Social Media as Portals of Faith and Faith in “Life of Pi”

As I posted earlier, the theme for the Church’s celebration of World Communications Day this Sunday is: Social Networks: Portals of Truth and Faith; New Spaces for Evangelization. I was privileged to be able to share a few of my thoughts on the Message for the 47th World Communications Day in the Catholic Register–available in this week’s print and online edition here. My favorite quote from the Message from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is: “Effective communication, as in the parables of Jesus, must involve the imagination and the affectivity of those we wish to invite to an encounter with the mystery of God’s love.”

This week, I also talked on Salt + Light Radio with Deacon Pedro about two films that most people would have thought “unfilmable.” First, the life of the Polish “Solidarity priest” and martyr, Blessed Jerzy Poieluszko, titled Popieluszko: Freedom Is Within Us. How hard it is to make a movie about someone who dies a martyr–and yet this is an inspiring and authentic portrayal of this courageous 20th century martyr. Second, the seemingly impossible adaptation of Yann Martel’s imaginative novel, Life of Pi, which has been referred to as a spiritual film by many. Since I ran out of time to talk in-depth about  Life of Pi on the radio show, I’d like to highlight a few insights about it here. I will take special care not to spoil the ending for those who haven’t read the book or seen the film. 

Reflection on Faith in Life of Pi

Life of Pi is the imaginative story of Pi, a young man traveling from India to Canada with his family and the animals from the family zoo. When the ship goes down in the middle of the ocean, Pi ends up on the only lifeboat that stays afloat–along with a Bengal tiger. The making of this film is a huge accomplishment by director Ang Lee, since the novel raises many challenges for a film adaptation. Visually, this film is amazing and beautiful, and I found the adaptation to be faithful to the spirit of the book.  

Faith is a big theme in the film and thus makes it a “window to the soul” of our society today. Born Hindu, Pi embraces Christianity as a boy and then Islam, practicing all three religions at the same time. To see a lovable character discover the Redemption, and to witness his respect and acceptance of all three faiths is heartening in a mainstream film.  Further on in the film, Pi’s faith seems to sustain him throughout the trials of drifting on the ocean in a small boat with only a tiger as companion. 

Yet even as the film seems to be advocating for faith, the faith being explored is not always a Christian faith. Pi’s simplicity in trying to believe and practice all three religions is challenged by his father who explains at the dinner table that believing in all religions is the same as believing in none. The father then advocates for logic and reason as the “ultimate” truth. 

This theme, stated convincingly at the beginning, sets up a false dichotomy between faith and reason–e.g., that truth can be found only in one or the other. In the end, we circle back to this false split which disparages faith. While I don’t want to give away the ending, to me the final question the film raises is not so much about faith, but about this false dichotomy. 

However, the way that Life of Pi brings in faith as a major theme makes it a wonderful launching point to discuss many aspects of faith:

  • The misconceptions about faith in today’s secular world—a world that often misunderstands faith and certainly doesn’t see faith in its Christian meaning of a relationship with God.  
  • How would we define faith? What is Christian faith (e.g. relating to the Trinity), and how can we express it today in a society that takes very little on faith.
  • The misunderstanding that one doesn’t need to choose between faith and reason–they are not opposites, as is so frequently presented in our society that sometimes disparages people of faith. As Catholics, we know that faith is supported by reason, even though faith goes beyond reason. 

Another aspect of the film I would like to highlight is how Life of Pi follows in the tradition of several other very entertaining films that look at the power of storytelling. Although I much prefer Big Fish and Secondhand Lions, Life of Pi  contributes to the cinematic exploration of how telling stories give meaning to our lives.

I don’t recommend this film for younger viewers—it has a few moments that are quite disturbing, in addition to some violence. But older children and adults could certainly enjoy the film. 

For those who are interested, themes included in the film:

  • Faith
  • Relationship between faith and reason
  • Storytelling
  • Survival
  • Loss
  • Hope
  • Power of Nature
  • Justice
  • Forgiveness
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