(This was my manuscript at my first God Talk, “God and Film”, to open up a discussion following a viewing of the film “Life of Pi”. It’s important, if you want to participate in this conversation, to watch the film first, then to read this.)
Just a few notes about this movie’s reception: Life of Pi was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won four (more than any other film from 2012): Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score. It was nominated for three Golden Globe Awards and won for Best Original Score. The film also won awards for cinematography, film editing, sound effects and original score at several other awards ceremonies. It earned over $600 million worldwide, and is based upon a book with an unknowably larger audience.
So here we have a movie that was seen by millions and millions of people, that explores immensely deep philosophical and theological questions. So much for escapism! More so, the movie received accolades on the highest levels in the film industry, demonstrating that not only was the film interesting to watch, but it accomplished a resonance in story-telling and the medium of film above and beyond the vast majority of films that were released in that year. This movie about religion, humanity, and belief, encountered millions of people, and those people, to some capacity, saw it and said, “Something about this movie resonated with me.” The challenge for us, as Christians who believe, is to not dismiss this reality but to enter into the conversation with an open mind, bringing our own convictions and truths, but allowing ourselves to be critiqued and taught as well. If a movie has an impact on this many people, we should expect to find God somewhere in it.
Themes of religion pervade this movie, as I’m sure you noticed. We are introduced to a boy who experiences God through three mainstream religions: Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. While we Christians may have gotten excited at Pi’s experience with Jesus and his fascination at God’s love, the feeling may be short lived, as it is not common to accept and practice multiple religions at once – even if it leads to some good jokes about feeling guilty before hundreds of gods. We may find ourselves actually resonating with Pi’s father, who tells him that he cannot practice every religion, because their beliefs about God and the world are mutually exclusive.
But this movie’s perspective on religion goes much deeper than pluralism. At the end, we are given a choice: do we believe in the fantastical, beautiful story of a boy on a boat with a tiger, or do we belief the tragic, horrific, human story of a boy on a boat watching his mother killed – unleashing his own darkness and having to come to terms with it?
The movie presents this question as ultimately religious; from the beginning we are told that this story “will make you believe in God”, though many viewers came away with the opposite experience. The question the movie leaves us with is, “Which story do you think is true?”
The problem is, we don’t know. The book and the film intentionally do not answer this question. They suggest to you that both stories are possible. The difference between the stories? One is beautiful, and leads to life. The other is tragic, and leads to misery. All the characters, including the storyteller, choose the beautiful one with the tiger and the floating zoo. But does the movie want us to choose that, or is it critiquing our innate desire to choose what is more pleasing? Is the movie saying that we have a propensity to accept wild stories because they shelter us from facing the harsh realities of life?
But let’s take a step back. The truth of the movie is not that one of the stories is true and the other is false, even though we know that they cannot both be true. The truth of the film, and the reason it was found to be so compelling, is in the question itself – not the answer. The religious question of the movie is not about which religion is correct or deciding between religion and science: the question raised by the film is, “On what criteria do we make these kinds of decisions?”
The implications of this are endless, but I want to start with one to help get conversation going. Christians over the last two thousand years have spent countless amounts of time trying to “prove” our “rightness”. Whether it’s against science or against other religions, we often find ourselves trying to argue or prove our way to God. Think of the most recent debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye. Millions of people watched, but we all knew this was not the first time this conversation was had – nor will it be the last. Christians can be very occupied with this project of proving that God exists, that God created the world, that Jesus rose from the dead, etcetera.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I do believe that those things occurred, and that they are real. However, I cannot prove they are – no-one can. The debate has always resulted in a stalemate; Christians have never proved that God exists, and science has never disproved it. And as far as we know, neither side ever can “prove” it. And yet, how many “evangelistic” efforts are made in this way, trying to outsmart the atheist or win the debate for our neighbor’s soul?
What this film portrays, and that I believe is true about our world, is that we do not make our religious choices based on facts, on data, or on objective sources. We ultimately choose the story that gives us life – the one that is beautiful. Do we believe that our story is true? Of course. We believe that God is real, and not just a fantasy our ancestors made up to hide from the harshness of the real world. But if we can’t prove that to a person, perhaps we ought to spend more time showing the world that the story of God is life-giving, that it is beautiful, and is worth living into for that reason. The two investigators and the writer walk away believing the unbelievable story because it gave life where there should have only been pain and suffering and tragedy. Our story has that power. And yet too many have experienced the Christian “story” to produce pain instead of life, and we have to come to terms with that. In John 10, Jesus claims that he came so that we may life, and have it abundantly!
I want to open it up now to discussion. What are your thoughts?
Possible Discussion Questions:
1. Do you think the writer of the novel or the director of the movie have a bias in which story is true? How does this affect the outcome of the reader or viewer’s decision?
2. In what ways can our story bring life? How have you experienced God to be life-giving in a way that someone outside of our community could believe in?
3. In what ways is this critique true, and in what ways is it false: Religion functions to protect us from the harsh realities of life, an “opiate of the masses”, as it were?
4. What other lessons could God be teaching the Church and/or teaching the world through this movie?
One thought on “God and Film: Life of Pi”
I also really enjoyed both the movie and the book, but upon reflection, I have decided it has a pretty serious flaw. So as I remember it, we are presented with two alternative stories. One of which is life giving (as you call it) the other is ordinary and tragic. the idea is that all evidence being equal we should choose to believe the life giving story. But I think this presents an unrealistic picture of how we practice our doxastic deliberations. Sometimes philosophers use a distinction between extrinsic and constitutive reasons, and I think this is helpful here. Suppose I were to offer you five million dollars to believe the world was flat. You would indeed have a reason to believe the world is flat, but is the wrong sort of reason. Its not the type of reason you need when deciding to believe a proposition. That is an extrinsic reason, it is a practical reason. On the other hand we have constitutive reason. These reasons take the form of evidence, testimony, logic and things of this ilk. My worry is that Life of Pi ultimately gives us extrinsic reasons for believing God exists which is indeed a reason, just the wrong kind of reason.
Could you believe its snowing outside if I told you I would pay five bucks? My guess is that although you want the money, you couldn’t believe it even if you tried.