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October 16, 2006

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This exhibit recently traveled through Houston, where I live. Many of my friends encouraged me to attend, several using the argument that since I am an artist, seeing how the human body is designed would enhance my artistic vision.

To borrow from Franky Schaeffer, we become neutral to the desecration of these bodies because it is done in the name of science. When a soul is dismissed because science has "glorified" the human body in death, it gives way to a lessening moral standard in our culture.

Would we have been culturally horrified if Nazi Germany had practiced plastination 60 years ago? Maybe I'm over-reacting, but where does one draw the line, so to speak?

Maybe we would both have a different viewpoint if we actually saw the exhibit.

It's a really amazing exhbit. Rather than desensitizing the audience, or making us neutral, this exhibit heightens our awareness of the phenomenal beauty of the body and the amazing repercussions that our decisions (where we live, how we eat, what we do, etc.) and our positions (class, especially) have for these bodies.

I share Bill's concern for human objectification, especially with regards to sexuality, but I don't share his equation of death with grief--nor do I think the exhibit strips death of any proper grief. The exhibit is about bodies, and by extension, about life, not about death. It's not like peering into a grave. It's more like peering beneath the skin.

The exhibit makes clear that the inhabitants of these bodies volunteered for this. If that's proven wrong, then a clear legal dillema exists. Otherwise, I stand as one who appreciated the exhibit and commend it to others. http://www.bodyworlds.com/

I saw the Body Worlds Exhibit here in Houston and I found it to be educational and thought provoking. I was fascinated by the exhibit, but I don’t think my fascination was morbid. The exhibit afforded me the opportunity to see the intricacy and complexity of the human body in a way that would otherwise be seen only by those training for the medical professions. The phrase “fearfully and wonderfully made” has a different meaning for me after seeing the exhibit.

Before I saw the exhibit I was skeptical about the artist’s motives in posing the cadavers. But in hindsight, I am happy that he did so. Many of the poses are designed to illustrate amazing aspects of the bodies. For example, the man holding his own skin demonstrates how massive an organ is the skin, an organ that I used to take for granted. Also, many of the poses were successful at capturing the grace, motion, and yes, humor of the human form. I thought the artist was quite tasteful in striking a balance between science and art. I think I learned more about life than about death from the exhibit.

As you said, these cadavers are the bodies of deceased human beings. I don’t know what their motivations where for donating their bodies for the exhibit, but I would have been very disappointed if the artist had presented them in a way lacking dignity. But to me at least, the exhibit did not come off as condescending, morbid, or voyeuristic. Seeing the human body in such detail made me that much more appreciative and amazed at God for creating such a form.

While I am grateful for the beauty of the human body--inside and out--and know that one might well come away from such an exhibition more aware of that beauty, it still seems to me that the display of plastinated human corpses is not the way to celebrate that beauty.

These exhibition displays are people--dead people--whose bodies will one day be raised (whether to judgment or to life). Those bodies are not incidental to who those people were or will be, as if the Christian hope is only one of disembodied immortality. Rather, our hope is inextricably bound up with our bodies, so much so that from a biblical perspective Death is not defeated by the postmortem life of the soul. Death (understood as the death of our bodies) is only finally destroyed at the resurrection of our bodies (1 Cor 15:23-26).

This is why I believe that grief is always the appropriate Christian response to death. Until the resurrection, Death has claimed victory. This is true, even if (as in the case of believers) one's spirit goes to be with the Lord in the interim. The answer is not to paper (or plastinate) over the horror of death. It is to admit that horror, grieve for it and for those subject to it, and yet not to "grieve as do the rest who have no hope" (1 Thess 4:13).

It has been said that our understanding of grace is only as deep as our understanding of sin. The same holds, I believe, for resurrection and death, those ultimate expressions of grace and sin in human existence.

There seems to be a tension between various ethical values at work here in discerning the propriety of the exhibit. On one hand, most of us, I suspect, would allow for the use of human cadavers in medical training, though perhaps only with the prior consent of the deceased. But we also likely believe - along with our legal system - that the intentional mutilation of a corpse is immoral.

So the question is where this exhibit falls among those values? Is it sufficiently educational? How necessary is such education for the general public? Even if knowledge is an intrisic good, does the exhibit transgress a boundary that pushes it into the realm of commodification of corpses for the purposes of entertainment and thereby overly-instrumentalize knowledge? Since the exhibit, as I understand it, includes some corpses of children, what are we to make of that, particularly in terms of consent?

Those at least are some of the questions involved.

