Story, Lent and The Life of Pi

lifeofpiLast week I wrote about The Oscars and Lent. I wrote that these two phenomena share more in common than is usually suggested.  Today I want to move in for a closer look–at the stories themselves. If this annual cultural ritual in honor of story (The Oscars) is so telling of our culture’s condition, and if we, as critically thinking Christians, want to understand and thus impact our culture, it may do us some good to examine its favorite stories. The Life of Pi is one such story.  With four Academy Awards, The Life of Pi was the most glorified film of the year.

But why? And what might its success tell us about our culture? Furthermore, do these stories actually influence the way we think and act? And, finally, how do the answers to these three questions relate to Lent?

For those who haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it. If you don’t want to or haven’t the time, here’s the full summary from Wikipedia.

The film’s dramatic structure is a conversation between a middle aged Indian man and a young novelist looking for a good story. The young novelist has been directed to this Indian, Pi, by a friend of Pi’s father; “He said that you had a story that would make me believe in God.” Pi laughs and says, “He would say that about a nice meal. As for God, I can only tell you my story; you will decide for yourself what you believe.”

We long to hear stories about God, but our culture seems content to have them remain in the theater. If a question like this gets raised on Huffington Post, the responses quickly descend into bigotry. Consider a few of the reader’s comments on the recent religion article, “What Is the Relationship Between God, Angelic Beings and Humans?”

“The relationship is non-existent, just like God and angels.”

“These are desperately lonely, pathetically lonely and gullible people.Ripe for catholicism, christian fundamentalism, or an Orthodox Mirage.Either way, they are a tremendously easy market to ‘sell.’”

“The difference is that god and angelic beings are not real, while humans are.”

These are just 3 of 138 comments, most of which are similarly belittling. I’m going to imagine that at least a few of these people watched The Life of Pi and really, really enjoyed it. I wonder where the inspiration of “a story that would make me believe in God” goes when people walk out of the show. Are HuffPost readers just an exceptionally negative lot? I think there’s something more here, something that’s being left at the doors of the theater.

Toward the close of the film we enter the end of a scene with Pi telling his story to two investigators looking for answers about the shipwreck. They aren’t satisfied.  ”What else do you want from me?” Pi asks. The chief investigator responds, ”[we need] a story we can all believe.” Pi says, “So . . . a story without things you’ve never seen before.”

This investigator represents the mass of the Post-Enlightenment Western World. He represents those who comment negatively on HuffPost religion articles. But the success of The Life of Pi represents something else about the very same people. Sixty years ago Mircea Eliade, University of Chicago historian of religion, said this:

“To whatever degree he may have desacralized the world, the man who has made his choice in favor of a profane life never succeeds in completely doing away with religious behavior.” — The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion

That religious behavior shows up not least in the desire for, and the success of, stories like The Life of Pi.

As for the third question, these films have a great deal of influence on the values, and thus the thoughts and actions, of individuals who enter into them. And I think that–perhaps excepting hardened scientific atheists–these stories have a similar influence on beliefs about divine nature. In the case of The Life of Pi, we get yet another picture of the increasingly popular idea that religion is “one-mountain-many-paths.” Pi finds the same “divine peace” in Hinduism and Islam and Christianity. As a Religious Studies student, I’ve discovered that this is very far from the case. Allah is certainly not the same in character as YHWH, and Vishnu and Krishna have almost nothing in common with the gods of the monotheistic religions.

Now, how does all of this relate to Lent? The lectionary readings during the season of Lent concern a story that has influenced cultures and individuals for 2,000 years. During this 46 days we allow ourselves to be taken into the majestic story of God’s redemption of humanity. We read about and celebrate the God who, in our very own space and time, defeated death and evil. And, and to the same degree that we enter into this story through celebration and trust, we’re changed by the power of God’s Spirit.

But we must first enter in.

Nobody would be changed by The Life of Pi, if she didn’t first walk into the theater and allow the story to captivate her.

The concern, then, becomes a question of which story has our attention. Is it the story of academic success? Is it the story of popular culture? Or is it the story of the God who told this week’s Gospel reading in the Lenten Lectionary:

And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

(Luke 15:11-24 ESV)

Let the Gospel story take you in–be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Live in the real world.

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edit: I smoothed the first paragraph a bit. 3/6/13

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