Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Life of Pi and Christ the King

About eight years ago I attended my first-ever book club meeting, and at that meeting one of the members gave a review of the book Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The reviewer did an outstanding job elucidating the themes of the novel, but in doing so divulged so much of the storyline that I decided I needed to have ample time to forget what he’d said about the book before I ever read it myself. Alas, that never really happened, but seeing the trailers for the Life of Pi movie became impetus enough for me to find a copy of the book and read it anyway. I figured I wanted to have the book’s version of the story in my mind before I corrupted it with Director Ang Lee’s adaptation. And so I got my hands on a copy of the book and finished it quickly so I could see the film on its opening weekend, which happened to coincide with the weekend of the liturgical festival of Christ the King.

Overall, I was fairly pleased with the director’s outcome. I was worried when the opening credits claimed it would be “based on” the novel by Yann Martel—such a wording suggested, at least to me, that it might stray too far from the book plot and what the book’s author was trying to say. However, the basic thrust of the book was pretty much left intact. Admittedly, the book presents some significant filming and storytelling challenges. There are constantly switching of points-of-view, complex philosophical subject matter communicated through a wordy narrator, and the almost unrealistic scenario of a teenage boy and a Bengal Tiger spending over 200 days as castaways together on a lifeboat in the Pacific. That said, the movie does a pretty good job, especially on the first and third points. The flashback scenes do not get too confusing, and the visuals are stunning. It is on that second point, however, where the movie gets a little too thin, and that’s what I found most interesting about the book.

“Thank you. So it is with God.” That line, taken directly from the novel, comes right at the end of the story and is basically the sole theological statement from Martel’s novel that makes it into the film. That is a shame. I find that one brief remark is not enough in spurring moviegoers to ponder what the novel gets its readers to do. When Pi asks the young struggling writer (in the movie) and the Japanese insurance investigators (in the novel) which version of the lifeboat story they prefer, Martel is essentially asking the reader to examine and weigh the competing stories of truth and authority in his or her own life. In other words, if the novel asks a question, it would be “Which story will you live by?” The character of Pi, whose life and witness intends to offer an apology of sorts for religious truth, is pleased when they choose the more fantastic and uplifting—yet equally improvable—version. What the novel manages to include (and the film does not) is the back story regarding Pi’s thoughts on religion and story in general. People who only see the film are likely to hear Pi’s summary line and surmise that the movie is a statement on the fairy tale falsity of all religions. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to the book.

Life of Pi is a thoroughly post-modern tale. That is, it begins head-on with the realization that that in our day and age no overarching narrative or story can be fully proved, which presents a huge problem in this post-Enlightenment era when verifiable facts are “king.” Gone, too, are the days of absolute trust in the historical claims of religion (if they ever really existed at all—but that is a question for another time). No one can “prove” the existence of God, but neither can anyone prove that a purely scientific worldview helps someone lead a better life. Likewise, some may find God and religion a cop-out when it comes to explaining the origin and purpose of life. Science, however, has been shown to fall short of that agenda, too.

This is represented best by the bumbling Japanese insurance investigators in the film and the novel. The dry and clumsy investigators may be able to use science to verify certain immediate factual claims about life—like, for example, whether bananas float (an important scene left out of the film)—but they will never be able to discover why the freighter Tsimtsum sank in the first place. Even if they were to locate the wreckage at the bottom of the Pacific, the shattered hull and rusty ship components would likely offer few clues as to how it all went down. And there are other related questions that may shed light on the matter, but all their answers just as elusive: who was in charge of the ship when it sank, or just before? Why were the animals out of their cages running around on the deck? These are all the chief concerns for science and its accompanying authority of verifiable fact, but ultimately they are unresolvable, unable to be proven. This applies to the same questions about the beginning of the universe and the meaning of all life. Science can only answer such questions in a proximate manner—getting us ever closer to the source, but never really there, and never really being able to prove anything “once and for all,” anyway.

Pi—and one would assume Martel (but not Ang Lee?)—is more concerned then with the life that occurs after that universe comes into existence. That is, Pi’s fascination with religion and God end up helping him live more fully in the time after the ship sinks. Through this experience, and his recollection of it, he is able to see that everyone lives by a story. Everyone lives by an authority, whether they admit to it or not. His brother Ravi is therefore just as religious as he is, even though Ravi does not believe in God and thinks Pi’s love for it is silly . Ravi’s religion—his story and authority--are sport and fitness. The story his mother “prefers” is family history and heritage. His father, like the Japanese insurance investigators, has chosen science. Only Pi has really awakened to the fact that his religion(s) and belief in God have opened his quest for authority and truth to the ultimate questions: Why am I here? Who is behind all of this? To whom do I belong? How do I live a good life? And so on. When Pi says, “Thank you. So it is with God,” he is not rejecting the usefulness of scientific discovery or the types of fulfillment found, for example, in sports. Rather, he is revealing that the authority provided by faith is a better way to understand and grapple with the joys and tragedies of the real human existence, the historical truth-claims of various religions notwithstanding. Therefore, in a thoroughly post-modern sense, it is true.

And so taking in the messages of Life of Pi on Christ the King weekend provided for a nice coincidental lens by which to view both. I’d be surprised if Ang Lee did that on purpose. You see, the western Christian commemoration of Christ the King is a liturgical festival essentially about authority and which—or, better yet, whose—story we will all ultimately live by. It was placed on the calendar in the early twentieth century (ironically, coming to rest in 1965 at its current place at the end of the church year at the same time the plot in Life of Pi takes place) as a way to counter the rise of secularism and its ugly step-siblings fascism and Marxism. It was a statement, in the face of science’s rapidly rising confidence, that facts were not “king.” Christ is. The emphasis of the festival is on Christ’s humble authority as displayed on the cross, but also on the fact that the truth offered in Christ’s life—sacrificial love, the power of meekness, the steadfast obedience to God’s will rather than one’s own—is the truth that all the universe will ultimately live by, the truth to which Christians believe all must one day testify. Just as Pontius Pilate was left wondering what kind of king Jesus might be and what the nature of his truth was, if we are honest with ourselves, we all struggle at some point with the ultimate questions of life and life-defining authority…not the technicalities of how the big ship went underwater, but how to live a beautiful life once we’re trapped on the boat with the tiger and, at long last, safely make our way to land. Pi has figured out that God is the only one who can truly help us do that, as irrational as that sounds to the unbeliever's ear. As he tells his inspiring story and makes his apology for religion, Pi's patience with the  doubt of young writer and the insurance investigators is great. May Christ, our long-suffering King, display similar patience with ours.


davebuehler said...

Nice blog post! Sorry it took me til now to find it! I think you and i are two Lutheran Fallibilists when it comes to the struggle to nasil everything down neatly and in "perfect" order. Have you read much G.E.M. Anscombe or Brian Davies....or Hilary Putnam [Collapse of Fact/Value Dichotomy] ? All Greats!

Happy New Year, Dave B├╝hler

Unknown said...

Yes, the book is always better than the movie. :-)

Fun to have found your blog.

My "Life of PI" movie review:

Blessings on your work.