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Rumours of Another World - International HC EditionWhat on Earth Are We Missing?
By Philip Yancey
ZondervanCopyright © 2003 SCCT
All right reserved.
Chapter Onelife in part
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.
More than ten million people in Europe and Asia have viewed a remarkable exhibition known as Body Worlds. A German professor invented a vacuum process called plastination, which replaces individual cells of the human body with brightly coloured resins and epoxies, much as minerals replace the cells of trees in a petrified forest. As a result, he can preserve a human body, whole or stripped away to reveal its inner parts, and display the cadaver in an eerily lifelike pose.
I visited Body Worlds in a warehouse art gallery in London after an overnight flight from my home in Colorado. I was feeling the effects of jet lag until, on entering the gallery, I encountered the exhibition's signature piece: a man all muscles, tendons, and ligaments, his face peeled like a grape, with the entire rubbery organ of skin, flayed and intact, draped over his arm like a raincoat. Sleepiness immediately gave way to a morbid fascination.
For the next two hours I shuffled past the sixty preserved bodies artfully arranged among palm trees and educational displays. I saw a woman eight months pregnant, reclining as if on a couch, her insides opened to reveal the foetus resting head-down inside. Skinned athletes-a runner, swordsman, swimmer, and basketball player-assumed their normal poses to demonstrate the wonders of the skeletal and muscular systems. A chess player sat intently at a chessboard, his back stripped to the nerves of his spinal cord and his skull removed to reveal the brain.
One display hung the pink organs of the digestive system on a wire frame, descending from the tongue down to the stomach, liver, pancreas, intestines, and colon. A placard mentioned five million glands employed for digestion, and I could not help thinking of the combination of cured salmon, cinnamon rolls, yogurt, and fish and chips-sloshed together with at least a quart of airline coffee-challenging those glands inside me at that moment. Moving on, I learned that babies have no kneecaps at birth, that the body's total volume of blood filters through the kidneys every four minutes, that brain cells die if deprived of oxygen for even ten seconds. I viewed a liver shrunken from alcohol abuse, a tiny spot of cancer in a breast, globs of plaque clinging to the walls of arteries, lungs black from cigarette smoke, a urethra squeezed by an enlarged prostate gland.
When not observing the plastinated bodies, I observed the people observing the plastinated bodies. A young girl wearing all black, her midriff bare, with orange hair and a lip ring, roses tattooed on her arm, alert to all live bodies but barely noticing the preserved ones. A Japanese woman in a flowered silk dress and straw hat with matching straw platform shoes, very proper, staring impassively at each exhibit. A doctor ostentatiously showing off his knowledge to a beautiful young companion twenty years his junior. A know-it-all college student in a jogging suit explaining wrongly to his girlfriend that "of course, the right brain controls speech." Silent people pressing plastic audio wands to their ears, marching on cue like zombies from one display to the next.
The sharp scent of curry drifted in from outdoors, along with the throb of hip-hop music. Local merchants, sponsoring a curry festival, had blocked off several streets for bands and dancing. I moved to a window and watched the impromptu block party. Outside the gallery, life; inside, the plastinated residue of life.
Wherever Body Worlds had opened, in places like Switzerland and Korea, organized protests had followed, and the exhibition had papered one wall with news accounts of the demonstrations. Protesters believed that it affronted human dignity to take someone like a grandmother, with a family and home and name and maybe even an eternal destiny, and dissect and plastinate her, then put her on display for gawking tourists.
In response, Professor Gunther von Hagens had posted a vigorous statement defending his exhibition. He explained that the cadavers/persons had before death voluntarily signed over their bodies for precisely this purpose. Indeed, he had a waiting list of thousands of prospective donors. He credited Christianity as being the religion most tolerant of this line of scientific research and included a brief history of the church and medicine. Bizarrely, the exhibition ended with two splayed corpses, all muscles and bones and bulging eyes, kneeling before a cross.
