Thinking Beyond Postmodernism

Azotus Lens.png

I have noted over many decades that Americans really have little sense of history. Whatever is happening NOW is easily peddled as having a real sense of permanence. Everyone seems to forget that just thirty years ago the ideas that held court so forcefully have pretty much ben overthrown and rejected. Thus the monolithic experiment that was Modernity has largely been rejected (with all of it’s arrogant versions) in favor of a Postmodern reaction. No one seems to make the logical inference that this reaction too will be questioned in time – and that as a reaction – with little real substance in and of itself – it too will be found wanting.

As we look back over history we find that many ideas are better than others. Some survive and continue to rise to the top despite historical context, different enculturation and problems of language. The truthes and resonance of such teachings and views seem to survive while other views dissipate like, well…like fads.

If Postmodernism is simply a reaction – a rejection of Modernity and its arrogance (and it may well be more than just that) the question becomes “what is beyond Postmodernism?

And let us pause and take stock of the situation in a simple and straight-forward manner. Post-Enlightenment humanity took over the reigns – sans the Divine -in the grandest experiment of self-determination ever. This resulted -planet-wide – was the single bloodiest century in human history christened by the development and double-use of the atomic bomb. In the wake of humanity’s rejection of Modernity (best expressed in the fall of Communism with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – some 200 years after the opening volley of Modernity at the storming of the Bastille in 1789) we have the shock and awe of the technology blitz with almost instantaneously shrunk the world into a truly global village.

Add all those factors together and you can see why people are a bit disoriented.

The term “Postmodern” is certainly en vogue – at least in theological circles (where they are always a good ways behind). But really – it has simply come to mean (practically) that you align with nothing really. That you are subjective/relative and aligned with whatever is poltically popular – not on a search for what is true or resonant. You don’t construct an create so much as you deconstruct and find a narrative current to flow with.

And by all means don;t show any originality or display critical thought. As one who has observed the practical outworkings of both Modernism and Postmodernism I cannot say I really see much difference. One’s taller.

Postmodernism doesn’t really land you anywhere any different than Modernity on a practical level. It is still just as competitive, linear, overly specialized and dogmatic in it’s rejection of all dogma except its own. It is inclusive so long as you accept all that it excludes. It does not encourage open exploration and it possesses the same socio-political minefields that existed under modernity – just maybe not without pointed rifles or a Gulag (which is a definite advantage).

Frankly, we need a new term – and a new direction because simply reacting to Modenity, embracing an exclusive subjectivity that is simply en vogue and committing acts of historical arrogance is not science or the pursuit of knowledge or the truth.

But I have a suggestion.

The Suggestion

Note that it is only a suggestion, and a hopeful one. The trick is to make it truly open ended enough to be inclusive, yet also formative enough to make sense. Then, of course, it has to resonate and be fair to all parties.

The idea first came to me in the late 80s. I was reading Gregory Bateson’s book Steps to an Ecology of Mind and trying to see if I could get his ideas to “talk” with my understanding of Ernest Becker’s world view as presented in The Denial of Death, (which is one of the most important books written in the 20th Century). In order to see how these two great minds might meet I had to do a great deal of translation, in much the same way that you might place the Buddha’s teaching of non-attachment next to Jesus of Nazareth’s teaching about the “lilies of the field”. You expect some divergence but are looking for some legitimate connections and different angles of approach on the same truthes.

In the background of my mind was Becker’s stated desire to form a “uniform science of humanity,” something that would allow for a multiplicity of voices on any given subject, and integrate exploration via all disciplines instead of pitting them against each other. Becker’s vision for this was cut short by his untimely death in 1975, but has always seemed one of the most noble projects set before us.

Imagine for a moment if instead of going into a humanities class and having them exclude some of the great world traditions and the other sciences, they actually included them and looked for correlations? What if they “looked sideways” (as Professor Martin Kemp calls “lateral thinking”) and brought in relevant information from other scientific disciplines?

Now fast forward to 1989 – which means most of us had no idea how the world was going to be changed by this thing we now refer to as “the web”, but ironically it was just that image, the image of a web, that came to mind at the time, just a much simpler image. Instead of the hierarchical and competitive system which Modernity championed, I envisioned an approach that would employ a flexible epistemological web of “lenses” that would be relational to examine any question or phenomenon.


Here is a simple example within one discipline: psychology (my undergraduate studies). I was a psychology student in the late 70s and was regularly amazed by how zealous and nearly religious were the wars within the department. Each “school” of psychology was a war for dominance in the department, the Behaviorists trying to understand all aspects of human existence within their own narrow view, and the Humanists and Existentialists doing the same. It was an ideological war with no winners because no one was open to other ways of seeing.

But what if the Modernist model of competition and exclusivity had given way to a Postmodern sensibility – or better still – something beyond that? What if those professors had laid down their philosophical armaments and started to talk with one another and look for correlations in their work? What if the Behaviorist could have seen his own view as merely one lens among many and valued the Humanist’s lens, and the Existentialist’s lens? Would they not go deeper with three lenses as opposed to the one? And then what if they had interfaced what they saw through the lenses with other lenses? What if they consulted with the award-winning nutritionist on staff in the biology department, and the social theorist in the sociology department?

I realize that may seem simplistic, but two great sayings by Einstein help here:

“Imagination is more powerful than knowledge,”


“Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

We’ll take the second first. It’s simpler that way.

A Simpler Model

Instead of a highly competition and rationalistic model we have the option of adopting a horizontal and relational model that consists of a flexible web of lenses from which to explore existence and the questions which resonate most for us. These questions can be about anything, from ecological concerns, to deep existential questions about the meaning of existence, to how to create a new pastry or float a toy boat out in the harbor.

I mentioned that this workable model is a flexible web of lenses – that means that it is relational. This is key. It not only does not seek to compete and exclude other ways of seeing and interpreting, it LOOKS for them. Much like search engine “spiders” this flexible web of lenses is always looking for connection, and when it finds it, it celebrates and is able to go deeper.

It is looking for relationship.


I promised a new “term” beyond Postmodernism, and now it is tiime to suggest it. Einstein noted that “imagination is more powerful than knowledge” and what we are talking about here requires more imagination than it does brain power.

Post Modern sensibilities have made this possible by rejecting the rigid assumptions of Rationalism, re-introducing irony (and thus humility), and creating a new pluralism that is, potentially, non-reductionist. In other words, we can dream about something both useful and achievable. Postmodernism – at present – does not ave to be a cul-de-sac. .

So imagine that the universe, everything around us, and also us, is essentially relational.

Just sit with it for a moment, and understand that by relational I am not saying “personal.” That’s a whole other matter.

Keep it simple but not simpler.

The Universe as Relational

Twenty years ago, and under Modernity’s iron grip, I would have proceeded to “prove” this to you from a variety of sources, all of them good. I could have argued from almost any platform, from the disquieting notion that human babies die if touch and interaction are withheld, to the fact that astrophysicists talk openly about the relational nature of all energy. Or we could appeal to any Creation myth from any culture and the same relational element would be present.

But in a Postmodern world I am not limited just to such arguments. Just ask yourself “Am I not relational by nature?” Aren’t our days and ways filled up by the question of relationships? And don’t we have a stunning array of them?

So to return to our emerging model, we can take our flexible web of lenses and seek what we can see through them looking for relationship between the pictures they deliver.

I once created a product in the videogame industry called “eGuides” that was patented by Random House. It was based in the philosophy I am now expousing. It was flexible and adaptive. It had a definitive form and objective (to teach a person to conquer a videogame swiftly) but adpated to the narrative and inherent qualities of each game (the lenses recalibrated according to resonance and relevance and informed us as to content as we began each new eGuide). The lawyers (at $300 an hour) kept asking me “how did you think this up?”) Could I explain about Bateson, Becker and a whole different way of doing science?

Prima eGuides, awarded a US and International patent in 2002, Random House. Christopher MacDonald, lead inventor, Team: Wade Smith, Dusty Brown, and Robert Reinhard.

Um, no. This was an online interactive crash course in how to crush opponents in Starseige Tribes. No one would believe my process, or how I had created something new in three months out of thin air with a rag-tag team and only $225k. The next game was Tombraider 3 (Lara Croft) …so it was essentially Bateson and Becker with digital boobs and a shotgun.

I do not mean to be offensive – I am just trying to show how truly ordinary this really is. If it can work for videogames (across all genres without a hitch – and that is just one tiny little application that one little niche industry asked me to employ) and earn an international patent (and has) – it might be worth a look?

A Larger Metaphorical Example

I’ve been trying to think of a modern phenomenon that is both simple and playful to illustrate this. I think perhaps the Super Bowl is just such a model. Well not so much the game itself but the broadcast of the game itself and all the different lenses that are used to bring as full a presentation as possible to as many as possible.

A variety of lenses are used to record data which is then relayed into a central hub. Some of these lenses are able to record more relevant data than others at various times. So some of the main cameras down on the field at strategic spots get hours of emphasis, whereas the camera outside the stadium is only used twice for a few brief seconds, and the camera that views the city in which the event is held is used only once.

To these camera lenses are added work that has been done by other lenses prior to the game. There are interviews with players, with wives of players, and with the high school coach of the superstar quarterback upon who the hopes of the city reside.

What decides which cameras are emphasized?

As I have hinted at, relevance and resonance seem to be the criteria.

How do you determine that? People in their respective fields do that every day of the week. It is a silly question. Do they often get it wrong? Yes – but eventually they get it right because the wrong answers turn into poor results over and over again.  It’s just common sense.

To continue: Two weeks after the Super Bowl, the whole crew and all the equipment are shipped to cover the Democratic National Convention. There are no footballs, and the agenda is completely different (except of course that someone wants to win and others to lose).

The same general parameters are used to cover the broadcast, only now the longer range cameras that were so effective two weeks earlier, are not as useful in a more intimate environment. Other cameras that are more mobile and light weight become the best lenses from which to record and broadcast information.

