The Gospel according to The Truman Show

\"trumanshow\"Esquire magazine called The Truman Show the movie of the decade, and, in spite of the lack of Oscars it received, I can understand the claim. If you haven\’t seen it, it\’s the story of one man, Truman Burbank, who has been the central character in a 24-hour a day TV show since the day he was born, although he doesn\’t know it. The story is really the story of how he discovers the truth about his life and what he decides to do about it. People love the movie for different reasons: it\’s a great satire on materialism, it\’s a powerful story of breaking free from oppressive patriarchy; some love the way it plays with reality, and, if all else fails, it\’s a delightful romantic comedy.


I enjoyed it for all those reasons, but as a follower of Jesus, I read it another way too. What I want to offer you is my \”reader response\”, if you like. You don\’t have to like it or agree with my reading. However, I offer it to you because it may be a new way of thinking about Christian faith. Most people who don\’t consider themselves Christians are not unbelievers because they\’ve examined the historical and philosophical evidence and found Christianity intellectually lacking. More people are unpersuaded by Christian faith because they don\’t have any good metaphors, any helpful pictures, of what it means, what it claims, what it offers. Part of my job as a teacher of Christian faith is not just to convince people that it\’s true but to find metaphors that make them say, \”Oh, that\’s what it\’s about. I never thought of it that way.\”


So that\’s why I want to offer you three powerful metaphors for Christian faith taken from The Truman Show.


The first has to do with the fact that:


1. Something is wrong with the world

Everybody agrees the world is not the way it should be. Whether we think of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, starvation in North Korea, or the destruction of the rain forests in Brazil, our world is full of problems. The Truman Show shows another aspect of what\’s wrong with the world, but not one that hits the headlines as often as the others: we have lost our sense of what is real. 

The creator and producer of Truman\’s world, Christof (Ed Harris), right at the beginning of the movie, invites us to compare our world and Truman\’s world:

We\’ve become bored watching actors give us phony emotions…While the world he inhabits is in some respects counterfeit, there\’s nothing fake about Truman himself. It isn\’t always Shakespeare, but it\’s genuine. It\’s a life.

Towards the end of the movie, Truman will ask Christof about his life in that world: \”Was nothing real?\” and Christof will reply: \”You were.\”


The irony is that Christof thinks Truman\’s world is less artificial than our own. Yet in Truman\’s world, everything is phony, from the sun in the sky to the traffic reports on the radio to his relationship with his best friend. All the characters except Truman are professional actors \”giving us phony emotions\”. More than that, they are actors acting in an extended commercial. Everyone apart from Truman is programmed, down to their exact steps and words and reactions, and to the careful product placement.


There\’s a wonderful moment when the production team, who have just engineered a tearful reunion between Truman and his father, are moved by the artificial scene they just created! Truman is simply a living work of art: manipulated, used, commercialized, spied on by 5,000 cameras even when he\’s asleep.


The sense of unreality is heightened by the fact that you can buy anything you see in the show, from the actors\’ clothes to their whole homes, out of the Truman catalogue. The unreality gets even more convoluted. When Truman begins to question what is going on, his friend Marlon makes an emotional speech which ends with the words: \”The last thing I\’d ever do is lie to you.\” But even that is scripted! The sentence \”The last thing I\’d ever do is lie to you\” is itself a lie. 

So when Christof says Truman is \”real\” all he means is that Truman isn\’t scripted…but all of his real, unscripted responses are all to phony situations. His reality is very relative, very limited. He\’s a real person, but in a totally plastic world.


Christof says to Lauren: \”The world, the place you live in, is a sick place. Seahaven is the way the world should be.\” But in fact the world is already more like Seahaven than we might like to believe. Seahaven represents the tendencies of our world taken to an extreme. As so often, when we laugh, it\’s because we recognize the truth: we\’re laughing at ourselves.


