“He said you have a story that will make me believe in God.”
Life of Pi can be troubling on the surface to many Christians. First, our main character “Pi” is a quirky religious pluralist in his youth, finding interest and meaning in the three mainstream religions. But more concerning to many believers was the film’s ending, and the question it poses. Which story will you choose to believe, the one about the boy and the tiger, or the darker version with murder and cannibalism? Serving as a symbol for religious belief, the storyteller posits that the choice between religious belief and atheism is a similar one: we can choose “the better story.”
This can seem to be an acquiescence to a common critique of religion, that it is invented to make meaning out of life, an “opiate of the masses.” Does accepting the better story surrender intellectual or historical correctness? We ought not to believe something just because it makes us feel good.
But the storyteller moves the inflection from truth to meaning: “Which story do you prefer?” Rather than asking, “Which story do you think is true?” Pi asks about the listener’s feelings, their bias, their personhood. And everyone in the story, from the investigators, to the Writer, to the audience, chooses the story about the tiger.
Religious belief is rarely about objective, verifiable truth. In almost every case, it comes about as a result of hard-to-articulate experiences, feelings, relationships, or yearnings. Like the blind man healed in John 9, after being interrogated about how it happened and exactly who Jesus is or isn’t, he essentially says: “I don’t know – all I know is I was blind, and now I see.” Pi similarly says, “As for God, I can only tell you my story; you will decide for yourself what you believe.”
Rare is the person convinced to join or leave religion because someone showed them “proof.” More often, personal change and growth accompanies a “conversion” to or away from faith.
And yet how much religious energy and attention is spent on evidence for faith? An entire field of study known as “apologetics” is dedicated to this endeavor. Books and YouTube videos claim undeniable proof of God’s existence. What fruit does this work truly bear? One wonders why God wouldn’t leave us a better map if following clues was the way to heaven.
Instead, the question of belief is about choosing the better story. Life of Pi celebrates stories that give life, and reminds us that belief is not about assembling evidence, but telling a better story. As carriers of the story of God, do we tell it in ways that convey its beauty, its fullness, and its Truth?
We ought to be wary of those storytellers who are preaching a worse story. When the story of God is presented as an escape from damnation, hiding oneself from surrounding evil forces, or banding together to judge the world, it’s little wonder that so many don’t choose to believe it over the story of secular humanism. To be sure, the story of God is not all beauty and celebration. We must simultaneously be wary of those storytellers who peddle religion that promises of painless blessing and prosperity.
Just as both stories in Life of Pi involve suffering, loss, fear, and doubt, there is more than enough room for the full truth of what it means to follow Christ and to have it still be the better story. The Gospel isn’t about happiness and glory for us as individuals, but participation together in the reconciliation of all creation to God.
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