The choices are fairly easy, and, as before, all the same equipment is used, it’s just that some lenses are more useful in this situation than they were at the Super Bowl.

Now I have little doubt that some part of this illustration may break down somewhere, but it is meant to illustrate really only one point, and that is the effective use of multiple lenses and how they interact to derive as much relevant data as possible in a non-competitive manner.

Apply the Flexible Web

Below is a written description of the flexible web. This model is meant to be an exploration – not normative. Consider it like a simple but extremely adaptable probe. The sort of probe that if sent into the unknown would have the flexibility to mutate, on the fly, as it encountered new and unforeseen environments or phenomenon – much as our eGuides adapted to the differing “worlds” that each videogame presented by its creators.

An example?

Okay, let’s go back to our psychology department, only this time they have gone through Postmodernization and have seen the Enlightenment experiment for what it was…just one lens, and a limited one – a Colonial one. In it’s stead is a new model. It is not called Postmodern, it is called Relational.

And a possible new term is Relational. You can make it an “ism” if you like, but I kinda like it the way it is for reasons I’ll address shortly.

But back to our school. The department has decided that the focus of the program for that year will be depression. Instead of a competitive system with each school of thought trying to out leverage the others, they meet to put forward the best information they each have on the causes and remedies of clinical depression.

The Behaviorists bring relevant data on conditioning; another professor puts forward medical models based upon chemical imbalances; yet another -a Humanist -notes that the philosophical notion of freedom and free will carries with it the inherent problem of trying to sustain meaning, and that the crisis of meaning for human beings is closely tied to depression. The Freudians talk about family dynamics and unconscious urges which effect emotional stability.

All the while they are looking for relationship between this different ways of seeing depression. At the same time, new questions arise about social and environmental factors. For this they will need the Sociology and Biology Departments to help them see more. One student who has been sitting in on the discussion as an aid asks about a culture he read about in his anthropology class that have almost zero cases of depression. Instead of being laughed at, a call is placed to the author of the book.

Other lenses pop up as well. The Biology department also reports that they are doing a study on endorphin and serotonin levels based on new dietary finds. Another best selling book includes remarkable testimonials of those who have been relieved of depression by prayer or meditation.

Every one of these lenses is used to gather as much information as possible which is then brought into the mix looking for relevance and resonance.

The beauty of this model is that it is flexible, malleable, non-competitive and is open to lenses outside of strict rationalism, while not rejecting its benefits.

It is also non-reductive and therefore truly pluralistic in the best sense of the word.

We Are “Relationals”: Beyond Postmodernism

We are not stuck being Postmoderns; we could be Relationals. The universe is inherently relational, and as self-conscious and curious beings within creation we are too. It’s why we care about the meaning of our lives, and how we relate to each other and this universe. It’s why we have children and why love is so important to all of us. It’s what lies at the core of being human and our questions about God’s existence and what our lives mean. It’s what we think about and dream about in some way every day of our lives and are trying to find answers to. Modernity gifted us with many things, but it is time to move beyond it’s confines. There is serious and deep work to be done, and it is relational.



Christology Boxes: Adoration Station

by hand

One of my big beefs with the current Western Church is that they have made Jesus either commemorative or simply a part of a salvic formula – but pretty much ignored His active Mastery and “holding the universe together” right here and now.

Hey – I didn’t say it – St. Paul does often and well – but nowhere better than when he, – probably borrows an early christological hymn and applies it in his letter to the Colossians in 1:15-20.

I mean just read the audacious things which are said – seriously.

15 [a]He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.16 For [b]by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He[c]is before all things, and in Him all things [d]hold together. 18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.19 For [e]it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the [f]fullness to dwell in Him, 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in [g]heaven.


This is all present and active – not commemorative (past) and passive. Talk about the power of now! We have no idea because we are too small-minded and unimaginative. We are like the disciples who are utterly surprised when Peter and the gang show up fatr the jail has been rocked-open and the others ask “Hey – what are you doing here? We have been praying for your release from prison?”



Icon box, Portland 2011. (c) Christopher MacDonald.

Iconography is literally “written (“graphos”) images of theology. It is not “painting” it is “writing theology,” most often for those who did not read. Well we do not read theology much either and when we do it is mostly crap – theologians sunk in the minutiae talking with a few other theologians sunk even deeper in the minutiae about some side point that may or may not even be viable at all (it may simply be en vogue or warrant a grant because it meets a political agenda).

Or it is controversial enough to sell books – and I am thinking of our friends Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels – who have parlayed 3rd and 4th Century Gnostic texts (which are irrelevant to New Testament studies coming hundreds of  years later) into a kind of perpetual cottage industry on truly controversial “controversies,” that the unlearned just love to gobble up.

It doesn’t help that so -called believers are doing essentially the same thing – commoditizing the actual Gospels on the other side – and making Jesus either commemorative or just part of their salvic formula on the other side of the fence. In all cases what is by-passed is adoration, openness to the living Lordship of Christ and a sense of awe at His glory.

These are no small things. They impoverish us while we are seeking spiritual riches. It is terribly ironic – and it invokes His words in the book of Revelation to many of the churches there in the opening chapters. I will let you study and apply.

