God as a Convenient Falsehood in The Invention of Lying

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by Marc T. Newman [critic]

No one watching the trailers for Ricky Gervais’ The Invention of Lying would have any idea that the film is largely a thinly-veiled attack on the truth claims of monotheistic religion – one that mirrors Gervais’ personal beliefs (search YouTube for “Ricky Gervais religion” to view his musings). Instead, the unsuspecting moviegoer might think that it is a film about a world in which lying was impossible, until one day, one man found that he could say something that was not so – and he uses his newly acquired trait to get rich, and to trick women into having sex with him. Okay, the film does touch on those themes, but the majority of the film centers on a big, comforting lie that Gervais’ character, Mark Bellison, tells his dying mother.

Maybe it is the fleeting popularity of books by atheism-advocating authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens that prompted someone to greenlight an $18.5M budget for The Invention of Lying. Based on the opening week’s box office grosses, however, it might be a long time before the production company recoups its costs, if ever. Most people, it seems, do not wish to pay to have a comedian speculate that God is an elaborate ruse concocted by some people to make other people feel better about their own impending demise.

Still, films such as The Invention of Lying, like many other creative endeavors, are subject to the Law of Unintended Consequences. While I doubt that many people will ultimately see the film, those who do will be struck by a very significant question: What if the existence of God is a lie? Despite the conclusions offered by the film, people must wrestle with the question on their own. But it is interesting that The Invention of Lying cannot even consistently commit to its own argument. And there lies the opening for those willing to press the debate.

Presuppositions

The premise of The Invention of Lying involves an alternate reality in which human “evolution” – in the strictest scientific materialist sense – never progressed in such a way as to include lying. Truth-telling, it is assumed, is the evolutionary default position. So when Mark Bellison’s brain spontaneously “mutates” in response to circumstantial pressures, and develops the capacity for prevarication, it is as if he has developed a super-power.

Initially, Bellison uses his new-found ability to do what you might expect in a sophomoric comedy. Since everyone explicitly trusts what anyone says, when Bellison lies about his bank balance, where his chips are on a roulette wheel, or even the impending disaster that will ensue if a beautiful woman rejects his sexual advances, he gets (or at least gets offered) everything he wants. But one of the problems of molding the world to fit your own desires is that there are some areas of life – particularly death – that are fixed and unresponsive to argument.

So when Bellison’s mother, who is near death, expresses anxiety and fear concerning her impending demise, he decides to ease her mind by creating a fictional heaven. He tells her not to worry because she will live forever, in a glorious mansion, surrounded by all of her loved ones who preceded her in death. And like every other lie he has told, she believes him, and so do the doctors and nurses attending his mother. Soon the rumor spreads and Bellison becomes the ultimate false prophet, speaking for the “man in the sky,” proclaiming laws and judgments, a system of eternal punishments and rewards, and reaping all of the benefits that come from duping a gullible populace.

Internal Inconsistencies

Despite Gervais’ attempt to create a fictional world in which God is nothing more than a human invention (he co-wrote and co-directed the film with Matthew Robinson), a latent morality pervades the film – irrational or meaningless if there is no God. In a video posted on YouTube, Gervais admits to holding to a kind of Christian morality, despite not believing in God. This desire to place limits on himself (for example, his character Bellison is unwilling to follow through on a lie by which he tricks a woman into agreeing to have sex with him) makes no sense. Where does the moral hesitation come from? The film argues that the ability to lie automatically creates an equally illusory conscience.

Bellison knows that his claims are lies, yet he binds himself to be consistent. When he discovers that the woman of his dreams has a date with his office rival, he makes up a rule from “the man in the sky” that you can have sex only if you are married. But when the woman offers him a coupon for “birthday sex,” instead of changing the rule, or codifying an exception to suit himself, he maintains fidelity to his apparent disadvantage.

If there really is no transcendent order imposed by God on human behavior, if there is no coming judgment where all will give account for their actions, then morality is nothing more than a fiction created by the powerful within a culture. Even if one argued that morality “evolved” to serve the species, once we “progressed” to the point that we grasped that morality was not universal and transcendent, but was instead just “made up,” we would be free from its power and able to do whatever we desired. We would become Nietzsche’s Superman, not Gervais’ false romantic moralist. As C.S. Lewis notes in The Abolition of Man, the only thing that would undergird any moral action would be impulse.

Gervais wants to have all the benefits of a truly moral world: real love, binding commitment, even self-sacrifice for a beloved, but he wants to have it without the foundation on which it rests. As Lewis would say, Gervais wants to “remove the organ” yet “demand the function.” Everyone recognizes that atheists committed to a scientific-materialist view of the world can be loving parents and moral people. They simply cannot philosophically ground their reasons for doing so in any way that would make love and morality objectively true or culturally binding.

