When I sit down to watch a comedy, I want to laugh. I want to spend my time well. And, to be frank, the last thing I want to do is deal with an aggressive atheistic worldview. When I saw trailers for The Invention of Lying, I was expecting a dry, situational comedy with an interesting premise. What I got was altogether different.
Before I jump into the particulars of this recent release, I want to make clear that all films, like all art, have a worldview. Sometimes they are subtle and hard to determine. Other times they are quite obvious. In either case they can be dangerous. Film has a way of expressing itself that is rarely matched by other forms of expression. As viewers, we can get caught up in the drama, the music, the action, and the images. And that can make us passive. We become passive to the messages and the values that underlie all films. Worldviews are central to the way people operate, and what the filmmakers believe bleeds though like Sharpie onto the script, the storyboards, and the score. The Invention of Lying has all the things necessary to make us relax and let the comedy wash over us, all the time asking us to make little deals with ourselves about the values and basic assumptions of the world it has created.
The film takes place in a world that looks almost precisely like our own. The cardinal difference is that everyone is incapable of lying. The main character, Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervias), invents the first lie and proceeds to change the course of his and everyone else’s lives. The Invention of Lying touts a fairly famous cast including Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, and Jonah Hill. Special appearances by other comedians like Tina Fey, Jason Bateman and Christopher Guest create special pockets of delight in an otherwise difficult to watch movie.
There are some major storytelling flaws, some bland cinematography, and stodgy delivery by most of the actors. But these things do not an awful movie necessarily make. In fact there are many films (e.g. The Screaming Skull, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) that I enjoy that contain all of these weaknesses; some to a greater degree than The Invention of Lying.
I suppose that this film was not difficult for everyone to watch. I should expect to find that many viewers truly enjoyed it. However, for the thoughtful Christian, mindful of worldviews, this film should be wholly offensive. Actually, it was one of the few films I walked away from wishing I had spent my time doing something else. Three major presuppositions, resulting from the atheistic worldview of its writers and directors, undermine the movie’s value. The film presupposes that (1) all religion is essentially a lie, (2) religion had nothing to do with the development from ancient cultures to the world we live in today, and (3) moral grounding can come from within an individual and does not require an outside source.
To begin with, the film assumes that all religion is a lie invented by people to make them feel better. This is particularly evident with one of the major rising actions of the film. In a scene about a third of the way through the film, Mark Bellison is sitting at his dying mother’s bedside in a hospital. She is obviously suffering. This moment packs a pretty significant emotional punch. No one wants to see the panic in someone’s eyes as they are on the brink of death and filled with hopelessness. As a loving son, Mark looks her in the eye and tells her that when she dies there is a place where she will go and all her friends will be there. He describes a common (if confused) understanding of heaven. The mother, the doctor, and the nurses are all listening very intently. This is because in a world where no one supposedly has ever lied before, there is no concept of heaven. This is new information, something kept secret for thousands of years. Mark is now the only man in the world who knows what happens when you die.
Did you catch it? The writers and directors of this film anchor one of the most critical moments of the film on an atheistic, naturalistic belief that when we die, that is the end. They are saying in the film, but also mean in real life, that the idea of heaven is comical and completely fictional. This is pitched as the rational thing to believe. As a believer in Christ, and a member of Western society in general, this is upsetting. The turn the film takes next is even more so.
News of this amazing revelation spreads. Mark gets pegged as a man with special knowledge. Everyone believes him, and they crave to know more. Throngs of people surround his apartment. His inner circle encourages him to explain where he got this information and why no one has ever mentioned it before. The world is trying to make sense of this major paradigm shift. Mark, an easy to ignore individual with no prospects, is now the center of the world’s attention. He has their ear. He has a chance to try and solve the world’s problems.
His motivation for moving on with the lie is a little iffy. He doesn’t want to admit that he made heaven up, and everyone is really counting on him to come through. Perhaps the character just enjoyed the attention and is prepared to stick it out. Whatever the motivation, Mark proceeds, with some hesitation, to come up with a sketchy and inaccurate version of Christianity. He writes down some rules from “The Man in the Sky” on two large pizza boxes and presents them as some kind of modern Moses.
I think it is supposed to be satire. However, satire is only really funny when it is accurate. At least Monty Python gave Christianity enough credit to accurately make fun of it. The Invention of Lying comes nowhere near to any real connection with orthodox Christianity. Actually, the dialogue shows even the casual viewer that this understanding of theistic belief is shallow and that not much deep consideration of the real issues went into the film. Instead, he proceeds to set up a straw man and makes a futile attempt to make Christianity like something that was made up on the spot to help people deal with death. This is a common attitude amongst atheists and agnostics. And here it is in Hollywood seeping into the mind of the paying attendee.
During this scene, some challenging questions are raised, and some flimsy answers are given. In addition to this, the only use of the f-dash-dash-dash word is directed at God. One man in the crowd yells, “F—- the Man in the Sky!” after Mark explains that God is the cause of all the suffering in the world.
The attack is specifically on Christian belief. Gervais does not attempt to debunk Islam, Buddhism, Hindu, New Age, witchcraft, or any other sort of belief in the supernatural. His attack is directly on Christianity. He is allowed his view, but I would like to point out that this is symptomatic of a twenty-year trend. The secular culture is no longer satisfied in ignoring Christians. It seems that currently it is the end goal to make them look like stupid, irrational idiots and bigots.