Christology Boxes

Criticism doesn’t work in this postmodern world of ours – but artistic opportunities do. Working artistically off the tradition of “reliquary boxes,” I am modifying and moving from a box which houses past relics to one which invites present-day contemplation as drawn out potentially by iconography, the written word, and various types of sacred art – both visceral and digitally delivered.


IMG_20160418_082520The front lid features an icon of Christ centering devotion and adoration on the Living One. It is meant to be “written theology” in the iconographic tradition and not a “painting.” It is meant to draw one into a sense of coming before the actual resurrected Christ who “holds all things together” at that very moment (Col. 1:16). It is a place of open adoration if one opens up. Of course God provides the grace and leading.

Written Word

The inside door (or if that does not work, mounted within and removable for easy handling) will be a Kindle “Fire” with an interface especially designed to simplify devotion with no distractions. The main components are a compilation of texts including:

  • the Bible,
  • contemplative texts:
    • Theresa of Avila
    • John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul

      Kindle Fire with Colossians Commentary.

      Kindle Fire with Colossians Commentary.

    • Brother Lawrence Practicing the Presence of God
    • Catherine of Siena
    • Thomas A Kempis The Imitation of Christ
    • Bernard of Clairvaulx On Loving God
    • The Cloud of Unknowing (author unknown)
    • Merton’s Book of Hours
  • My own exegetical/devotional commentary on the Christological hymn of Colossians (1:15-23 with original art from my longer commentary)
  • Selected poems of a “Christ the Center” nature.

Sacred Art

"diakonos" - "Deacon" - the "hands and feet of Christ. with "Azotus" seal in cinnabar.

“diakonos” – “Deacon” – the “hands and feet of Christ. with “Azotus” seal in cinnabar.

Inside the box this consist of modified “Kanji” style scrolls – New Testament words and texts done in Greek in a Asian Kanji style on Joss (funerary) paper. An unintentional move on my part (I just liked the paper and it was cheap at my Asian market) I learned later that it was used as “Money Paper” to write messages to dead ancestors and then burned in an urn to reach up into the heavens. I simply wanted to take the Word of God – so opaque and overused/misused in American culture and present it in a different artistic form so it could be seen in a different way. Thus, the box will have a small number of mini-scrolls with significant terms like kenosis, pistis, agape, didiskalos, kerygmata, etc…I am not sure just yet.

Of course the form requires a red cinnabar seal made from an original “chop” and I have been wrestling carving a new one as my “Azotus” one was lost in Santa Cruz (seen in the art to the left). There was a elderly man in Chinatown who did that for me after much negotiation (he spoke no English and I no Chinese o it was rather hilarious). Now he is gone so I am somewhat forced to attempt this myself. I have acquired a dremel with attachments to help (hopefully – it might still be dreadful).

DSCF9261A painted stone, incense (with a note of explanation for many an American thinks incense is simply an Eastern metaphysical phenomenon and to be rejected – quite superstitious), perhaps a tea candle in a holder (I need to experiment).

Normally I would do a long paper along with this, but I feel the addition of my actual poems, long N.T. exegetical commentary (which will need editing) and additional original art) should be quite enough as all of it has to tie together as a whole in one small 9” x 9” x 2.75” deep box.

I would like to do a small write up like a museum piece that gives small instructions on “how to use it” in a gentle/general sense (a spiritual formation sense). Just  suggestions.

At first I bucked a little at the use of technology (and also –haha – the price..I am a very poor student financially). I heard Ellul in the back of my head on the use of technology – and I am a big fan.[1] But having access to Christologically central texts, poems, art and also audio overruled.  I am a hybrid in so many ways – perhaps more than most anyone I have ever met – so why not here?


I hve done a “kanji” from Colossians 3:4 :Who is our life,” referring to Jesus as depicted. and laid it in as an alpha layer (no pun intended).

As always, I am utterly open to suggestion. I do think it has to be Christological because the Church is not and is suffering because of it. I came to seminary to do Christology and somehow it seems fitting that while the GTU seems to have thwarted me exegetically and theologically – artistically I would have a green light. This is a very good thing and fits my nature  – as I have spent most of my life creating in a secular context and done quite well.

I am, of course, scared out of my mind to begin the icon. Everything else is easy.

[1] My Summer project is a series of large oil paintings – cityscapes working off of Ellul’s The Meaning of the City where I do very Wayne Thiebauld-esque paintings wherein a crucifixion is inlayed within the city itself – if you have eyes to see it. Each painting will be a reflection of an Ellul quote. I had hoped to get a teacher behind this and get credit – but now I am just going for it and will hopefully get credit for it after and a good gallery showing.

The Way: A Pilgrimage of the Heart

way_poster3_tcMartin Sheen plays “Tom” – an ophthalmologist from California who travels to  France to  retrieve the body of his now dead son  Daniel Avery ( who has died on the first day of his planned Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in a storm in the Pyrannes).  But Tom ends up doing the pilgrimage himself (also known as “the Way of St. James”) to Galicia (Spain).