When the exhibit was in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a pair of editorials in the Sunday paper:

[a] from scholar and ethicist Anita Allen, "Body Ethics, Body Aesthetics"
http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/2006/03/12/news/editorial/14075898.htm

[b] from the Franklin Institute's vice president of exhibit and program development Steven L. Snyder, "A Singular Opportunity for Teaching - Ethically"
http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/2006/03/12/news/editorial/14075897.htm

These articles might be helpful in trying to evaluate the ethical implications of the exhibit.

It is desecration of the dead.

Any culture which is ok with that is pretty nearly gone.

The saddest thing of all is that this evil is not a 'no-brainer' to so many Christians. Here you have an 'artist', the son of a Nazi SS officer, who has been questioned about his sources for many of these bodies from countries known to execute political prisoners, displaying human bodies stripped of their humanity, made into signed pieces of 'art' for the entertainment and interest of the public--and we, Christians, are asking ourselves 'Is this bad or not?'

Where he gets the bodies is only a small part of the whole deal. I am all for education. Why not use technology to show 3-D medical anatomy pictures? Why not use advanced sculpturing techniques to create realistic models instead of using real people? Why? Because none of that is as titillating as knowing you are looking at the remains of an actual human being. It is an appeal to our morbid fascinations and voyeuristic tendencies. It is the objectification of human beings. It is pornography and an appeal to our flesh. Yes, we can sometimes have photos, sculptures and paintings of human beings stripped of clothing (and of flesh) without it being pornographic. That is because they are representations of human beings. These exhibits are the actual remains of human beings being used to make money, fascinate and entertain. (BTW, I wonder when some of this 'art' using human remains will be available for the public to purchase. Will that be considered unethical? Or would that just be making interesting, educational reminders of mortality and life available to us year round, in our homes?)

If we have come to the point where this is 'controversial' among Christians and we have to explain to one another why this is so evil, we have really come a long way, baby....sorry for the sarcasm, I am just really disturbed and saddened by some of what I am reading here--and elsewhere in some Christian circles.

And, no, Bill, you are not overreacting.
(And anyone who thinks you might be, ought to follow some of the links provided in earlier comments and see for themselves--also try Wikipedia, it has some very morally neutral, non-judgemental descriptions and photos of some of the Body World 'artwork'.)

Interesting post and comments.

It appears that some people see in the exhibition of these dead bodies not death but a beneficial and even beautiful portrayal of the human body. They may affirm that the point of the exhibit--it's purpose--is a good one, and greater appreciation of the human body may even result.

Others would recognize the sincerity of the exhibit creator (and admirers) to achieve this good purpose, while questioning the legitimacy of using actual human corpses to do so.

They might note that actual human corpses have a fundamental connection with death, and should be seen in light of that connection, and thus elicit the appropriate response of grief. To view the exhibit and see only beauty and not death in these bodies is a failure to appreciate the connection of corpses and death and appropriately respond in grief, a failure which is moral in nature because it involves (and others may point out other reasons) a willful ignorance of the reality of death.

It is not okay to look at death and completely ignore it, therefore completely failing to grieve. Obviously, not all forms of death are the same, therefore requiring the same sort of grieving. But in this case, some sort of grief is required by the exhibition of death, because it is an exhibition of death. True, it might be more than death (as a exhibition of the beauty of the body), BUT it is certainly not less than death. And so one should properly grieve when viewing the exhibition, and recoil when such grieving is not present due to the willful ignorance of the presence of death.

Lastly, though I personally think the exhibit is kind of hideous, I should note that if you see beauty there, then you may properly delight in it, though that delight must be in addition to grief. How you work that out is up to you, and I don't see that as too much to ask for Christians. Can anyone think of why? Hint: Sunday school answer sort of works here =D

Bill,
I share your senstivity toward the human body and your desire for our created form to be treated with reverence and respect. In response to your question, "or am I missing something", I have to say "yes you are".
I did attend the Bodyworlds exhibit here in Houston and I was so moved to worship God for his creation that I posted an article on my blog.
I'll share an excerpt here:

I went to see Bodyworlds at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on Monday. It was so beautiful. Psalm 139 came to life before my eyes as I beheld the intricate breathtaking beauty of the human body.

