How “The Life of Pi” Raises the Ultimate Postmodern Question of Faith

How “The Life of Pi” Raises the Ultimate Postmodern Question of Faith November 21, 2012

Not having read the Mann-Booker-prize-winning novel from Yann Martel, I was not sure what to expect when I attended the NYC screening of The Life of Pi.  What I received was a story-telling tour de force, glowing and sumptuous visuals, and a feast for the imagination.  Directed by famed Taiwanese director Ang Lee, the film is expertly crafted, performed beautifully by newcomer Suraj Sharma (Pi) and a host of flawless CGI animals, and packs an enormous punch as a kind of fable for the spiritual quest we all endure through the wonder of childhood and the brutal sufferings and sacrifices the adult world requires of us.

You should see the film on the largest screen you can find, but you should also see it together with friends, perhaps even with those who hold different religious commitments.  Because, if The Life of Pi is anything, it’s a fantastic conversation piece about the divine stories that embrace our own, that give them meaning, and that help us endure.  The question the film poses is whether those stories are anything more than elaborate coping mechanisms.  In other words, the question here is not the quintessentially modern question of truth, where “Should I believe in Christ?” means “Do I believe Christianity’s core claims are true?” — but the quintessentially postmodern question of preference, where “Should I believe in Christ?” means “Do I prefer to believe in Christ because it makes my life more tolerable, interesting or comprehensible.

Raised in a family that owns a zoo in India, Pi is spiritually sensitive and curious.  Introduced by Hinduism to a plethora of gods, Pi decides that he would like to fill still more.  He speaks in a very unaffected manner about finding Jesus and what he learned through Christianity, and then too of loving the Muslim worship of Allah.  All of this takes places under the sternly disapproving gaze of his father, an avowed atheist who believes that science has disenchanted the world and his son is foolish to believe in fairy tales.

By the time he is a young man, Pi finds himself on a boat crossing the sea for Canada, with all of their animals on board, when the ship founders in a storm.  All of the people and all of the animals drown, except for Pi, a hyena, a chimpanzee, a zebra, and a Bengal tiger.  Eventually, as the sedative his father had given the animals wears off, the animals go Hobbes on one another until the hyena, which had killed the zebra and the chimp, is devoured in turn by the tiger.  This leaves Pi alone on a life raft in the middle of the Pacific with a much more powerful animal that wants to eat him.

What follows from there is a primal story about the struggle for survival, about Pi overcoming his grief at the loss of everyone and everything he’s ever known, and about a growing rapport between the civilized intelligence of Pi and the elemental power of the tiger.  Pi encounters shimmering luminescent whales, a storm of biblical proportions, a massive flock of flying fish, and a phantasmagorical island that is sweet by day but sinister by night.  Each new challenge, each new encounter, adds another layer to the fable.

And then the whole story is thrown on its head.

I won’t reveal the entire plot, but I will say that we end up with two very different versions of the story of what happened after Pi’s ship sank in the Pacific, one that’s filled with wonder and glory and meaning and purpose, and one that’s filled with hatred and enmity, cannibalism and violence that’s red in tooth and claw.  The film — like the book — will not tell us which story is “true”.  The question the grownup Pi (who is recalling all of this to a writer in search of a story to tell) poses is: “Which story do you prefer?”  The answer is obvious: we would all prefer the story with the tiger.  A cannibalistic world is simply intolerable.  Pi’s answer is the great moral of the story: “And so it goes with God.”

After such an extraordinary story, some people of faith will find the moral of the story disappointingly superficial.  To be sure, it must not seem superficial to postmoderns who basically accept the same therapeutic view of religion.  Religion, in this view, provides us with metanarratives for our narratives, with cosmic stories that embrace and contextualize and clarify the beauty and purpose of our own stories.  Many of the less angry atheists will essentially accept this.  Whether or not religions are folly, they are valuable because they help people make sense of life and love and morality.

All of which is true.  There’s something to affirm here, and we might put it in CS Lewis’ famous analogy: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”  And of course it often is the case that the movement to faith is a movement of the will: sometimes we are so stripped of every assurance that the only thing remaining is the fierce determination to believe because we love the God we’re sometimes not sure exists.  And apart from God’s gracious self-revelation, a kind of benign therapeutic religious syncretism is probably the best we can manage.

By Lewis does not discard the important first part — “because I see it.”  God has revealed himself to humankind decisively and uniquely in the person of Jesus Christ.  We believe Christianity is true AND we believe that it helps us make sense of everything else.  So I believe that faith in Jesus Christ is empowering, healing, redemptive — BECAUSE it is true.  This does not mean that I believe every other religion is false.  I believe there are truths — deep truths, essential truths, and in some cases truths that Christians have forgotten — in other religions.  I love many people of many faiths, and I respect their right to make their own decisions just as God protects their freedom to love him or reject him.  But I believe that Christianity is uniquely true.  It’s unfashionable, it’s even regarded as immoral in some circles.  But there it is.  That’s what I believe.

The important point here, though, is that The Life of Pi is a major motion picture event that provokes us to ask such questions in the first place and discuss our answers with our friends.  That’s worth celebrating.  Try though I might (and my friend Christine Scheller makes a valiant effort here), I could not find a way of reading “And so it goes with God” without concluding that Yann Martel succumbs in the end to a view of religion that boils down to therapeutic convenience.  But it’s earnest and deeply felt.  It’s the cry of a person who has despaired of finding (or being grasped by) an ultimate answer, and yet it’s the cry of a person who desperately seeks the truth and desperately wants to believe that there is more to life than bloodstained teeth and claws.  And if that’s not exceedingly valuable, and the basis for an excellent conversation among friends, I don’t know what is.

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.

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