While Ricky Gervais and co. may not be too pleased with the generally mixed reviews of their recent film, I think they have something to be proud of with The Invention of Lying. A thought-provoking comedic drama, TIOL immediately captures the mind of the audience with its unique world where “telling what is not” is inconceivable. And when stub-nosed, overweight, loser Mark Bellison (Gervais) stumbles onto such a concept through random, Darwinian mutation the entire world undergoes a linguistic, philosophical, and even theological revolution.
I do not wish to give away much of the plot since I would encourage all readers to go see the movie, but given my philosophy and world religions background I will give my own thoughts on the message of the movie.
Two worlds are contrasted in the film. The first world, the world without lying, is a cold, harsh, and bitter place that is founded upon strict, unresolved empirical observation. Everyone “tells the truth” in that they say what they see. Knowledge is based on sense experience, not emotivism or anything with the subjective. Pure, unhindered objectivity rules the day. Underlying this supposed objectivity is a hard scientism and geneticism. (People get married not based on love but on genetic compatibility, i.e. being good looking.) In other words, the film seems to depict what Darwinian ideology (not biology) looks like, and from the looks of it there is nothing appealing about it (except humor for the movie-goer).
The other world has been founded and invented by Gervais’ character, Bellison. Bellison, in telling the first lie in human history, ends up telling “lies” about what happens in the afterlife. In capturing the entire attention of the world (being strict empiricists they only observe that people remain in the grave after they die), Bellison invents “religion” that resembles a cultural Christianity. There is a Man in the Sky (between the clouds and outer space), he provides a good place (heaven) for those who die, if you do bad things you go to a bad place (three bad things to be exact), and the Man in the Sky is the cause for all good things and all bad things that happen (to which a riot almost erupts against this malignant demon). But even in Bellison explaining the religion, many question the coherence and rationality of such a perspective, but they believe the testimony of Bellison.
The film wishes to reject both worlds and promote a third way. The third way is akin to post-Kantian subjectivism and cultural egoism. We need to do what we feel is right, not just what the cold, harsh world of nature would lead us to believe. Religion is not true, but a vague spirituality perhaps is acceptable. Dogmatism is to be rejected while open-mindedness (not to be found in Darwin or Religion/Christianity) is to be accepted.
While I obviously disagree with the conclusion that an ambiguous postmodern world is the solution between the two extremes, I do sympathize with the critique of the two worlds in TIOL. However, I wish to offer an alternate “world” to be considered.
The problem with the solution in the movie is that it doesn’t escape the anthropomorphic foundation which undergirds Darwin and Religion. The basis for a harsh, bitter, cold view of the world is the belief that human and scientism is all there is to gaining knowledge. Such is a form of epistemological egoism and extreme subjectivism (not an objectivism). The world of Religion is also wrong since it merely gives to people what one observes these people need to be happy. This is the basis for all that Bellison comes up with, and he changes the rules of Religion just to satisfy the masses. This also is subjectivism that is radically founded on human pleasure. The “solution” of vague tolerance and spirituality beyond scientism and incoherent Religion is also subjectivistic and individualist to the core.
But, what if Christianity, as opposed to these three worlds (including Religion), gives us an objective truth that isn’t bitter, a religion that isn’t designed to merely please our whim and thus be incoherent, and a tolerance and spirituality grounded in something other than our own selfishness? If you put yourselves in the shoes of a Christian who believes the gospel, this is exactly what you get with Christianity. Truth isn’t harsh and bitter because it isn’t merely based on observation, but truth becomes Truth in that it is embodied in a Person named Jesus (John 14:6). Religion isn’t traditional incoherent religion because unlike every world religion, Christianity doesn’t make salvation based on either irrational practices (religions of transcendent mysticism) or legalism (religions of imminent moralism). Rather, instead of us trying so hard to reach the Divine, the Divine reaches down to us in the incarnation of Christ and releases us from the shackles and grave of sin. God doesn’t merely conform to our whims, but he changes our whims and desires to long for a life and world beyond that which we ever could dream or hope.
And finally, Christianity beats out a slippery postmodernism in that it rejects that we should just listen to our feelings and just be tolerant people. The gospel gives us a rounded substance so that we believe in a tolerance that is infinitely more tolerant than any theory of tolerance! Since our God is tolerant and patient with us in our sin, to see us turn in repentance and faith toward him, so ought we to be patient and tolerant of others in bringing the good news of God’s direct intervention among men and women. And this also becomes the basis for civil discourse and public peace among a society of sects.
I suppose I offer a fourth way, though I think the gospel is just “the other way” compared to the three worlds offered by Gervais and co. Their worlds all begin with a similar foundation and end up in the same general lot. The gospel, however, transcends any world our mind could fashion and thus is infinitely more truthful/objective, rational/beautiful, and loving/peaceful than we have ever observed in any other philosophy or worldview.
James Paul said:
Thanks for the review, Daniel. Very insightful.
Emily DeWitt said:
My husband and I just saw the movie. While we were watching it we couldn’t believe how blatantly against religion it was. So I decided to google what people were saying about it and came across your blog. I love your blog on this! I totally agree and love how you worded the whole “If you put yourselves in the shoes of a Christian who believes the gospel, this is exactly what you get with Christianity” and the paragraph that follows. We just recently got into a “discussion” with someone on Facebook about how we as Christians should be showing people the same grace and love that was and is shown to us. And what you said about how since God was so tolerant to us, we should show that same tolerance…so well worded. Thank you.
Daniel Wells said:
Thanks for the comment! Your kind words make us bloggers motivated to keep doing what we do (though sometimes to the detriment of more momentous responsibilities).