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.
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.
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).
Note: The Invention of Lying is rated PG-13 for some discussions of sexually-related material and profanity.
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations, Bible studies and discussion cards, drawn from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Dr. Newman 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 firstname.lastname@example.org