LOP-360

"I just want to love God."
~Piscene Patel, Life of Pi

A boy, the son of a zookeeper, grows up in picturesque Pondicherry, India. He is bright and inquisitive and unusually attuned to the world around him. He is, by place of birth, a Hindu, and a devout one. He discovers Christianity ("Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ"), and then finds the religion of Allah, especially its profound witness to the practice of daily prayer, to be life-giving.

His parents are perplexed. ("If you believe in everything, you will end up not believing in anything at all," warns the boy's rationalist father). His older brother, as older brothers are sometimes wont to do, sneers, scorns, and mocks the young boy's earnest faith.

LOP-324The boy, Piscene Molitar Patel, named by an uncle after a famous Parisian swimming pool, is patient with his critics and resolved to love God and the world and everything — everything — in it. As a teenager, a shipwreck and a harrowing ordeal in a lifeboat sharpen rather than diminish or extinguish his religious sensibilities. He emerges with a story, he says, that "will make you believe in God."

It is tempting to dismiss Life of Pi as a parable of the postmodern quest for “spiritual fulfillment” without the messiness of doctrinal commitment, to see Pi as a cipher for what each of us is encouraged to be: a discriminating consumer of religious experience — trying on this or that belief or practice, picking and choosing what “works” for us, discarding or ignoring the rest.

I understand the temptation.

LOP-224But I also think there's something more or something else at work in the life of Pi. During his 227 days at sea, the necessities of survival (killing sea creatures with his bare hands and wolfing them down ravenously, animal-like) merge with his emerging sense of his own insignificance. After witnessing a spectacular display of thunder and lightning, Pi says (in the book, but not in the movie):

“For the first time I noticed — as I would notice repeatedly during my ordeal, between one throe of agony and the next — that my suffering was taking place in a grand setting. I saw my suffering for what it was, finite and insignificant . . . My suffering did not fit anywhere, I realized. And I could accept this. It was all right.”

With its echoes of the book of Job and the Psalms, this is not the sentiment of the contemporary seeker-shopper of religious goods and services. It is not the familiar LOP-185narcissism of much of middle-class Christianity, nor is it the well-meaning but hollow piety of the “God-never-gives-us-more-than-we-can-handle” school of thought.

And after calculating his odds of outliving his lifeboat companion, a 450 lb. Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, Pi says: “You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better.” This, too, reveals not the sunny optimism of religious individualism (“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”) but a clear-eyed embrace of a fundamental truth of existence: we are going to die.

When Pi makes peace with this truth he gets on with the business of living which, in his case, immerses him in the material exigencies of his plight: paying attention to the weather, monitoring his food supply, training his carnivorous companion. LOP-095But it also means attending to the glorious beauty around him: inky-black skies swimming with stars, whales elegantly breaking the water's luminous surface, a school of dolphins moving synchronously as if in a dance of pure joy.

And at journey's end, when the middle aged Pi, who has been narrating the story all along, tells an aspiring novelist that he regrets not being able to thank Richard Parker and tell him that he loved him, we see the young Pi Patel again, who was attentive to beauty, full of wonder and a desire for the holy, who only wanted to LOP-012love God and the world, and who might have — as a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim — found a kindred companion in a contemporary poet's own clear-eyed assessment of the truth of our finitude:

It was what I was born for—
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world—
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.

Mary Oliver, “Mindful”


Debra Dean MurphyDebra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.

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13Reflections

Reflections

Thank you for a lovely commentary on Life of Pi. I, too, was impressed by how the book (and film) reject "middle class faith" for more meaningful, real spiritual experiences. For me, the lasting value of Pi is in showing us how to comfortably inhabit larger and larger habitats. The first third of the book explains the finer points of zookeeping, with particular attention to the art of zoo enclosures. Then Pi comfortably inhabits different religious enclosures. Finally, as the tale of survival grows taller and taller, climaxing at the floating island, we the reader are asked whether we can give up our enclosure of pure fact and be comfortable in the wider habitat of supernatural narrative fiction. I had the opportunity to research it for me blog, millennialfaith.blogspot.com

Beautiful and honest.

Can't wait to see it. One of my favorite books. I hope that it doesn't disappoint as a movie.

It will not disappoint! The movie is a stunning portrayal of the book (which I think rarely happens). I wish I could see it for the first time again! Do see it in 3D if possible

The woman of Rev 12 is now here. She is not a church, she is not Israel, and she is not Mary. She is the prophet like unto Moses and Elijah Matt 17:3, Acts 3:21-23, Luke 1:17 delivering the true word John 1:1 from the wilderness Rev 12:6 to prepare a people for the Lord’s return. God our Father will not put any child of his into a hell fire no matter what their sins. It never entered the heart or mind of God to ever do such a thing Jer7:31, Jer 19:5. Turn your heart to the children of God. A gift is now delivered to the whole world as a witness Matt 24:14. Prove all things.