How is Seahaven like our world? Because for us too it\’s difficult to distinguish between the real and the phony. Are we real? All of the time? Are our friends genuine? All the time? Can I trust myself to people? Are they just using me? Secretly mocking me? Jim Carrey himself raises this question: \”I don\’t think there\’s any one of us who hasn\’t at one point in our lives thought we were the only real person and everyone else was an actor in some kind of experiment of the gods.\”

Or take another example. Truman thinks he is free, thinking for himself, making his own decisions. But, at least up until the start of the movie, he is wrong. Everything-his fear of water, his friendships, his choice of a job, his marriage-have all been calculated and manipulated by someone else. We too like to think we are free and can make our own decisions. But where did that come from? Who told us that?  Generally speaking, media, professors, friends, books: they imposed on us our so-called freedom (without explaining why they thought that was true), they told us we could think for ourselves (with an authority that, strangely, we didn\’t stop to question). It reminds me of The Life of Brian, where Brian is trying to get rid of his admiring followers, and he says, \”You\’ve all got to think for yourselves\” and they chant back,  \”We\’ve all got to think for ourselves.\” 


Like The Truman Show, Christian faith says something is wrong with our world which is more than any particular symptom. The whole is bigger than the sum of the parts. There is a systemic problem, and Jesus\’ explanation was that at the heart of it was something to do with our attitude to God. Nietzsche, rather surprisingly, illustrated Jesus\’ conviction very powerfully in the parable of the madman, when he said that, in our attitude to God, we are like planets that have cut themselves off from their orbit around the sun and are drifting off into space. The planets are free in a sense, but they are also drifting aimlessly away from the only source of light and warmth, of stability and life, that they could ever have.


In Jesus\’ vocabulary, the technical term for this condition is sin. Many people misunderstand the word, and think it means doing things wrong, specially sex, unless you\’re married, and even then you shouldn\’t enjoy it too much. But no, in Jesus\’ understanding sin is the attitude of wanting to be independent of God. That\’s what ultimately causes our sense of unreality. After all, God created reality, and God is the source of all reality, so it is only in relation to God that we can experience true reality. G.K.Chesterton once said that sin is the only Christian doctrine that can be empirically proved. By which he means that we all feel it and experience it and know the effects of it: whether it\’s in our sense of unreality, our fear of being manipulated, or our distrust of relationships.


But this is not all. There is a second theme running through the movie which resonates for me as a follower of Jesus. It\’s those things that sociologist Peter Berger calls:


2. Rumours of angels

Little by little Truman\’s perception changes. Little by little he gets hints that the world he is grown up with is not the whole story. Cracks appear in the facade of his reality. He becomes dissatisfied with his life in Seahaven. Things happen, with things and with people, that don\’t fit. He gets hints of a bigger reality than he has experienced so far.


I counted thirteen of these signs (but there may be more), these signals of a world outside Seahaven. We saw one of these already: the lamp falling from the sky.  Later, a sudden rain shower rains on him and nowhere else. He notices that his wife\’s fingers are crossed in their wedding photo. Cops he\’s never met before, miles from home, know his name. And then, supremely, there\’s Lauren. She is from the world outside. She cares about Truman, she feels sorry for him, she wants to rescue him. And, more clearly than anyone or anything else, she tries to tell Truman the truth about his life, until she is forcibly dragged away.


Truman figures things out in his basement. His secrets are kept in the basement: family photos, toys, map of world, compass, Lauren\’s jacket. In pop psychology, down often represents the subconscious. It may be significant that the basement is the only messy place we ever see in Seahaven. It\’s in the basement that he tries to reconstruct a photograph of Lauren with pieces torn from fashion magazines. In a sense this photograph is symbolic of what\’s happening in his relationship with Seahaven. Little by little the pieces of his old world are falling apart; little by little, he\’s putting together the pieces of a new world. Truman is facing a classic paradigm shift: he\’s about to exchange one picture of reality which no longer works, for a bigger one which makes better sense of the data.


In the same way, Christians believe God is trying to communicate to us that there is a bigger reality than this world-a reality that doesn\’t deny the physical (C.S.Lewis said Christianity is the most materialistic of the world\’s religions) but puts it in a spiritual context. There is a different way of reading things that makes better sense of the data. And maybe in a sense we all have basements, a place where we collect the clues and try to piece them together.


People who become followers of Jesus often look back and realize how things led up to that point. Often, like Truman, they have a sense of reality shifting piece by piece, till the old way of looking at the world doesn\’t convince any more and the pieces of the new reality fall into place.

A recent graduate, Nicky, wrote me recently and described how this happened for her. At the age of 18, considering herself an atheist, she went to church and heard a sermon about the resurrection of Jesus that made her wonder whether it might actually be true. She went to university and found she was sharing a room with a Christian {\”and a cool, Christian at that! She was really friendly and bubbly and outgoing. I thought she was far too trendy to do a square thing like-go to church!\”). Nicky got to know other Christians and asked them questions all the time. \”They were all so kind and loving and friendly-quite the opposite of what I expected.\” Then \”Sarah suggested I start praying and reading a little bit of the Bible each day. Again I thought NO WAY, but soon I began reading it now and again-in secret-only when Sarah wasn\’t in the room [in her basement]. And-you know the amazing thing? First, my prayers started being answered, and secondly, I realized that the Bible is quite an amazing book.\” Well, I don\’t have to tell you how that story ends, do I?

That kind of thing happens all the time.  Things don\’t fit: we meet a Christian with integrity and a sense of humour. We read a religious book that actually makes sense. Startling coincidences happen. We begin to wonder what\’s going on. Have I been wrong? Somewhere in this changing perception of life, people get a fresh view of Jesus. Not surprising, really, because Jesus is like Lauren! Telling us more clearly than anything else about the bigger reality which is God, and on the first Good Friday ripped away from us by those who wanted to preserve the lie.


God is trying to get through to us. In a world of appearance and unreality, or deception, manipulation and distrust, God is saying, There is more. \”I am a rock, I am a sure foundation. Base your life on me, I am reality. Come, walk with me.\” I am bringing a new community into being where people are learning to be real, nurturing values that are not based in material things and advertising. I want you to be a part of it. But we have to respond.


Christof admits: \”If [Truman] was absolutely determined to discover the truth, there\’s no way we could prevent him…He could leave at any time.\” But it\’s not easy to pursue that new reality. So the third metaphor I have called:


3. Breaking out of the bubble

There are two responses to Truman\’s growing awareness of what\’s really going on. There is his own determination to get out, and the determination of those around him not to let him. His wife Meryl, for instance, says: \”Let me get you some help. You\’re not well…You\’re having a nervous breakdown.\” Of course. Society doesn\’t like deviants of any kind because they challenge the status quo. One response is to interpret the deviance as sickness, and treat it. 


On Truman\’s side, he tries to get out. He tries to leave by plane-but, strangely enough, there\’s no plane for a month. He tries by car, and is stopped by a fake accident at a nuclear power plant. He gets on a bus to Chicago-and the driver deliberately strips the gears so the bus can\’t leave.  The one thing no-one expected was that he might try to leave by water because everyone knew he was afraid of water. So he sets sail in a sailboat called-what else?–the Santa Maria: like Columbus, he\’s going to discover a New World. And now the forces against him get pretty violent.


Still he perseveres, until he comes to the end of the world–literally. There, finally, Christof speaks to him. Christof asks, \”Truman, where are you going?\” And, of course, Truman doesn\’t know: he knows he has to go, but he doesn\’t know where it is or what it\’s going to be like. Christof says: \”You belong here with me.\” He wants Truman to stay in the world that is safe and familiar and comfortable, the world also where freedom is an illusion and nobody is real.


It must be tempting for Truman. It\’s not going to be easy for him to fit into the bigger world. He\’s like an animal that\’s been in captivity all of its life and is suddenly released into the wild. There are so many things he doesn\’t know about, starting at the very basic level of how to relate to ordinary people who are not professional actors! And then he\’s going to bring old, unhealthy patterns of behaviour with him from Seahaven into the new world, and little by little they\’ll have to change. It\’s going to be painful-all we know for certain, all he knows for certain, is that he will have the friendship and support of Lauren.


