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272 pages
Oct 2003

Rumors of Another World

by Philip Yancey

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Living in Part 

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 colored 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 fetus 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 bodies on display, I observed the people observing the bodies on display.  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 strains of rock 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.  Protestors 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 cadaver/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. 

Longing for More 

Rumors of another world seep into art.  Poets, painters, novelists, and playwrights--those who know a little about creating a universe--feel stirrings even when they cannot detect their source.  Virginia Woolf described “moments of being” that hit her with the force of an electric shock: 

    Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me.  It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what: making a scene come right, making a character come together.... At any rate, it is a constant idea of mine that behind the cotton wall is hidden a pattern, that we--I mean all human beings--are connected with this, that the whole world is a work of art, that we are parts of the work of art.  Hamlet, or a Beethoven quartet, is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world.  But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven.  Certainly and emphatically, there is no God.  We are the words.  We are the music.  We are the thing itself.  And I see this when I have a shock. 

To an artist, the world presents itself as a creation, akin to Beethoven’s quartets and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  What if Woolf is wrong and there is a God?  If we are in fact God’s music and God’s words, what tune should we be playing, what words reciting?  Milton’s question echoes across time: “What if earth be but the shadow of heaven...?” 

Sometimes the shock hits not one person but a community, a whole nation even, a shock so great that, unlike Virginia Woolf’s, it does turn thoughts to God.  That happened to the United States on September 11, 2001.  As a side effect, an act of monstrous evil exposed the shallowness of an entire society.  Professional sports ground to a halt, television comedians went off the air, as did all commercials.  In a flash we saw the comparative meaninglessness of much of our lives.  That three thousand people could go to work as part of their daily routine and never come home made us all aware of our fragile mortality.  Married couples canceled divorce plans; mothers and fathers trimmed work hours to spend more time with their children.  We found a new kind of hero: firefighters and police officers who, contra the principles of sociobiology, gave their lives for people they never knew. 

Over the next months, The New York Times ran a separate article commemorating every single person who died, not just the famous or the newsworthy, as if every person killed on that day had a life of value and meaning, a life that mattered.  And for a time attendance at churches swelled.  The shock conveyed good and evil, death and life, meaning and absurdity in such stark terms that we turned for answers to the people--pastors, priests, rabbis--who have always warned us not to build our houses, let alone our skyscrapers, on shifting sand. 

What Americans learned on that day, and are learning still, is that sophisticated moderns have not renounced transcendence but rather replaced it with weak substitutes.  Unlike past generations, many are unsure about God and an invisible world.  Even so, we feel the longings for something more. 

Wisdom from Another World

 The British surgeon Paul Brand, with whom I have written three books, told me about a conference he attended in the 1980s with representatives from each government agency involved in health matters, including the Public Health Service, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration.  Once a year experts from these agencies get together to pool their knowledge about the major health crises facing Americans.

 As the conference progressed, Dr. Brand began jotting down the urgent health concerns being discussed.  It struck him that the primary health issues were lifestyle-related: heart disease and hypertension related to stress, cancers associated with a toxic environment, AIDS contracted through drug use and sexual activity, sexually transmitted diseases, emphysema and lung cancer caused by cigarette smoking, fetal damage resulting from maternal alcohol and drug abuse, diabetes and other diet-related disorders, violent crime, automobile accidents involving alcohol.

 These were the endemic, even pandemic concerns for health experts in the United States in the 1980s.  Nothing has altered the trend since then.  Studies at the Jimmy Carter Center in Atlanta show that two-thirds of deaths prior to age 65 can be traced to the very same behavioral choices.

 Having spent much of his working life in India, Dr. Brand had attended comparable medical conferences there.  “In India,” he told me, “our top ten list of health concerns would consist of infectious diseases: malaria, polio, dysentery, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, leprosy.  If you promised Indian health experts the eradication of their top ten diseases, they could hardly imagine such a paradise.  Yet look what has happened here.  After conquering most of those infectious diseases, the U.S. has now substituted new health problems for old, the majority of them stemming from lifestyle choices.”

 Dr. Brand recalled that the U.S. meeting was held in Arizona.  That state’s neighbor to the west, Nevada, ranks as the very worst on most mortality tables, while its northern neighbor Utah ranks as the best.  Both states have a relatively wealthy and well-educated population, and they share a similar climate.  The difference in health can best be explained by lifestyle factors.  Utah is the seat of Mormonism, which frowns on alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine.  Nevada has twice the incidence of divorce and a far higher rate of alcohol and tobacco use, not to mention the unique stress associated with gambling.