I love the book, and I loved the movie. Some reviews said the ending was boring, but it ended essentially the same way as the book - it's supposed to make you think. And it's awesome that Yann Martel won't answer questions like "So which story was true, the one with the tiger or the one without?" If you haven't seen it and are interested:

Yann Martel Answers His Public
http://www.yorku.ca/yfile/archive/index.asp?Article=2166

"Life of Pi" makes me think enough on its own, but your article added a few more things that I'll be really pondering the next time I read it...

Excellent :) Thanks for this insightful article. I am excited to see this movie and to read the book. Thanks again!

Haven't read the book or seen the movie, but your assessment intrigues me. I am a Christian who because of my experience cannot abide "God won't give you anything you can't handle" and "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" theology. It is encouraging to hear about the deeper and still holy mystery depicted in the story.Thank you.

Animals are way to talk with God

That's a beautiful insight.

It was a blissful experience, the photography is beyond superb!

Our protagonist, Pi, is the embodiment of the Vedic culture that has been my daily focus for the past 30 years and beautifully manifests the depths of its inclusive wisdom, understanding, love, gratitude, compassion, courage, responsibility, spontaneity, intelligence, energy and above all, JOY.

IMHO, a coming of age film worthy of your own children!

OM Namo Shivaya, God, Allah, Existence

Philosophy major here (like Martel). Pi's story is a dense read about survival, exploration and the irony of appropriate acceptance. To pursue the back story and the deep ocean undercurrent of Martel's novel, search for his interview with Sabina Sielke on THE EMPATHIC IMAGINATION. I am now reading the book in anticipation of later seeing the film...the right sequence, I believe.

There is so much commentary available on Yann Martel’s Life of Pi that it is difficult to find something to comment upon that is even remotely unique. It can seem to be a fanciful and mystical story drawing the reader to accept that theism is no greater a leap than the belief that science will explicate life; and indeed the former provides a greater sense of completeness as the “better story”.

The beginning is always a place to find an early sign of the theme or question the author is dealing with in the book. The name Pi might qualify as such; although a universal constant it is an irreducible, irrational number, perhaps implying that science will bring an incomplete answer to life at best. The story attempts to blend both science and religion at the outset as the semi autobiography joins his study of zoology, a science dangerously close to Darwinism, anathema to fundamentalist religious beliefs of all persuasions and Religious studies itself.

However, the principle theme of the book is the primacy of survival and its conflict with the constraint of human moralism to secure it. In a state of nature as a castaway floating on the ocean, with no authority, nor retribution, human behavior is debased. A Hobbesian, “War of all against all”; where the only thing that counts is self-preservation; not even familial ties as he watches his mother horribly murdered can impede this irresistible force. There is one chink in this interpretation when the cook appears to realize that he has lost his soul and welcomes death as an absolution or the dreamlike nightmare of the duplicity of the algae island. This appears to me more as a question mark than a statement but it does seem to touch on the idea of remorse. Embedded, is the parallel of the harshness of life through the maturing and loss of childlike wonderment and innocence of Pi. Upon reaching a safe haven the reality of the journey is reinvented to distance Pi from the horrors he endured; euphemistically described as sadness and gloom at the outset of the story.

It is important to point out the difference between religious practice and theism. Versus a state of nature, civil society provides a foundation for organized religion. Thus, alone on the ocean the practice of religion perhaps would become meaningless. Indeed, the story could be read that religious dogma is irrelevant, since Pi sees no problem in feasting on a smorgasbord of practices, which the clerics see as sacred and indivisible. It is possible that we are to interpret Pi beyond being an individual, reflecting humanity broadly. However, as the story turns to the sea so the overt religiosity diminishes and although a belief in God may be central to his determination to survive he alludes to Richard Parker as his practical savior, which in the final reckoning is a reflection of self.

There is childlike naivety through which Pi blends the religious practice of the principle religions of mankind. That naivety is sunk to the depths with the shipwreck. The highlight surrounding theism and religion does not have to be read as a revealed knowledge but can reflect what Tocqueville expressed sociologically as being simply another part of the psychology or form of hope. Certainly, cast adrift, isolated, despondent, at the very limits of endurance, would require a personal hope to sustain. This for me is the nub of the religious question of the book. If Pi were to look at his situation objectively, in either of the parallel narratives, the probability of survival, i.e. the case for science, he would doom himself. He survives because he has hope. It is not rational but like his name totally irrational, yet he makes it.