One of Sheen’s sons, Emilio Estevez, wrote the screenplay (from the book by Jack Hitt [1] ) and directed the film. He also has spot appearances as Daniel Avery, Tom’s son. Renee Estevez, Sheen’s daughter, also acts in the film.

The film opens on the golf course where Tom quite noticeably doesn’t want to walk a few feet to make his next golf shot, preferring to golf cart his way instead. Moments later he receives the call informing him of his son’s tragic death and he quickly leaves the course with no explanation.

This is indicative of Tom for the first half of the film. A man of few words who is used to making up his mind and pretty much everyone else can go to hell – he doesn’t care.

When Tom arrives in St. Jean Pied de Port (France) he has to deal with memories of conflicts with Daniel and a decision. Daniel’s life had been about engagement it would seem – and choosing to experience the world rather than just study it.  The two of them had conflicts over this. Tom decides rather stubbornly that he will walk the pilgrims trail to the Cathedral of  Santiago de Compostela in Galicia and plans to spread his son’s ashes along the way.

It is a film primarily about “compassion” – the ability to “come alongside.” It starts with the police captain just as his journey starts. Tom, very aloof, is headed in the wrong direction for the pilgrimage, the captain stops him and says “Tom, I too have lost a child,” This stops Tom and makes him reconsider the captain. This is important because the captain tells him he is going the wrong way.

This is just the first incident of many that will begin to change Tom and de-layer him and re-humanize him along the pilgrim’s trail.

Previously he had met Joost (played by Yorick van Wageningen of the Netherlands), a gregarious man from Amsterdam who simply wishes to lose weight. He is as loose-lipped as Tom is tight. He befriends Tom whether he likes it or not, meeting up with him later on the Way of St. James.

At first Tom is slow…he is the last one to make it to the Inn the first night. This changes as he becomes more resolute.

When Tom meets Sarah (played by Canada’s superb actress Deborah Kara Unger – who is reminiscent here of Ava Gardner as Maxine Faulk in Night of the Iguana) things do not go well. She is angry with a massive chip on her shoulder and used to attention. Tom doesn’t care at all. He simply walks off. She attempts to apologize the next morning but he is still aloof and remains so through much of the first half of the film.

Tom is a classic Californian. He is used to living in a cocoon of sorts.

On his own a bit later on the first real crisis point occurs when he takes off his pack at a bridge and it drops accidently into the river below. Frantic, he runs and follows it from the side of the river before finally diving in to retrieve it. He does so only when it becomes obvious it is his only choice. It is a decisive moment where Tom has to act.

Cold, wet, and tired he hauls his gear up the bank and makes camp. His well-contained world has been busted-up a bit.

The next day, Tom comes into town and meets up with Joost and Sarah again who meet each other for the first time. Tom is still distanced, noticeably picking up his pace – walking alone.

Tom meets a priest on the road with many other pilgrims (Joe Torrenueva). It was difficult for me to see exactly what he gives Tom – perhaps a rosary. Tom plays a lapsed Catholic, but it is well known that Sheen is quite an active Roman Catholic himself. Estevez describes the film as “pro-people, pro-life, not anti-anything”[2]

When they meet the Irish poet Jack (Irishman James Nesbitt) who does a marvelous monologue on “the road,” then complaining of “writer’s block” asks if he can tag along.

Not long after, one of the three last crucial events (the first of four being the fallen pack into the river) occurs when Sarah, trying to see what is in the box Tom carries, slugs him when he grabs her arm. It’s a shocking moment. Later we learn that she had been in an abusive marriage- and had terminated the pregnancy of her daughter – not wanting to bring her into the same potential abuse.

Beyond the politics of the issue (which people rush too immediately into, it seems) I watched a scene played out that I have witnessed many times in my life – the deep regret that women carry with them over aborted children. It is a wound that I have consistently seen with no exceptions. It seems well depicted in this film for Sarah says she still hears her daughter’s voice.

The film treats it non-politically (which is truly wise). Tom turns and engages her for the first time really and says he is sorry that she lost her child. She says she is sorry he lost his. It is a serious and touching moment on their journey.

07WAY-SUB-articleLargeFrom then on they both seem to walk alongside each other with some very real compassion.

Estevez said that he borrowed heavily from The Wizard of Oz in a thematic way.[3] It seems clear though that Tom is not inviting anyone to join him – they invite themselves or rather attach themselves to Tom and his journey whether he likes it or not. This will play out significantly later in the film in dramatic fashion. But for now, it seems clear that Tom is Dorothy – a stranger in a strange land (to him). The only real difference on his journey is that there are no external enemies – only enemies within.

For Tom – this pilgrimage is one of being broken down chunks at a time only to be rebuilt into something different and new.

The third significant “act” comes when they reach the next town and purchase four bottles of wine. Tom gets drunk and his resentments boil over. He goes on a rant – verbally taking apart his companions. First the poet (Jack) – who he calls a “bore,” and then accuses of not being a “true pilgrim,” calling him a fraud. Then he turns to the Dutchman and dresses him down. He is angry, drunk and falls down. The police come and arrest him.

