As regular readers have no doubt deduced, I like movies. Some movies rise to the level of great art—The Godfather and The Godfather II come to mind—while others are merely entertainment. A very average movie that I saw recently was The Invention of Lying.
The Invention of Lying tells a rather familiar story: chubby but sympathetic boy gets attractive girl. It stars Ricky Gervais, of the British version of the TV show The Office, and it has a few amusing moments. The premise of the movie is that it takes place in a world in which people always tell the truth. They have not invented lying or even fiction. In fact, they have no words for “truth” or “lying” because the concepts are beyond them.
I tend to like comedy in which people say terribly inappropriate things which also happen to be true, so the film’s premise appealed to me. The plot thickens—and the film gets its title—when Mark, the Ricky Gervais character, who is kind of a loser, in a moment of inspiration, tells a bank teller that he has more money in his account than he really does. Since nobody in their world lies, she assumes her computer has made an error and gives him all the money he asks for. From then on, Mark realizes all the great things that can be accomplished by inventing one’s own truth.
Things get really interesting when Mark visits his dying mother, who laments the endless nothingness that death represents. Mark has another zing of inspiration and tells her that when we die we all go to a happy place where we’re with the ones we love and everyone lives in mansions. The doctors and nurses who overhear Mark are astounded by this news, and Mark becomes a religious prophet, inventing an all-powerful “Man in the Sky” in addition to the “Happy Place” and writing all his revelations on the back of two pizza boxes.
Can anyone spot the problem? The movie’s blithe assumption is, of course, that God and heaven and revelation are just made up. They wouldn’t exist in a world in which everyone told the truth. Now we all know people who think like this, but what struck me in watching The Invention of Lying was how easily the film made this an assumption. I repeat, this is a very average film, and it’s striking how easily atheism is assumed, how uncontroversial it is today.
Interestingly enough the film treats the course of Western civilization as being essentially unchanged despite the absence of religion. This alternative fiction-less world still suffered the Black Plague in the 13th century and produced Napoleon in the 19th. The filmmakers seem to show a kind of willful amnesia about the role of religion in history, as if Christianity could simply be dropped without anything really serious being lost.
The most dangerous prejudices are those we don’t notice, and The Invention of Lying, while not a particularly penetrating film, shows how deeply anti-religious prejudices have sunk into our popular culture. They are so prevalent, in fact, that even those of us who consider ourselves religious probably can’t escape from harboring a few of them as well, and we have to be on our guard to detect how such attitudes influence the way we think. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger criticized the seepage of such attitudes into theology in the preface to his Introduction to Christianity. Even theology can sometimes leave God out, he says: “Not as though God had been denied—not on your life! He simply was not needed in regard to the ‘reality’ that mankind had to deal with. God had nothing to do.”
Our faith teaches us that God doesn’t just have something to do with reality, but that he is reality itself. Our culture assumes something else, and it’s important to take note of these assumptions before we find ourselves lost in a world like that in The Invention of Lying, a world which is itself a fiction.