There was one model of the nervous system. It was the brain, spinal cord, and all nerves branching off and attached to a clear glass pane about 6 feet tall. It was so beautiful. It looked like a snowflake or frost on a window pane. Or maybe the lacy branches of a coral reef. it was so beautiful. God didn't have to make our nervous system *pretty*. I mean, it was designed to be inside and not visible. But just cause he loves us and just cause he is the Ultimate Artist, he made our central nervous system beautiful. Reminded me of the Theology of the Body Created and Redeemed seminar I went to last year. Christianity is the only religion that cares for the body with such joy and reverence and respect, neither despising the body as gnostics or buddhist or idolizing worshiping the body as pagans. Instead gratitude and joy for the way God created the body and then the Word made flesh and dwelt among us. God clothed himself in human flesh so how can human flesh be anything but a cause for gratitude and blessing!

You can read the full article Fearfully and Wonderfully Made here
http://blog.hope-giver.com/2006/09/06/fearfully-and-wonderfully-made.aspx
Respecting your person while disagreeing with your post,
Robin

Bill,
I found your blog while researching Gunther von Hagens’ and Body Worlds.

Now before I go further, let me say that I have not attended a Body Worlds exhibit in person, but I have seen it. Through the “magic” of the Internet, I have found pictures of almost all of the full body cadavers that are currently displayed in Body Worlds 1, 2, and 3. Although photography is supposedly prohibited, the hundreds of photos on photo share sites say they don’t enforce that very well. This is in addition to the dozens of authorized photos on the Body Worlds website, news articles, as well as the Body Worlds gift shop where you can get a picture of your favorite corpse on a t-shirt, poster, or refrigerator magnet.

Let’s get one thing straight. This is not a science exhibit. It is a shock art exhibit which has been repackaged and resold as a educational exhibit. I could bury you in facts and quotes, so let me sum it up by saying that the creator, Gunther von Hagens started out calling his subjects “body art” or “anatomical artwork” and showing them in art galleries with catchy titles and signed by the “artist.” But he found he got huge protests and legal challenges. So he put a few organ displays, added a little medical text and voilà! It’s no longer a shock art exhibit—It’s a science exhibit and you can bring the kiddies.

One of the displays that everyone uses to prove the educational benefits of this exhibit is the one that supposedly shows what happens to the lungs when you smoke.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/11843920@N00/141760471/in/set-72057594128099785
This display is a complete lie. When a cadaver goes through the process of plastination, all of the body fluids and fats are removed. This leaves the body gray and pretty much colorless. (If you don’t believe me, look it up. You can even find pictures.) All the colors you see, including the red muscles and the black smoker’s lung, are due to the color of the plastic used. It is not the natural color. So, all you have to do is put black plastic in one lung and white plastic in another lung and we have an exhibit that shows you smoking is bad. Aw, come on, Gunther—you could have at least made the non-smoker’s lung slightly pink rather than stark white.

But we keep hearing Christians praising this exhibit. Here is a typical quote I found on one museum’s comment section: “As a Christian pastor I think the exhibit treated the bodies with the respect due to God's creation. We are fearfully and wonderfully made.” Okay, if I hear one more person quoting that Psalms in reference to this exhibit I am going to scream!

For those who haven’t had the displeasure of seeing this exhibit, let me show you what all these people are calling “beautiful.” One of the reasons I have been reading so many interviews and looking at so many grisly pictures is because I wanted to find the one quote or the one picture that would end this stupid argument as to the scientific merit of this exhibit. I found both in an article which is posted on the Body Worlds official site. !!Warning: the pictures in this article are both graphic and disturbing!! http://www.bodyworlds.com/Downloads/PM_HoffmanNewPlasti220702.pdf

Now I want us all to look on page 5, at a cadaver called “The Mystical Plastinate.” (For those who don’t want to view the picture, the author of the article describes this cadaver: he is “hanging down from the ceiling on strings, and riding witch-like on his intestines, from the tongue to the rectum, held as if [it was] a broomstick; all the muscles of the limbs have been taken away from their fleshy origins and now seem also to be flying apart … facial muscles have being released from the skull bone and now fly over the head like a pointed cap.”) How can anyone look at this picture and call this science? Does this show you the beauty of the human body? Just what-the-heck are we supposed to learn from this monster straight from Hell?!

Oh, and if you want to see how he “honors” Christians, turn the page. They have a picture of the Praying Figure that I have seen many Christians refer to as "moving" and someone even said viewing it was “a very spiritual experience.”

This really should be a no-brainer for Christians. However, if after looking at this man’s artwork you are still struggling with this, wondering if it’s right or wrong, you might need to check to make sure that brain hasn’t been plastinated. What? Do I sound angry? I am. During my research I have looked at the darkest side of man. I have looked the Enemy in the face. But the most disturbing thing I have found is the deafening silence from the Christian community. And that to me is scarier than any of Gunther von Hagens’ monsters.

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