As they haul him off he is shouting and singing “God bless America” doing his best to embody the classic “Ugly American” image. There is a prefiguring of this when he is introduced earlier as an American in a village and they throw food at him and start-up with the “Star-Spangled Banner” – all in good fun.

The Irish poet bails him out the next morning (using his credit card – which Tom had berated him for using) and from this point on in the film they really become a noticeable unit. They no longer walk apart – or at least with Tom apart. They often walk four abreast or in a tight line. They have become companions on the Way of St. James now that Tom has dropped all pretenses. The road has humbled him – he has regained a greater sense of humanity and connection.

I believe the fourth major event in Tom’s transformation comes when his backpack (with his son’s ashes) is stolen by a Gypsy boy. They chase the boy into the Gypsy part of town where all hope is lost. Joost compels Tom to leave saying that it is hopeless and dangerous.

Back in the main part of town Tom despairs and plans to return home without finishing the pilgrimage. It is then that a remarkable thing happens. The young boy’s father (Ishmael, played by Antonio Gil) has discerned what has happened and has brought the boy and the pack (undisturbed) to the bar to return it. Better still he invites Tom and his entourage to come and dine and “make merry” with his Gypsy community that evening. To this man, it is a matter of honor (and a matter of faith as we see him “cross” himself quickly). Tom and his friends are allowed into this somewhat secretive and highly relational community. It is a world away from the cocoon-ish lifestyle employed by people in California. Tom is being challenged on many levels.

The next day the boy’s father makes his son carry Tom’s pack for him all the way to the outskirts of the province. Tom objects but the father is insistent that his son do this. It is a scene vaguely reminiscent of Robert DeNiro’s carrying his burden up the falls for a time in The Mission. Tom’s burden is temporarily carried by the boy whose sin almost stopped his pilgrimage – but in so doing the boy’s penance may be a part of his salvation.

The father – who is also mystical – tells Tom that after reaching the intended goal of the Cathedral – that he should continue on to Muxia, “and the sea” to spread the rest of his sons ashes there. That it will be good for Tom and his son.

Tom has an intense discussion with the Gypsy Ismael who tells him he needs to travel to Muxia to complete his pilgrimage.

Tom has an intense discussion with the Gypsy Ismael who tells him he needs to travel to Muxia to complete his pilgrimage.

“Ishmael, I am not a very religious man,” says Tom.

“Religion has nothing to do with this, nothing at all,” says Ishmael (one wonders about the choice of that name).

It is here that I should mention the soundtrack. Normally one wouldn’t think that Alanis Morrisette’s song Thank U – one couched in Eastern mysticism would work in a scene moving towards Catholic mysticism – but it really does in the overall context of the film up till this point. It is really a near perfect song at this juncture in the film:

How ’bout me not blaming you for everything

How ’bout me enjoying the moment for once

How ’bout how good it feels to finally forgive you

How ’bout grieving it all one at a time


Thank you India

Thank you terror

Thank you disillusionment

Thank you frailty

Thank you consequence

Thank you thank you silence


The moment I let go of it was the moment

I got more than I could handle

The moment I jumped off of it

Was the moment I touched down[4]


Tom is in this process as he journeys down the pilgrims trail. What started as a way of perhaps honoring his son – or trying to understand him better – has now become Tom’s own pilgrimage – but in a more and more tightly knit group or community of four.

the-way-movie-martin-sheenAs the song plays you can see Tom is no longer aloof. He is huggable, smiling and stays close. The day before they arrive in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Tom splurges on rooms at a nice hotel for everyone. One by one – late at night – they each show up at his room. Soon, as they have been all day, they are all together.

Tom has already changed his tune with the poet/writer. In the beginning nothing was “any of his business.” Now he is free to write what he will – but Tom is hopeful it will be the truth.

They stop at one point where there is a pole and a huge pile of stones left by previous pilgrim travelers. This is one of many traditions of the pilgrimage and apparently the belief was “that by placing a stone on the pile, [the person] …would be granted a wish.”[5]

Sarah’s wish is rather agnostic, but Tom’s is that of a lapsed Catholic making his way back to a living faith.

Who are the various characters in light of The Wizard of Oz?  I don’t think anything like an exact  correlation can really be found. I think it was a formative idea that Estevez worked off of. But If I was to hazard a guess, I would say Joost is “The Cowardly Lion” (extroverted and kind but lacking backbone), Sarah the “Tin Man” (a damaged heart), and Jack is the “Scarecrow” (he is inherently brilliant but uses his mind to write travel books and has writer’s block for anything really expansive).

As they enter the Cathedral we already know that the poet (Jack) doesn’t like churches. But he knows that the posture in the Cathedral of St. James is one of coming on your knees. As the one most likely to be the Scarecrow…he holds off – perhaps out of skepticism. But in the end as the giant censer swings and fills the grand cathedral he hits his knees and inches inside.

At each major township along the pilgrim's trail when they check in they receive a stamp marking their journey's progress until they get their final stamp at the Cathedral.

