Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Blasphemy of The Invention of Lying: Give It a Second Look

You've never seen a movie like The Invention of Lying. This movie is a stunningly straightforward fable about a world where humanity has never evolved the ability to lie. In this world, people speak humorous, hurtful, and most importantly - honest - words. They tell each other when they're thinking of killing themselves; one waiter even informs his patron that he just tried a little of her drink before serving it to her. It is a world of absurdity and honesty. Do I need to mention, there may be spoilers ahead?

Ricky Gervais (you might know him as the boss from the UK version of The Office) plays Mark Bellison - the world's first liar. After evolving the ability to say something that "isn't," he realizes that he can create the world he wants for himself thanks to gullible humanity, who have yet to evolve the need to detect a liar. His lies range from the mundane ("My name is Doug") to the audacious ("I'm an Eskimo"). What caught my attention, however, and prompted me to write about the movie here is a rather large "lie" which Mark tells to his mother on her deathbed.

Facing an "eternity of nothingness" and nihilism, his mother expresses her fear of an empty afterlife. Quickly, Mark makes up a fabulous lie. He tells her that she's wrong about what happens when you die. He tells her that where she is about to go, she will see family who have passed on, and there won't be any pain or sadness. He tells her that there will be only love and happiness and that everyone gets a mansion and gets to be young again.

After his mother dies, the doctors beg Mark to tell them more about what happens when they die. "I get to see my mother again!" remarks one of the nurses. Soon, Mark has a following, and all of humanity want him to explain metaphysics, theology, and the afterlife to them. Eventually, Mark has to explain a whole system of who God is ("There's a man in the sky who controls everything") and what sends a person to "the bad place," ("Three awful crimes like rape or murder"). Mark Bellison also apparently favors a quasi-Calvinistic God who "decides who goes to the good place and who goes to the bad place; he also decides who lives and who dies." He explains that this man in the sky causes all natural disasters and all sicknesses. The people react with violent anger: one man screams out, "I say [expletive] the man that lives in the sky!" A woman says, "We need to stop that evil [expletive] before he kills us all!" (We certainly get a taste of what the natural man thinks of a sovereign God now, don't we?)

He then goes on to explain that the man in the sky is also responsible for all the good things that happen to us, as well. The people conclude, then, from Mark's "revelation" to them that life is "kind of a test." A montage of hilarious newspaper headlines then follow: "FINALLY - A Reason to be Good," "Man in Sky Continues to Give AIDS to Babies," "Man in Sky Murders Forty Thousand With Tsunami," and my personal favorite, "Man in Sky Allows Woman to Live to 104 Years."

My first reaction to the film was outrage at the film's blasphemous concept. I mean, clearly the film is presenting God as a fiction which is only made up by liars. I stewed about it for a couple of days, but then something occurred to me. The film is blatantly telling us something about the writers of the film: they don't believe that God is real. That's obvious. But it tells us something even more important about the atheistic worldview. By the film's own admission, the atheistic worldview is inadequate to address the true needs of humanity. Give the atheistic worldview, according to the film, people have no reason to be good. Given the atheistic worldview, according to the film, people have no satisfying way of bravely facing death.

I would have preferred that the filmmakers had steered away from doing religious satire altogether, but there are definitely layers on this onion that can be peeled back. What one finds is the subjective truth that the filmmakers are biased against God, but one also finds the objective truth about humanity that they need God in order to be full, good, and complete persons.

Also, I couldn't help but laugh, wondering how many arminians in the theatre got mad at the man in the sky when they found out that he controls everything. Oh, how I laughed. Like I said, you've never seen a film like it before.


  1. I can't imagine a world WITHOUT God. How sad all of our miserable lives would be! No point to live except to die, fighting yet fearing death, never knowing when it comes.

    Even as a Christian, I fear death, but only because of the unknown, not because there is nothing for me and it is the end.

    Thank you for sharing! This caught my eye, and I'm glad I read it. I will probably watch this movie, just to see it for myself. However, I'll probably get just as angry as you were and stew a couple of days.

    This may be one of the funniest things I get angry over and a great learning experience for me & my children(depending on the rating). Again, thank you for sharing.

  2. rjblueyes, thanks for the kind words! A little word of advice: the movie is rated PG-13. I wouldn't let the kids watch this one. People speak a little too freely in this film about personal things that your kids probably don't need to learn about, just yet. Just my opinion.

  3. Adam, excellent review. You have an enjoyable writing style which draws the reader in.

    Yes, it appears the film could be taken as blasphemous, but you're right, there are deeper points which can be drawn from it.

    The "Seinfeld" show could be seen in a similar way. Yes, Jerry, Elaine, et al regularly take part in sinful activities, but these characters are not held up as examples to be followed, but as fools to be mocked. In one episode, George tries to satisfy as many desires as possible all at the same time: He eats corned beef sandwiches while having sex. "Why not?" he asks. And Jerry rightly responds, "George, we're trying to have a civilization here!"