Gervais also cannot resist making a nod to eternity even as he is denying it. In a poignant scene after his mother’s death, Bellison sits in front of her grave. He says that he knows that she is not in a mansion, but is still in the ground. Still, he speaks to her as if she is still alive, pouring out to her his unhappiness. The idea of speaking to the dead inconsistent with a belief that once we die we face oblivion. Even the existence of graveyards and memorials speaks to honoring the dead – a nonsensical idea if we are nothing but a great cosmic accident where honor is an emotional fiction, and purpose is extinguished with life (which, if true, undermines the very idea of purpose).

Drama makes sense only in a world where moral actions have real consequences. Any other world would not ring true to the viewer. Ultimately, film cannot wholly abandon eternity or morality because they are written on our hearts by God (Ecclesiastes 3:11; Romans 2:15). By trying to have it both ways – wanting the hero to succeed while doing right but at the same time denying the existence of a transcendent morality – the film becomes muddled and unsatisfying. But that does not mean that the film is wholly without value. It can serve as a conversation starter, assuming Christians are ready to explain and defend their reasons for believing.

A Rational Faith Response

The kinds of arguments made in recent books that champion atheism, and in recent films that presuppose it, would never gain traction in a culture that was biblically literate. Part of the problem stems from the lack of disciple-making in Christendom. The Catholic Church still catechizes, but many “cradle Catholics” have a weak understanding of their own faith. Protestants – even in Evangelical circles – frequently do not advance in their theological thinking beyond mere decision-making, and as a result many lack proper faith foundations. Both are vulnerable to the doubt-inducing cynicism of films like The Invention of Lying and The Da Vinci Code. We cannot expect to answer back to those who have seen such films, and have either embraced their a-theology or been troubled by it, unless we have disciplined ourselves to study, and prepared our minds to give a reasoned response.

The first step in solving the problem is admitting the deficit and then making the decision to remedy it. If you like C.S. Lewis, two good books with which to begin are Mere Christianity and his excellent work on the reality of the supernatural, Miracles. G.K. Chesterton provides an excellent rationale for his own conversion in Orthodoxy, and goes deeper in The Everlasting Man. Those wishing a more philosophical approach might consider Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There, and He is There and Is Not Silent or theologian J.P. Moreland’s Love God With All Your Mind.

Christians, above all people, have a deadly serious stake in the truth of our message. For as the Apostle Paul noted, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19). The good news, as Paul reports in the next verse, is “but now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.” The antidote to the lie is now, as it has always been, a confident expression of the truth. We need to study it, learn it, and proclaim it. Giving in to modern-day atheist propaganda is not an option. Stand firm and always be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). ExileStreet

copyright 2009 Marc T. Newman

Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. is founder of MovieMinistry.com and is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to marc@movieministry.com

6 Responses to “God as a Convenient Falsehood in The Invention of Lying”

  1. Aaron the Realist Says:

    Are we supposed to believe the religious propaganda then? I mean its much more logical than the atheist propaganda. Man lives in the sky demands us to be morally right so we can go to a good place when we die. Sounds like its trying to scare the poor, ignorant, uneducated people into behaving in a civilised society. if that isnt propaganda then “The invention of lying most definitely is not.

  2. Ian Date Says:

    Was it funny? Did you laugh.
    if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19). This sounds like some kind of scary threat. I can’t really understand it. Fallen asleep in Christ?
    This is not going to cut it. How dull, how morbid. The ancient is not working mate.
    I can’t become biblically literate as you suggest. its such a dull read and makes no sense.

  3. Pat Gunn Says:

    Your analysis is incomplete, mostly because it is based on poor philosophy. The failing sits most squarely in two paragraphs, beginning with “If there really is no transcendent order imposed by God on human behavior … once we progressed to the point that we grasped that morality was not universal and transcendent, b… we would be free from its power and able to do whatever we desired”. This is poor philosophy because it in rests on a notion of morality that’s external to who we are and what we want. Morality lies in our values - it is a formalisation of what we desire, on some level. We are already free, and always were, to do whatever we desire, to the limit of our ability. The things we call moral are duties attached to our values - they are based on our wants for society. When we are tempted to be hedonstic, we encounter a conflict between our values - when we decide not to be, it is because the values the act in question threatens are judged, in the heat of the moment, to be more important than the values advanced by the act.

    The purpose of codification of values is to help us develop habits that protect us against bad decisions in the heat of the moment. We do not rape, kill, steal, because we empathise with the would-be victims, and their pain is our pain, even if we would get immediate value of some sort through that act. As societies, we struggle to produce codes to govern ourselves and others - some of these are laws, some are tradition.

