The Life of Pi

Visually stunning, spiritually confusing. The Life of Pi is the story of Pi, a young Indian boy whose family owns a zoo in India. Because of political troubles in the country, the father puts his family and animals on a ship to Canada with the hopes to sell the animals to America and start their life over. Unfortunately, the ship sinks in a perfect storm and only Pi survives in a life boat – with a Bengal tiger.

Well, the movie is really so much more than that. Because you see, it begins with Pi as an older thirtysomething telling his story to a writer. And he explains in the very beginning that this is a story that will help him to find God. So that is the stated purpose of the story right from the start. We see Pi as a young boy who is curiously spiritual. His father is a secular humanist who lost any faith when western medicine cured his polio instead of his gods doing so. Pi’s mother remains a Hindu who believes in millions of gods. So there is that unity of opposites set up to contrast the extremes fighting for the soul of the boy. Atheism versus religion. Reason versus Revelation. We see Pi as a young boy explaining how he was raised as a Hindu but then found Jesus Christ. Yes, he explains how a Catholic priest led him to realize that Jesus Christ died for his sins and faith in Jesus atoned for his sins (In a church as full of icons and statues of deity as any Hindu temple). Pretty plain and clear.

Only there’s just one more thing. Pi THEN discovers Islam and becomes a Muslim, citing “Allahu Akbar” (a phrase that if one hears today, one should dive for cover). It’s as if he is “trying out” every religion in his spiritual quest. He is teased for being a Hindu Christian Muslim and eventually a Jew too as he teaches Kabbala at the university. From then on, it’s always a generic reference to “god,” Except once when we see Pi pray to the Hindu deity Vishnu for providing himself as a life giving fish on the stranded lifeboat. So he remains a polytheist. In essence this is a story of multiculturalism, or the attempt to show the legitimacy of all religious narratives as a part of the truth, much like the story of the blind men and the elephant.

The theological underpinnings of multiculturalism is polytheism. That is, all roads to lead to god or the gods or the goddesses, or whatever “non-offensive” term you use of your deity or your ultimate or your whatever. One cannot propose that one’s own religion is superior to others because they are all “masks of god,” and to suggest one religion is true and the others are false is religious imperialism. This is why relativism is the epistemology, and often ontology, of multiculturalism. The only absolute is that there are no absolutes. It is not hard to see the self-refuting nature of such ludicrous ideas but many still hold to the fairy tale of relativism in today’s pomo culture that seeks to intolerantly oppress all absolute worldviews in the name of tolerance. Well, really mostly only the oppression of the Judeo-Christian worldview because for some reason multiculturalists seem to be often anti-Semitic and anti-Christian and to protect Muslim absolutism because it is an arch-enemy of Judeo-Christianity (the enemy of my enemy and all that). Which is ironic, since Multiculturalists are among the first to be eliminated under Sharia law, along with their compatriots: Feminists, homosexuals, atheists, and intellectuals. But that is another story.

So the entire story is like Castaway on the ocean, but with a young kid, a tiger, and as it turns out, a wounded zebra, a hyena and an orangutan. One by one, they die and the kid is left alone with this tiger, who rules the boat and forces the kid to live on a little raft he put together tied to the boat a safe distance away. This is kind of a parable about man and nature as the boy learns to live and let live with the tiger, helping each other to survive. It’s all part of the current “spirit of the age” or zeitgeist of environmentalism and animal rights. It’s a dominant theme in Hollywood from Avatar to the Lorax to the upcoming Noah and a multitude of corporate conspiracies: Man must learn to coexist with nature in a symbiotic relationship. Okay, I’m all for animal movies, and I love “dogs are people too” stories just as much as the next guy. Anthropomorphising animals is in our souls (more on that in a second). But let’s not be stupid. The Romantic notion that harmony can be found by man submitting to the chaos of nature is pure foolishness. The best movie that operates as a parable that depicts this foolishness and its consequences in reality is Grizzly Man which is a true story about the fool who thought he was the protector of the Grizzlies in Alaska, only to be eaten by one. Nature is to be tamed by man through technology and conservation and planned administration. That was the point of Genesis in tending the garden, and of being given “dominion over nature” and the command by God to “subdue it.” Because nature is unruly and man is the one who can harness it for good through application of his control over it. This does not justify pollution or criminal negligence of the environment (It never did), but neither does it justify the pagan idolatry of the earth that seeks to place man as a servant of the earth rather than the earth as a servant of man.

