Monday, March 18, 2013

Life of Pi: Searching for the Better Story

Life of Pi recounts the story of Piscine Molitor Patel, mercifully known as Pi.  You can read the plot overview on Wikipedia; I'm not going to reinvent the Wiki wheel.  I will, however, highlight particular events that will lead us to the worldview embedded in this confusing, compelling story.

As a boy, Pi’s mother raises him as a Hindu. When he is fourteen, he begins to follow the teachings of Christianity and then of Islam, believing them all capable of teaching him something important about God. So, Hindu/Christian/Muslim. His father, a champion of reason, notes, "If you believe in everything, you believe in nothing." That's solid advice, but Pi seems far more motivated to embrace ideas based on personal experience, strong feelings and intuition. As a result, he does confusing things like a) embrace three contradictory notions of God and b) try to pet a tiger by luring it closer with a piece of raw meat. Think of these two events as related.

When his family and a bunch of their zoo animals head for Canada (read Wiki), a storm capsizes the ship, leaving Pi stranded on a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger named Richard Parker (the one he once tried to feed). Eventually only the tiger remains, and it is not inclined to share the space.

Pi ties a raft to the side of the lifeboat, and thus begins the heart of a mesmerizing story as they float for 227 days, fighting each other and the elements, surviving storms and carnivorous islands, and eventually making peace before finally landing on the shore of Mexico.

Insurance company representatives visit Pi in the hospital to find out what happened. They don’t believe his incredible story, so Pi quietly tells them a much darker one. It’s a horrible story of human atrocity, with a murderer and cannibal (the hyena) who preys upon Pi’s mother and another sailor (the zebra and orangutan) while Pi (the tiger) waits too long to intervene, then becomes a violent killer to destroy the evil on the boat. They believe that one.
The events in Life of Pi are told as a flashback. The narrative unfolds as an older, wiser Pi tells his story to a reporter (in the novel the reporter is the author, Yann Martel). After hearing of the interview in the hospital, the reporter asks him which version is the true one. Pi responds, “Which is the better story?” The reporter chooses the one with the tiger. Pi smiles and says sagely, “So it is with God.”

 In other words, we learn about God through various religious stories. Martel has said in an interview, "Reality is how we interpret it. Imagination and volition play a part in that interpretation. Which means that all reality is to some extent a fiction." Pi told a true story about his experience on the sea through imagination and imagery that was to some extent fiction; religious people tell a true story about God in the same way.

As a Christian, I believe God loves to engage our imagination. C.S Lewis once wrote about what he called True Myth, myth become fact, the time in human history when all the deepest longings and hopes of humanity that had been expressed through classic mythology found their incarnation in one person: Jesus Christ.
 "Christians also need to be reminded . . . that what became Fact was a Myth, that it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. . . . We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic . . . shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight."
Jesus himself, the concrete manifestation of both Truth and Myth, used allegories and stories to explain greater truths. He said he was a door (John 10:9), a shepherd (John 10:11), the light (John 8:12), a lamb (John 1:29), bread (John 6:51), and a vine (John 15:1). He used images and parables with an audience that loved stories. God loves the imagination.

But God also asks us to engage the rational part of our minds. If imagination and storytelling reflect God’s creativity, logic and critical thinking reflect the orderliness and truthfulness of God's nature.
  • "To know wisdom and instruction, to discern the sayings of understanding, to receive instruction in wise behavior, righteousness, justice and equity; to give prudence to the naive, to the youth knowledge and discretion.  A wise man will hear and increase in learning, and a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel." (Prov. 1:2–5).
  • “A simple man believes anything, but a prudent man gives thought to his steps.” (Proverbs 14:15)
  • “It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.” (Proverbs 19:2)
  • “Test everything. Hold on to the good.” ( 1 Thessalonians 5:21)
  • “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” ( 1 John 4:1 )
As Greg Koukl has pointed out,
 “Christianity has always considered itself to be a knowledge tradition.  The Biblical writers offered evidence so that we can know and have confidence about what took place.  Faith is laying hold personally of the significance of those things that took place, not the way we come to know them.  We don't take a "leap of faith."  Faith is a reasonable act of entrusting ourselves to a God who we can rationally conclude has acted on our behalf in history.  Faith and logic aren't incompatible, they are partners.”
The basic claim of Life of Pi is that all religions are an exercise of imagination, but not rationality. They all tell us stories about God that are in some way true, and thus are equally valid. Rather than replicating large charts on this post, I encourage you to click herehere, and here to see why this cannot be so. Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One is not perfect, but it provides a thorough analysis of the incompatibility of competing religious claims (you can read a review here).

All religions tell us a story about God, that much is true. But just because they all claim to be true does not mean they all are. They can't possibly be. No amount of imagination can dispel this dilemma. Perhaps Mr. Martel recognizes this. In an interview with Big Think, he stated that "faith isn’t necessarily a belief in things, it’s just an openness to believing something." Anything, I guess. Though he was raised in a thoroughly secular home and studied philosophy in a college that crafted people to become "rabidly agnostic," the combination of visiting India and working in palliative care caused him to reconsider religion. His conclusion:
"Why not believe in whatever? You know, whatever? Jesus, Buddha, any one of these?  Why not believe that someone transcendentally loves you? Why not believe that? And so why not live that way? To entertain that notion that the operating principal of the universe is love? Why not believe that? In the meantime, still be reasonable, you know, still use reason to improve your life, but once reason fails you, why not believe in this great plan, you know, this great cosmic plan where ultimate realization is this massive act of love.  Why not?
Why not? "Because wishing does not make it so" leaps to mind. As a Christian, I hear this often in relation to my faith.  Because my faith is built upon a foundation that includes testable evidence, I offer reasons and arguments in response to the accusation.  Responding to critics with "Why not?" is hardly a compelling defense. "Whatever" is not a stabilizing object of belief.

In the realm of imagination, a "Why not?" perspective can be the cornerstone of a compelling story. It certainly is in Life of Pi.  In the realm of meaning and reason, however, it provides a foundation that must crumble under the weight of truth. As a friend of mine noted, Pi survives in the moment and in the years that follow because he chooses self-delusion instead of reality. Why not?  "Whatever" can be a god and a reality of your own making, I suppose. That's the kind of story that looks really cool on a big screen, but looks very unsettling when it unfolds in the real world.

The movie is stunning. The story feels like a mythological epic, and scene after scene capture a sense of its sweeping, mystical nature. I love fictional fantasy done with excellence, and I embrace truth wherever I can find it. Stories like this seek to show us beauty in the midst of chaos, life in the shadow of death, and hope in the depths of despair. For those reasons, I thoroughly enjoyed the art and narrative of Life of Pi.

But imagination can at times blind us to reality, and even the most compelling stories can be misleading. For those reasons, one of the differences between good and great stories is that great stories are also true. As C.S Lewis once said, "In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are."

Perhaps that is the core of my uneasiness with the movie. It settles for "the facts as they are for us" instead of "the facts as they are." Reality, however, does not seem inclined to bow to our wishful thinking, no matter how creative or heartfelt.  Truth matters. It is only in the company of Truth that we can see and acknowledge life as it really is in all its broken beauty.


  1. The visuals are solid, the character is well developed, the story and its message is deep and meaningful, the acting is fantastic and the music is a wonder to listen to. I wouldn't say it’s perfect, but it still is worth the watch. Good review Anthony.

  2. Thanks! I agree - it's a beautiful film. I wish more entertainment was produced wtih as much excellence.

  3. We just saw the film and really loved it. I agreed with your excellent review, Anthony (the parts I could understand). ;) I agreed with's comment as well.