    In another episode, Jerry's girlfriend invites Jerry to a "three-some." But even Jerry has his limits. "I can't be an orgy guy!" he tells George. But the audience senses that the only thing preventing him from becoming such is his own preferences.

    Ultimately, the Seinfeld characters are driven by nothing more than the desire to seek the greatest amount of pleasure for themselves as possible. It's not difficult for the audience to see that these characters are meant to poke fun at the way most of us really are on some level, not to set them up as examples for living. "Cautionary tales," perhaps, meant (by God, maybe?) to demonstrate the emptiness of living for yourself, with nary a thought for your fellow man, and certainly not for God.

    So the "Invention of Lying" movie, and the Seinfeld show (and it would not be hard to come up with other examples), can be taken superficially as very worldly productions, and some level that's true. But both shows do serve to make larger points, I think, as you wrote about. So thanks for a very good article.

  4. I think you draw some very facile and self-serving conclusions.

    "Given the atheistic worldview, according to the film, people have no reason to be good."

    That is not supported by the film at all, except perhaps by the newspaper headline you reference.

    Otherwise, the film portrays a world very much like ours - just as technologically advanced, not gripped by endemic criminality, perfectly civilised - apart from the human inability to lie.

    Quite clearly, the world portrayed in the film has followed a similar path to our own, and the complete absence of lies-in-the-form-of-religion has not hampered it at all.

    If anything,the film's message seems to be that humans may be happier if allowed to believe lies that give them easy, comforting answers to unanswerable questions.

    The world portrayed in the film clearly supports the atheist assertion that morals and a conscience are innate to humans and do not need to be policed, punished or rewarded by fictional deities.

  5. Shannon, I appreciate your thoughts, and I don't disagree with much of what you have to say. I would say that my statement was, in fact, based on the newspaper headline, as you properly deduced. It was a very plainface statement: "Finally - A Reason to Be Good!" Seems pretty plain to me. In other words, "Before, we had no real reason to be good."

    The film was written, clearly, to say that the theistic worldview is a lie, and so I wouldn't expect the writers to actually support theism. I even realize that they were serving theism a backhanded compliment by saying it is a lie that much of humanity needs to believe, even if it's not true.

    Let me ask you a question, Shannon, if I may (and in asking this question, I am assuming you to be an atheist): What reason do you have to be good?

  6. Brett, I deleted your comment because the majority of our readers will be offended by your profanity.

  7. What about near death experiences?? Millions of people have gone to the other side and comeback to tell about it...

  8. I have created a facebook page entitled "Mark Bellison knows more about God than Pat Robertson" the idea being that Mark knows that a lot of what is preached by fundamentalists is OT BS about a wrathful "Man in the Sky." Whereas the religion OF Jesus in the NT is one of love and forgiveness. Remember he said God is OUR father (not my father) and we can all express the divinity he did. "the things I do you shall do...and even greater things..."
    Just a thought.

  9. Not sure what to make of your comments, john. I do in fact believe that God is still a wrathful "Man in the Sky." As a matter of fact, Jesus talked a lot about the judgment and wrath of God. In the book of Revelation, we see a picture of Jesus trampling the bodies of his enemies in a giant winepress with their blood spattering his white robes; not exactly ALL love and forgiveness, anyway. Thankfully, God has reserved for himself an incredible number of sinners to rescue from well-deserved doom. All we have to do is repent and look to Jesus to save us. Thanks be to God!

  10. Adam,

    I enjoyed reading your article although I disagree with your assertions at the fundamental level.

    When I first watched The Invention of Lying I wasn't impressed with the movie overall - maybe it was Jennifer Garner's character that put me off, but I digress. The second time I watched it, I had the opportunity to appreciate the genius of Ricky Gervais and his ability to espouse his worldview, which of course is bound to draw the ire and criticism of Christians, such as yourself.

    While not trying to speak for Shannon, I'd like to chime in on your open question to her: "What reason do you [an atheist] have to be good?"

    It's an interesting question you posit - and not one to be taken lightly. A short answer is simple - we as a species evolved as social creatures in order to adapt to our environments. As we banded together as hunter-gatherers and began communal living (I might mention that this is long before the New Testament came about), certain mores, ethics, and codas were needed in order to maintain civil order, even in small communities. When you consider that Charlton Heston came down from Sinai with the ten Commandments - with god telling his chosen people that murdering one another is a bad thing, that stealing from your neighbor shouldn't be tolerated, you really think that in other communities that were developing around the globe (that didn't have a chance to see the movie) hadn't already figured it out - that in order to live peacefully with other human beings, a standard set of ethics and laws applied?

    We are genetically programmed, as a species, for social activity. Social activity requires not being the kid no one wants to play with.