There is a similar conflict when a person thinks seriously about becoming a follower of Jesus. If you are thinking about it, let me warn you, there will be opposition. Parents will sometimes try to get their child to a psychiatrist. William Willimon is the chaplain at Duke University, He observes that the only problem parents phone him about is when they \”get involved in religion.\” The child may be drunk every night, or may be totally promiscuous, but the parents don\’t try to get help on campus.  But religion sets off all the alarms, presumably because drunkenness and promiscuity don\’t really challenge society\’s status quo, whereas religion does, and at the most fundamental level.

Not surprisingly, Jesus warned about this conflict of realities. He said it would be hard. He said you have to be prepared for difficulties. He said it can feel like death. After all, it means, like Truman, turning your back on security, entering a realm where for a time everything will seem new and strange-and it takes some getting used to.


Is it worth it? Was it worth the risk for Truman? Yes. I would say, and millions would say, Yes, it is worth it. It means learning to be a real person because of the reality that comes from knowing the friendship of the Creator. It means learning to live as God\’s person in God\’s world in God\’s way. And that\’s the most amazing adventure a human being could ever have.



Two comments in conclusion, both from characters with initials JC.


Jim Carrie said of this movie:

The thing I find important about the film is the point, of you\’re not happy with your life, it\’s time to go into the unknown. That\’s where you really get rewarded, when you separate yourself from others\’ wishes and follow your own heart.

Jesus Christ said to those who were just beginning to trust him and follow him:  

If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth and the truth will set you free.(John 8:32)

On the level of Seahaven, that\’s what Truman came to experience: following the clues led him to the truth about his world, which set him free. On a much bigger level, of which Truman is only a pale metaphor, that\’s what we can discover too.


The button Lauren is wearing in that scene in the library asks, \”How\’s it Going to End?\” At that point, it\’s the crucial question for Truman. But it\’s also the question for us: How\’s it going to end?  To stay trapped with only the reality that society allows us to experience? Or to break out into a bigger reality in friendship of God the creator?



(The Church at the John, McMaster University 2001)

4 thoughts on “The Gospel according to The Truman Show”

  1. What a nice essay!

    I am a scholar of Chinese religion, and ended up here while looking for some information about President Harry Truman. To me, this movie sounds very much like a BUDDHIST parable – i.e., the Buddha grows up within the walls of a golden palace, and has no idea about the suffering outside. Both are metaphors for the bliss of ignorance.

  2. Pingback: My Favorite Christian Movie - Page 20 - Christian Forums

  3. I believe Truman is a flawed Christ, Christoff is a less than omniscient God. The writer of the film is a Catholic Christian, Andrew Niccol. I believe he is asking: what if Christ was an unwitting star of God’s cosmic play; what if God is not completely omniscient; and Christ, the “truest man”, felt bullied/controlled and eventually opted out of it all. At the end, Truman “dies” and is resurrected, there is a cross of ropes across his body, he “walks on water” at the edge of the ocean and “ascends into the heavens” on the staircase. Also, the ship’s sail is 139. Read Psalm 139 and watch the movie. All of the things that that the Psalmist attributes to God happens to Truman, He knew me in my mother’s womb, knit me together in the secret place (Christoff chose Truman before birth and they show the ultrasound), he is familiar with all my ways (they can follow him around predictably), he knows when I wake and when I sleep (they watch him 24/7), he knows what I am going to say before I say it (the show workers anticipate his comments), and he hems me in before and behind (the traffic that stops Truman from leaving the island in forward and reverse) the parallel is obvious. But Truman opts out of this controlled environment and decides to flee (Psalm 139:7) and God loses control. Truman literally makes his bed in the depths (fakes sleeping in the basement of his house) to flee and rises on the wings of the dawn (wakes up before the sunrise) and his boat quite LITERALLY settles on the far side of the sea (Boat rams the sky/wall and is held fast) and they have to cue the sun to find him because surely the darkness did hide Truman, even though they tried to make the night shine like the day (“We can’t find him in this darkness. Cue the sun.” “But it’s 2:00 a.m.!”). The movie is not anti-Christian but asks very interesting and potentially difficult questions about the relationship between Father and Son, God and Christ, and what could have been (not what is.).

Comments are closed.