The film goes so far as to remove any cross from any building, thereby secularizing them. This shows another area where they were lazy historians. In one scene Mark enters a church building with the cross on the steeple carefully removed. What was not removed, however, was the architecture of the church, with its steeple standing tall pointing straight to heaven. An intentional design directly related to the Christian concept of God.
Whether you care to engage the ideas or not, it is a fact that the scene where Mark explains about the Big Man in the Sky lasted way too long. The question and answer exposition claimed a significant part of the film’s runtime and killed any storytelling momentum.
Another dangerous presupposition of the film is that religion had nothing to do with getting the world to where it is today. The film depicts a modern city with modern machines, modern medicine, and modern clothing and expects us to believe that a world without Christianity would be basically the same as it is today. I don’t think they took their premise seriously. Either the filmmakers are bad historians and don’t know all the ways in which Christianity has helped shape the Western world, or they are lazy philosophers and cannot comprehend that religion does anyone any good whatsoever. Based on the director’s atheistic sympathies, I feel the latter is probably the case. Either way, it seems lazy. This world would not be the way it is now without the input, for good or evil, of Christianity.
I say “evil” because there is always someone out there ready to tout the acts of Charlemagne or some other rampant blood spiller as an example of all the evil that religion has caused. While those people may have claimed the title of Christian, they did not follow the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, I don’t claim them in my religious heritage. Even if I did, it would show no inaccuracy in my worldview, because I believe all men are capable of great evil. Such is the problem with the world that Christ addressed through his sacrifice on the cross. This single event changed the world. No actual historian would ever deny the fact that Jesus and his followers were critical in shaping empires, starting and ending wars, motivating the sciences, and at the core of the greatest works of literature in the world. It is folly to think otherwise. Without Christianity there would be no Charles Dickens, no Copernicus, no Sistine Ceiling, no American Constitution, no Notre Dame.
It may seem innocuous to you, but the worldview being expressed is detrimental to a clear and informed understanding of history.
Finally, the film assumes that the grounding for morals comes from within the individual and not from an outside source. When Mark first receives the illumination that he can lie and that whatever he says, people will believe him, he tries it out. He goes out into the street, finds an attractive woman, and says, “The world will end unless you sleep with me.” She believes him, they go to a hotel, but he cannot go through with this wicked act. Why not? The film seems to claim that somewhere in this man there is a sense of virtue. It appeals to everyone’s internal knowledge that what he was about to do was in some way wrong. Why? If religion is a fictitious idea, where do morals come from? Where does man get the concepts of right and wrong? Why are there things like laws or ethics?
The film makes no attempt to answer these questions. It just seems to request that I accept that somewhere inside the main character there is a decent guy. Obviously this is fiction, because any red-blooded thirty-something like Mark would throw virtue to the wind if he could get away with something like this without any consequences. The worldview shown here is that people are basically good. But with its other hand, the film presents us with a host of other characters that are awful people. Mark’s love interest and his main work competitor are the chief examples of these.
The film’s sense of virtue is patchy. While he won’t use his lying to sleep with a woman, he has no problem abusing his former place of employment. He is supposed to be a struggling film writer given the task of writing documentaries about the thirteenth century. The comment was made several times that nothing interesting happened then except plagues. This is another moment where they poke fun of Christianity proper. Anyway, he goes to his boss, lies about a film pitching it as historical fact, and proceeds to become richer and more famous than any film writer ever. As if in order to create good art, you have to lie. Does he regret this? Not in the least. And yet he won’t lie to the woman he is obviously in love with in order to claim her affection. Where are the lines? Who is deciding what is virtuous and what is not? He is. The worldview is that morals are relative to each individual and that people should make up their own understanding of right and wrong.
The big problem here is guilt. If there is no God, why would Mark Bellison flinch about any immoral act? Where does he get his moral grounding? He doesn’t do some things, because he feels they are wrong. How does he know it is wrong? A person in their right mind would live it up, get away with anything, and the world would be his oyster.
This is common to a major objection that all atheists have to face at some point. In philosophy circles it is called the Moral Argument for God. Basically it runs like this: All moral laws need a moral lawgiver. Since people have an inherent knowledge of right and wrong (i.e. don’t kill, rape is bad, etc.), there must be a personal, intelligent God. The argument is much more precise than this, but for the purposes of this article, I feel that will suffice. The Invention of Lying makes no attempt to answer this major objection to atheism and shows yet again how the filmmakers’ premise was not well thought through.
All in all, I disliked the film very much. I don’t mind an opposing worldview. As a matter of fact, since I feel like what I believe is True (note the capital letter), I welcome arguments against my beliefs. However, life is too short for preachy, shoddy filmmaking that attempts satire with no accuracy. Go watch kung fu, go watch a sci-fi movie, go see something with Vincent Price. But demand that the films you watch be carefully thought through. If you are a Christian, never let a film like this slip through the cracks. Know why you should be offended. See what the problems in the presented worldview are. Talk about it with your Christian friends and your church leaders. It will bolster your thinking and in so doing bring you closer to the God of the universe and increase your faith in him and his goodness.
There really is a heaven; you don’t have to make it up to make yourself feel better.
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