* * *
That groggy afternoon at Body Worlds highlighted for me two distinct ways of looking at the world. One takes apart while the other seeks to connect and put together. We live in an age that excels at the first and falters at the second.
The cadavers, dissected to expose bones, nerves, muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, and internal organs, demonstrate our ability to break something down-in this case, the human being-into its constituent parts. We are reductionistic, say the scientists, and therein lies the secret to advances in learning. We can reduce complex systems like the solar system, global weather patterns, and the human body into simpler parts in order to understand how things work.
The recent digital revolution is a triumph of the reducers, for computers work by reducing information all the way down to a 1 or a 0. Nearly every day a friend sends me jokes by email. Today, I got a list of questions to ponder, including these: Why is "abbreviated" such a long word? Why is the time of day with the slowest traffic called rush hour? Why isn't there mouse-flavoured cat food? People with too much time on their hands come up with these jokes, type them into a computer, and post them electronically for the amusement of the rest of the world.
I think of all the steps involved. The jokester's computer registers a series of keystrokes, translates them into binary bits of data, and records them magnetically as a file on a hard disk. Later, communications software retrieves that file and translates it into a sequential code, which it sends over a modem or broadband line to a computer server sitting in an isolated room. Some user plucks the joke for the day from the server, imports it to a home computer, and forwards it to a list of email contacts. The cycle goes on and on, with bits of joke data streaming over phone lines and wireless signals, even bouncing off satellites, until at last I log onto the Internet and download my friend's attempt to bring a smile to my face.
Masters of the art, we can reduce not just jokes but literature and music and photographs and movies into digital bits and broadcast them around the world in seconds. On the ski slopes of Colorado I meet Australians who email snapshots of their ski vacation back to friends and family every night. A few minutes on an Internet site will let me search and locate any word in Shakespeare or view the artwork hanging in the Louvre museum.
Have we, though, progressed in creating content that others will someday want to store and retrieve? Does our art match that of the Impressionists, our literature compare with the Elizabethans', our music improve on Bach or Beethoven? In most cases, taking apart what exists proves easier than creating what does not yet exist. Think of the best artificial hands, built with state-of-the-art technology, yet clumsy and mechanical in their motion compared to the human body's.
School textbooks used to report that the chemicals constituting the human body could be bought by catalogue for eighty-nine cents, which of course does nothing to explain the magnificence of an athlete like Michael Jordan or Serena Williams. A junior high sex-education study of fallopian tubes and the vas deferens hardly captures the wonder, mystery, and anxiety of marital sex. And the impressive displays at Body Worlds in London pale in comparison to the ordinary people chewing gum, sipping Starbucks coffee, and chatting on cellphones as they file past.
We reduce into parts, but can we fit together the whole? We can replace the cells of a human body with coloured plastic or slice it into a thousand parts. We have a much harder time agreeing on what a human person is. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Will any part of us survive death? The people on display at Body Worlds-do they endure as immortal souls somewhere in another dimension, perhaps peering whimsically at the line of tourists filing past their plastinated bodies? And what of an invisible world rumoured by the mystics, a world that cannot be dissected and put on display in a gallery? Knowing the parts doesn't necessarily help us understand the whole.
I once heard the missionary author Elisabeth Elliot tell of accompanying the Auca woman Dayuma from her jungle home in Ecuador to New York City. As they walked the streets, Elliot explained cars, fire hydrants, sidewalks, and red lights. Dayuma's eyes took in the scene, but she said nothing. Elliot next led her to the observation platform atop the Empire State Building, where she pointed out the tiny taxi cabs and people on the streets below. Again, Dayuma said nothing. Elliot could not help wondering what kind of impression modern civilization was making. Finally, Dayuma pointed to a large white spot on the concrete wall and asked, "What bird did that?" At last she had found something she could relate to.
I have visited the tip of Argentina, the region named Tierra del Fuego ("land of fire") by Magellan's explorers, who noticed fires burning on shore. The natives tending the fires, however, paid no attention to the great ships as they sailed through the straits. Later, they explained that they had considered the ships an apparition, so different were they from anything seen before. They lacked the experience, even the imagination, to decode evidence passing right before their eyes.
