Truth or Merely the Best Story?

Life of PiI recently and finally had an opportunity to watch the Oscar-award winning movie, “Life of Pi.”  While it wasn’t quite as visually stunning on my home screen as I suspect it was in 3D on the big screen, I thoroughly enjoyed…most of it.  The story was compelling, the cinematography was outstanding, and the acting was superb.  So why the caveat?

When the film first released and various friends and family members went to see it I was told over and over that I had to go and see the film because it offered such a neat presentation of the Christian faith.  I was told that it dealt with spiritual themes really well and, in the end, presented a really compelling argument in favor of God.  So, when I turned on the movie, I was ready to be impressed.  And as Pi began narrating his background story for the apparently atheistic writer curious to hear this story that would make him believe in the God, I was.

His description of coming to faith in Christ out of a Hindu context because of how impressed he was with the story of Christ was great.  It even included a statement of John 3:16.

That, however, was when things started to go a little south.  In the next scene, as he described his subsequent adoption of Islam, I realized that he didn’t really pick up on Christianity’s exclusivity, but rather embraced it as another good path to enlightenment.  This represents a pretty common pseudo-Eastern, postmodern approach to religion that stands pretty firmly at odds with traditional, orthodox Christianity.  But this was Hollywood speaking here so I wasn’t too surprised.

Once Pi started telling his story of his time with the tiger named Richard Parker, floating through the Pacific after the cargo ship his family was using to transport their menagerie across the Pacific sank, I was hooked.  Watching as this odd-couple came to an uneasy peace as they tried to share a 30-person life raft left me riveted.

Then came the end of the story of being at sea and the sorting out of what was real and what wasn’t.  (By the way, if you haven’t seen the movie and plan to do so, you may want to cut off here because I’m going to talk about the ending.)  The representatives from the shipping company wanting to find out how the boat sank couldn’t accept the story with Richard Parker and the other animals initially aboard the boat with him.  They wanted the “real story.”  So he told them a second story with people instead of animals that wasn’t nearly as good a story as the first one.

In the end, then, the writer still couldn’t see how this was supposed to make him believe in God.  So Pi asked him a question: which version of the story did he think was the truth?  The writer acknowledged that while he was inclined to believe the less colorful, yet more realistic-sounding of the two versions of the story, his heart wanted the story with Richard Parker to be true.  It was the better story.  Pi’s response and the climax point of the movie, the point at which both the writer and the viewer were to be made to believe in God: “It’s like that with God.”

The storytelling up to this point in the movie is superb.  Ang Lee is an excellent director.  He was absolutely the right choice for Best Director last year.  This climax moment is thick with a postmodern spirituality that is really popular today.  But a half a moment’s worth of thought reveals it to actually be a terrible argument for the existence of God.  No thinking Christian should ever use or embrace this kind of an argument and for two reasons.

First, Pi’s conflation of the Hindu gods with the Christian God with Islam’s Allah with the God of modern Judaism is a mess.  When he says, “It’s like that with God,” which God does he mean?    The gods of Hinduism, Allah, Christianity’s triune Yahweh, and modern Judaism’s unitary Yahweh are not the same.  Any conflation of them results from either utter ignorance or else an intention to deceive.  For me, though, I expect this kind of conflation out of Hollywood.  Hopefully Christians have learned that our garbage meters needed to be running when we hear Hollywood start talking about the Christian God being roughly the same as any other.

The second reason, because of where and when it appears in the movie is more opaque, but also more important.  Think for a minute what Pi is saying in his response to the writer about which story is true.  All the signs point to the fact that the comparatively uninteresting story with the people instead of the animals is the true story.  That’s what really happened to Pi.  But the other story’s better.  It resonates with our hearts such that even if it isn’t totally, factually true, it’s still worth believing.  Thus, even if God—and let’s assume he means the Christian God—doesn’t really exist, even if the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ isn’t exactly what happened, they are still worth believing in because they’re the better story than the purpose-less narrative told by modern secularists.

But, and here’s the crux of the matter: do we believe in God because He’s the better story or because He’s true?  If there is not such a thing as truth, perhaps God being the better story is enough.  But the fact is that truth does exist.  It exists and His name is Jesus.  Christianity (more so than any other religion) tells the best story about the world and how and why it is.  There’s no real contest there.  But we believe in God, we give our hearts to Christ not merely because He’s the better story, but because He’s true.  Let us make sure that we are worshiping and defending the God of truth.  Anything less isn’t worth it.

Jonathan Waits

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Jonathan is the pastor of Central Baptist Church in Church Road, VA. He's the husband of one beautiful woman and the father of three active boys. A graduate of Denver Seminary, he loves connecting the dots between the Christian worldview and culture.

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