An Obligatory Think-Piece on ‘American Sniper’

by Sam Buntz

Apparently, I need to write something about American Sniper. There’s no way around it.   I missed writing a think-piece on Girls back when it was hot, and now I’m left with the pathetic option of weighing in on Girls from the colder, more distant perspective afforded by the passage of time. So, I’m determined to get in on American Sniper while it’s still relatively fresh…

First of all: I actually liked American Sniper. I get why some of the criticisms are being made, but can’t really get behind them—or can’t get behind most of them, anyway. It’s no mystery why someone might find the real-life Chris Kyle to be a little suspect. The dude claimed he “loved” killing people—bad people fighting with Al Qaeda in Iraq, but people for all that. Yet, it’s easy enough to sit around in a cushy yuppie apartment, critiquing a few insensitive or dumb statements made by soldiers who’ve been through absolute hell. The movie’s critics have the right perspective on the fundamentally negative course of the Iraq War, but they lack a proper sense of the people who are responding positively to the film. Contrary to something Howard Dean said on Bill Maher’s show, it’s not just fanatical Tea Party members who are embracing the movie—the soldiers (and their families) came from a vast, cross-section of American society, politically, ethnically, and religiously. And people who’ve known soldiers and lived with them can’t just dismiss them as entirely passive victims of a really dumb policy. They naturally want to see them as heroic—because they were heroic. They were definitely ill-served by Bush and Cheney’s terrible policies—but it’s clearly dishonoring them just to dismiss them as chumps who were fooled, and leave it at that. Clint Eastwood made a genuinely good movie, because it shows us that the American Character, despite being in a state of degradation and chaos, still has plenty of heroic qualities.

In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi wrote one of the most aggressive critiques of the movie. Although he writes in a style that is consciously punk and profane, he makes some fair points. He somewhat excessively points out how “dumb” the Iraq War was—probably the weakest and most irritating feature of the article, belaboring the point: “Sniper is a movie whose politics are so ludicrous and idiotic that under normal circumstances it would be beneath criticism. The only thing that forces us to take it seriously is the extraordinary fact that an almost exactly similar worldview consumed the walnut-sized mind of the president who got us into the war in question… Well done, Clint! You made a movie about mass-bloodshed in Iraq that critics pronounced not political! That’s as Hollywood as Hollywood gets.” So much for the un-informative, invective-laden part of Taibbi’s piece… But towards the end, he makes some thoughtful remarks: “The thing is, it always looks bad when you criticize a soldier for doing what he’s told. It’s equally dangerous to be seduced by the pathos and drama of the individual soldier’s experience, because most wars are about something much larger than that, too… [W]e’re ready to be entertained by stories about how hard it was for our guys. And it might have been. But that’s not the whole story and never will be… We’ll make movies about the Chris Kyles of the world and argue about whether they were heroes or not. Some were, some weren’t. But in public relations as in war, it’ll be the soldiers taking the bullets, not the suits in the Beltway who blithely sent them into lethal missions they were never supposed to understand.” I’d say that’s fair—but it still acts like it’s wrong to try to understand what a war was like for your own country’s soldiers… which it really isn’t.

As dumb as he thinks American Sniper was, I wish Taibbi bothered to describe in more detail the kind of Iraq War movie he actually would want to see. The reader could be forgiven for thinking that he wouldn’t mind staring at a giant neon sign blinking the words, “Fuck Bush!” for two and a half hours. That show might have the facts on its side—but flat accuracy of opinion and decent film-making are two different things. (Taibbi should check out In the Loop, an excellent satire on the political machinations leading up to the war—a scathing, under-appreciated classic). The Iraq War movie I most want to see is a little different: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fictional film, a documentary, or a TV special depicting the lives of average Iraqi citizens, or dramatizing their relations with the American soldiers and government in a humane, understanding, and non-sappy way. They’re just background scenery in stories about Americans, or in reports about their most violent coreligionists; they’re usually just a casualty statistic. The ordinary Iraqis’ actual views and ways of life find zero coverage in the media, where they’re typically depicted either as objects of sentimental plight, or as a potentially dangerous pack of unruly natives.

First, when we were prepping to invade, the Iraqi people were a Cause—and, after the invasion took place, they quickly became a Problem, one to be solved either with sympathy or contempt. But they’ve never been depicted in and of themselves, as people—we’ve always insisted on perceiving them through the lens of our own ambitions and concerns. American Sniper is obviously guilty of this—that’s where Taibbi’s critique is dead-on—but it was only ever a movie that aimed to make sense of Americans, trying to examine the things that are still good or are still somehow salvageable about the American Character, despite having been mired in a difficult conflict. Perhaps it is seriously incomplete in that it doesn’t provide any political context, highlighting the gross errors of the American Command. But is it all that wrong to fixate on the American Character, specifically, in a movie about Iraq—especially when it hasn’t been done in a dramatically compelling way with any frequency? No—but it would be (and is) seriously wrong to only make movies and news reports like that. The problem is balancing our self-awareness with a greater (a much greater) consciousness of the Iraqi people—since they clearly suffered more from the results of our invasion than we did.