And we who built the skyscrapers in New York, who build today not just galleons but space stations and Hubble telescopes that peer to the very edge of the universe, what about us? What are we missing? What do we not see, for lack of imagination or faith?
* * *
Søren Kierkegaard told a parable about a rich man riding in a lighted carriage driven by a peasant who sat behind the horse in the cold and dark outside. Precisely because he sat near the artificial light inside, the rich man missed the panorama of stars outside, a view gloriously manifest to the peasant. In modern times, it seems, as science casts more light on the created world, its shadows further obscure the invisible world beyond.
I am no Luddite who opposes technological change. My laptop computer allows me to access the text of every book I have written in the past twenty years, as well as thousands of notes I have made during that time. Though I am holed up in a mountain retreat, using this same computer I have sent messages to friends in Europe and Asia. I pay my monthly bills electronically. In these and other ways I gratefully enjoy the benefits of the reducers' approach to technology and science.
Yet I also see dangers in our modern point of view. For one thing, reductionism, the spirit of our age, has the unfortunate effect of, well, reducing things. Science offers a map of the world, something like a topographical map, with colours marking the vegetation zones and squiggly lines tracing the contours of cliffs and hills. When I hike the mountains of Colorado, I rely on such topographical maps. Yet no map of two dimensions, or even three dimensions, can give the full picture. And none can possibly capture the experience of the hike: thin mountain air, a carpet of wildflowers, a ptarmigan's nest, rivulets of frothy water, a triumphant lunch at the summit. Encounter trumps reduction.
More importantly, the reducers' approach allows no place for an invisible world. It takes for granted that the world of matter is the sum total of existence. We can measure and photograph and catalogue it; we can use nuclear accelerators to break it down into its smallest particles. Looking at the parts, we judge them the whole of reality.
Of course, an invisible God cannot be examined or tested. Most definitely, God cannot be quantified or reduced. As a result, many people in societies advanced in technology go about their daily lives assuming God does not exist. They stop short at the world that can be reduced and analysed, their ears sealed against rumours of another world. As Tolstoy said, materialists mistake what limits life for life itself.
I have a neighbour who is obsessively neat. He lives on ten forested acres, and every time he drove up his long, winding driveway, the disorderly dead branches on the Ponderosa pine trees bothered him. One day he called a tree-trimming service and learned it would cost him five thousand dollars to trim all those trees. Appalled at the price, he rented a chain saw and spent several weekends perched precariously on a ladder cutting back all the branches he could reach. He called the service for a new estimate and got an unwelcome surprise. "Mr Rodrigues, it will probably cost you twice as much. You see, we were planning to use those lower branches to reach the higher ones. Now we have to bring in an expensive truck and work from a bucket."
In some ways, modern society reminds me of that story. We have sawed off the lower branches on which Western civilization was built, and the higher branches now seem dangerously out of reach. "We have drained the light from the boughs in the sacred grove and snuffed it in the high places and along the banks of sacred streams," writes Annie Dillard.
No society in history has attempted to live without a belief in the sacred, not until the modern West. Such a leap has consequences that we are only beginning to recognize. We now live in a state of confusion about the big questions that have always engaged the human race, questions of meaning, purpose, and morality. A sceptical friend of mine used to ask himself the question, "What would an atheist do?" in deliberate mockery of the What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) slogan. He finally stopped asking because he found no reliable answers.
Eliminating the sacred changes the story of our lives. In times of greater faith, people saw themselves as individual creations of a loving God who, regardless of how it may look at any given moment, has final control over a world destined for restoration. Now, people with no faith find themselves lost and alone, with no overarching story, or meta-narrative, to give promise to the future and meaning to the present.
Excerpted from Rumours of Another World - International HC Edition by Philip Yancey Copyright © 2003 by SCCT. Excerpted by permission.
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