Friday, February 22, 2013

Life of Pi – Contemporary Scripture in 3D

This coming Sunday evening is the annual Academy Awards extravaganza and the film, Life of Pi is up for 11 of them.  I read the book Life of Pi when it first came out ten years ago and loved it, especially the narrative of the protagonist’s journey through Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.  I was somewhat reluctant to see the film because films almost always disappoint when the book was really good, but to my delight, this film is very nearly as good as the book.  The Hindu Christian dialogue group here in Rochester decided to see the film and to use it as the basis for our February discussion.  I wondered as I watched the film how we Christians and Hindus might react differently to it, and whether our different religious perspectives, formed by different narratives and sustained by different practices and rituals, would impact how we interpreted the film. 

We had a meandering discussion of the film, surprisingly not focusing much on which of the two endings was “right” or which version of the survival tale we thought was the “real” one.  Having read a number of reviews of this film and accompanying comments, I notice that agnostic/atheist/humanist folks tend to prefer the “humanist” story, the second version that Pi tells to the Japanese insurance agents at the end, while religious people are much more comfortable with either story and with the ability to choose which story they want to “believe.”  For religious people, the “truth” is not based on empirical facts – was Pi in the boat with the Bengal tiger or was he actually alone and the Bengal tiger then represents aspects of his own inner self?  In our dialogue group, most of us are “religious” - Christians and practicing Hindus- so the idea that a story might be metaphorical while conveying “truth” is not difficult for any of us to swallow. 

We all could agree that the second story, the one where Pi is alone in the boat, is not really different from the first story, where Pi is surviving the 227 days at sea alongside a predatory Bengal tiger because we can accept the idea that the Bengal tiger, “Richard Parker” is symbolic of Pi’s inner “demons” or inner impulses towards aggression, domination, power and ruthlessness.  All religious traditions provide ways for human beings to conquer their own ego, to learn to tame the ego’s insatiable need for gratification and tendency towards aggression, so as to survive in society.  Either “ending” of the Pi story resonates for religious people, one providing a well crafted myth that explains the human condition in metaphorical terms, the other offering a more stripped down, factual account of the basic human existential crisis of survival.   Oddly enough, for religious people, both versions of the story are true and equally believable. 

For the Christians in our group, the story of Pi was reminiscent of the book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Pi, like Job, lost everything that mattered in the world to him.  Home, family, personal safety and well being – all gone in an instant and the survivor left to manage on the basis of his own wits and reason.  Like Job, Pi remained faithful to God throughout the ordeal, even when he was most emaciated and distressed, hungry, weak and near death.  And, like the story of Job, in the end, Pi, who lost everything in the shipwreck that took his family, is restored with a wife and family of his own, in the “new world” of Canada where he finally arrived after his rescue off of the Mexican beach.  

The protagonist in the film, the adult Pi who recounts the amazing story of his experience at sea with the Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger, tells the Canadian author to whom he offers the story that his tale would make him believe in God.  Pi, a Hindu Christian Muslim, is devout and faithful to God in many of God’s manifestations and is very much aware of the presence of God with him throughout the ordeal.  Both the Christians and the Hindus in our dialogue group could resonate with Pi’s faith in God and his resilience in the face of fearful challenges because of that faith.  Pi’s approach to the world is one of wonder and awe, even at those aspects of creation and the created order that are most brutal and threatening.  Pi is always sure of the existence of God so even when his world disintegrates he has the inner ability to survive against all odds.

Where the Christians and Hindus in our group did see things differently was the portrayal of Pi as a Hindu Christian Muslim.  For Hindus, the idea that the protagonist could simultaneously be a practioner/believer of three major faith traditions was not at all surprising.  Hindus are the original “pluralists.”  They have no trouble accepting the idea that one person could identify himself in all three traditions, since Hinduism recognizes millions of manifestations of God and contains within it such enormous diversity of belief and practice that for a person to take on Christianity and Islam on top of Hindu beliefs and practices does not pose any theological, philosophical or practical problems. The Christians in the group made note that our tradition does not allow for quite such multiple belonging, because the theological claims of Christianity are sufficiently exclusive that it is difficult to claim to be both Christian and something else.    Our Hindu members say “We’re all going to the same place, we are all worshipping the same God, we just use different methods to do so.”  Christians who consider themselves theological pluralists can agree with that Hindu perspective, but also recognize that much of the Christian world is less able to take such an expansive, pluralistic stance. Indeed, Christians are more likely to point out real differences of belief that make it difficult for most Christians to straddle more than one religious tradition at the same time.  Hinduism, a religion marked by diverse and varying practices supported by a sophisticated philosophical world view is more able to manage both/and thinking and “double belonging” while Christianity, with its tendency to emphasize right belief – orthodoxy- is less tolerant of multiple belonging.  

That Life of Pi has been so popular is testament to the global interfaith awakening that is happening in our modern world.  As Diana Butler Bass has written (Christianity After Religion) we are in a period of a Fourth Great Awakening and this one is global and interfaith.  Life of Pi exemplifies this new interfaith consciousness as it features a hero who straddles three major faith traditions, finding wisdom and strength and value in all three.  The fact that he intentionally identifies himself with all three also suggests that he understands the differences between them and finds richness in those differences.  He doesn't homogenize the traditions - he partakes of the nuances of each one.  

The Life of Pi is a compelling and haunting film.  There are multiple layers of meaning in every scene.  For people who consider themselves religious in whatever tradition, it is particularly powerful as it captures the raw brutality of the worst of human nature while simultaneously celebrating the salvific power of religious faith to triumph over the death fearing norm of biological existence.   Whatever the Academy decides on Sunday night, Life of Pi is an important and powerful film, a latter day piece of “scripture” conveying time honored truths about human beings and their “God.”