Let’s just say this right up front: It’s disturbing how popular, how successful, lying as a strategy has become. In politics. In the corporate world. Maybe religion too? We’ll come back to religion. Let’s start with an article at the Atlantic, “We’ve Lost the Plot: Our constant need for entertainment has blurred the line between fiction and reality” and just sort of see where the topic takes us. I’ll throw out some Mo app issues along the way.

Movies and television have often blurred that line between fiction and reality. Consider the Blair Witch Project (1999). It was, of course, a movie with a script, but it was presented as a documentary with “real” footage. It was a big hit. Consider “reality TV,” which (according to Wikipedia) presents “purportedly unscripted real-life situations, often starring unfamiliar people rather than professional actors.” The general consensus on these shows is that some activity is spontaneous but they are fairly scripted. It’s about sort of fooling an audience that plays along with the charade and willingly pretends it’s entirely unscripted.

The thing to focus on is the camera: it records material that a director and his crew of editors can edit to tell the story they want, whether the standard fictional movie that we know is fiction and we just enjoy on those terms, or some version of reality TV or faux-documentary that we might enjoy while, at the same time, not being entirely sure how much is “real” and how much is scripted and edited. And then there are “based on real events” movies that sort of claim to be somewhat factual but take substantial liberties (to say the least) with the facts. And of course special effects can be inserted in a film. In a sci-fi movie, the special effects are very apparent. In other genres, the special effects (often a piece of unreality slipped into an otherwise “real” scene) are less visible.

Issue No. 1: What is entertainment or special effects as opposed to worship and teaching in LDS activities? There is certainly little entertainment in General Conference. What you see is what you get. Ditto for sacrament meeting. It’s in official LDS art and video presentations that the issue really arises. This is most evident in LDS artistic and video presentations of the First Vision, the experience of the Three Witnesses, the experience of the Eight Witnesses, and so forth. It’s not easy to doctor (correlate?) a text or a document once it has been published, but it is very easy to depict an event in art or on film just the way you want it to be or you wish it had been. LDS viewers often take these artistic and video presentation at face value, as if there were a camera there recording events, now displayed on the screen. Remember that muscle-bound Book of Mormon artwork that Arnold Friberg did that was published with the older bluish paperback Books of Mormon for so many years? What was going on with that? Why were such obviously fictional representations (even if you take the characters to be historical) such a hit with Mormon leaders and laity?

So let’s move on to social media, which has proven to be oh-so-popular with most people. (And welcome to our blog, blogging being sort of a precursor to social media that still keeps chugging along … because it delivers better content and invites more serious conversation. Give yourself a pat on the back for sticking with it.) There is pretty much nothing I can say about social media that you don’t already know. Yes, Facebook allows connections with real people you may know in real life or not, but people pretty much share only the best parts of their life and often exaggerate even those good things. Tik Tok seems to take exaggeration and phoniness to a whole new level — yet it seems to be wildly popular with viewers. Go figure.

One the one hand, we can acknowledge that people go to social media and watch Tik Tok video snippets largely to be entertained. On the other hand, it sure seems like the whole enterprise encourages a “truth, who needs it? I like my illusions” mentality. The slow arrival of the metaverse threatens to take that to a whole new level. Here’s a thought experiment. What if your local library took all their books, fiction and nonfiction, and mixed them all together, shelving every book in the library alphabetically by author. Every book you pick up, the first thing you have to do is figure out whether it is fiction or non-fiction. Often it would be hard to distinguish, especially when opportunistic authors with something to gain might start writing fictional treatments of history or science or anything to throw in the mix on the shelf. That’s what a lot of TV and video material is becoming: hard to tell what portion is fact-based versus purely fictional.

