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I’ve enjoyed the new mystery-of-the-week series Poker Face, streaming on Peacock. It’s a murder mystery show created by Rian Johnson (The Glass Onion) that recalls the vibe of 1980s detective shows like Columbo. The protagonist, Charlie (played by the wonderful Natasha Lyonne), is not a cop. She’s just a casino waitress on the lam—long story—solving murders simply because she has an uncanny talent for winding up in proximity to them. She’s observant, she cares about the underdog, and she has people smarts. Also, she has one more thing going for her: she can tell when people are lying.

That’s the premise of the show. Rather than being a “whodunnit,” it’s a “how-done-it.” We see the murder in the first “act,” and then for the rest of the episode, we watch Charlie figure out the who, how, and why. The answers usually start to fit together when Charlie notices someone lying about some small thing—like a missing bottle of paprika or when they bought a winning lottery ticket. It’s not like she can see into the depths of people’s souls. It just that, when people lie to her, she can tell: “Bulls**t,” she mutters.

Great show. It’s fun and a little campy, and you should watch it. But that lie-detecting premise has me wondering: What would it be like to know when people are lying? Charlie explains in the first episode that people usually lie about dumb little things, so the question is always: why? Why that? She also says that people lie so often it’s like birds chirping.

Oof. I wonder: Would knowing when people are lying be a gift? Or would it just make life worse?

Imagine you’re the parent of a teenager. It’s after curfew on Friday, kid opens the front door quietly, tiptoes into the house. You’re sitting there in the living room, in the dark, waiting.

“Where were you tonight?”

“At Rebecca’s.”

“Bulls**t. Where were you really?”

Usually, parents rely on their ordinary instincts to guess whether the kid is lying. But what if, as the parent, you knew for sure they were lying? And what if your kid didn’t know that you always knew? Would you eventually tell them about your “skill,” or would you keep that information hidden to give yourself an advantage?

If I had the human lie-detector superpower, I can’t decide if I would tell people about it or not. On the one hand, if people knew about my ability, they would have to tell me the truth all the time, and that might be a relief. And I think I would enjoy calling “Bulls**t” whenever some unsuspecting person lied to me.

On the other hand, if people didn’t know about my skill, they would go about their business, lying all the time, and I would have the extraordinary advantage of observing bad human behavior in its natural habitat. Talk about confirming Calvinist views of depravity.

Would it be awful? I think it probably would. Watching advertisements would be virtually intolerable. Watching certain TV personalities and politicians: comically hopeless. Less like birds chirping and more like white noise at full volume. Even ordinary relationships would become chronically disheartening.

Honestly, I’m not sure I really want to know all the times that people have lied to me. For example, over the years I have perfected the art of remaining agnostic about student explanations for class absences or late papers. “My laptop broke.” “I had a family emergency.” Do I believe it? I remain neutral on that point. If I really knew, every time, I fear I would end up with a less appreciative view of some students, or at least of their still-unfinished maturity. I’d rather remain agnostic and think the best of them.

If all of us could lie-detect, I suspect things would be much worse. I wonder if we could even maintain decent relationships with other people, since relationships depend on a certain amount of not-the-whole-truth lubricant. Even generally honest people say things to each other all the time that aren’t entirely true. We hedge to cover our mistakes. We spare people’s feelings. We hide something that we’re just not ready to share. We say what we wish we thought or felt because we know that our real thoughts and feelings are inappropriate.

On that point, I must admit that some amount of “aspirational” speech seems to me a reasonable virtue practice: speaking our way into the kindness and gentleness and decency we aspire to but may not yet quite have, deep down in our souls. That’s a form, perhaps, of sanctification.

I suppose it’s also possible that if we could all lie detect, maybe our relationships would be healthier. We would have to say things like “I’m not ready to share the whole truth right now.” And “Yes, there is something wrong. You hurt me.” And “Actually, your job performance has been quite poor.” And “Your voice solo sounded terrible, but that’s OK–I still love you.” And then we would have to find a way forward, based on the truth. What would the world be like if no one could deceive anyone else? Hard to imagine.

I don’t know. People being what they are, I can’t decide whether the lie-detecting superpower would be useful or terrible. If it were just me with the skill, I bet I could make a good living working for lawyers or judges. I could warn people about to get hurt by lying friends or spouses. I could detect corporate double-speak and maybe help right a few big wrongs in the world.

But what a burden.

In Poker Face, the lies in question are about discreet claims. The aging rocker says she wrote the lyrics to the song, but she did not. The mechanic says he was alone all evening on the roof, but he was not. Relatively simple questions, and Charlie can call bulls**t or not.

How much more mysterious is the capital-T truth about things, though. How little we understand of our own inner truths, the ones God searches and knows. How skilled we are at deceiving ourselves, let alone each other. Do you think that, in the great beyond, all will be revealed: “For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open” (Luke 8:17)? Will we be able to review our lives and detect, at last, all the lies told to us? Will we have to review the ones we’ve told? Or will it all just wash away into the great ocean of eternity?

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for The Twelve as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.

2 Comments

  • RZ says:

    Thanks Debra, for forcing us to go deeper in pursuit of truth. Many of us were taught that sin is only about rebellion and “moral” failure. This conveniently allows us to ignore the character sins: pride, scorn, greed, envy, intolerance, gossip, nonforgiveness. Outsiders and young people detect this in our “holiness” initiatives. Sin, it seems to me, is so much more about self deception. Few of us set out to rebel against God.
    I will be forever grateful for Calvin professor David Holwerda, who introduced me to (and modeled in life) the work of theologian Emil Bruner. Biblical truth, says Bruner, has a much higher standard than factual accuracy. It must have an element of goodness, shalom, relational intent, capital T-truth, aa you state. Your last paragraph is such a great summary!

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    In answer to Tom Cruise’s accusing character in A Few Good Men —“I want the truth!”—we all snarl back with Jack Nicholson’s character: “You (we) can’t handle the truth!”, the telling or hearing of it.

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