“the better story”

Christian Courier column, April 22, 2013 issue.  

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Thinkchristian’s Josh Larsen was critical of Life of Pi. Lamenting that “God” is hardly present in the film, that “there’s nothing of substance about faith of any kind,” he dismisses it as a “movie that wants you to believe in little more than . . . belief. It lacks, he says, “even the conviction of syncretism.”

In the film, an author listens to shipwreck survivor Pi Patel tell the story of his voyage on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, a story, it is said, that “will make you believe in God.” Given such an extravagant claim, Larsen’s high expectations are fair. But, respectfully, because I usually agree with him, I think this time he missed the mark.

Here’s what I saw: a fiercely intelligent fable that pits a “decadently rationalistic” culture, to borrow Marilynne Robinson’s phrase, against a universal God-hunger, that uniquely human compulsion to believe in something that can’t be proven. In Life of Pi religion is accurately and, one might even argue, lovingly particularized, Hinduism giving Pi “faith,” Christianity, “love,” and Islam, “holy ground, serenity and brotherhood.”

In director Ang Lee’s strict adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel, the word “God” expands, not in a syncretic way, but metaphorically, poetic shorthand for the spiritual, artistic and imaginative dimensions of life. Both the book and the film revel in the palpable sacredness permeating creation, the “divine consciousness” and “moral exaltation” (Life of Pi, p. 63) celebrated by the religions of the world, a transcendence denied by doubt, which Pi calls “a philosophy of life akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation” (p. 28).

Pi endures an epic ordeal of Noahic proportions. He finds a manual tucked away in his lifeboat. It recommends three strategies to stave off despair – community singing (a sure-fire way to lift the spirits), telling stories and holding on to hope. Why does Pi collect religions? The answer is found in that distilled list: religious life – lived communally, nourishing the imagination, offering redemptive context – defends against nihilism.

When the author is told an alternate version of the tale, with no reference to God, he recognizes it as an empty shell. Its coldly enumerated facts, including murder and cannibalism, are acceptable to the Japanese insurance agents who want to categorize the shipwreck in an “understandable” way. But the author agrees with Pi. The version with God is “the better story.” “Even if I can’t prove it,” muses Pi.

Layer upon layer

If the story makes you believe in God,  it will also make you believe you have a soul. As a child, Pi looks into the limpid eyes of the ferocious tiger and claims he sees a soul. His pragmatic father, who sides with reason and science, lectures his son, “The tiger is not your friend. When you look into his eyes, you see your own emotions looking back at you.” There’s the atheist’s snub: religion as coping mechanism for a threatening reality, religion as lullaby.

In the final scenes, however, we learn that Richard Parker is a symbol for Pi himself. Suddenly the ocean journey reveals a quest of self-discovery. Who is right about the tiger . . .   Pi or his father? Does he have a soul? Pi wrestles with God on the raft, screaming, “I’ve lost everything. I surrender. What more do you want?” He begs God: “Whatever comes, I want to know . . . .”

Pi’s soul, if he has one, is tarnished. At one point he asks Richard Parker, “What are you looking at? What do you see?” Gazing into the tiger’s eyes, Pi observes a kaleidoscope of images, both good and evil, pictures that swirl from minute strands of DNA to infinite expanses of space. Coupled with his name, an “irrational number that goes on forever,” the images imply that Pi does have a soul. He matters to God.

Pi insists that he was triumphant in the end only because of Richard Parker: “I couldn’t live without him.” Caring for the tiger sparked his inventiveness, forced him to ponder the big questions and, ultimately, compelled him to love the animal. To love himself. The inference prompts a sly question: “If you can love yourself, can you also love your neighbour?” Even your neighbour of a different faith? Who also has a soul?

A Macleans article (Nov. 2012) provides a clue from Martel himself: “It’s a deceptively complicated movie,” says Martel, noting that the denouement’s twist goes by so fast, “if you blink, you might think it’s just the story of a castaway boy.”

Introducing hope

Unlike Larsen, I find the movie to be a remarkable achievement. As the film opens, a prone figure, his back to us, watches the activity at the Patel zoo. The shadowy silhouette is introduced so subtly, you might not even notice him. Who is this? Maybe it’s Pi. Maybe it’s God.

Later we see Pi’s uncle preparing to dive into a clear pool. It seems real. Then the water breaks into ripples and we realize that we’ve been looking at a reflection. It’s another subtle and powerfully suggestive moment. Some people trust facts and figures, data that can be tested in the lab, like the Japanese agents who say, “We believe what we see” ( Life of Pi, p.294). But what is real, after all? Pi’s interrogators don’t believe it, because they can’t find it on their maps, but maybe, just maybe, as Pi claims, there is an algae island arched by a rainbow, a place where evil exists, but where God is watching and sometimes intervening. Where there is hope.

In her book A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendour of Worshipping God and Being Church for the World, Marva Dawn describes postmodern despair: “[…] there is no such thing as truth except what you create for yourself; there is no meaning to life; all is random; everything is mistrusted (the philosophers would say deconstructed) since it is all a power play; there is no story that is universally true; you only go around once so do it with gusto” (p.249). Since we’ve jettisoned the meta-narrative that gave our culture meaningful structure in the past, we’re now obliged to start at the very beginning once again: with belief.

Larsen is right. Life of Pi is about belief. In the novel the interviewers find the story “hard to believe” and Pi takes them to task: “If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? […] Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer” (p.297). Confronting the negativism of postmodernity, both the book and the film come down on the side of belief, inviting re-engagement in a rooted story, feeding the God-hunger.

Larsen’s also right when he notes that many movies blend “faithy” elements indiscriminately, engineering a “lowest common denominator” spirituality that can’t be identified too particularly or embraced too tightly. Life of Pi doesn’t do that. It’s a cinematic diorama, an elegant 3-D argument for multiple dimensions of reality, an artistic work exemplifying that every creative act is an act of faith, every human being made in the image of God, and rejecting the “dry, yeastless factuality” of the reasonable agnostic, who, to the very end, will “lack imagination and miss the better story” (p. 64).