September 22, 2006

Is the depiction of crucifixion offensive?

Some people are taking great offense:
Anatomist Gunther von Hagens will use a real body to show how people died when crucified in the 90-minute film....

Although Channel 4 insists the body will not represent Christ specifically, a memo leaked to the Evening Standard states that it would indeed portray Jesus....

Director Stephen Green said: "This sounds gratuitously offensive and blasphemous. It could well be we would want to take some action against it."
I don't quite understand. Museums and churches are full of graphic depictions of the crucifixion. Many sculptors and painters have for centures wielded their skills to demonstrate the extent of Christ's suffering. Some of these images are as graphic as the artists could make them. Isn't it way too late to call this gratuitously offensive and blasphemous?

UPDATE: Here's my old post favorably reviewing the von Hagens exhibit of plasticinated corpses, "Body Worlds 2," which I saw in Cleveland last year.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Here's von Hagens's response to critics:
Though Dr. von Hagens declines to participate in nearly all the proposals sent his way, he enjoys engaging in intellectual discourse with the creative protagonists of these ventures. Such was the nature of his discussions with Nick Curwin, producer of Firefly Films and a collaborator on several previous projects.

As an anatomist inspired by the Renaissance, Dr. von Hagens is fascinated by the curious alliance between the Church and anatomists from the 1500s, and interested in expanding the boundaries of discussion about anatomy. Thus, he welcomed the lively exchange with Mr. Curwin about anatomy, anatomists, religion, death, God, and most interestingly, crucifixion's place in history and anatomy, and the crucifixion experiments of Pierre Barbet and Frederick Zugibe.

What followed was an extended hypothetical discussion about a hypothetical program showing the most common method of execution practiced by the Romans, which, according to historical records, claimed the lives of as many as 2000 people a day. While Dr. von Hagens enjoyed the sparkling dialogue and banter about the filmic possibilities of such an endeavor, he did not at any time agree to participate in staging a re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, nor is he planning to do so in the future.
Okay, so you're not "staging a re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ." It might help to say what you are doing.


JohnF said...

I think this is a confusion of blasphemy and the ick factor.

bearing said...

I haven't the foggiest idea why graphic representation of crucifixion should, in itself, be offensive to Christians, although I can certainly imagine representations of crucifixion that would be.

As for blasphemy, the guy doesn't even appear to know what the word means. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Blasphemy ... consists in uttering against God - inwardly or outwardly - words of hatred, reproach, or defiance; in speaking ill of God; in failing in respect toward him in one's speech; in misusing God's name....The prohibition of blasphemy extends to language against Christ's Church, the saints, and sacred things. It is also blasphemous to make use of God's name to cover up criminal practices, to reduce peoples to servitude, to torture persons or put them to death. The misuse of God's name to commit a crime can provoke others to repudiate religion.

He appears to subscribe to the fallacy of "I don't like you, therefore any nasty word I can think of applies."

monkeyboy said...

Crucifiction is a istorical fact, and Jesus did suffer for our sins, so i too fail to see the blasphemy in the act, and don't know enough about the presentation to make a calim there.

Too bad, I was looking forward to rioting after Mass.

MadisonMan said...

I don't understand how a better understading of the suffering of Christ on a cross can be harmful in any way. This is the kind of fascinating story I would watch on TV, if we got cable, but I'm a sucker for watching trainwrecks.

bearing said...

Wait a minute, von Hagens is the "BodyWorlds" guy, right?

OK, I can see this being offensive to some, but only because Hagens's exhibits themselves are, debatably, inherently offensive. I went to see the BodyWorlds exhibit at the St. Paul Science Museum and had very mixed feelings about it, and am still not sure I ought to have paid money for such a thing. When the bodies looked like an anatomical display under glass, I thought they were fascinating. When they were displayed as "art," I was simultaneously fascinated and repelled by my own fascination.

