That was the final question Pi asks the writer chronicling his tale in the 2012 film The Life of Pi. Based on the novel by Yann Martel and directed by Ang Lee, the film beautifully explores the ideas of God and belief as Pi describes how events from his youth affected his worldview.
The first few times I watched this film, it was playing in the background as I attended other projects. At the beginning of the film, we are told that hearing Pi’s tale will help us believe in God. Like other great stories, the end has a twist, an epiphany, and a realization almost as sweet as the sound of one hand clapping. I left the movie feeling good.
But the third time I watched Pi, I went away with something else. This time, I watched more closely, I listened more carefully, and I thought more deeply.
The first time Pi tells his tale to investigating officials, it’s full of wonder. Unprovable events put Pi at the center of an unbelievable adventure where nature’s animals indeed become red in tooth and claw. But the story is full of wonder, it speaks to your imagination, and it allows for the miraculous.
When that story is rejected by investigators, he tells them another story. The details are different— the wonder and the animals are gone—but the outcome is the same.
And here is what changed when I watch this movie the third time: somehow, on the previous two occasions I had missed the final epiphany—the final line of the movie which brings everything together and reveals the golden nugget of wisdom promised in the beginning to help me believe in God.
When the writer reveals that he likes the story with the animals better, Pi responds:
“And so it is with God.”
The moment lingers, and the writer’s face expresses a moment of clarity, of understanding.
The Life of Pi is a popular book and an extremely successful movie. It has received great reviews and praise from high places. One fan even called it an “elegant proof of God.”
But what exactly is the message?
Belief in God makes for a better story.
While this might be true, it is far from a proof of God and more closely resembles wishful thinking. We are told at the beginning that the story will help us believe God. However, Pi’s life lesson helped me only to believe that God is an interesting concept.
I wanted to love The Life of Pi because it’s fun, it’s stimulating, and it’s great storytelling. But it belongs not next to the book of Proverbs, but as a chapter in Aesop’s Fables. It continues the lie of another beast prowling around like a roaring lion.
It’s the lie that we cannot know what is true about God.
In both narratives of life—the one with God and the one without—we die, and the events which come after cannot be proven. But we can attain knowledge of things while we are alive, and knowledge is dependent upon truth. If we cannot know truth, then we cannot know anything.
Can the theology of Pi affect how we live our lives?
Not long ago, a real-world event paralleled the story of The Life of Pi. Four Americans were killed during an attack on the consulate in Benghazi in 2012.
We were given two stories about what led to the American deaths. When some were asked about the two different stories, they responded not with “which story do you prefer?” But rather:
“What difference does it make?”
What difference does the truth make?
There is more to life than outcomes, and good ends cannot justify evil means. Ender Wiggin says this well after destroying an alien civilization in the movie Ender’s Game:
“The way we win matters”
The way we establish our beliefs matters. The way we explain tragedies matters.
When Pi asks the question, “which story do you prefer?” I wish the writer would have countered it with a more important question:
“Which story is true?”
Like the writer, I also prefer the story with the animals. But can you accept a story which intimates we are nothing but animals?
God did not say “You shall prefer my story, and the story shall make you happy.” He said,
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32, NKJV).
God indeed makes for a better story, but faith should be based upon more than pie in the sky.
What did you learn from the life of Pi?
- Arrows: Don’t Lead Home Without Them
- Relativism: How to Ruin Bedtime and the Meaning of Life
- Accidental Pluralist: Counterinsurgency and Unintended Consequences
Photo credit: B_cool / Foter.com / CC BY
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”