From the very beginning, The Life of Pi (which opened yesterday) promises to be a story about God. But God, in the ethos of this beautiful movie directed by Ang Lee, is difficult to pin down.
Pi is an equal opportunity believer. He grew up in the Hindu faith, so he considers himself as a Hindu. He’s wowed by Christ and Christianity after encountering a kindly priest, and shortly thereafter asked his cynical father if he could be baptized. But he loves Islam, too—or, at least, the sound of Islam as its prayers fall from his lips as he bows toward Mecca. And throughout the film, we get a sense that God—for Pi at least—is found less in one religion than in all of them. Or perhaps none of them. And if we read the end of the movie as cynically as possible (no spoilers here) God is who we want or need Him to be.
I’m not such a cynic, but it’s clear that The Life of Pi features some spiritual themes that are simply non-starters for Christians. Pi tells us that Hindus believe in a pantheon of 33 million gods, so one more maybe isn’t that big of a deal. But we Christians are told pretty explicitly that there’s just one way to reach God, and that’s through Jesus. If we try any other path, we’re just kidding ourselves.
But while I don’t think The Life of Pi gets the theology quite right, the way faith feels here is, I think, pretty beautiful.
The core story’s simple: After his ship crashes, Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a giant Bengal tiger named Richard Parker—not an ideal survival scenario. But survive he does for more than eight months (according to the book; I don’t think the movie’s so specific), fighting hunger and thirst and storms and Richard Parker’s fearsome teeth until his boat comes to rest on the coast of Mexico.
But here’s the thing: Pi’s improbable survival story is just the merest shell of the real tale here. To say that The Life of Pi is about surviving for eight months with a tiger is like saying the meaning of marriage can be conveyed through a wedding album, or the birth of a son could be fully communicated through a Facebook post.
Pi isn’t just floating toward Mexico: He’s on a spiritual odyssey. In Pi’s mind, it’s not just he and Richard Parker in the boat. God’s with them, too—in the wind, the water, the world around them.
Throughout the film, we see Pi show his gratitude toward God for everything he’s been given—even in this horrific situation. He thanks God for the fish that flop in the boat and for the bit of pencil that allows him to keep a diary. He even expresses his gratitude for Richard Parker (even though the tiger would be unlikely to return the favor). "My fear of him keeps me alert," Pi says. "Tending to his needs gives me purpose." Without Richard Parker, Pi believes he would’ve died long ago.
It’s a beautiful reminder for us (particularly as we head into Thanksgiving tomorrow) that we have much to be thankful for, even if we feel like we’re stuck in a lifeboat ourselves, tigers breathing down our necks.
But Pi’s God is no comforting deity-in-a-box, a talisman for tough times. As C.S. Lewis’ Mr. Beaver might say, he’s not a tame lion, anymore than Richard Parker’s a tame tiger. As Pi’s voyage goes on, everything that Pi depended on—the boat’s store of food, his water collection devices, even that stubby old pencil—are swept away, leaving Pi seemingly with nothing: Nothing but the boat, Richard Parker and God Himself.
There’s something troubling but deeply profound in this—the idea of Pi being stripped of everything. The movie doesn’t tell us explicitly that God is the cause. But I think in some ways, it makes sense.
See, if there is an antagonist in The Life of Pi, it’s not the tiger: It’s man—or rather, man’s pride that, in the end, he can save himself.
Pi’s father is a man of reason. He calls all religion “darkness” and rolls his eyes at his son’s sincere religiosity. And while reason and science have its place (Pi says later he would not have survived his ordeal without his father’s instructive grounding) it can’t save you. Not really.
It’s telling that all his father’s plans (and his ship) sink above the Marianas Trench—the deepest, darkest part of the world. Despite the fact that the freighter cruises with (as we hear) the quiet confidence of a continent, its technology and bulk cannot withstand the spiritual storm. It goes down and Pi’s small lifeboat—perhaps representing the faith that Pi’s father mocked—is the only thing that stays afloat.
But in that boat, Pi still has tools that are, metaphorically at least, of his father. The life vests. The instructional book full of survival advice. The foodstuffs and cannisters of water. All Pi needed for survival appears to come from the muscle and ingenuity of man. Perhaps, had Pi survived with the aid of all that stuff, there might’ve been some doubt as to who Pi owed his life to: the authors of his survival book? Or the Author of all?
And so, in this merciless, metaphorical world, Pi needed to have everything stripped away. He was Noah in the ark, Joseph in the well, Lazarus in his tomb. As Pi’s strength failed and even Richard Parker grew feeble, it was clear whose hands they were in, whose mercy they depended on. And, when Pi thought he was as good as dead, he once again gave thanks.
Pi survived, of course: It’s no spoiler to say so. And in the end, we all heave a sigh of relief, knowing that Pi made it through such a horrific ordeal.
And yet, maybe we feel a little envious, too. Or, at least, I do. Not that I ever want to be stuck in a boat with a Bengal tiger, mind you … but in the midst of Pi’s terrible trials, he was surrounded by God’s power, His beauty, His love.
Celtic Christians used to talk about the thin places—spots in their world where the membrane between heaven and earth was thinner, where God’s presence could be more easily felt. I think that, perhaps, most of us have felt a “thin place” in our walks—moments where we could feel the very presence of the Almighty, and it took our breath away. Perhaps it was in a moment of prayer or tumult. Maybe it took you by surprise. I’ve been surprised like that a time or two.
In my own Christian walk, I sometimes feel a bit like Pi’s father. Yes, I have faith—but sometimes it’s a reasonable faith, a measured faith, one that doesn’t make too many demands. I fit that faith snugly with the rest of my life, like a can of crackers on a lifeboat. My faith becomes a tool, one of many.
And then, in the heart of a storm or in the glow of the dawn, I’m overwhelmed. Awed. And I remember that faith isn’t found in a box or in a building or even in a boat. It is not a thing to be used by me. No, it uses me. It is power and light and meaning. It is—He is—everything. And in that moment I, like Pi, find myself resting, helpless and loved, in the cup of His hand.