I realize now that I would have been startled and perhaps offended to have seen one of the bodies in that exhibit displayed as a crucifix, and that provides a bit of a clue. If it were entirely okay to gawk at the human bodies in the exhibit as it were, then there should be no problem with gawking at one that happens to be arrayed in a way meant to remind one of Christ. But my reaction to the idea tells me that the "artistic" representation of the bodies that von Hagen uses (as opposed to the ones that resemble educational or science-museum displays) is gratuitous and exploitative. YMMV, but I have found it a complicated problem of ethics and the meaning of the human person, a problem that I've returned to several times since viewing the exhibit.

(It's still not blasphemous, though.)

bearing said...

(I don't mean to criticize anyone who thinks that the exhibits are hunky-dory. I think this is a pretty subjective and difficult-to-figure-out evaluation. I only mean to suggest that if von Hagens's methods and style w.r.t. ordinary human beings are offensive, and/or morally wrong, then the crucifixion depiction is offensive; and if his methods and style are not offensive or wrong in themselves, then neither is the crucifixion one.)

Pogo said...

I had the same reaction as bearing did to von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibit, but even more on the "this is wrong" side.

It's offensive to Christians for the same reason that displaying the skinned corpse of any loved one offends, and how much worse that display would be if the display showed how they died.

There is no real scientifically useful information to be gleaned here. What's to be "understood"? It's gratutitous, prurient, and ultimately debasing to the viewer. That is, it meets any definition of pornography.

Imagine watching your skinned grasndfather get shot to pieces in a mocked-up WW2 jeep. Gosh! Bullets do that? Same thing here. Gosh, severe beatings, prolonged bleeding, smashed bones, spikes in your skull, and a sword in your chest do that? And gee, why so offended? It's just science. Yeah, and people read Maxim for the articles, too.

What's to be learned? Nothing except that people often race to the bottom, intellectually speaking.

MadisonMan said...

I've wanted to get up to the Twin Cities to see the exhibit, but haven't had a free weekend. I hope to get there before it closes in December. I imagine I'll have a similar repelled by my own fascination (an excellent description) as bearing did.

bill said...

If Body Worlds isn't going to your town, maybe Bodies the Exhibition is. Just closed in Atlanta and looks to exhibit a similar process.

Like Body Worlds, Bodies claims all bodies were freely donated. But as every exhibit I saw looked Asian, it was hard not to think that perhaps these "donations" came from Chinese prison camps. Fascinating exhibit, if slightly creepy. And without a better provenance for the bodies, disturbing.

ignacio said...

Wait a minute, isn't Madonna crucified on her latest tour?

Malibu Stacy said...

In 1974, in a piece titled Trans-Fixed, performance artist Chris Burden had himself crucified to the back of a Volkswagen Beetle, which is probably about as irreverent as one could get toward Christianity's defining event.

I don't recall there being much in the way of protests or condemnations of Burden's act. If only he'd had David Blaine's lust for glory, he might have been able to stir up some dudgeon.

vegetius said...

Oh Boy!!! Maybe next Hagens can do the drawing and quartering of William Wallace.

There's a revolting voyeurism cum necrophilia aspect to this that will appeal to the jaded under the pretense of sophistication.

Kirby Olson said...

I think it's the problem of using a "real body" to illustrate the issue. Using a real body moves this from representation into reality, doesn't it?

Remember Chris Burden crucified on the Volkswagon?

I think the problem here is not with representation, but with it not being a representation.

At least for me.

(I can't even stand paper cuts.)

Tim Sisk said...

What Pogo said.

Bruce Hayden said...

It will be interesting to see which strands of Christianity take the most offense here. My guess right now is that it will be the Roman Catholics.

I was really an adult before I realized that we never saw Christ on the Cross in church. Indeed, the only place you would ever find depictions of him at all would be in picture books for the youngest kids in Sunday School. It is, I think, anti-Catholic, anti-idolotry. Indeed, the only pictures of people in church would be of current or retired ministers. (Which means that we don't go as far here as some fundamentalist Sunnis).

I should note though that besides an aversion to idolotry, the other reason that our crosses don't depict Jesus crucified on them is that the emphasis is that He Has Risen, and therefore is no longer on the cross.

Nevertheless, my initial thought is to leave it to the Catholics to fight this, as they seem to be more concentrated on the crucifixion than are many, if not most, Protestants.