But maybe the movie is hinting at this same point.

At the very end of the story, we discover that Pi’s story was not believed by the insurance adjusters who sought the reason for the ship sinking. They could never find out why it did sink, but they pushed Pi into telling them a story that was not so unbelievable that they could use for their insurance claims. Finally, Pi then tells the story of himself and several other human survivors on his boat, his wounded mother, a couple others and a mean ship’s cook who ended up killing the other dying survivors. And then we learn that maybe, just maybe, the animal story was an allegory of what really happened and that Pi told the story with animals because the reality was too painful to face. Each of the animals represented different people who survived on the lifeboat. We never really know for sure if that is the case, but Pi concludes by asking the writer, and us, “Which story is the better story?” The animals of course. And then he says, “Now you understand God” or something to that effect. So, I see this movie saying that stories about God are the way that we “cover” the harshness of reality for us to be able to survive with hope in a brutal world.

But I think the claim is equally applicable toward the secularist or materialist. I think that the materialist paradigm is used to construct naturalist narratives of explaining away spiritual reality in order to salve the guilty consciences of people into thinking that they are not ultimately responsible before their Creator for their actions. The depravity of mankind is so thoroughly a part of who we are that we deceive ourselves to avoid accepting moral responsibility. The guilty are always looking for loopholes and telling stories that justify themselves. But I would certainly agree that the harsh reality of life dominated by suffering is hard to understand in a universe created by God. It’s one of the dominant themes of all my storytelling as well (It’s the meta-theme of my Chronicles of the Nephilim saga). Jesus used parables (and so did the Prophets) to conceal from the hard-hearted, but to reveal to the open-hearted, because God’s Kingdom could best be understood by finite fallen humanity by way of imaginative analogy. It’s not that we “mythologize” this life to avoid harsh reality, but rather that we need imagination to understand ultimate reality that is beyond this suffering life and our comprehension of it. I write about this in my new book, Myth Became Fact: Storytelling, Imagination and Apologetics in the Bible.

But there is another side to this story. Remember the kid’s father? The secular humanist? Well, he taught Pi a lesson one day to show him that nature is not man’s friend. Pi thought to give a chunk of meat to befriend the Bengal tiger in the zoo. The tiger appeared to be cautiously ready to receive the meat from the boy’s hands through the cage bars. But his father pulled him away before anything could happen. Then he showed the boy a live goat at the cage entrance and how the tiger grabbed the goat and killed it and ate it. So his point was that we are deluded to see ourselves in the reflections of the eyes of the animals. Anthropomorphism is a self-delusion. Nature is red in tooth and claw. So the anti-anthropomorphism of the father was internalized in the boy when he recast the lifeboat human scenario as animals. In other words, maybe the delusion lies in thinking man is superior to the animals. Pi does reverse anthropomorphism because the humans had acted more like animals than the other way around.

So this is a complex narrative about how we tell our stories to understand what is incomprehensible to us. On the one hand, I detest the modern/postmodern rejection of reality as a mere construct of fiction storytelling, yet, I certainly agree that reality cannot be fully accessed through empirical senses and “brute” experience or “raw facts.” Ain’t no such things. And “meaning” transcends observation. God transcends observation and is understood through story (after all, the Bible is a metanarrative embodied in a collection of narratives about God at work in his people). But The Life of Pi seemed to say that the story is more important than “what really happened,” which has a ring of manipulation to it. After all, all manner of evil has been perpetrated by false narratives (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Das Capital, etc.). For Christians, the claim of atonement for sins is based on a historically factual resurrection from the dead by Jesus Christ. If his resurrection was “just a story” and did not really happen, then we are still dead in our sins. However, a bodily resurrection without the narrative of Israel’s Messiah behind it means nothing. It is a mere scientific oddity.

So I certainly agree that we access meaning through the story, not through mere empirical or rational accuracy. And therein lies the movie’s thoughtful challenge. It is not so much the nature of fiction in our storytelling that would concern me about The Life of Pi as it is its polytheism and relativism related to God. It’s the god talk that has problems, not the story talk. After all, most storytellers tell stories about reality that are clothed in fictional terms because to express them outright would cause hostility from the blind prejudices of the audience. Explaining hard reality in other terms that an audience can relate to is a universal storytelling axiom. In the end, affirming a contradictory polytheism is a spiritually detrimental worldview to be communicating through that fiction.

But boy, does The Life of Pi make you think. And I like that.