At each major township along the pilgrim’s trail when they check in they receive a stamp marking their journey’s progress until they get their final stamp at the Cathedral.

It is things like this (and pilgrimages and art) that most of us Protestants do not understand – many choosing to live in the long shadow of people like the humorless and unimaginative John Calvin. But for those who take a more “worldly” Christian view – meaning simply that the Church is much larger and deeper – all of this is ours and to be celebrated.

After the mass and the blessing at the Cathedral, they are “given their compostela certificates, the official paper that certified their completion of the pilgrimage.”[6] Many of the stamps they receive along the pilgrim’s way have the form of a scallop shell worked into them as the scallop – an early Christian symbol – is also:

320px-Carlo_Crivelli_064the traditional emblem of James, son of Zebedee, and is popular with pilgrims on the Way of St James to the apostle’s shrine at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia (Spain). Medieval Christians making the pilgrimage to his shrine often wore a scallop shell symbol on their hat or clothes. The pilgrim also carried a scallop shell with him, and would present himself at churches, castles, abbeys etc., where he could expect to be given as much sustenance as he could pick up with one scoop. Probably he would be given oats, barley, and perhaps beer or wine. Thus even the poorest household could give charity without being overburdened.[7]


When receiving his certificate Tom is asked about the pilgrimage and he says “we walked…” then corrects himself and says “I walked.” It is a telling moment for Tom is now a part of an “us.” And when they are sitting around after and it is time to disband looks are traded (no words) and it is simply understood that they will all continue on together to the sea in Muxia.

Early on in the film, Tom had tried to sort of “order” the police officer to accompany him on the pilgrimage. The man cared – but ignored the arrogant directive. Now, without words, Tom has engendered real love and respect out of humility from his companions. They want to see him through to the end of his journey.

Tom has the man who is providing the certification for his now completed pilgrimage change the name from his to Daniel’s. He has done the walk in Daniel’s stead. At Muxia he has an experience where Daniel stands beside him.

“I don’t have anything to take back,” he says to him.

“Yeah you do,” is Daniel’s ghostly reply.

Then Tom distributes what are left of Daniel’s ashes on the rocks by the sea.

It is not a sentimental film, nor commercial or formulaic. There are no tearful goodbyes. We never see the other three after they leave Tom alone at the rocks near the sea. At the end we only see Tom moving towards us with a seemingly clearer perception and movement in his “way.” It also seems that he came to France, and finally Spain, as an utter outsider and an “Ugly American” but at the end of the film his attire marks him as a more natural inhabitant of the region – or at least he doesn’t stand out quite so much. In fact he is marked as belonging by two well-known symbols – the walking staff that is sticking up out of the back of his pack, and the metallic scallop shell pendant hanging down from around his neck symbolizing his completing the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

He has received compassion and learned to give it – as they all walked alongside each other – the root meaning of the word.





[1] taken April 21, 2016.

[2] Primary sources quoted in Wikipedia article. as found on April 21, 2016.

[3] Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen on Faith and Filming The Way, as found on April 21, 2016.

[4], as found on April 21, 2016.

[5] Pilgrimage to Santiago De Compostella: Rituals and Traditions, as found on April 21, 2016.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Shell of Saint James, as found on April 21, 2016.

Face to Face with Professor Martin Kemp on Lateral Thinking, The “University” and “Structural Intuition.”

kempThanks to a grant from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Professor Martin Kemp, art historian and the world’s leading authority on Leonardo Da Vinci (which is just one of his many astounding credits) was delivered live via Skype from his studio in England to our “50 Sacred Objects” class at the Jesuit Seminary at the GTU.

I arrived early to get a front row corner seat so as to have a much more face to face encounter with Prof. Kemp who was on big screen about eight feet away.

I had been asked by my superb professor, Kathryn Barush (who was mentored by Kemp at Oxford) to prepare two questions and also submit photos of a pice of art from the 15th Century for Kemp to comment on. I had already sent on pictures of  Lorenzo Ghiberti’s amazing “paradise” door in Florence – and I had reviewed probably 3-4 hours of Kemp lectures on neuroscience, Leonardo, perception, art history and ways of “thinking.”

We had already done one of these “Webinar’s with Iconographer Aiden Hart – and it had been unreal. So I knew what to expect.

I cannot say that Kemp actual lecture to us yielded many surprises because I had watched so many lectures of his and soaked it all in already.

(I will list a brief bio at the end of this, but it is by no means exhaustive – like it doesn’t mention his work helping construct Leonardo’s “flying machines” – which apparently worked a lot better than anticipated; or his work on the “Codex Leicester” – which Bill Gates bought a few years back for $30 million – the single highest amount EVER for a book – and has engendered a friendship between the two) .

I digress. I got to engage Kemp directly not on art but on THINKING, the University system and how we do both Science and Art.

It was kind of thrilling.

This is the view from my seat and the camera in return is pointed at us and we can talk back and forth.

My first question:

“The University system seems quite linear, competitive and high;y compartmentalized. Your presentations happily promote “lateral thinking” – although you don’t like that term and prefer “looking sideways” as a better way of putting it I believe – and seem to move across disciplines eagerly. I find this compelling. In fact, it is what my M.A. is supposed to be about at the GTU – but I am not sure is possible. My question: How can this view be promoted at ground level?”