    We do not need an external source for our value systems once we have progressed beyond childhood. A firm reliance on such a system effectively makes someone immoral - the development of kindness and character does not come from external rules so much as a refinement of the self and a commitment to the good of humanity. We do this not because we are told by others, but because it is what we want.

  4. Brandon Says:

    “If there really is no transcendent order imposed by God on human behavior, if there is no coming judgment where all will give account for their actions, then morality is nothing more than a fiction created by the powerful within a culture. Even if one argued that morality “evolved” to serve the species, once we “progressed” to the point that we grasped that morality was not universal and transcendent, but was instead just “made up,” we would be free from its power and able to do whatever we desired.”

    Wow. The old ‘if someone more powerful than you didn’t hand it down, it’s not real or meaningful’ argument. As you noted, the explanation for morality can be found in evolution…..yet you go on to act as if we could just ’shake it off’ upon that realization. Do you mean like you shake off your pre-marital sex drive once you realize it’s a sin?

    You have no more hold on an ‘absolute morality’ than the next Christian OR atheist. Absolute morality is an illusion; morality is not. If it were 150 years ago, slavery would be part of your Christian morality, sir. It changes all the time, and you should be happy that it does. That change is what allows real moral progress, the kind you wrestle with to achieve…..not refer to a book with a bunch of absolute statements that it’s own God (and his followers, often with his blessing) goes on to break repeatedly.

    You admit at one point that ‘Everyone recognizes that atheists committed to a scientific-materialist view of the world can be loving parents and moral people. They simply cannot philosophically ground their reasons for doing so in any way that would make love and morality objectively true or culturally binding.’

    Thank you for the concession that we can be moral, too. Of course, you go on to try to rob us of it by equating true morality with belief in God, lest it has no ‘grounding’. Neither does yours, you’ve simply added another step to the equation….who granted God HIS moral absolutes?

    If only true, objective morality can be handed down…..then God is in the same predicament you ascribe to atheists. His morality is completely illusory and can be abandoned at any time, because nobody handed it down to him.

    And if you reply, ‘Ah, but it’s God’s NATURE to be moral, he cannot do otherwise’, then it isn’t morality to begin with. Morality involves a struggle about what to do…..a being that has no such struggle has no morality, they’re simply hard-wired like an insect, with no ability to do anything other than their nature.

    And C.S. Lewis? Author of the ‘Lord, Liar or Lunatic’ argument? No thanks, that’s barely a step above Pascal’s Wager.

  5. Mari Agev Says:

    God isn’t meant to be understood or put into our own small box of understanding. Human pride leads us to believe that we can understand everything if we think long and hard about it and research it. People are always arguing about the evolution theory. Read Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and you will find that in absolutely no part in the book does the author mention exactly what the origin of species is. There is no definite answer there, so the man who came up with the theory had no real evidence.

    When you make something, like a car, and then another, like a motorcycle, there are many elements in the car that you will find in a motorcycle. If you are an inventor and have made many different things, you will find that you have used certain techniques and mechanisms over and over for different inventions that perform different tasks. Why would you use the same mechanism for machines with different purposes? Because IT WORKS! So the whole “we have common ancestry with bats because of bones in our arms being similar” is weak. And the argument over having common ancestry with whales (and that they used to walk on land) because they have pelvic bones is completely bogus! Human’s have the pelvic bone to help hold our organs, support our vertebral column from the weight of our bodies, and support a developing fetus. Whales are mammals, they give birth, they have internal organs. So why wouldn’t the Creator give His creations similar bodily functions with the intention of performing the same tasks?

    Our cells are too complex to have been evolved from a single celled organism. If so, then how did that organism form? Sure we need oxygen to live but oxygen is one of the worst things to be around for an organism to bond and form a living life with.

    Also, how do you explain how our solar system isn’t part of any of the other clusters in the universe? It’s as though our solar system was formed with the intention and means of keeping life on our planet functioning.

    If you truly, and I mean truly, research the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, you will find that there is no real evidence that he didn’t exist and die and come back to life. Many skeptics have converted because the truth is so blatantly obvious. If you are just going to sit around and base your beliefs on what other people think and hours of pondering about things without even going out to find out for yourself, then don’t go around knocking down God.

    Everyone is always attacking God and Christianity. It’s okay to offend Christians but attack a Muslim, or a Jew, or a Buddist, or a believer of any other religion and people get angry and would tell the offender that they must apologize, yadda yadda yadda.

    Yes, people have the argument that many Christians are hypocrites, well, there are hypocrites everywhere you go and in every religion.

    So again, go do your own research, real research, and then you can come up with your own conclusions.

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