“The Deep Truth is Imageless”: Reflections on Studying Religion

by Sam Buntz

“If the abysm
Could vomit forth its secrets… But a voice
Is wanting, the deep truth is imageless.”
-Percy Shelley

In an earlier era, the greatest scholars of comparative religion searched for a unity underlying the world’s faiths. Mircea Eliade, probably the major figure in 20th Century religious study, argued that there were real universals to be found cross-culturally in religion. According to Eliade, religion is the search for an eternal reality that can interact or interpenetrate with our own, causing life in the world of time to become dyed in the colors of eternity—the profane world makes contact with a sacred world, becoming sacred itself, in the process. That’s the shared purpose behind individual, mystical practices, in which one seeks contact with eternity personally, and in social, ritual practices like receiving Holy Communion and Hindu Puja. Put far too shortly, this was Eliade’s big idea. It’s amazing how many scholars have tried to dismiss it—shaky guns that should’ve been trained on beer bottles sitting on backyard fences end up setting their sights on King Kong.

Closely related to Eliade, though not exactly the same, is another approach to religion, the “Perennial Philosophy” or Perennialism. One of its major proponents, Aldous Huxley, defined it as, “the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical to, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being.” The difference is that, while Eliade stated that there were universals in religion, he stopped short of claiming in his scholarship that these universals were determined by the “transcendent Ground of all being”—God, Brahman, or what you will (though that seems to be what he actually believed in his personal life).

This view is also widely out of fashion. A great number of scholars today argue that there isn’t really a shared commonality underlying religious thought and practice—religions don’t all say “the same thing” (as opposed to what Gandhi once said: “All religions are true). Stephen Prothero at Boston University is a good example, having authored the guide to world religions, God is Not One—kind of the antithesis of Huston Smith’s popular and famous The World’s Religions. Prothero basically points out the obvious: of course, Christians typically believe that Jesus was an incarnation of God, and Muslims typically deny it; that kind of thing… But that was never the kind of claim that Perennialists or followers of Eliade were interested in disputing. They were looking at religions to find deeper patterns of universality—not shared, specific doctrines. They wanted to find the relations between things, while analyzing the structures of myth and belief and praxis. It’s not that the particulars of Jesus’ and Buddha’s lives are all the same—it’s that the greater shape of those narratives share numerous commonalities (a miraculous conception and birth, a period of withdrawal from the world and temptation, a final apotheosis, etc.). As the literary theorist Northrop Frye put it, while religions often differ drastically in terms of theology, in terms of mythology they’re remarkably similar.

Consider Joseph Campbell, whose classic study of mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, inspired Star Wars (probably one of the reasons certain joyless scholars dislike him so much and disagree with him so vehemently). Essentially, Campbell argues that the great heroic narratives of all mythologies and religions—from Maori and Native American legends to the stories of Buddha and Christ—encapsulate certain universal truths and themes about human experience. What you actually find in Campbell’s writings isn’t some mad attempt to reduce all religions to the exact same story, which is what his critics (who’ve evidently never read him) always seem to imply. Obviously, Jesus has his moment of triumph through the Resurrection, and the Buddha finishes the hero’s journey with enlightenment under the Bo Tree. That’s a blatant difference—and not one that Campbell ever would’ve denied in the slightest. His books explode with variety—yet he traces out shared depth patterns within that miraculous variety. It’s not that the particulars of religious belief are always the same everywhere—it’s that the power within humanity, which creates or projects those religions, is the same everywhere. And since we all have, in a biological sense, the same kind of brain, and since we all have, in a deeper sense, the same kind of imagination, it stands to reason that, beneath what society and biology condition, there’s some kind of commonality. Eliade, Huxley, Huston Smith, Fritjof Schuon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, and many other scholars and writers (though almost all of an earlier age) agree.

In Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God, you actually find a celebration of diversity, with the persistent acknowledgement of an underlying unity—but this is a unity that is always implied, hinted. It’s never made crassly visible as a whole. (Perhaps that’s the implication of the adage, “No man can see God and live.”) The power that creates and animates all religions can be labeled—whether as God or The Self or the Absolute or the Great Void or even just, from a secular perspective, as Mind—and beguilingly suggested, but ultimately proves impervious to verbal definition or conceptual delineation. The human imagination can provide a battery of symbols for it, can dance around it, but can never really say, in one formulation, what it is. In John Keats’ phrase, it “teases us out of thought.” We have words that stand for the Eternal, and beyond that—a sublime silence. This is the territory of mystics—though scholars can take the intellectual journey up to the edge.

