological repertoire. I needn’t catalogue the shameful record of the medieval British, the Spanish and the Inquisition in Europe and the Americas, the pogroms of Russia and Ukraine, the anti-Semitic rant of Luther in which he accused the Jews of creating plagues and sacrificing Christian children to make a parody of Eucharist. I remember that on Good Friday we used to pray in the Litany: Let us pray for the conversion of the perfidious and infidel Jews. I can’t be proud of this record, since it came to be a wellspring of slaughter and, indeed, a recurrent theme of the history of Christendom.

A concern that the play is anti-Christian or anti-Church in excess of [the points above] is one on which I intend to examine my conscience, not least because I don’t seek to hurt people grounded in the valid and complex Christian culture and belief, and because parody, by its very unfairness is both wrong and the death of art. And I apologise fraternally for causing anguish.

We’re all back in rehearsal, enjoying our final hour of fixes before tonight’s Saturday night preview. Tomorrow is a double performance day – a matinee followed by a post-show talk-back between Tom and myself, and then at 7:30 pm, the opening night performance of EITHER OR. The Australian Ambassador, the Honorable Dennis Richardson will be in the audience. As will 236 others. We’re sold out. We’re feeling good. We’re not exactly holding our breath. But we know there’s a lot at stake.

The play packs a wallop and engenders a tremendous amount of discussion. In fact, there are other controversies to discuss; my program notes for starters, where I was recently challenged by a friend of the theater for a misinterpreted reading of the question: “So is Tom Keneally really telling “The Colin Powell/Joseph Wilson Story”by way of the Third Reich?”

Ruminate on that. Who might take offence? And what really do I mean?

2 thoughts on “A New Controversy (or maybe more than one…?)

  1. Unfortunately, anti-semitism has been around in Christian circles almost as long as Christianity has been around. Of course, it is a sensitive subject, and generalizations as to matters of great sensitivity are always dangerous (and usually only partially correct). As a suggestion for anyone really interested in the relationship of organized Christianity to anti-semitism over the years and around the world, may I suggest James Carroll’s very readable, provocative and fact filled book, “Constantine’s Sword”, available in paperback.

  2. an Amen to the older hessel’s suggestion of CONSTANTINE’S SWORD! When we were doing Peace Cafes around the DISPUTATION, it was a great source for me as a programmer and discussant with the cast on how a faithful Christian wrestles with the most difficult of issues regarding supercession of the Jews in one way or another (how’s that for a neutral formula) as aspect of Christian theology and practice.

    And quickly on another note, I think Peter Marks’ review was respectful and points to a dilemma – but the moral ambiguities around Gerstein and the fervors that drove him are to me even more interesting than the story of bon-vivant, amoral Schindler turned righteous gentile (as heroic and stirring is that payoff.)
    The questions around Gerstein cut deeper, as to how the “ambiguity of the good” can be an insturment and a victim of hell on earth.

    Hey audiences, come talk to Theater J about those questions!

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