    The longer answer has more do with with the nature of secular humanism - which I won't bore you with as there is plenty written on the topic.

    Bottom line is that just about every atheist/agnostic/free thinker/secularist/insert tag line actually lives more of a Christian life than most of the Christians I've met. What I mean by that is they tend to be more caring of their fellow human beings and more willing to apply the Golden Rule than those who espouse Christian values.

    You don't have to search to far for examples - turn on Fox News sometime and watch people go apoplectic when talking about Obamacare - the idea that every American should have a right to affordable health care - WWJD??? How about the virulent hatred spewed by the Westboro Baptist Church, or the less general nuanced hatred of homosexuals by your average Christian? How about all the politicians embraced by the Christian Right that say they support family values but get caught with prostitutes or cheating on their wives - not living up to the values that they would otherwise legislate on the rest of America given half a chance.

    My question to you, in return, is do you need a Christian version of heaven and/or hell in order to get you to live a decent life here on earth? I would sincerely hope not, but it what you appear to be suggesting...

  11. Hi, Sean. I appreciate the thoughtful critique. I want to respond to some of your thoughts, but I'm going to try to break them up into points so I don't overlook anything.

    1. Jennifer Garner is a national treasure.

    2. It is not the Christian assertion that the Ten Commandments were when humanity learned to be good. In fact, as I have posted elsewhere, long before the ten commandments, we were breaking the ten commandments. This is because mankind was created in God's image, and as such, we have from the beginning had a sense of God's moral will for us. The ten commandments were simply a codifying of what human beings already knew by virtue of the image of God within them. Since Adam himself knew the good and chose not to do it, so do all of his descendants - atheist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, New Age, etc. They are simply by nature in denial of these truths. This is the Christian accounting of the state of things as we know them. So I just wanted to correct a somewhat fundamental misunderstanding that your response seems to assume.

    3. "[J]ust about every atheist/agnostic/free thinker/secularist/insert tag line actually lives more of a Christian life than most of the Christians I've met."

    If we're simply talking about raw behavior, I just might grant you that point. However, hypocricy in Christendom is hardly a falsification of Christianity when you consider that a central doctrine in Christian theology is our inherent hypocricy and need of forgiveness.

    Back to the raw behavior comment, however, remember that Jesus' teachings were so revolutionary because he was urging heart conformity to the law. He was saying that the internal behavior needs to match the external behavior, and if we don't do good out of a regard and love for God, then we do no good at all. So by Christian standards, I disagree with your assessment that your atheist/secular acquaintances live more 'Christianly' than Christians do. The difference is subtle, but profound: the atheist lives a good life because he is a law-loving pharisee who loves to be seen doing his good deeds in public. The Christian ideal established by Jesus is one of quiet humility and private charity, but with a heart that is actually conformed to these virtues.

    As Doug Wilson once said to Christopher Hitchens during a debate, "You would make a great pharisee...You're like a 14th Century archbishop with a bad case of the gout." I don't mean to be condescending when I say that.

    What I mean by that is that atheists (please allow me to use some shorthand for secularists in general) are very moral people who have very profound insights into the moral failures around them. This is because they were born with this knowledge, although their whole intellectual enterprise is (and must be) built around tearing down the whole edifice upon which their moral pronouncements and judgments against religion are built.

    I'm very sorry that you haven't met any Christians who live up to your standards. I can guarantee you however, Sean, that you won't meet any - especially if your standards are as high as Jesus'. From my own experience, however, I know many Christians in my own circles and in my church who give to the needy willingly and gladly, who open their homes to those in need, and who live holy lives devoted to the Lord and raising their children to honor God with the way that they live.

    I could say more, but I've definitely said too much already.

  12. 4. "My question to you, in return, is do you need a Christian version of heaven and/or hell in order to get you to live a decent life here on earth? I would sincerely hope not, but it what you appear to be suggesting..."

    The film misrepresented the truth about morality. It isn't that heaven is our motivation. It is that conformity to and communion with God is our motivation. As St. Augustine put it about 1700 years ago, "You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you."

    John Piper wrote a book entitled God is the Gospel where he argued that it is wrong for Christians to be Christians because of what they get from God. In the book, he says that the person of God Himself is our motive for holy living - not the reward of a happy afterlife.

    I wish I could say more, but it is unkind for me to make you read this much already. Thanks for your civilized comments and kind words about the blog post.

  13. I just saw this movie this week on HBO. I remembered your review, Adam, and I posted it on Facebook. Your review and the comments which follow are very thought-provoking, and are excellent jumping-off points for discussion of the truths of Scripture.

  14. It's sad that you and I will die someday, and everyone that we know and love will die. It's more than sad, it's horrid, and almost unbearably tragic. But it's reality. We atheists know we get one shot, and this compels us to be the best people we can, to do the best we can, to be kind, and love, the best that we can. The religious viewpoint is that of a young child.....time to grow up.


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