Friday, September 9, 2011

The Invention of Lying -- truth, lies and parody of religion

Director: Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, 2009. (PG-13)

Have you ever lied? Of course you have! If you answered no, you are lying right there. But what would the world be like if we never lied, if we always told the truth, however uncomfortable that truth might be? That is the intriguing premise behind this film. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really answer the questions it poses and tends to unravel into predictable “can boy win girl” by the end.

Writer-director Ricky Gervais, the British comic, stars as Mark Belliston, a screenwriter. But in this world, people only tell the truth and have little self-control so blurt out embarrassing and potentially hurtful facts. No one lies. No one has ever heard of the concept of lying. So, there is no fiction. Films focus on a narrator reading history to a rapt audience.

When he goes out on a date with Anna (Jennifer Garner), she tells him: “You’re overweight, you have a pug nose, and no job. You’re not good enough for me.” Honesty, if blatant superficiality. Her focus is on the genetic matching, to ensure optimal off-spring. But is she correct in thinking that the exterior looks define the person? Obviously not. Think about Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. They are not the best looking dudes in the world, but obviously are supremely successful in their chosen fields. Genetically, they have something very positive to contribute to their wives and kids. Even Jesus pointed to this issue when he told his opponents: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matt. 23:27).

When we meet Mark his life is falling apart. With the 1300s, which contains the black plague, as his century for writing scripts he has nothing to work with. He is about to be fired. He has too little money to pay his rent, so is about to be evicted. His potential girlfriend Anna does not want a second date. So when he goes to the bank to withdraw all his remaining money and the teller asks how much, the light bulb goes on and he tells the world’s first lie. Of course, since everyone tells the truth the teller believes him even if it disagrees with the computer record of his bank balance. Mark has discovered the “power” of the lie. From here he goes out telling other lies, lies that encourage people in hopeless situations.

In telling these lies, the film depicts Mark bringing color and hope to a dull and dreary world. It’s as though the world was waiting for this first lie so it could come alive. But the truth is that devil is “the father of lies” (Jn. 6:44), offering the first untruth in this world to our first parents, Adam and Eve (Gen. 3), thereby tempting them to sin. In contrast, Jesus defines himself as “the truth” (Jn. 14:6).

Yet, despite this clear black and white dichotomy between truth and lies, the questions remain: is it ever right to lie? And can a lie prove beneficial to others? The writer of Proverbs says in answer to these, “The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy” (Prov. 12:22) and “A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin” (Prov. 26:28). And yet Moses recounts the story of the Israelite midwives who, if not actually lying, told half-truths to the Pharoah to save the lives of Israelite babies (Exod. 1:19). There may be times when a half-truth or even a lie might be necessary to prevent a worse sin. Consider, for example, the lies told by the resistance members who harbored Jews like Corrie Ten Boom during the Second World War. In those cases, the lies did prove beneficial in the near-term to some. Or consider a simple question like, “How does this dress look?” If it is totally ugly, telling the truth directly might be too blunt and hurtful. In such cases, it might be better to evade or avoid, but not lie. If we must tell the truth, we should do it with love (Eph. 4:15).

Once Mark has begun telling these little lies to “help” people, he tells a big one. Seeing his mother on her death-bed frightened of the immediate future of an “eternity of nothingness,” he tells her: “You will go to your favorite place in the whole world. Everyone you love will be there. You’ll dance – run and dance. There’s no pain.” He is offering her fictitious hope. Once others hear this, they flock to this new “prophet” who can receive messages from the “man in the sky” and they gather outside his home waiting for words from on high. When he eventually jots down his 10 assertions on pizza boxes shaped like stone tablets, the parody of religion is apparent.

Atheist Gervais is clearly suggesting that religion and Christianity in particular is merely a fiction, something that offers hope to people close to death but is nothing more. He seems to be arguing that it is a deceptive crutch for the weak and dying, as I once thought. But he is missing the point.

Christianity is unlike Gervais’ meesage from the “man in the sky”. God initiated the relationship that forms the heart of Christianity. He has reached down, both through prophets, as when he gave the ten commandments on true tablets of stone to Moses (Exod. 20:1-21) and most clearly through Jesus (Heb. 1:1-3). He does not leave us in a hopeless situation, though we find ourselves in such a place due to our own sin. Instead, he became one of us (Phil. 2:5-9) so that he could take our place and our punishment. Christianity truly offers a message of hope, of grace and forgiveness.

And there is heaven, too. The words that Mark tells his mom resonate with echoes of the truth. In heaven, “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4). It will be a place of supreme happiness because it is the place where we can finally commune physically with the living God. This message brings hope of a life “with the Lord forever” (1 Thess. 4:17).

More than this, though, when we reach heaven we will finally be in a place where there are no lies, where the truth is prevalent and ever-present. There will be no more sin at all. And this world will not be the harsh and cruel world of Mark Belliston. It will be the wonderful world created by Jesus. And we will enjoy it and him forever without end.

In the film Gervais does not develop his premise to its conclusion. Instead, he brings in a number of famous actors, such as Tina Fey, in cameo roles, most particularly Rob Lowe as Brad Kessler. Brad is handsome and arrogant and the opposite of Mark. He wants Anna and sets up the Mark-Brad-Anna triangle familiar to most romantic comedies. And the ending is palpably obvious though clearly an easy way-out for Gervais.

As simple comedy, The Invention of Lying brings some laughs. As social commentary, it harpoons America’s fixation on looks. As parody of religion it fails convincingly. Lies were invented at the beginning and will be with us until we reach heaven.

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

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