 Another physician I have interviewed, David Larson, made a career out of researching how religion affects health, focusing not so much on the harmful effects of behavior but rather on the positive benefits of a spiritual life.  What he discovered shocked him.  For example, people who describe themselves as religious have a markedly lower incidence of heart attack, arteriosclerosis, and hypertension.  Churchgoers average a blood pressure reading 5 mm. lower than non-churchgoers.  Religious people are also less likely to abuse alcohol, and far less likely to use illicit drugs.  People who attend church regularly, pray, and read their Bibles are hospitalized less often, recover from surgery faster, have stronger immune systems, and normally live longer.

Dr. Larson told me that his findings about marriage impressed him most.  Married people seem to handle illness better, earn larger incomes, and adopt healthier lifestyles.  Indeed, divorce represents one of the greatest health hazards facing modern Americans, dramatically increasing the likelihood of early death from stroke, heart disease, hypertension, respiratory cancer, and intestinal cancer.  Suicide rates double for divorced people.  Astonishingly, a divorced non-smoker faces roughly the same health risks as a married person who smokes a pack or more a day. 

Many other studies document the potentially devastating toll of divorce on children.  As Vice President, Dan Quayle attracted scorn for his “Murphy Brown” speech in which he questioned the wisdom of glamorizing births out of wedlock.  A year later, a well-documented cover story in The Atlantic Monthly concluded “Dan Quayle Was Right” about the harmful effects of single-parent families.  By any measure--intelligence, earnings potential, suicide attempts, violence, crime, emotional stability, substance abuse, physical health, mental illness--children from one-parent homes face additional challenges.  No responsible politician or sociologist would now argue otherwise.

 David Larson concluded, “In essence the studies empirically verify the wisdom of the book of Proverbs.  Those who follow biblical values live longer, enjoy life more, and are less diseased.”

 I used to think, as does much of the world, “If it feels good, it must be sinful.”  Such a sentiment stems from a tragic misconception of God.  The state God desires for us, shalom, results in a person fully alive, functioning optimally to the designer’s specifications.  For the best life in this world, it helps to listen to wisdom transmitted from another world.

Aiming at Earth

 Throughout its pages, the Bible presents a holistic view of reality that encompasses both the familiar visible world and an invisible world which coexists as a kind of parallel universe.  In every instant of human time, eternity is present.  An act of love, justice, compassion--or hate and cruelty--has consequences in this world and in the unseen world as well.  Indeed, as Paul grandly proclaims in Romans 8, what happens on earth has enormous consequences for the entire cosmos: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.”

 Such notions seem quaint and almost primitive to many moderns.  As I re-read them in the Bible, however, my mind goes back to scenes from a trip to Russia that took place as I was writing this book.  Building a society on a myopic view of reality, one that does not take into account the spiritual world, can lead to catastrophe.

 The trip began in Sweden, where I spent time with church-going Christians, a distinct minority in Sweden these days.  I mentioned to them that even though many Swedes had turned away from church, their admirable society continued to live off the moral capital accumulated during centuries of Christian faith.  Honesty, peacefulness, generosity, cleanliness, charity, compassion--the Vikings were not noted for such qualities before their conversion.

 “What would Sweden look like if we used up our moral capital and those qualities disappeared?” one woman asked me.  I replied that she could answer that question by visiting her near neighbor, Russia.

 There, brilliant men and women with a doctrinaire outlook--“dialectical materialism,” they called it--set into motion an experiment on huge scale to establish society based on a one-world view of life.  Quite properly, they saw religious faith as an obstacle to their experiment and thus shuttered 98 percent of the churches, killing 42,000 priests in the process.  Some large cathedrals they turned into museums of atheism; village churches they converted into apartments or barns.  They banned religious instruction to children, and published a national newspaper called The Godless.

 Soviet communists mocked any belief in “pie in the sky when you die.”  In the days of Stalin, kindergarten teachers would tell children in their classes to close their eyes and pray to God for a bag of candy.  None appeared.  “Now, pray to Stalin,” they would urge.  As the children prayed, the teachers would place bags of candy on each desk.  Prayer never gets anything, the teachers would announce.  The lesson is to trust our Leader for your needs.

