A better story
“Life of Pi” tells the story—or rather, stories—of an Indian boy named Pi, who is stranded on a lifeboat after a shipwreck. I say stories, because Pi tells two narratives about what happened. One is a story filled with suffering, but also with beauty, majesty, and mystery—not to mention a Bengal tiger. The other is a terse chronicle of cruelty and violence with no hope or redemption.
The movie frames the stories through a conversation between an adult Pi and a writer. Pi ends with the question, “Which is the better story?”
“The one with the tiger,” the writer replies.
“And so it is with God,” states Pi.
Pi suggests that believing in God makes suffering bearable by infusing beauty and adventure into the journey of life. And on this point, I agree with him. Belief in God assures us that something will last forever, even after entropy takes its toll and the universe becomes a hot, disorganized mess. It tells us that human lives have a purpose and a goal, so that we don’t have to spend our lives merely hoping for as much pleasure and as little pain as we can get before we die. It means that immaterial things like beauty, love, and goodness really exist outside of our mental and emotional states.
In contrast, naturalism, the view that the natural, physical world is all that exists, offers nothing but brute facts—no beauty, no majesty, and no objective morality. If people evolved from animals with no higher purpose in mind, then it shouldn’t be surprising to see us acting like animals, as the people in Pi’s second story do. I think it’s perfectly fair to ask those who deny the reality of the spiritual whether they can really accept a world like this. And I think most will find that this hopeless view rings false in the deepest level of their souls.
A true story?
However, Pi goes wrong in suggesting that this difference is the only reason to choose a worldview. Pi asks, “Which is the better story?” but he never bothers asking, “Which story is true?” He doesn’t seem troubled by the details of what actually happened; he just chooses the narrative he prefers.
And so it is with God. Pi finds himself attracted to any religion that has stories or practices that appeal to him. He loves Hinduism for its rich mythology and because it first exposed him to the spiritual realm. He loves Christianity for its compelling idea of the Son of God loving people enough to die for them. He loves Islam for its practices and physical rituals that help him feel connected to God. So he becomes a practicing adherent of all three faiths.
In a sense, this is consistent with his test for which worldview to adopt. All three religions offer good stories. And if the story is what matters, then there’s nothing wrong with using multiple belief systems to supplement and improve his story.
This would not happen if Pi asked whether the religions were true. If he thought it were true that “there is no god but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet,” he could not be a Hindu or a Christian. If he thought Jesus was the only way for sinners to be reconciled to God, he could not be a Muslim or a Hindu. If he thought that the physical world was all an illusion that would eventually be reabsorbed into Brahman, he could not be a Christian or a Muslim.
A verifiable story
As Pi presents his two stories, he points out that they both offer explanations for the same events: The ship he was on sank, his whole family and all the sailors died, and he suffered but survived. There’s also no way to verify which story is true, since no surviving person besides Pi witnessed the events. He even claims that the tiger who was on the boat with him (according to one story) ran away and is hiding where he can never be found. Thus, Pi guarantees that there is no way to determine objectively which story is true.
But this is where the analogy between Pi’s stories and real worldviews breaks down. Just as Pi’s stories attempt to explain the same events, all worldviews try to cover the same scope, since by definition they explain all of life. But they don’t all succeed equally well. As I pointed out above, naturalism has trouble explaining beauty, love, and moral absolutes. It can say these are feelings caused by evolved genetic predispositions, but our intuition tells us there’s more to it than that. We don’t think that we believe genocide is wrong just because our biology or environment conditioned us to not like it. No, we think genocide is really objectively evil.
Worldviews also have to deal with historical facts such as those surrounding Jesus’ life. These facts are both something that worldviews should explain, and something that can lend credibility to their claims. For example, comparing different explanations for the disappearance of Jesus’ body can reasonably lead one to the conclusion that He rose from the dead.
Most importantly, there is a Person who can tell us which worldview is true. Unlike Pi’s tiger, which disappeared, God speaks to people, communicating through the Bible and through the person of Jesus. If we can establish that the Bible is His Word, then that provides an invaluable testimony to verify which view of reality is true.
Sharing our story
Christians who want to communicate our faith to others can learn from the strengths and weaknesses of the views expressed in “Life of Pi.” The movie compellingly presents two different stories and shows the beauty, wonder, and awe of faith contrasted with the ugliness of a world without God. This approach is valid and important in attracting others to Christ.
But we must not lose sight of the truth of our beliefs and the fact that they do correspond to the way the world actually works. Those who are forced to choose between our story and another that they may find compelling, need to know that we offer the one true story, and that it matters which view of life they choose. By combining appeals to the heart and the mind, we can become more effective ambassadors for the God of both truth and beauty.
Elizabeth Sunshine is an editor of "Studio Classroom" magazine and currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan.