Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Choosing the Better Story

In 2002 Yann Martel won the Man Booker Award for his fascinating novel The Life of Pi.  It tells the story, in first person, of an Indian teenager, Piscene Patel (Pi for short), raised by parents who owned and operated a zoo.  The author is (fictionally) sitting with Pi much later in life and recording verbatim his own words.  There are occasional chapters where the author interjects his own words - signified by being in italics. The first third of the book is his life learning the beauty and dangers of animals and of religion.  Pi is a devoted and practicing Christian, Muslim, and Hindu!

Eventually Pi's family leaves India to move to Canada.  They have sold and traded many of the animals, and they are traveling to Canada on a large cargo ship with a few of the animals left to be delivered.  The ship sinks in the Pacific.  Pi's tale of survival (277 days!) takes up the rest of the book.

What makes this shipwreck adventure unique is that Pi is trapped on the rescue raft with a zebra who has a broken leg, a sinister hyena, a female orangutan, and Richard Parker, the name of a full-grown, male Bengal tiger.  Richard Parker and Pi Patel are the last two standing after the first couple weeks of the perilous journey.  The adventure is gripping, funny, gross, and extremely compelling.  With such fascinating details and captivating vignettes, it is hard to believe Martel, the author, has never been ship wrecked.

The story functions in a parable-like fashion, inviting the reader to living, as Pi calls it, "a better story."

There are two episodes, pre and post being shipwrecked, that point the reader to this interpretation.

1) After an encounter with Pi, the author leaves and writes his reflections about their time together, which always leaves him suspicious of the "glum contentment" that he has settled for.  Pi's faith and passion leaves him pondering the broader realities of life that don't suspend but supersede a flat, intellectual understanding of life.  The author says that Pi describes the latter way of life as living by "dry, yeastless factuality."  They may have their facts, their proof, etc, but if that is the only story they have to live in, it is lifeless.  It offers no promise or imagination to animate life.  Faith, for Pi, is about choosing "the better story."

2) Once Pi washes up on the Mexican coast, almost dead, he is taken to a hospital.  Eventually representatives from the company that owned the sunken vessel come to interview Pi to determine what went wrong.  Pi tells them his story of floating in the Pacific for 277 with a Bengal tiger and all the fantastical things that happen along the way.  The two men are incredulous.  As they resist this telling of events, Pi makes up an alternative story where no animals where involved.  It mirrors the first tale in many interesting ways, but humans are on the boat with him rather than zoo creatures.  This tale, though, was full of greater evil and despair.  Having no proof of either tale as true or false, the two men choose the more gruesome story because it lines up better with their own perception of the way the world works.  Pi says, "You want a story that won't surprise you.  That will confirm what you already know.  That won't make you see higher or further or differently.  You want a flat story.  An immobile story.  You want dry, yeastless factuality."

What a justification for religious belief?!  The young man makes the contrast that a world without divinity is "yeastless" and a world with God is a better, more compelling world to live in.

The problem, I think, is that many of us living by religious conviction don't think this way.  Evidenced in what we live for and think about and are controlled by is that we chose religion based on the same dry factuality as the agnostic.  We do not live with the wonderment that is inherent in a world saturated with God and His Kingdom.

There are other compelling parts of the book that certainly invite reflection and dialogue with others like the author's defense of zoos, the ability to integrate multiple faiths into one life, and his powerful statements about the foolishness of religious people angrily trying to defend God.  Maybe I will pick up on these at a later time.

For now, I am simply struck by the (rather post-modern) way this narrative offers an apologetic for belief in God and participation in systems of faith.  There is a place for the modern apologists who use scientifically verifiable data to argue a "case for a creator" and such.  But I am intrigued by the warm invitation to choose faith, not because of its verifiability, but because it offers a better, more compelling story in which to live.  It strikes me that many staunch defenders of religion, Christian or otherwise, do not live as if the story offered by their God is more captivating than the story offered in a culture driven by power, wealth, patriotism, influence, consumerism, etc.

Do we find the story of Jesus in which we have been invited to participate irresistible?  Do we find the Jesus story more credible than the ones the world is selling us?  Or do we choose this story half-heartedly? Are we so spellbound by the world's counter-narrative that we can't fully let it go and join the great adventure of Jesus?

Why are we living this story?  Because it has been scientifically proven? Because we fear the repercussions of rejecting God?  Because we want the postmortem payoff?


As Pi says, "The presence of God is the finest of rewards." Let's choose a story that leaves room to be surprised, that moves, that isn't flat or immobile.  Let's choose the Jesus story!

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