Wednesday, January 2, 2013
The Value of Pi
In my previous post I reviewed Life of Pi. The following is a discussion of the book from a specifically Christian perspective.
Life of Pi was a slow read for me. I took my time chewing it. There were a few points at which I nearly gave up. A long, long time in a lifeboat on the open sea can do that to a person. I got tired for Pi. I got bored for him. I hated his existence for him. I was afraid for him. I stopped wanting to share his dreadful adventure. It felt too much like being there. But I could not give up. I think I really needed to experience that promised happy ending.
Art is not always beautiful, though one could argue that there is a kind of beauty in truth even when it is ugly - the beauty that is found in integrity, in capturing of the soul of a moment. Life of Pi is that kind of art. The scenes Martel paints are unforgettable. The horrors are not like bad dreams which slip, along with their strangeness, away into obscurity. Pi's traumas are as mundane and void of magic as real-life horrors generally are. Likewise for the moments of triumph. There is mastery in his handling of the sense of touch and the imagery of the very close up: the catching of a turtle, the puncture of a fish-hook through a strip of dried flesh, the crumble of a hard biscuit.
As it was slow to chew, Life of Pi has taken even longer to digest. It's been weeks since I finished reading it, and I'm still thinking about it. Every day something in life calls it back to mind, asking to be held up to Pi, or to be looked at through his lens. I still have not plumbed its depths. Each subsequent evaluation unearths some new discovery, some bit of wisdom I have found useful for me as a Christian. There is, for instance, the always-needed reminder that we humans are alike in our desperate search for meaning in life and the universe. There is the unspoken reminder that civilization and culture, without whose supports and constraints our humanity rapidly devolves into bestiality, are blessings not to be ignored or regarded with ingratitude. There is the sense of wonder and delight at hearing a story well-told. It is nice to be reminded that great works are still being written, and that they do not have to be lofty, but can be accessible to an ordinary reader, which Life of Pi certainly is.
But beneath and its vivid imagery and storytelling, the foundation of Life of Pi's genius lies in its perfect integration of storyline with philosophy. Pi's life experiences and his inner landscapes are so artfully interwoven that when he kneels to this god or That, you understand which one and why. In this, Life of Pi is a masterpiece of post-modern philosophical and religious thought and a trenchant expression of what religion means to perhaps the bulk of today's worshipers. In this way, Pi's faith becomes, for the Christian reader, a mirror. Gazing into the faith of Pi, the lines of ones own faith can be examined and compared. Its similarities can be recognized and its weaknesses and strengths exposed.
I've heard it said that studying comparative religion is the worst thing a Christian can do, that it undermines faith. This mindset will lead some to think that Life of Pi should be avoided. But I suggest that this is one of the best reasons for a Christian to read it. Faith, by its nature, is a grappler. It is in the process of wrestling that the strengths and weaknesses of our belief systems are revealed. A faith which cannot stand up to the world's art, wisdom, and philosophy is a weak faith indeed. But it will not be strengthened by avoiding challenges. It can only be strengthened through exercise.
A vital Christian faith values the world's masterpieces, but not by swallowing them whole. It deals with art as it does life - as it really is. It appreciates what is true and beautiful. It acknowledges what is ugly. It contends with what challenges it. It does more than "eat the meat and spit out the bones", enjoying the aspects of culture it likes and ignoring the rest. Rather, in the spirit of the Apostle Paul on Mars Hill, faith examines the unpleasant and difficult aspects. It gains insight into the hearts of men and uses what it learns to build bridges of understanding for the sake of the gospel.
Pi embraces three religions at once. He gathered them one by one and treasures each for its own unique truths, stories, and beauties, as well as for the different needs of his heart that each was able to meet. Each religion reflects a different facet of life and is true in its own way, or at the very least seeks to explain the realities it sees in its own way. Each offers a lens through which to understand life and its own way of relating to God. Pi, like the Gandhi he so admired, valued the loveliest qualities of each belief system, sensed no contradiction, and felt no internal compulsion to choose just one.
A reflective soul, Pi uses his religions much as an artist uses brushes and paints: to interpret life, coloring it with beauty and meaning. A god of vengeance softens the pain of cruelty with hope of justice. When one is weak and helpless there are strong deities to appeal to. When poverty dirties the landscape, a gilded temple or colorful prayer cloth evoke the ecstatic sense of a divine presence and provide a respite for the soul and its senses. When life seems meaningless, myths abound that tell the story of why things are as they are. Sometimes only a hint of a "why", just the slightest notion of control, or the vaguest sense of one's place in a bigger picture is comfort enough to recommend surviving another day. For these ends, Pi views each belief system, even atheism, as valuable. Though he rejects atheism, he places it alongside the rest, a brush he has seen used, but which feels hopeless in his own hands.
It's not so difficult to understand how Pi is able to live and think in this way. We Christians, if we are honest about it, must admit that we are inclined to manage our own thoughts and lives, and religious beliefs in a similarly eclectic fashion. We pick and choose texts and doctrines which best suit our felt needs, our personal values, our personalities, goals, and political inclinations, and then neglect or ignore whatever is left. In doing so we create our own gods custom-made after our own image, perfectly suited to our own needs and desires, and call them God. Life, as with any history, needs to be interpreted in order to find any meaning, beauty, or value in it, and so the humanity in us instinctively reaches for a brush and our favorite tubes of color and sets to work.
Battered by sun, wind, and waves, and threatened by starvation, thirst, and predatory beasts, thrust into a Darwinian existence where survival is the only thing, Pi finds himself in an experience the whole of culture is designed to avoid: he is alone with his human soul. The harsh realities of his circumstances become the subject for his creative work. This new and catastrophic history must tempered and colored with meaning. Amazingly he survives. Disconcertingly, for the Christian reader, he comes through it with all his religions intact.
We Christians place great stock in testimonies of faith. We love to hear the stories of our brethren who have endured the unbearable and lived to proclaim God's faithfulness through it all. We take their experiences to be confirmation of the validity of their beliefs, and the the proof of the truth of our religion. But what are we to do with Pi's epic of faith which places equal value on Christ and idols? If experience really is the test of truth then what difference does it make if Pi believes in Christ and all those other gods.
Who are we to question his experience?
That is one of the great questions of our age. It is effective, because it is unanswerable. The only honest response is that we can't. We can't walk a mile in anyone else's shoes, because shoes are not souls. The uncomfortable truth is that we are all helpless in the face of someone else's experience. If experience is the measure of truth, and everyone's experience is different, all we can do is throw up our hands, and with Pontius Pilate ask the other great question of our age:
"What is truth?"
That is a question that Pi will not answer for us.