I won't watch it though. I have read a various occasions fairly explicit desciptions of how someone dies when crucified, esp. the way that Jesus was . It was a very brutal way to die (though upside down might have been worse). Reading about it was enough for me - I don't need to see it on TV.

Fenrisulven said...

That is, it meets any definition of pornography

Not to stray off-topic, but was anyone disturbed by CSI last night? Last scene is Catherine recovering from an obvious date-rape, with soft-porn shots of her half-naked and silhouetted in the shower. WRONG context for eye candy. Wondering if it was just me.

Joan said...

I have a visceral reaction to even the ads for these "Bodies..." exhibitions. I doubt that these bodies were "donated" for the purpose of prurient display.

As to the biological processes and breakdowns that occur during crucifixion, this was examined in some detail a few years ago, when the Passion of the Christ was released, on the History Channel. It was, like all History Channel shows, a respectful discussion of what exactly the Romans did and how the victims died. Christ wasn't the only person crucified, after all -- the Romans made an industry of it. I don't think I'll ever forget the image evoked by the opening scenes of the book Spartacus, which portrayed the 6,000 (is that right?) slaves who were crucified along the Apian Way.

The bottom line of that show was, IIRC, that Roman crucifixes didn't look much like the artistic representations we see today, they were more like T's, and most victims died of suffocation. It was a gruesome way to die, but that doesn't mean that we need a real-body show to demonstrate each and every step to us. In fact it argues exactly the opposite.

bearing, thanks for pointing out that blasphemy is a very specific thing, and these exhibitions, while very, very icky and troubling, don't qualify.

Tibore said...

From my point of view, and to sort of echo a point Bearing and Pogo made: I think the reactions have more to do with the fact that Von Hagens is involved, and less to do with the fact that religious symbolism is. Sure, the quotes in the article talk about "disrespect to Christ" and make a religious argument, but I think based on his past works, those folks were already halfway to offended before they even discovered that crucifixion was involved.

I admit, I'm leaning towards Bearing's stance myself: Regardless of the fact that the subject is crucifixion, my final judgement will depend on how gratuitously exploitive the display of a real human body will be in that exhibit.

reader_iam said...

There's a revolting voyeurism cum necrophilia aspect to this that will appeal to the jaded under the pretense of sophistication.

I'm mostly with Vegetius on this one (and I think others make good points, too).

But from a religious standpoint (speaking, of course, only for myself, a practicing person of faith)?

No, I don't find it offensive in the religious sense, and certainly not blasphemous. Jesus, the historical figure and the religious one, was crucified. He suffered, as those who are crucified do. In fact, isn't that a point that specifically gets made from the religious standpoint?

That said, without actually seeing the presentation, it's hard to make a firm judgement. Which I won't be the one to make, since there's no chance I'll see it.

Intellectually, I can appreciate and even theoretically support Ann's statement on some other post that adults should get over their squeamishness (or however she put it), but it's an area in which I fall short. There's nothing "intellectual" about the "ick-and-shudder" factor for me.

The Right Reverend Rabbi Judah said...

The problem here is that we don't even know if it's a Christian cadaver they're gonna use. What if it's a muslim, and it comes back to life afterwards? Or even worse, an atheist?

Richard Dolan said...

"Blasphemous" has a funny sound today. I doubt that much if anything turns on whether this use of a cadaver to mimic the crucifixion of Jesus is deemed blasphemous or not.

But Ann's having raised the issue, we may as well take the category seriously for a moment. Bearing quotes a standard definition ("in failing in respect toward him in one's speech; in misusing God's name....The prohibition of blasphemy extends to language against Christ's Church, the saints, and sacred things"), but I think misses the point. The focus is on the purpose and intent with which a sacred image is displayed, and the use to which a particular sacred image is being put. Blasphemy is usually concerned with spoken words, but it can extend to any communicative act.