As Campbell recognized, we don’t live in a world of mere fragments—which is how the die-hard opponents of The Perennial Philosophy tend to view the human race’s spiritual and intellectual creations. They think that the random vagaries of socialization and circumstance are really all there is—there’s nothing beyond them. (A comparable counter-strain exists in the study of English, where professors like Stephen Greenblatt deny that there’s such a thing as a universal experience or truth in literature; millions of readers of Shakespeare, from Japan to Nigeria to Kansas would disagree). Although scholars often argue about this as if the Perennial and Eliadean positions have somehow been disproved, it should seem fairly clear to anyone with an ounce of common sense that the stance one takes on this question is ultimately just a matter of taste, or, in a deeper sense, one’s feeling for life—one’s essential attitude regarding the world. Whether one can trace correspondences in the world’s religions and mythologies depends more on whether one wishes to look for them in the first place. You can either dismiss those correspondences as chance coincidences or embrace them as “signs and wonders”—but both paths are, at least as far as academia should be concerned, valid. (Clearly, I only think that the position that insists on questing for unity within diversity is actually right, however. Also, seeing the world as a collection of fragments probably isn’t just wrong, but dangerous and hazardous to one’s own mental health, in a very real way. But there are just too many professors in the humanities who share that perspective to say it’s not legitimate… I’m compromising as tactfully as I can, basically.)

At present, the skeptics probably have the upper hand—but the pendulum of history continues to swing. I wouldn’t be surprised if a revived interest in the human spirit and its universals—in the Soul, to bundle it all into one unpopular term—within the University were to correspond with a broader revival of interest in the same. The human race can only endure being reduced to a mechanical object, can only put up with the trivialization of its motives and aims for so long. More and more people will eventually assert that human beings aren’t just products of socialization, biology, and chance, and hopefully, some Inner Revolution will overthrow this stale philosophy of fragments, which takes humanity piecemeal while always forgetting E.M. Forster’s great motto: “Only connect.”

Pouty Guinness

by Sam Buntz

Does anyone seriously believe that, if the Prophet Muhammad had been born in the present day (say, around 1975), he would be opposed to reproducing his image? Would he constantly be pulling his coat over his head as the paparazzi’s flash bulbs went off—occasionally decking a photographer like an irate Sean Penn? Would someone with the social skills to found a world religion really be so resolutely un-chill? Did Muhammad have no cool? In my personal opinion, I think tens of thousands of kids would be taking selfies with Muhammad and posting them on Instagram, and he’d be fine with it. You’ve got to roll with the times if you’re going to have any success.

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, I realized how important this issue is, because it’s so hard to discern where the limits lie. South Park made an episode where Jesus uses performance enhancing drugs to undergo the Resurrection, before launching a steroid-induced rampage and destroying the factory that was making all those Lance Armstrong Livestrong bracelets… and no one got shot in the head or blown up as a result. But could I draw a stick figure—just a circle with some lines, no facial features, not even a beard or a turban or anything—and caption it, “Muhammad”? What if I try to argue it’s not that specific Muhammad, but some other Muhammad—like this dude I know who sells used Nissans? Would I still be a blasphemer? It’s the most popular name in the world, after all. And what if I turned it into a flipbook, with the stick figure Muhammad doing a happy dance? And not a crazy, excited-to-blow-up-skyscrapers dance—just a merry jig? Would I be Al-Qaeda and ISIS’s number one target?

I’m kind of worried because I didn’t realize that you weren’t allowed to draw images or cartoons of Muhammad (at least, according to many interpretations of Islam). Hence, I thought I was paying tribute to inter-faith tolerance when painting a series of seventy sumptuous, Italianate oil paintings, depicting the Prophet himself. Since I don’t know what Muhammad really looked like, I modeled him on Alec Guinness… Now, my escape plan is to claim that they were really meant to be Alec Guinness all along…

So, anyway, in most of the paintings, Alec Guinness (the dude who played Obi Wan Kenobi, for the younger readers) is reclining in leisurely opulence. He stares at the viewer with a classic male model’s “pouty” look.   He sits with his legs spread across a sofa, dressed in a fine, three-piece Armani, leaning against the end of the couch, one hand lightly supporting his head in a relaxed pose. (There’s a slight Kate-Winslet-in-Titanic feel to some of these). The other hand cradles a glass of Johnny Walker, no ice. In a few other paintings, Alec Guinness—still fully clothed in Armani—reclines in a bathtub, sportively flicking bubbles at the viewer…

Fortunately, by re-titling the paintings Pouty Guinness #1-70, I was able to save myself from a major headache—potential terrorist attacks. But others might not be so fortunate. You can make a basically respectful work, but still have it be misinterpreted… like this animated short I created, recently, featuring a zany soapbox race where religious founders compete against each other for the prize—Julia Roberts. But, surprise! It ends in a tie, showing that they’re all equal paths (except for Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard—he’s the Dick Dastardly of the skit, who crashes off course, and winds up frowning and confused in a giant pile of oranges). What if some terrorists misinterpreted my depiction of Muhammad and his Greased Lightning soapbox as some sort of confusingly ironic diss? Because it’s not—alright?