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The Life Of Pi, a beautiful lie

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— Warning: Spoilers below —

The power of pictures has never been so clear. The Hobbit can sweep you away to another world. Les Misérables can lead you to cry alongside the suffering in the gutters of Paris. And Life Of Pi can take you on a profound spiritual journey with a Bengal tiger. But our enjoyment depends upon a willing suspension of disbelief, and in the case of Pi the forgetfulness called for includes everything Jesus had to say about life on earth.

Life Of Pi is the story of Piscine Patel, a young boy who grows up in his father’s zoo in Pondicherry, India. Political unrest leads his father to sell their animals and relocate to Canada. However the Japanese freighter carrying Pi’s family sinks in a storm, leaving the boy alone in a lifeboat with a ravenous tiger called Richard Parker. During their 227 day journey Pi comes to terms with not only his dangerous companion but the loss of his family and the undeniable love of God.

Life of Pi would be judged a beautiful film by any standard thanks to director Ang Lee, but not since Avatar has a movie managed to used 3D in a way that actually enhances the story overall. The film conjures up both the beauty and desolation of the Pacific Ocean described by Yann Martel in the Man-Booker Prize winning novel that inspired the movie. If I have one regret it’s that Lee did too good a job transferring Martel’s guiding philosophy.

In both book and film Pi claims to be a devotee of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. His encounter with each religion deepens his understanding of the divine so that he can say, “Thank you Vishnu for introducing me to Christ.” But he chooses to ignore the obvious contradictions even though his father warns him that, “Believing in everything at the same time is the same as believing as nothing.” But rather than moving away from rationality, we’re led to believe that Pi’s combination of all faiths is a true epiphany. As an adult he describes his conclusion to a visiting writer:

Pi: Faith is a house with many rooms.

Writer: But no room for doubt?

Pi: Oh plenty, on every floor. Doubt is useful, it keeps faith a living thing. After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it is tested.

But even though Pi’s faith is tested to the extreme, it fails to find any firm foundation. Life of Pi is a thoroughly western catechism, a belief system that concentrates solely on how the divine makes us feel. It dips into the world’s religions and retrieves only those parts that impress us individually. Hinduism gives us super heroes, Christianity the kind face of Jesus and Islam chants that make us feel closer to God. It is in short the IKEA of religions, assembled from a number of flat-packs without much attention to the instructions.

The real pity is that Life Of Pi actually hits on one profound point that deserves an ‘Amen’: tragedy is more often an argument for God than a proof of His non-existence. During a terrifying storm Pi screams to Heaven, “I’ve lost my family, I’ve lost everything! What more do you want?!” But in time he realizes that every day onward is a gift of God. Even the terrifying Richard Parker, his ‘fierce companion’ keeps him alive. Even when God seemed most indifferent, He is still providing the necessities to preserve Pi’s life and open a door for their relationship.

Fans of the book will be happy to know the movie preserves the novel’s best moment. When Pi tells the writer interviewing him there is an alternative, more mundane but equally horrifying explanation as to how he survived, he finishes their time together with a simple question:

Pi: So which story do you prefer?

Writer: The one with the tiger. That’s the better story.

Pi: Thank you. And so it goes with God.

– because God still chooses the best story for us, even though it may include great loss. And as a Christian I’m drawn to think of Romans 8:28 and agree wholeheartedly that Jesus leads us along the most merciful paths even in the midst of the most profound suffering. But sadly the author means something far simpler. God operates on a different level to us and His beauty can be perceived both in creation and the way He deals with us – but that is all. He has no plan for salvation because there is nothing to save us from except our ignorance of the divine.

Like the book The Life Of Pi is both epic and empty – a beautiful lie. We can project Christian meaning on it and use it to reflect Christian truths but its own perspective is that Christianity does not matter and Jesus’ sacrifice, the innocent for the guilty, makes no sense. The most important thing is knowing God is there, not listening to Him.

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Bonus reading! In 2004 Greg Clarke (now Bible Society Australia CEO) wrote a combined review of Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Tim Winton’s Dirt Music. Read the review over at CASE. Click here.

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