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Natural Born Killer : Chapter & Verse : Open Book : Off the Shelf

Open Book

Theologian Paul Tillich was a University Professor at Harvard for seven years starting in 1955, and throughout that time Grace Calí was his personal secretary. She has now written Paul Tillich First-Hand: A Memoir of the Harvard Years (Exploration Press of the Chicago Theological Seminary, $19.95). In the course of providing a fresh view of the great man "from her side of the desk," she tells some amusing anecdotes. In 1956, for instance, Tillich's growing reputation as an art critic as well as a theologian led to a speaking engagement at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Washington, D.C. Just before the lecture, Robert Richman, the institute's director, drove Tillich to the National Gallery to see that museum's latest acquisition, donated by Chester Dale-Salvador Dali's painting The Sacrament of the Last Supper. "Tillich was horrified by it (using his own word)," Calí recorded in her notebook at the time. "Tillich strongly feels that in portraying the divine, the forms must be distorted from reality as we see it in order to convey the `other worldliness' of what is being expressed." Accordingly, he "injected a note of pungent criticism of Dali's new painting in the course of his lecture on `Religion and Art' given at the Institute a few minutes later."

His colorful comments were immediately picked up by Time magazine. Reporting the story in the "People" section of their November 19th issue: "Tillich deplored Dali's work as a sample of the very worst in `what is called the religious revival of today.' The depiction of Jesus did not fool Tillich: `A sentimental but very good athlete on an American baseball team...The technique is a beautifying naturalism of the worst kind. I am horrified by it!'... He added it all up: `Simply junk!'"

This appeared a couple of weeks after the lecture in Washington and in those intervening days there had been some sharp reaction by Chester Dale expressed to the Institute of Contemporary Art....

Undoubtedly, the reaction would have been milder had Tillich used a less emotionally charged word than "junk." Upon his return, he lamented, "I'll never try to use American slang again. The word for `junk' in German is not nearly so bad as it is apparently in English-kitsch."

This he explained also in a subsequent letter to Richman. His first encounter with the English language being made at the age of 47 did at times produce some understandable misunderstandings!

A droll sidelight to the above incident then ensued. When the Time article appeared, I showed it to Tillich. In a call to Dali in Spain, Time asked for his comment about the painting being termed "junk." The transatlantic wires cracked angrily, "I was not drunk!" he stormed. Paulus laughed heartily, "Well, this does not make it so bad after all."

Walter Leibrecht, his teaching assistant at that time, was also present and remarked on Tillich's making the "People" section.... "Don't you realize that usually only people like Marilyn Monroe get into this section?"

"And who is Marilyn Monroe?" Tillich asked in obvious puzzlement.

"Who is Marilyn Monroe!" Walter and I gasped in chorus.

Amazed and floundering, I tried to explain her place in the current scene, that she was the sex symbol incarnate in America.

"That should be somewhat interesting to see," smiled Tillich with an appreciative lift of his eyebrows.

Still trying to pin down the identification of the woman for him, I ventured, "You know, she is married to Arthur Miller."

He expostulated impatiently, "Well, why didn't you say so! Of course, I know who is Arthur Miller!"

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