Lying & Religion

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.

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8 Responses to Lying & Religion

  1. Father Joseph Leppard says:

    I also saw this movie and had somewhat of the same take, but, unfortunately, all I could do is shake my head after viewing and still enjoy the mystery and wonderment of God. Good work.

  2. Qualis Rex says:

    There is little I can say about Ricky Gervaise without falling into the category of being uncharitable. Suffice it to say, he is definitely among the UK media elite among which it is almost obligatory to be atheist. Religion in the UK (well, for English anyway) is more of a cultural/nostaligic/nationalistic thing, essentially devoid of any spirituality. These seeds were sewn 500 years ago, so today’s widespread atheism is really the next logical progression in the UK.

    As someone who was brought up in a Catholic and an Orthodox country where religion was simply a visible part of every day life, I found it incredibly odd at how “godless” the UK had become when I lived there. In 2003 they even got to the point where you could not have any mention of “Merry Christmas” in public. The last straw came when they banned crucifixes from chapels, as well as nurses, students and teachers wearing them…even in Catholic schools.

    Two relevant pieces of news; 1) the English are dying out, so in 100 years this will all be a non-issue 2) Christopher Hitchens has terminal cancer, so it will be interesting if England’s favorite atheist remains so in the coming months.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      On the other hand, I’d say there are some real signs of hope in the English Church as well, starting with the new ordinariate and the Holy Father’s upcoming visit. And the catalogue of English saints (among whom are many very impressive Jesuit martyrs) is quite impressive. Perhaps the future will hold more Newmans, Campions, and Mores…

  3. Henry says:

    Anthony,

    You raise some very important issues that I continually encounter when teaching adults. In fact, I have come to see that, for many of us, the following Koan applies: “a fish is the last one to recognize water.”

    One quick question, what do you mean when you write: “Our faith teaches us that God doesn’t just have something to do with reality, but that he is reality itself.”?

    Great post.

    Henry

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      I had in mind something like St. Thomas’ point about God’s total transcendence of the universe. He’s not just one very powerful being among other beings in the universe, but he’s Being itself. Admittedly, I’m putting the point with rather less philosophical precision than St. Thomas.

      • Henry says:

        Ahhh…OK – sometimes my Buddhist training perks up and so I appreciate the clarification. Regarding precision, I find you to be precise, keep it up. Regarding the Angelic Doctor, thanks be to Christ that we’re not called to imitate him, I’d be in trouble if we were!

        Pax Christi,

        Henry

  4. Steve West says:

    Anthony, I really enjoyed this blog and I think your point is important for people to consider. I feel as though the importance of religion in society is constantly decreasing until one day, like in this film, perhaps it won’t exist at all. Cities used to be built around churches and sinners were publicly disgraced but today the only time you see a full church is on Christmas day. Everyone has the right to believe what they want but I think public discrimination against religion is just wrong. I also hold this to be true with political elections, I have yet to see an ad that supports a candidate rather than bashes the opponent. Presidents especially are ridiculed for every decision they make. People need to realize that there is no such thing as a utopia and that every decision made will have supporters and protesters.

    After reading your article I began to think that this film is symbolic of the Adam and Eve story. In this “utopia” everyone has the power to lie but no one does until the temptation is finally too much for someone to handle. From that point on, everyone else is affected. We are moving towards a world where everything is questioned and must be answered and if it can’t be, then it doesn’t exist. I am curious if you share some of the same opinions as me? Perhaps I am being too sinister but I find the lack of faith in today’s society frustrating.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      I agree that the lack of faith in today’s society is frustrating, Steve. I think you’re right about discrimination against religion in the public sphere… sometimes people exclude people of faith in the name of “tolerance” but, in fact, by doing so end up being more intolerant themselves.

      I hadn’t thought about the connection to Adam and Eve before, but it makes sense. The main difference is that in the movie only the main character learns how to lie, and none of the other characters do.

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