Instead of being so busy with inventing lying, perhaps Ricky Gervais’ time would have been better suited inventing a better movie (zing!). It is a tragedy that begins with enormous potential only to sputter out and flop after about 30 minutes.
Why Discuss “The Invention of Lying”?
I saw “The Invention of Lying” recently, and concluded that it would be worthwhile to look at some of the claims found within the movie. Whether or not the movie represents common opinions of religion, it represents at least some contemporary views (Gervais himself is an atheist, and comments somewhat prolifically on the subject; for example, see Garvais’ “My Defining Moment”). That makes it worth responding to.
Responding to an Objection: ‘It’s Just Comedy!’
As a means of heading off a typical objection, I will claim up front that I’m not being overly sensitive about a move that’s just supposed to be funny. For example, at times like these, I often get comments like “Come on, lighten up!” or, “Hey, it’s a satire. Relax!” Oddly enough, I’m responding precisely because it is satire, which is defined as follows:
- Satire “often emphasizes the weakness more than the weak person, and usually implies moral judgment and corrective purpose” (from dictionary.com).
- “Although satire is usually meant to be funny, the purpose of satire is not primarily humor in itself so much as an attack on something of which the author strongly disapproves, using the weapon of wit” (from Wikipedia).
As a satire, this movie is purposefully attacking the weaknesses it sees in Christianity and religion, and doing so in order to show disapproval and disdain. Gervais implies a moral judgment on religion, specifically on Christianity. Thus, it becomes beneficial to investigate his claims regardless of whether or not it’s “just comedy”.
Accurately Portraying Different Points of View
Poking fun at the beliefs of others is not especially difficult; we all have different customs and beliefs, and we naturally scoff at the beliefs of others which we find strange or abnormal (who here has laughed at Weird Al’s “Amish Paradise“? I thought so…). As a Latter-day Saint, I must admit that stories about Catholic saints appearing in present day seem quite strange. Still stranger are the mystic-like instances of Buddhists experiencing nirvana, a “oneness” with the universe. Equally strange to others, I’m sure, are ideas like temple worship, patriarchal blessings, or divine visitations that I find perfectly acceptable as part of my theology.
It’s an easy thing to make fun of the beliefs of others. This mockery, and not an intelligent or witty commentary, is all that Gervais has to offer.
Because that premise is so weak, Gervais thus has to fill the rest of his film with boggled down side-themes which are strangely (and inexplicably) side-effects of this truth-telling world:
- Jennifer Garner’s character’s obsession with eugenics
- The tendency of the entire cast to not only be truthful, but painfully and proactively truthful, saying everything that comes into mind whether it has anything to do with the running dialogue or not
- The obvious universal lack of love and affection between people of different classes, or even between each other
Mockery isn’t worth vilifying Gervais over. I personally enjoy a good joke, even at my own expense. As Christians who are confident in our faith we should be slower to take offense and quicker to relish the opportunity to laugh at ourselves. There are many movies which make fun of the Mormon culture (The Singles Ward movies, for example). But we should exercise caution when mocking the sacred beliefs of others, and most certainly make sure that our claims are legitimate. Gervais does neither – the claims he callously makes about sacred Christian beliefs are not legitimate.
Gervais’ Straw Man
The biggest problem with the movie is that in order to criticize Christian belief, Gervais needed to dumb down what Christians actually believe. This is a logical fallacy called “the straw man.” It happens when you create versions of your opponents arguments that are easier to defeat (think of choosing to fight a straw man instead of a real person, and how much easier that fight would be). Christians do not really believe the things Gervais accuses them of believing; he only makes these claims because they are easier to “fight” than the actual beliefs of Christians.
The Ten “Revelations”
The ten commandments Gervais presents is a fantastic example of how he uses the straw man fallacy. Though he has a list of ten revelations, in the movie we only see 1-6 and 9-10, which I’ll list below.
- Number 1: There is a man in the sky who controls everything
- Number 2: When you die, you don’t disappear into an eternity of nothingness. Instead, you go to a really great place.
- Number 3: In that place, everyone will get a mansion.
- Number 4: When you die, all the people you love will be there.
- Number 5: When you die, there will be free ice cream for everyone, all day and all night, whatever flavors you can think of.
- Number 6: If you do bad things, you won’t get to go to this great place when you die (You get three chances).
- Number 9: The man in the sky who controls everything decides if you go to the good place or the bad place. He also decides who lives and who dies.
- Number 10: Even if the man in the sky does bad things to you, he makes up for it with an eternity of good stuff after you die.
Some of the “commandments” are of little consequence, and were no doubt added for their potential to add comedic effect (like Number 3 and Number 5). Other “commandments” are more serious.
Straw Man Commandments – God Decides for Us
Commandment numbers 6 and 9 claim that Christians believe that it is the man in the sky who decides whether we go to the good place or the bad place. The truth is that we decide whether we go to the good place or the bad place. We have complete control over our choices, and in all honesty, most of us would not be comfortable living in the presence of a righteous God after living a life of sin.
God has set the requirements for getting into the good place, it is true. But it is us who choose to willfully rebel and separate ourselves from that standard. One of God’s purposes for this life is help us become better people, and his commandments (the requirements) help us on that road. And it’s no coincidence that the things he asks us to do naturally make us happier and more prepared to meet life’s challenges.
Straw Man Commandments – Life is One Big List of Good and Bad Deeds
Commandment number 6 claims that if we do bad things we go to the bad place. Gervais clarifies later that we get three chances (“like in baseball!”). This is an oversimplification that once again forgets one of the purposes of this life. We are here to develop into better people, not accrue a list of good things and bad things, and hope that in the end there are more good than bad. Some people may do a lot of bad things, but then repent and change to become a better person through the atonement and gospel of Jesus Christ. God is the one who judges us at the end of our lives (number 9) because he is the only one who can see the intents of our hearts, what progress we’ve made in becoming better people, and how far we’ve come from where we started.
Straw Man Commandments – God Causes Everything
Commandment numbers 1 and 9 also makes the claim that God causes everything. We should not confuse things that God allows for things that he wills. Is God omnipotent? Yes. Could he prevent many of the bad things from happening? Of course (who knows what he’s prevented for us already!) Does he? No, but this does not mean that he causes that which he allows. God is good, merciful, and just, and has the best interest of his children at heart, and for this very reason he allows us to experience opposition in this life. It’s part of the purpose of creating an environment where we can grow and mature.
Straw Man Commandments – Just a Heaven and a Hell
Almost all the commandments above infer that there are just two places – a really good place and a really bad place. This is something that Christians believe, but it is not something that Latter-day Saints believe. Instead, there are three places (or “kingdoms of glory”) that man could possible go to after death, each suited to the kind of person he became in life and where he would be most comfortable. What’s more, within each of these three places, there are multiple levels, for “in my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2).
There are other misrepresentations made in the film outside of the ten revelations Gervais’ character presents.
Straw Man Misrepresentations – The Role of Prophets
In the film, Gervais purportedly fills the role of a prophet, but notably:
- He is the only one who can communicate with the man in the sky.
- He tells lies to people to make them feel better about their lives or the afterlife.
- As time passes he grows in popularity and riches, evident by his increasingly better standard of living.
This is is a gross misrepresentation of what a prophet is:
- While it is true that the prophet acts as the head of the Church, and the only one who can speak for God as far as the entire Church is concerned, all men can communicate with the “man in the sky” and receive guidance and direction for their own lives and the lives of their families; individuals are actually encouraged to seek confirmation from God about what the prophets teach.
- The gospel that was taught by Jesus Christ and his prophets was not a collection of lies to make people feel better. A lie is a deliberate untruth. Whether you believe in the gospel or not, others believe it, and share it because it makes them happier and creates better relationships. Besides, the gospel often makes life more difficult in the short-term, not easier or more care-free.
- Apostles, prophets, and even the Savior have all been rejected by their contemporaries. None grew wealthy or popular from the things they taught. Quite to the contrary, they were often killed for their positions.
Straw Man Misrepresentations – All Christians are Sheep
Another misrepresentation is that religious people are ignorant, blind, dumb, or worse. The people who follow Gervais do so blindly, like sheep, without asking questions or thinking about the logical implications of their beliefs.
While there are many among all religions who follow blindly, this is not the ideal (at least not in Christianity or Mormonism). We are taught to test the doctrines we hear. In the LDS Church, we are encouraged to ask questions and seek to understand the “why” behind the “what.” Answers are not readily available in all cases, but that is beside the point – we are all going to come to a point where we just have to have faith. But active obedience through faith is much different than blind obedience through indifference or laziness.
Straw Man Misrepresentations – The Church Should Have All the Answers
Another misrepresentation is that religious leaders should have the answers to all questions. Gervais is bombarded with questions from his audience, and often the questions are painfully irrelevant (though this is where much of the comedy comes from).
Christians are taught the the Lord’s ways and the Lord’s thoughts are much different than our own. What’s more, we learn line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little as we become more spiritually mature and prepared for greater light. Sometimes, even, we never know the answers. For example, Latter-day Saint prophets have told us that the reasons for priesthood restrictions lasting until the mid 1970s have not been made known unto us. On an individual scale, we may never know the reasons we have to pass through specific instances of terrible pain and suffering. There are just some answers we’re not meant to have, for in this life we walk by faith.
At the end of Gervais’ commandments, the people have noticeably negative reactions:
- “That guy’s evil!”
- “That guy’s a coward!”
- “He’s kind of a good guy, but he’s also kind of a prick, too.”
- “I say f@#! the man in the sky!”
If given these insane claims as doctrine, I might be upset, too. But Christians have much more comprehensive beliefs that, when understood correctly, set right the contradictions that people like Gervais are too lazy or simple minded to figure out. People are welcome to believe whatever they’d like, but if they think of Christians as mindless simpletons who blindly follow deranged liars, then they are kidding themselves into believing the simple answer, not the right one.
Of course, if atheists really thought about these sorts of things, would we have atheists at all?
(Because this is a post from an older blog, I’ll include an appendix where you can view older comments and exchanges I had.)