 Over the next seventy-five years in the Soviet Union, a terrible irony played itself out.  A society committed exclusively to justice in the visible world, here and now, achieved just the opposite.  “With the best of intentions, we ended up creating the greatest monstrosity the world has ever seen,” a shaken editor of Pravda told me.  Dostoevsky’s prophecy, “Without God, everything is permitted,” proved tragically true in his nation’s history.

 Archives recently released detail the deaths of sixty million people at the hands of their own government.  The Moscow Times estimates that one-half of all Russian males who died in the twentieth century died of unnatural causes, from war, famine, execution, or imprisonment.  A massive economy collapsed of its own incompetence, and by many social standards--life expectancy, nutrition, disease, poverty rate--mighty Russia found itself among the world’s developing countries.*      

 At the same time, communism succeeded in suppressing much of the Russian “soul.”  Visitors today comment on the scarcity of smiles, rudeness on the subways, the fear of crime, the quantity of alcohol consumed.  Even Russian politicians complain about the lack of honesty and charity, and in response have commissioned foreign organizations to teach the Ten Commandments in the schools.  Giant statues of Lenin, Stalin, and other Soviet idols lie toppled in a Moscow sculpture park, mute testimony to the failed substitute gods.  Lenin’s own body still lies embalmed in Red Square, but few bother to visit it anymore.

 Of all the statistics coming out of Russia, the most astonishing to me is a recent poll in which 61 percent of Russians identified themselves as Christians--this despite the most determined attempt in history to obliterate faith.

 Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in.  Aim at earth and you get neither,” wrote C. S. Lewis.  The Soviet experiment of the 20th century vividly illustrates the second part of his formula.  As if a symbol of repentance, a sparkling new Cathedral of Christ the Savior now overlooks the Kremlin, replacing one that Stalin destroyed in order to construct a swimming pool.

The Power of the Visible

 Affluent societies such as Sweden and the U.S. face a different challenge.  With the luxury of indulging in the delights of the physical world, their citizens may ignore the spiritual world altogether.  A typical guide to digital cable television in the U.S. lists page after page of adult movies and only a few columns of religious programming.  The Siren calls of the visible world--something we can gaze upon, fondle, smell, taste--drown out whispers from the unseen world.

 Can faith withstand the seductive powers of the visible world?  J. F. Powers’s novel Wheat that Springeth Green poses the intriguing question, “How can we make sanctity as attractive as sex?”  The novel tells of a track star and sexual adventurer who enters the priesthood and discovers that a hunger for truth, no matter how urgent, is no match for the pleasure principle.I think of my friends who have, against their own consciences, succumbed to extramarital affairs.  “I know it is wrong,” said one.  “But she makes me feel loved and even heroic.  I have lost a lot--my reputation, my family, maybe my career.  What have I gained?  A love that satisfies my body as well as my soul.  A cellular love.  That’s something I never get with God.”

 An addiction to anything in the physical world, not just sexual desire, may drown out the thin, quenchable voice of God.  “Substance abuse,” the professionals’ term for an addiction to narcotics or alcohol, is perhaps more freighted with meaning than intended.  I marvel at the humility of a God who entrusts us with pleasures that would, as God must have known, dampen or displace whatever spiritual desire we might feel.

After returning from Russia, I went to the local supermarket and looked over the magazines as I stood in line at the checkout stand.  The progression of magazine titles over the past few decades tells a story of narrowing interests: from Look and Life to People to Us to Self, from Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping to Shape and Cosmopolitan.  Every magazine on the rack featured a beautiful woman showing off her curves in workout gear, a bikini, or other revealing clothes.  Does America have no men?

 I looked around at the women standing in line.  This being the U.S., a majority were overweight.  They wore glasses, had moles and imperfect skin, dressed sloppily, slumped at the shoulders--qualities absent from the magazine cover girls.  We all know the lie being sold by the magazines, yet still we buy the promise that straight teeth, an ideal shape, and glossy hair will satisfy, forever.

 Not long afterward I visited the nursing home where my wife works as a chaplain.  People who live in nursing homes have, by and large, given up on perfect bodies.  They wear sweat suits and loose clothes with velcro fasteners, apparel chosen for ease and convenience, not sexiness.  Some drag portable oxygen tanks behind them.  Some wear adult diapers.  All have wrinkles.  Body parts sag, and do not work as they once did.  J. F. Powers’s question, “How can we make sanctity as attractive as sex?” loses much of its provocative force in a nursing home.