Can a Story Make You Believe in God?

So, can a story make you believe in God?

Note:  In this post, I take up a central question posed by the framing of Life of Pi.  If you don’t want to know how it ends yet, read this post after you read the book or see the movie.

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“So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer?  Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?

“The story with animals.”

“And so it goes with God.”

This climactic conversation in Yann Martel’s 2001 award-winning book, Life of Pi, now adapted for the big screen and showing in 3D, suggests one thing to me:  Reality is so terrible that we construct stories around it in order to survive, to find meaning, and even to create magic.

I don’t think that a story can make you believe in God.  But sometimes, people choose to believe the stories that we call religion.  As a young boy in the story, Pi explores the story of Hinduism, meets Jesus, and begins praying to Allah, all at the same time.  He craves story and more story.  He is the quintessential seeker.

But what happens when the stories themselves become things that don’t help us survive?  What happens when the story oppresses, limits, and even kills?

And so it is with religion.

So yes, I like the story with the tiger too.  It’s more tolerable to see a hyena eat a zebra and kill an orangutan than too watch a crazed cook cannibalize a sailor and kill your mother before you kill him.  It might be easier to survive 277 days in a lifeboat when you have someone else’s life to focus on, even if it’s a tiger who might eat you, than to be alone with yourself and your fate.

But remember that the story with the tiger is also a terrible one.  It’s bloody and violent and terrifying.  Choose:  sleeping in a boat with a tiger who might eat you, or dangling from a life ring mere feet from sharks who might eat you.  Watch:  animals suffering and dying in front of you.  Learn:  how to tame a Bengal tiger in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  Life in this story is far from pleasant and secure.

Religion, the constructed story, is the less terrible option for some people.  But we ought not romanticize it, because it too kills.  Nonbelievers are excluded from every major religion.  Women have been dehumanized, sexual minorities delegitimized, and segregation blessed, all in the name of religion.  Wars have been fought and enemies slaughtered, all in the name of someone’s God.

So, I don’t think a story can “make you believe in God.”  You do or you don’t.  If you do, if you have a story that you have chosen to accept.  But remember to hear all of the story, and not just the parts you like.  Remember too who is left out of that story, who dies in that story, and pay attention to who tells it.

Then, maybe, you can be part of changing the story.

 

Note: This is a contribution to a Movie Club feature on The Life of Pi. Through our Movie Channel, Patheos works together with movie studios to host conversations about films that raise basic moral and spiritual questions. Follow Patheos Movies on Facebook.

About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • Oriana Spizzo

    Though it’s been quite a while since I’ve read it, the book that this movie is based on doesn’t make the claim that it will “make you believe in God,” but it does handle theology and philosophy in a more introspective manner.


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