“Well I quite agree that the University system is highly compartmentalized…it has been getting more and more so since the turn of the Century even to the point now where many disciplines have their own language that is not decipherable to others. It is quite a problem. 

But there is a balance. We must have experts in their fields of study. Some people think they can just waltz right in and get an immediate grip. That being said it is often the Outsider who does bring in the new perspective. Look at Watson and Crick and DNA. One a chemist, the other a biologist and they change the who world of molecular biology. 

If a person has the discipline of knowing how to do science – how to ask the right questions and then follow through they can learn a great deal about a new discipline in a short period of time. “

I am sure he said quite a bit more. I think they are, no?) I think the thing that impressed me so was – and I had found this in his lectures too – was the measured response. I could have been a crackpot or zealot (I do not think I am either but then crackpots and zealots usually do not, no?)

Yet – the wise and measured response that encouraged further exploration – but with caution.

No one else was asking questions (he can be a tad intimidating given his brilliance I suppose – I am too old to be intimidated – plus I lived on the streets of West Oakland for  year)…so I asked a follow-up (related):

“Leonardo had an uncanny boldness and you describe the normal ‘six degrees of separation” as – in Leonardo – as ‘one degree of separation’ in pretty much all he did. This touches on your talk of ‘Structural Intuition” – as that intuition about the pursuit of a truth that is prior to its investigation or production. I have experienced myself many times – like when I was once asked to produce a product that was patent-able in a few months. I just kinda ‘knew’ it could be done and how to do it – then – as you say – you have to do the work. Can you comment on this idea of Structural Intuition as it relates both to the Scientist (in our case as theologians) and then then Artist?


KEMP:”Well we have all had this experience starting as children observing things in nature. We see how water swirls down a drain, or the shape of a nut and we are fascinated and ask ‘why?” 

(Kemp then quotes from memory from a letter from Einstein on many of his ideas coming prior to even language – being “somatic.”  This is in a lecture online which I will add here later – it is amazing.)

Professor Kemp then gave a few other examples which my notes (grrr) will not help with. One was the invention of Carbon 16 (or “Q-Carbon”) which could have only “have arrived at by intuition as a start.”

Again he counseled boldness – but responsible boldness. He said it had worked for him, but that he had started early simply in the hard sciences.

When it came time to do the slides of the art…my slides (the doors) was second (hey…hey chose the order) and Prof. Barush asked me if it was okay if we skipped me.

I mean I had kinda been the only one to really engage Kemp in a spirited back and forth and taken enough time.

I heartily and readily agreed (and asked later if I had overstepped? – No, not at all.)

I dearly love Prof. Barush as she is the only Prof. I have really had at the GTU who allows for “free speech.” The days of that in Berkeley are OVER. It’s really much more like daily walking through a minefield.

But yesterday was an extraordinary day – and I got some great answers from a truly great man of faith, intellect and vision..


Martin Kemp

Kemp was trained in natural sciences and art history at Cambridge University(Downing College) and the Courtauld Institute of Art,University of London. He was British Academy Wolfson Research Professor (1993–98). For more than 25 years he was based in Scotland (University of Glasgow andUniversity of St Andrews). He has held visiting posts in Princeton, New York, North Carolina, Los Angeles and Montreal.

Kemp has written books about Leonardo da Vinci, including Leonardo (Oxford University Press, 2004, rev. 2011). He has published on imagery in the sciences of anatomy, natural history and optics, including The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat (Yale University Press).

Kemp has focused on issues of visualisation, modelling and representation. He has written a regular column called Science in Culture in Nature (an early selection published as Visualisations, OUP, 2000). The Nature essays are developed in Seen and Unseen (OUP, 2006), in which his concept of “structural intuitions” is explored. His most recent[when?] book is Christ to Coke: How Image becomes Icon (OUP, 2011). Several of his books have been translated into various languages.

He has curated a series of exhibitions on Leonardo and other themes, includingSpectacular Bodies at the Hayward Gallery in London, Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment, Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2006 andSeduced: Sex and Art from Antiquity to Now, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2007. He was also guest curator for Circa 1492 at the National Gallery of Art inWashington in 1992.

In 2000, he advised skydiver Adrian Nicholas as he constructed a parachuteaccording to Leonardo’s drawings from materials which would have been available in his day. In 1485 Leonardo had scribbled a simple sketch of a four-sided pyramid covered in linen. Alongside, he had written: “If a man is provided with a length of gummed linen cloth with a length of 12 yards (11 m) on each side and 12 yards high, he can jump from any great height whatsoever without injury.” In June 2000, Nicholas launched himself from a hot air balloon 10,000 feet (3,000 m) over South Africa. He parachuted for five minutes as a black box recorder measured his descent, before cutting himself free of the device and releasing a conventional parachute. Leonardo’s parachute made such a smooth and slow descent that the two jumpers accompanying Nicholas had to brake twice to stay level with him.