Thursday, March 15, 2007

The body--it's worth looking into

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For those of you in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, I recommend visiting Gunter von Hagen's Body Worlds I: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies, showing at the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas until May 28th. If the other collections are in your area, take the time to see them. Currently, Body Worlds II is showing in Chicago and Body Worlds III is showing in Phoenix. The next three cities on the Body Worlds tour are in Montreal, Charlotte, and Portland, OR.

There were many interesting displays in the collection. The bodies are preserved through various processes called plastination. Basically, water is removed from the body and replaced with polymers. The exhibit's stated purpose and mission is the education of laymen [and clergy] about the human body, leading to better health awareness. All of the human plastinates in von Hagen's exhibitions are willing donors who wished to be of use to mankind in this way after their deaths.

We were probably most amazed by some of the displays of the circulatory system. These bodies were prepared by injecting a red dye and plastinating agent into their blood vessels, then using chemicals and ultrasound to dissolve away their flesh and bones. As a result, only the circulatory system is left behind. It was also strange to see things like artificial hips and knees and other surgical repairs to the skeletal system.

The full-body displays take great advantage of the artistry of the human anatomy at particular moments. One of my favorites was a plastination of a man and a horse together with the man's front and back separated from the rest of his body. It is called the Equestrian and is pictured on the cover of our catalogue of the exhibit, shown above. This piece took three and a half years to complete. I also greatly appreciated the Chess Player.

Melisa's favorite was the Pregnant Woman, who is an 8-months pregnant woman lying on her side with her arm propping her upper body up. The bottom of her torso is cut away to reveal the baby in her womb. The description states that this woman decided to donate her body and her child (who also died naturally shortly thereafter) when she was informed that she had a terminal disease.

The exhibition was presented respectfully and brought to mind several scriptures, such as:

Psalm 73:26
"My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever."

Job 19:25-27
"I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!"

Psalm 119:120
"My flesh trembles in fear of you; I stand in awe of your laws."

Psalm 139:13-14
"For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well."

Isaiah 44:24
"This is what the LORD says—your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb: I am the LORD, who has made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself."

Ezekiel 36:26
"I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh."

Ezekiel 37:6
"I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD."

John 1:14
"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."

John 6:54-56
"Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him."

Colossians 1:24
"Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church."

For further study, I recommend the "Theology of the Body" a series of 129 lectures given by Pope John Paul II during his Wednesday audiences in the Pope Paul VI Hall between September 1979 and November 1984. It was the first major teaching of his pontificate and the complete addresses were later compiled and published as a single work entitled The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan. It is one of the most powerful and edifying books I have read.


Anonymous said...
Dead Body Porn, by Thomas S. Hibbs. The grotesqueries of the "Body World" exhibit

And word has it some of the people used in this 'exhibit' were Chinese political prisoners, possibly including some imprisoned Christians

Anonymous said...

I must agree with Binks (and Thomas Hibbs). I'm surprised, Father!

Fr Timothy Matkin said...

First of all, I'm suprised the pope is actually reading my blog.

But seriously, if I thought the description of the exhibit was accurate, I'd be suprised too.

Regarding the source of the bodies exhibited, "the word" about executed prisoners has been proven libelous in a court of law. All bodies have been willingly donated for this scientific endeavor, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Sec 2301) describes as legitimate and even meritorious. Besides, with several thousand donors on the list, you don't have any need to take advantage of someone like that.

I can appreciate some of Dean Hibbs' (from my Alma Mater) arguments. And others from different background have raised similar concerns. However, I think he gets off track on a few points.

First of all, the use of the word "Porn" in the title seems awefully salacious to me. It may do the trick of attracting readers, but it does not describe the exhibit. There is nothing sexual about the presentation. As for a metaphorical use, that seems a bit of a stretch. You might as well write about "flower porn" at the local botanical gardens or "hardware porn" at the local Home Depot.

Second, I get the feeling Hibbs has not taken the trip to Dallas to see what he's writing about. I would not characterize it as a walk through Dante's Inferno. What he describes sounds more like a wax museum.

Third, displays such as at Body Worlds are not new. The newness is the traveling public exhibit centered on anatomy. Displays like those at Body Worlds--sliced human bodies, various parts and organs and even fetuses--have already been a part of collections at museums like the Smithsonian. The church even asked von Hagens to plastinate the heelbone of Hildegard of Bingen.

Fourth, the Christian tradition that Hibbs represents (Southern Baptist) does not the same type of view of the human body and death as the historic Catholic tradition (though he is well versed in it). My estimation is that some opposition comes from the puritanical strain, especially in Protestantism. It is the same viewpoint that would consider the diplay of saints bodies, custom associated with Dia de los Muertos, ossuaries, and shrines like the many monastic bone chapels too morbid, grotesque and irreverent for sensible Christian people. It is a given that this type of thing will be accepted (or not) in different cultures.

Fifth, some have taken issue with the artistry of some of the displays, saying that they dehumanize or disprespect the person displayed. On the contrary, I see no reason to segregate the interest of art from this matter. The human body is one of the most profound works of art in all creation. And it takes a true artist to create some of these displays. (The donors would not want to trust me to do that work.) For me, the beauty of the form comes out of the body itself, and the one who displayed it is skilfully bringing out what I would call the "architecture" of the human being.

Sixth, Hibbs does not mention it so much, but others have mentioned that the inventor of plastination seems a bit excentric. And I would agree. But there is nothing wrong with that, and I suppose someone so interested in anatomy would be have to be at least a little strange.

Seventh, the issue of not revealing the names has also sometimes been brought up by others as dehumanizing. On this, I'm not sure if having the name or some information about the person would be more or less appropriate. I can see it both ways. However, I don't find the confidentiality dehumanizing. There are plenty of people I see every day, whom I don't know their names. But I don't think any of them seem less human to me. It may come from the fact that in traditional burial with a tombstone, the dead eventually are known only as a name, so this is a bit different. Also, as far as I am aware, it has been the custom to maintain anonymity whenever bodies have been used in scientific research or anatomical studies in the past, so it would make sense to maintain that practice.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Fr., but the reports are too persistent to be ignored on the say-so of the creator of the show, or that of whomever provided him with corpses.

"only deeply bred social decorum prevented me from turning to the first grandma who was working out beside me and saying to her, “They are people most of whom did not give full informed consent to have their bodies skinned, flayed, and displayed in playful positions. Some of them are political prisoners from China and Kyrgyzstan. Look closely at their skulls and you might even see a bullet hole!”

And to compare this spectacle with a museum-display (or medical display) is apples & oranges. The psalmist can declare that we are fearfully and wonderfully made without approving of this sort of ghoulish Hollywood corpse-fest.

The cross, or Christian catecombs & relics of the blessed are not holy because they are full of death (or the culture of death), but because they are proclamations of the Good News.

Please pass on any & all links of sensible online Christian commentators who give 'Bodyworlds' a big thumbs-up.


BC said...

I think that this display reinforces the beauty and complexity of creation. It is somewhat morbid, but to it is the reality in which we exist. All of the folks I know in the medical field thought it was not worth the money (although they are used to cutting up and looking at dead humans.)
I appreciate your thoughts on this. I have actually not heard one negative word from the Christian brothers and sisters about this (except in your comments.) Most have echoed a sentiment similar to your own.

Grace and Peace from Incarnation in Dallas