Thus the comparison to standard presentations of the crucifixion in Christian churches is beside the point. Nor is a comparison to the many paintings and sculptures depicting the crucifixion over the centuries, is unhelpful. In a church, the display of an image of the crucifixion is not intended to show a lack of respect -- quite the opposite. Same with most paintings of the crucifixion that one sees in a museum -- museums today, especially those where one is likely to see depictions of the crucifixion, are a secular temple, and are often more hushed and church-like spaces than the real thing. There is nothing about the image, or the way that it is displayed, in the usual museum show that communicates disrespect.

But not always so. The same image or object, when displayed in a beaker of piss, as Serrano did, is intended to show something other than respect. Same (perhaps) with the painting of the Virgin daubed with dung that caused a fuss at the Brooklyn Museum several years ago.

I'm not sure what the intended purpose of crucifying a cadaver, perhaps a skinned cadaver, may be here. Judging from the comments above, many find it gross and it's certainly not to my taste. Depending on how it's done, how it's marketed and advertised, and the extent and manner in which it tries to use the "Jesus" theme in doing so, it may well be properly described as blasphemous. Probably just what the producer of this cadaver show would like to see.

altoids1306 said...

Personally, I don't have a problem with it (as a Protestant Christian). A scientific description of the pain endured in crucifixion might even be useful in understanding the sacrifice Jesus made. And the symbolism of the crucifixion and the cross will easily survive the attempts of secular art to demean it.

This just sounds like another one of those tired attempts to shock and infuriate, here today, forgotten tomorrow.

Revenant said...

Regardless of the appropriateness of showing the crucifixtion, using corpses for artistic purposes is definitely in poor taste.

Ann Althouse said...

Revenant: It's a scientific or informational purpose.

bearing said...

The focus is on the purpose and intent with which a sacred image is displayed, and the use to which a particular sacred image is being put.

The word for this is desecration or possibly sacrilege, not blasphemy.

Anyway, I suspect that von Hagens doesn't *intend* hatred, reproach, disrespect. I think the intent has to be there, even in speech, to call it "blasphemy."

bearing said...

Ann says to revenant that it's a "scientific" or "informational" purpose, not art.

Ann, have you seen von Hagens's stuff? It's a bizarre meld of both. Some of the pieces appear to be purely art, and they are certainly posed artistically. In some of them the artistic pose obscures rather than displays the supposed "information."

Ann Althouse said...

Bearing, have you seen the update on this post,

Revenant said...

Revenant: It's a scientific or informational purpose.

I'm highly skeptical of that claim -- especially since no scientific purpose is served by broadcasting the experiment.

It strikes me as roughly equivalent to the old "this isn't pornography, this is an instructional film for married couples" dodge. I'm pretty sure the handful of people with genuine scientific interest in the specific effects of crucifixtion on a human corpse (which is likely to be quite different from the effects on a living human) don't need to watch television to find out about it.

Jack Wayne said...

Maybe the artist plans to show exactly what a crucifixion is. Bronze or tin nails are not exactly enough in the hands and feet. It also involves a big hook just where it will do the most good for the body weight. Typically a crucifixion that involved punishment only would use ropes to secure the body to the cross. For death, more is required.

Derve said...

My initial thoughts were: why call it Christ's cruxifixion? Just to provoke the people who will be easily provoked? Just call it a plain cruxified body, like the unknown soldier.

Lots were killed in this manner then. Apparently, the Jesus figure was treated differently. (ie/ no broken legs; he died rather quickly for this method).

Other differences we might see:
Christians tend to think of the bodies being raised high, so the whole crowd could see them. Maybe only Jesus had that big a crowd. They say, in actuality, you carried only the horizontal bar there, the vertical ones stayed up in the public place for the routine procedure. And the nails went through the meatier wrists, not the hands.

But the coolest in a sick envisionment: you were only up a few feet off the ground. Death came not only from suffocation, dehydration, or bleeding, but sometimes from animals knawing on the lower extremities after days or long long hours of exteme suffering. Bodies fed to the dogs, heightening the criminal's shame.

If we teach what we really know, people will be interested in science. Kids especially. A taste for morbidity's in the best of us. Think of ths not just in an exhibit, in the scarier front-lawn Halloween scenes. You might save on candy...

11:56 PM, September 24, 2006