Sunday, April 28, 2013

Life of Pi -- faith and story, sin and surrender

Director: Ang Lee, 2012 (PG)

Many had said that French-Canadaian author Yann Martel’s best-selling novel, “Life of Pi,” was unfilmable. It appeared that way until Ang Lee turned it into a spectacular movie last year. But the visual splendor isn’t quite supported by thematic integrity. The themes of faith and testing, of sin and surrender, and ultimately of story resound but ultimately in discordant fashion.

The movie opens with an older Pi (Irfan Khan) being visited by an unnamed Writer (Rafe Spall). This man wants to hear Pi’s story, a story he hopes will lead him to belief in God. And quite a story it is, although whether he comes to faith is unclear. Cutting between flashbacks of the younger Pi (Suraf Sharma) and his current self, Pi narrates a story for the ages.

The first act is set in Pondicherry in French-occupied India. His father owns a zoo, and Pi learns first-hand about the wildness and danger of the animals, especially a Bengal tiger strangely named Richard Parker. But when they fall on hard times, his father determines to take his family on a freighter across the Pacific to Canada where he will sell them and make a fresh start.

At the end of the first act the freighter is struck by a freak storm, and the ship goes under. Before it sinks, Pi is thrown into a lifeboat where he eventually finds four animals as co-castaways: Richard Parker, an orangutan, a zebra and a hyena. Fighting for survival among the high seas, soon only Pi and Parker are left alive. Both wary of the other, they form an uneasy coexistence for the 227 days that they are adrift.

Coexistence, particularly of faith, is an initial theme. In India as a boy, Pi is raised a Hindu, the religion of his family. But through a dare by his brother, he steals into a Catholic church to drink the holy water and finds himself listening to the priest. In so doing, he becomes a Christian. But his prayer to his Hindu God illustrates his syncretism: “Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ.” A little later he comes across a mosque and adopts Islam as another religion, so these three coexist in his belief system. Indeed, he declares, “Faith is a house with many rooms.”

Director Lee, in an interview with the late Roger Ebert, commented: “I believe the thing we call faith or God is our emotional attachment to the unknown. I’m Chinese; I believe in the Taoist Buddha. We don’t talk about a deity, which is very much like this book; we’re not talking about religion but God in the abstract sense, something to overpower you.” So, in his view this faith on display is an abstract faith, in an abstract God, not one specific and concrete, even personal.

But this idea of multiple faiths coexisting, or of all faith-roads leading to the same God, is clearly wrong. Anyone who has explored the tenets of these religions understands that they have contradictory positions. They cannot be held together in tension.  In fact, Jesus in his last meal before his crucifixion, told his disciples, ““I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). This claim is quite exclusive. Jesus did not say he is one way amongst many. He did not say people may come to God through Vishnu or Buddha. No, he said he was the only and unique way to come to God. True biblical faith cannot be compromised by syncretistic worship or belief in other gods or ways. Lee is wrong. In fact, Pi’s father, in an early scene, states a truth that is supposed to be negated by the later narrative, but that actually underscores our biblical understanding: “Believing in everything is the same as believing in nothing.”

Despite his faulty theology here, Lee’s film offers other aspect or illustrations of faith, even for the Christian faith. The adult Pi, reflecting back on his adventurous journey, comments on faith: “After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it is tested.” And tested it was, throughout the many months he was afloat with just the tiger as his wild companion.

The New Testament writers spoke of faith’s testing. James said, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (Jas. 1:2-3). Paul said that “suffering produces perseverance” (Rom. 5:3), and Pi’s testing, like ours, involved significant suffering. And Peter talked of adding to faith a list of virtues that included perseverance and ended in love (2 Pet. 1:5-7).

The second act is the very heart of the story. Lee uses computer generated imagery to create the tiger as well as other images that form a veritable feast for the eyes. Indeed, the visual splendor is so sumptuous that to some degree it detracts from the very story and its themes. It is a film that bears seeing again, to catch the story elements.

Midway through this act, Pi finds himself and the lifeboat aground on a magical island, a floating island that is populated by meerkats and fresh-water lakes. Enjoying the wonder of this isle, Pi swims and drinks until he is refreshed. But the island is fashioned in the shape of Vishnu or a person. And as darkness descends, the island transforms into a carnivorous creation, seeking to devour its inhabitants.

This island forms a metaphor for sin itself. Sin appears attractive and appealing, winning us by tempting our desires, just as Satan masquerades as an angel of light to deceive us (2 Cor. 11:14). But this masks sin’s very deceitfulness (Heb. 3:13). And with the darkness comes the danger. Sin emerges most clearly when the light is absent. This word picture of light and darkness comes across most clearly in the epistle of John, where he declares, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:5).

In another scene in this second act, the lifeboat is tossed around by the waves during a lightning storm. Pi stands, arms held high above his head, and cries out to God, presumably Vishnu (as he laters says “Thank you Lord Vishnu” for saving him), “What else do you want from me? I’ve surrendered everything.”

Surrender is another biblical theme that is subsumed into faith. The hymnist coined the phrase, “I surrender all” as an illustration of the biblical concept of giving ourselves wholly over to God. In Christ we give up our old lives to take on his new life, poured out through the Holy Spirit into us. We ourselves cry out, “Thank you Lord Jesus Christ” as he is the one who has actually saved us (2 Tim. 1:9).

In the third act, the rescued Pi finds himself in a hospital bed. When he is visited by insurance agents trying to make sense of the shipwreck, he recounts the story we have seen in act two. When he is finished, they denounce it. So he tells them another story, essentially the same one but devoid of God and animals, a faithless fable.

The prologue and the conclusion present  contrasting views of humanity. Whereas the Writer wanted to hear a story so he might believe in God, the two Insurance Agents wanted to hear a rationalistic story, one without God since they do not believe in him. This relates to how we tell our stories and the story of the gospel. From a Christian perspective, we look at life through the spectacles of faith and we see the hand of God at work in every area of our lives. We recognize the presence of God everywhere (Acts 17:24). But those who refute God, look at life through darkened lenses that obscure the patterns of God. Where they might view him, their brains refuse to accept the evidence of a deity. Instead, they seek after rationalistic interpretations of events. They choose the godless story.

In the closing scene, Pi asks the Writer: “So, which story do you prefer?” The Writer thinks and then answers with a smile, “The one with the tiger. That’s the better story.” And Pi says, “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”

Which story do you prefer in your life?

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs 

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