Issue No. 2: What is social media doing for the Church? Short answer: at the general level, very little. At the local level, considerably more, as many ward members network with each other, keep up with events in the lives of their ward friends, coordinate activities and meals for the missionaries, and so forth. I suspect that exaggerations and misrepresentations are less of an issue here if you know the person in real life and see them regularly. Of more interest, I think, is social media as an uncorrelated, unsupervised medium for members to communicate with each other. That could be a positive thing (for the members) but possibly a bad thing (for a church that likes to keep a close eye on what members think and say and do). When a ward member tattles to the bishop about this or that and the bishop gets after a ward member because of something said or done on Facebook … that’s where it starts to feel like 1984. Bottom line: the concerns about social media that are relevant to society at large are rather different than the concerns from an LDS perspective.

So lets move on to politics. We have, I think, always suspected and even expected a good deal of editing and exaggeration in what politicians and elected leaders say. Along with the occasional outright fabrication (again, suspected and even expected). Before Trump, the press was fairly careful to avoid the L word and call such fabrications slips or misstatements or questionable assertions, when discovered and reported. But now the press gleefully identifies lies, in step with a steep increase in political lying. George Santos, a Republican recently elected to the House from New York, seems to have taken lying and misrepresentation to a whole new level, more or less fabricating his entire resume presented to voters, not to mention financial shenanigans that are now coming to light.

But the real story isn’t what Santos said or didn’t say about his prior accomplishments, real or fictional. The story is how little negative response it has generated. Republican leadership seems largely unconcerned. In Congress, ethics seems more and more like one of those “in theory, but not in practice” topics. To the electorate and even society at large, the issue for politics seems no longer to be *whether* a person lies (and if they do and get caught, there is a real political price to pay) but instead how *effectively* and even how *brazenly* they lie. A good liar gets a pat on the back and a clumsy liar pays a price. It’s like real-life politics has taken on the aura of reality TV: We think it’s all largely phony, and we judge winners and losers by how entertaining their phoniness is. It’s one thing if voters (who are only human) think Santos is more entertaining than some relatively unknown representative who quietly works to craft needed legislation, does good committee work, and serves the members of her district. It’s something much more dangerous if voters and other elected officials *reward* a guy like Santos for being entertaining and minimize or ignore others who take their oaths seriously and try to serve honestly.

I remember some snickers a few years back when Ronald Reagan ran for president and won. Imagine, an actor who became president! Well, he was the governor of California before he ran for president, so he actually had substantial political experience. Donald Trump has taken this a step further, as not just an actor but a reality TV star. With no prior political experience. So the whole entertainment industry approach has, it seems, bled over into politics in a significant way. Not necessarily a negative way, I would add. President Zelensky of Ukraine was an actor, too. Now he’s a hero, a leader showing courage and determination in the most difficult of circumstances.

Issue No. 3: Has increasing corruption in American politics affected the Church, its leadership, or its membership? This is a serious question and too large a question to really cover in two paragraphs. Let’s just look at one episode: the Hundred Billion Dollar Fund. The leadership was very willing, and very careful, to not inform membership of this huge tithing surplus accumulated over several decades and quietly invested in a variety of assets. What’s even more surprising is that when it finally came to light a couple of years ago, the membership was largely unconcerned with the very questionable actions of the leadership. They are mostly even proud that the leadership had salted away a hundred billion dollars … for a rainy day or something. It’s like most Mormons were happy to be lied to! Remember that kid in junior high who was walking around with a “kick me” note taped to his back? It’s like the membership walks around with a “lie to me” note permanently taped to their backs.

Bottom line: a lot of Americans seem to be more and more willing to simply disengage from reality and embrace illusions of one sort or another. It seems to be happening across a variety of institutions and contexts, including religion. That ought to be of concern to a church and membership that uses the word “true” fifty times every testimony meeting, once a month. But I’m not sure most members are concerned or even aware of this trend.

So what do you think? Is this a real thing? Or am I barking up the wrong tree? Instead of throwing out some comment prompts, I’ll just refer you back to the three issues/questions I highlighted in bold case above. I think these developments are seeping into the Church. I see no indication these negative developments are slowing down. It will get worse before it gets better. It may never get better. If George Orwell had titled his book 2034 instead of 1984, it might have been prophecy rather than fiction.