by Ellen Sims
Some folks believe that Christianity is all about believing that a set of unbelievable propositions are factually true. The various ways we define truthaccount for important distinctions between what Marcus Borg calls the earlier Christian paradigm and an emerging one. Representing the earlier paradigm is a letter I read recently in Billy Graham’s column in the Mobile Press-Register[i]. Rev. Graham invokes John 14:6 to affirm that Jesus is the only true path to God. Graham then concludes with a prayer that God will open the hearts of disbelievers “to the Truth.”
In contrast, Marcus Borg, a writer on Emerging Christianity, would say the Bible bears truth that is not “absolute” but is instead relative and culturally conditioned, truth that is often expressed as metaphor.[ii] Literalists might say metaphors don’t count as truth, but emerging Christians would say they name a deeper, truer truth. And Jesus, the Word made Flesh, is Christianity’s foundational metaphor of Truth, even if there are other transmitters of Truth.
I’m going to use the opposite of the word truth to explore it further with the aid of a recent movie. The Invention of Lying is a 2009 comedy about the first person who learned to lie. Here’s a trailer:
Let me warn you that the US Council of Catholic Bishops rated this movie O for offensive, calling it: “venomous . . . pervasive blasphemy . . . an all-out sneering assault on the foundations of religious faith such as has seldom if ever been seen in a mainstream film.”[iii] Other Christian groups have likewise condemned this movie. So naturally I couldn’t resist using it in a recent sermon. I’m not exactly recommending the film. But I found some so-called blasphemous ideas intriguing and unintentionally supportive of Christian theology, though both the filmmakers and the bishops would disagree with me. Truth be told, I may have more in common with Ricky Gervais, the proud atheist who wrote and stars in the film, than with the offended Christians who’ve panned it. No, I’m not an atheist, and I don’t endorse lying. But the bishops read this film too literally and thus missed an implicit if unintended argument: Religion might be a human creation, but it is our means of expressing, however imperfectly, Deeper Truth about our most sacred and ultimate reality. The “true lies” that religion tells are not falsehoods but metaphors. They are our journeys toward the ineffable and songs about life and pictures of that which we experience but can’t quantify.
The Invention of Lying is set in a world that looks just like ours—except no one knows how to lie. You might think: What a morally pure environment with total trust and honesty! But telling literal truth is an infantile measure of morality. After all, honesty is not always kind. The compulsively truthful often say some pretty cruel things. And because of limited imagination, the alternate world’s inhabitants understand reality only in material terms. For instance, they evaluate other people only on their physical qualities and achievements, so no one can imagine that physically unattractive people have anything beautiful inside them. Jennifer Garner’s character in the film matter-of-factly tells Ricky Gervais’ character at the start of their blind date that she’s disappointed to see he’s fat. The inner qualities of a person can’t be verified as true, so they don’t exist and can’t be imagined. Worse than brutal honesty is this stark objectivity required for literal truth-telling. That means no one can make subjective judgments or speculate . . . or empathize.
Neither are creative expressions possible in a rigidly truthful world. For instance, poems and novels are unknown in the film’s world; the only writing is technical or factual. Ricky Gervais’ character—the world’s first liar—has been an unsuccessful documentary film writer until his discovery of lying allows him to become wildly popular as the world’s first fiction writer for film. With the discovery of lying, art enters the world.
So does empathy. Jennifer Garner’s character, at first so indifferent to her fat suitor’s feelings, toward the end of the film watches children taunting a chubby child on the playground and, in an understated scene, takes an evolutionary leap forward to IMAGINE what that bullied little boy must be feeling. We, the audience, see the dawning of empathy in her as she tells the child he’s beautiful inside—and she takes a step forward in her human growth. To feel what another might be feeling requires imagination, a move beyond factual objectivity into the realm of conjecture and into the region of compassion—where deeper truths dwell. Maybe we’re inaccurate when we see another’s tears and connect that experience to one we’ve had. We can’t really know what the other is feeling. But our attempt to feel with another is an imaginative leap that can take us to a more deeply human place and a truer truth.
Another mixed gift the invention of lying brings to this world is religion. At a pivotal moment in the film, the Ricky Gervais character is summoned to his dying mother’s bedside. There the main character hears a cardiologist tell him and the critically ill mother, with cold objectivity, that her heart will probably give out some time that evening—and in the same breath the doctor recommends the fajitas being served in the hospital cafeteria. Upon hearing her prognosis, the ill mother worsens. Panic-stricken, she tells her son that she fears the nothingness beyond death. With sudden inspiration, the world’s first and only liar creates an assuring story about a place people go to after they die, a place in the sky with many mansions (the very phrase from the King James version of John 14:2—“In my father’s house are many mansions”—often read at funerals). Since the doctor and others have overheard the story the world’s first liar tells to calm his mother, and since they don’t know lying is possible, they all accept the story as truth, beg the son to tell them more, then urge him to tell the whole world this good news. In that moment Religion is born, just made up on the spot—a lie—so says the film The Invention of Lying—where “religion” is equated with “lying”.
If you’ve watched any of Ricky Gervais’s stand-up comedy or seen him interviewed, you know he enjoys taking pot shots at biblical literalists. On the surface, his character’s spur of the moment creation of “a man in the sky” who controls peoples’ lives is an attack on religion. But on another level his film eventually undermines the idea that there is only the material world we can see and prove. As the lead characters evolve in their ability to tell a deeper truth, which includes their creation of religion, we see them developing compassionate awareness of another, a love that is beyond the self-serving gratification exhibited earlier, and an imaginative capacity to see not just the material but what’s “inside.” The film’s elevation of the two developing characters—a new or born again Adam and Eve—unwittingly acknowledges a spiritual dimension to life. This man and woman become the first fully human beings, and the growth of their characters says there is more to life than can be captured in factoids. There is perhaps “The More,” to use Marcus Borg’s term for God. I don’t think Ricky Gervais intended it. I don’t think the Catholic bishops recognized it. But the film links the invention of religion to the benign “lies” we know as art, beauty, empathy, and love.
There is a Truth more important than Fact. The Truth of the spirit brims with compassionate wisdom that facts can’t span. For Christians, there is Truth of Jesus we live out rather than prove mathematically. As Jesus says elsewhere in John, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Real truth is not restrictive or narrow. It’s freeing.
Followers of Jesus’ way are challenged to grow personally in empathy, in creativity, in compassion so that we can live and speak a deeper truth and thus contribute to transforming this world from what is to what can be–by God’s grace.
[i] Graham, Billy. “Complaints about Bible Likely Mask a Lack of Faith” in the Mobile Press-Register 2D (May 21, 2011).
[ii] Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity.