Yesterday I encountered Oliver Stone in person. BAFTA and Oscar winner, producer/director of JFK, Nixon and most recently a documentary series of interviews with Vladimir Putin, he was picking up an honorary doctorate at our daughter’s graduation ceremony in Edinburgh. As a revealing cultural moment, I thought it deserved a post here dissecting his narrative of the world.
Oliver Stone is a great film director, who makes serious films that tackle the big narrative of geopolitical issues. He isn’t a Spielberg mass entertainer, nor does he paint the dream world of Richard Curtis. He does grit. Like the best he is a big personality. I imagine he isn’t easy to please on set. But my first impression of him was of studied disinterest. As the honoured guest he sat front and centre in the McEwan Hall, the eyes of all upon him. His presentation and speech was in the middle of the programme, so half the graduands walked up to be ceremonially doffed with the famous cap immediately in front of him. Yet he spent the time very obviously writing his speech! Around him ranks of academics clapped each person as they passed. Oliver looked down and scribbled. How important do you have to think you are that you can’t enter into the occasion and congratulate their success? Even when his speech was finally ready, he couldn’t bring himself to clap. But this is the culture of pride and self-obsession, and Hollywood is its summit. What a tragedy that great men who shape the culture have forgotten how to walk humbly in public.
His speech was unforgettable. Like the preacher at a wedding who majors on the evil of divorce, he addressed a gathering of arts students on the certain imminent threat of nuclear apocalypse, all within a secular liberal framework. Sobering stuff for graduation day. Yet strangely, I agreed with some of what he said. Allow me to unpick his narrative of the world, to find the truth, and expose the fundamental flaws.
He began by greeting the students and saluting ‘their inherent mercifulness.’ (Helen and I discussed that afterwards. We think that was the exact phrase.) It is a striking way to describe a hall full of new graduates. But if you are a secular liberal, this is a shibboleth. Human nature is good, inherently so. The potential of humanity to do good is taken to mean inherent goodness, that we each start life free of evil. Apparently this persists even to graduation day! We are the good people, and evil is always someone else’s fault. Where it occurs, social forces beyond our control – bad parenting, economic/ social/ educational deprivation, abuse, being the victim of crime, or other victim complexes – all serve to corrupt us, but it is not our fault. Notice he also says we are ‘merciful.’ Apparently people are not the cause of wars. Politicians are, always in league with the military-industrial complex. People are merciful, and if the world were run by merciful people, there would be no wars. He clearly really believes this.
Christians are often accused of believing the polar opposite, something akin to utter depravity. That is not what Christians believe. We believe we are made in God’s image, and that all humans bear that image, whether Christian or not. We are all capable of great good, as the Grenfell Tower tragedy has shown. But Christians also believe that the entire human race has sinned, because the first man and woman sinned, and so sin, depravity, and also death as the penalty of sin, now affect us all. There is no inherently good individual, for we all inherit the same nature, and some profound intervention by God would be needed to break that (such as the incarnation of Jesus). We speak of total depravity in the sense that it affects every human faculty, but not utter depravity such that we are devoid of all potential for good. The image of God remains, so that we still have a conscience and are capable of making moral decisions, though our consciences are also affected by sin and operate as faulty aparatus. God by his common grace also restrains evil, so that people who have no time for him are still remarkably merciful, polite, and faithful. But we need to hold dignity and depravity in balance, the ferocious contradiction that cries out for redeeming grace in Christ. Secular liberalism just does not get this combination. It is too much for the proud to swallow. And from this refusal to accept the cracked image of God in ourselves flow all the problems that activate Oliver Stone’s political conscience. From this cardinal error come the wars he rails against.
He spoke of the wars created by America, and seemed to lay the blame for all post-WW2 conflict at the feet of the Pentagon and US NATO allies such as Britain. They are all our fault, all of them! No other war monger got the blame. Communism got off scot free, as did General Galtieri, Saddam Hussein, Hesbollah, Hamas, and Milosevic, to name just a few. If only America could give up war, the whole world could be at peace. This startlingly one-sided view of history is quite breathtaking. Apparently, Stalin, Mao and PolPot all get a pass as men of the people.
And yet, and yet. He put his finger on half the truth. He rightly pointed out that America is an empire. They act like an empire, spreading their military bases around the world, extending their influence and exporting their brand and culture. Britain did the same in the eighteenth century with its navy and its trading companies established by royal charter, such as the East India Company. Hard and soft power together extend an empire. Until the rise if the Chinese empire in the last decade, the American empire was the true superpower. Empires are dangerous. They flow out of the human desire for supremacy and the idolatry of one nation above all others. America is an empire, aided a little by Britain, and some of what we have done has been evil. Some of Oliver Stone’s films dissect that and are right to do so, but he does that according to his own narrative. That narrative does not critique other empires, such as Communist China feeding one side of the war in Vietnam, or Vladimir Putin destabilising life in Georgia, annexing the Crimea, feeding arms into Ukraine, and protecting the Assad regime. Ask the Baltic states which empire they fear the most – it won’t be America. The truth is bigger than an anti-Pentagon narrative. The world is a place of several empires all playing the geopolitical game. That is why wars have always occurred. God’s plan for nations is quiet, respectful peaceful interaction between nations as equals. Empires produce wars, and wars kill the quiet enjoyment of nationhood. But that does not obviate the need for war altogether. The secular liberal belief that this can all be solved by diplomats at the UN requires a denial of human depravity, and has no adequate explanation for evil.
Stone included a diatribe against nuclear weapons, accusing Obama of spending $1Trillion on renewing America’s nuclear arsenal. I haven’t done the figures, but these estimated costs by anti-nuclear protesters are always inflated for effect. (£100billion for Trident2? Really?) What was so staggering was that he told the graduates that they faced certain nuclear annihilation in their lifetimes. (Such a cheerful message to hear at your graduation!) It was the full, hopeless, CND treatment. But just pause to think. Nuclear weapons have been used once. They may tragically be used again. It would be good to follow Ronald Reagan (that great pin-up of the peace movement!) and want to get rid of them all by mutual agreement, which is what he aimed to do in the mid-1980s. But Christians also know that God is Lord of history, therefore we do not lose hope. We use weapons to defend ourselves because there is evil in the world. And unless the world can genuinely be freed from nuclear weapons, then even holding nuclear weapons, with international constraints and accountability, may be a part of defending ourselves.
Stone finished his speech by addressing the creative arts students before him. Edinburgh College of Art had honoured him, so his message to the future artists, illustrators and film makers in front of him was simple. ‘In your work, tell the truth.’ That is what he tries to do, he says. But here again we need humility. Whose truth? God’s truth, or our own limited philosophy and wisdom, shaped by the limits of our feeble cultures? Tell the truth as you see it in all you write and film and draw, but beware of falsehoods, however well intended. Eisenhower said of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, ‘He could not acknowledge another sun in the heavens.’ We need to see ourselves as a very small part of God’s universe, to strive for truth and let God’s revelation be its source and light, for only then will we see it as it is. This is essential to a Christian view of art.
So, happy July 4th, Oliver Stone. It was nice meeting you. And a very strange view of the world to hear from an American on Independence Day.