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Religion & Pi

I saw Ang Lee's new motion picture Life of Pi over the Thanksgiving weekend. The movie has generated some buzz, partly for its stunning visuals, but mostly because of its approach to religion & faith. It is the latter portion that I'd like to discuss. Just a friendly warning: If you haven't yet seen the film, and are thinking of going, then don't continue reading. Y'all know the drill.

Life of Pi is bookended by present day scenes featuring a struggling author at the home of an adult Piscine "Pi" Patel, who is telling him a story in hopes that it can give the author something good to write about. The story is of Pi's upbringing in a zoo run by his father, of his search for God by studying and experiencing various religions, and of his survival alone at sea for several months. That's the nuts & bolts of the film (adapted from the novel by Yann Martel), but it doesn't really tell you much about it.

There are some who maintain that Life of Pi is a deeply spiritual film. I'm not so sure. As a boy, Pi is desperate to find and understand religion. His struggles on a lifeboat test and intensify his faith. When he tells his story to the author, he describes his ordeal as first sharing the boat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger. The first three are soon dispatched, leaving just he and the tiger to suffer together until, finally, they reach land.

Part of Pi's story, however, is how people don't believe his tale of a miniature Noah's Ark, and so he then tells a different story, of how there were three people, not three animals, that joined him on the lifeboat and then perished, and how there was no tiger. The tiger was instead a representation of himself. Adult Pi then asks the author which story he prefers, and the author replies, "The one with the animals." I think I do, too, although I suspect it is fiction.

While some folks look upon Life of Pi as a film that explores religion in its many facets, some have criticized it for employing a 'bait & switch,' in that the emergence of the second story (the one with the people instead of the animals) undermines any religious emphasis, and instead employs an atheist's view that people of faith delude themselves into believing myths and parables in order to cope with life, rather than simply dealing with reality head-on. I can see this. I can also see a different way of looking at it.

Perhaps Pi had to tell the story of people, and not animals, because it is difficult for some folks to believe in miracles? The first people whom Pi tells his story to counter him by saying things like, "Bananas don't float," and "Orangutans can't swim," in an attempt to discredit him. Admittedly, I am such a person when it comes to religion. Most atheists are. But that doesn't mean we are correct, simply that we are unwilling to believe, to have faith. Perhaps this is what Life of Pi is all about -- giving us two explanations for things, and then asking us which one do we believe is true.

Of course, the movie may in fact be dealing a gentle blow to religion after all, and a clue to this may be found during an early portion of the film, when Pi's mother tells he and his brother a fable of the young god Krishna. He is forbidden from eating some fruit, but does it anyway. His mother asks him to open his mouth and, when she does, is astonished at what she sees:
She bent forward to peer more closely and lo! she felt herself to be whirling in space, lost in time, for inside the baby mouth was seen the whole universe of moving and unmoving creation, the earth and its mountains and oceans, the moon and the stars, and all the planets and regions.
One wonders if the inclusion of Krishna's story within Life of Pi is not by accident? After all, we are given a similarly extraordinary story later on by Pi, himself. Is it not hard to believe that Krishna's mother really didn't witness the entirety of the universe and creation within her son's mouth? In the Judeo-Christian Bible, are we really to believe that people were turned into pillars of salt? That the Earth was flooded and one man and an Ark saved two of every species?

Or are we attuned to the probability that we tend to dabble in fables in order to explain our reality? That, sometimes, we need to believe in strange and impossible things just enough that it carries us through the day, or, in fact, our life? Perhaps, at its core, Life of Pi really is about a boy whose conscience is somehow eased by the notion that he shared a lifeboat with a tiger for several months, rather than spending it alone with himself.

Then again, maybe miracles really do happen.


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