“Like Cloud Atlas, the Life of Pi is aesthetically fulfilling and philosophically vapid.” — Mike Duran, “The Aesthetics of Nonsense.”
I respect a lot of what Mike Duran thinks. In fact, even in this blog, I thought he had some good thoughts. But as one of the commenters said about the philosophical journey of the film, “I’m not so ready to cast off a step in that journey [of seeking truth] as some are, just because it’s incomplete.”
I can’t presume to know what the author of the book or creators of the movie intended the message to be. And perhaps that validates, Mike’s overall point: If we can’t tell what the message was, doesn’t that make it a poor message?
Then again, if an unclear message is a criticism, what do we say about the Bible? Clearly, God is not opposed to leaving a seeker with incomplete understanding–for a season at least.
So what did I get out of Pi that made me think it might not have been a waste? Even for a believer who has a Bible?
Now, I’m not one of those “let’s study other religions to see what they know about truth” Christians. In fact, I’m pretty sure God told us in the Torah not to ask how other people’s serve their gods. But when Paul came to Athens, though the rampant idolatry made him only to preach the harder, he mentions to the pagans of the city that he witnessed their devotions, even with enough detail to read the inscriptions on their altars. Paul was not seeking to emulate them, or learn from them, but neither was he whistling up into the clouds trying not to notice what was going on around him.
So if you’re going to Life of Pi looking for truth, you will be disappointed. But just as Paul used the inscription to the unknown God to introduce Yeshua to the people of Athens, I found several redeeming things in the movie. For one, while the movie depicts Pi as someone able to accept multiple religions (he ends up being a Hindi, Moslem, and Catholic), I appreciate the depicted relationship. I believe even a pagan seeking God will find him, so even before he knows His name, he is still in relationship.
So when Pi goes through the movie just assuming God is there, looking into a raging storm and calling out to God both to praise His awesome display of power, communing, and also asking hard questions that force the person to change–I see someone who isn’t far from the kingdom.
But what I found most redeeming was the end. Spoiler: Throughout the movie, Pi is telling about his time lost at sea with a tiger, escaping from a ship that sinks at sea for a cause unknown to him. At the end, he’s telling his interviewer (who came seeking a story that would make him believe in God) about his interview with the company that owned the ship. He tells his fantastic tale complete with supernatural overtones and a floating, man-eating island. Not surprisingly, the representatives don’t buy it, and ask for something that they can tell their company.
Pi pauses, then begins to tell the story again, but this time instead of all the miraculous stuff, the story is explained materially. A hyena that killed a zebra was actually the pig of a cook who cannibalized another man. The orangutan that fought the hyena briefly before being killed herself, was really his mother. The tiger that finally killed the hyena and spent the journey home with Pi, was Pi himself.
The interviewer and the audience are suddenly faced with doubt, that all they saw before was a lie. A fantasy of a damaged mind. Disappointment floods in. The interviewer takes it for granted that the matierlistic story is the true account. Then Pi points out that neither story explains why the ship went down, and both stories explain how he survived at sea all that way, but which is the better story? Which is the one that gives hope instead of despair? Which does the interviewer want to be true?
The interviewer smiles: the one with the tiger, he answers. Pi smiles back, “And so it goes with God.”
I found that answer incredibly profound. Some might be offended, am I saying that faith in God could be nothing but a pleasant fantasy? That’s one way to look at it, but let me offer another.
Despite having a plausible material explanation, the interviewer does think the supernatural story is better. In the larger world, can everything be explained without God? Sure. This is just the way it is. Random, chance outcome from unprovable but methodically constructed origins plays a chain of events devoid of direction, to bring about the human race and all its members. Everything can simply be explained as “that’s how it happened.” It’s just chance.
A shooting happens and it’s just chance that the gun jams allowing more people to escape alive. It’s just the way the cookie crumbled when someone from the world trade center towers called in sick on 9-11.
Yet, despite having perfectly plausible causes and effects, we see stories all around us. Meanings that we invest in events we claim have no intrinsic meaning. If everything is just chance, falling where it may, then a hero is no hero because even the choices they make are just chance. The first responders of 9-11 or the teacher at the latest school shooting is no different than a chicken crossing a road: just a person acting out their genes based on their life experience which only came about because they were randomly born on such and such a time and place.
Life is explainable without any mysticism. Yet we reach for something else . . .
The fact that we “have” an answer and it doesn’t satisfy makes no sense from a chance perspective. Or rather, the fact that it doesn’t satisfy doesn’t matter in a chance perspective because that’s it. Deal with it. And if you can’t, that’s just your luck. Sucks to be you.
The fact that even the most educated and well off among us, continue to seek for something more speaks volumes. No matter how you explain it, that the person is just acting out genes or seeking a fantasy to assuage a defect in their mind, the fact is they keep looking.
If there is no one out there, and my life is just chance, why should I seek that anyway? If a delusion better solves my life questions, why should I settle for a plausible explanation that does not?
And who gives a crap what you think anyway?
God is the better story, and that is tremendous. Whether God is real or not, He remains the better answer. It’s like a math question that no matter what you do always yields the same answer. Is the irresistible pull of the question of God evidence that we all enjoy a delusion and should choose to suffer disillusionment?
Or is it evidence that God wrote us with Him, as a relatable figure that no matter how deep we delude ourselves with other thinking, His part in the play still calls out. A story written so deep in us that no amount of human re-imagining can ever pry it loose.
That is why I don’t find The Life of Pi to be a waste.