Sunday, May 31, 2015
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi opened the New York Film Festival on September 28, 2012. Published in 2001, Life of Pi is described a fantasy adventure novel.
Pi, a Tamil boy from Puducherry, South India is the main character in the novel. From a very early age he explores issues of spirituality and practicality. He survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Justine Jordan, Books Editor for The Guardian newspaper (May 24, 2002) wrote of Martel’s novel: “Despite the extraordinary premise and literary playfulness, one reads Life of Pi not so much as an allegory or magical-realist fable, but as an edge-of-seat adventure. When the ship in which 16-year-old Pi and his zoo-keeping family are to emigrate from India to Canada sinks, leaving him the sole human survivor in a lifeboat on to which barge a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a bedraggled, seasick tiger, Pi is determined to survive the impossible.” And he does.
Richard Peña, a member of the organizing body of The Film Society of Lincoln Center, said of the film that opened what was the 50th anniversary of the New York Film Festival: “Life of Pi is a perfect combination of technological innovation and a strong artistic vision. Ang Lee,” he adds, “has managed to make a deeply moving, engrossing work that will delight audiences as much as it will astonish them” (The Guardian, August 14, 2012).
Having seen the film, I agree with Peña’s assessment. But aside from the fact it was the first 3D film to open the festival and it featured a remarkable computer-generated tiger, the film also compels the viewer to consider the theological implications of Pi’s story
In the novel, Martel describes Pi’s “sunny childhood” (The Guardian, May 24, 2002) in a zoo and his conversion to Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. “We learn about animal behavior – flight distances, aggression, social hierarchy – which is later translated to Pi’s survival tactics on the lifeboat. The ongoing miracle of his existence at sea is also foreshadowed by his spiritual life on land; Pi is a creature of faith (or faiths) who sees eternally renewed wonder in God and his (sic) creation” (Op. cit.)
In the film, a writer comes to interview Pi who is now a grown man married with children. The writer is promised a story that would make him believe in God. But we have seen how Pi has struggled to reconcile the differences between Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. He acknowledges that each contain important elements, even if they tell different stories.
In the film and in the book, Pi tells two stories – one animal and the other human. He does not insist upon the truth of one or the other. Instead, he compels the writer – and us – to consider which version of the world we prefer – “the one where we make our own way and suffer through the darkness via self-determination, or the one where we are aided by something greater than ourselves” (Life of Pi Explained, Ben Kendrick, Twitter@benkendrick)
What caught my attention in the film was a scene in which Pi’s father alludes to the importance, not of faith but science, and the confusion that comes from a religion filled with a multitude of gods and goddesses. Some say that would also be true for our Hawaiian nā kūpuna or ancestors.
In her compilation of ancient Hawaiian prayers, June Gutmanis reminds us that wherever human beings walk, “there too the gods can be found.” In ancient Hawaiʻi prior to contact with the Western world and Christianity, there were “not just four great gods or the four hundred mighty gods but also the four thousand and the four hundred thousand, who all together (were) called the kini akua. As the names of many of these gods (were) sometimes forgotten, and to avoid offending a god that might have an interest in one’s affairs, even if unknown, prayers and offerings (were) directed to the kini akua” – to all of them (Nā Pule Kahiko: Ancient Hawaiian Prayers, June Gutmanis, Editions Limited, Hong Kong, 1983, page 13).
But Gutmanis also reminds us that for all Polynesians, including our Hawaiian ancestors, there is “the one above all others whose name is too sacred to speak in the open and is used only in silent prayer” (Ibid., page 3). From both Gutmanis and Martel we recognize that most of the major religions of the ancient biblical world were polytheistic: they had many deities, they had many gods.
But for ancient Israel there was only one God. “This was an essential affirmation of Judaism and part of the foundation of Christianity.” (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Paul J. Achtemeier, Harper & Row, Publishers, San Francisco, 1971, page 652)
How that came to be is not clear. In the New Testament, the belief in one God is taken for granted. The “first of all the commandments” according to Jesus is the Shema or affirmation that we are to love the God who is one (Mark 12:29).
Today is Trinity Sunday. It is ironic that while as Christians we profess to believe in one God, we find ourselves befuddled by those who question our conviction. “Wait a minute, you just said you believe in one God. Now you say there is God the Father; God the Son; and God the Holy Spirit. So you believe in three gods, not one?”
To which we say, “No, no, no. There is only one God but the nature of God is threefold.” On a day such as this we consider God’s nature and activity as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We believe in the God who created heaven and earth and all that is. We believe in the God who has redeemed us through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We believe in the God who sustains us through the power and presence of the Spirit in our lives and in our world.
All of our readings from the Bible remind us that we encounter God in a variety of ways – from Isaiah’s majestic temple vision to the psalmist account of a mighty voice commanding nature to a Spirit that assures us of our place as God’s children to a God who offers us new life through a shepherd from Nazareth. Like Pi who was faced with the challenge of telling a story that will make a person believe in God, so it was that the writer of the Gospel of John was faced with the same challenge.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a teacher and a ruler of the Jews. He questioned Jesus (John 3:1-7), later defended him (John 7:50-52) and finally appeared with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39).
Jesus responded to Nicodemus’ questions but it appears that Nicodemus did not fully comprehend what Jesus said about being “born from above.” In the account written by John, Nicodemus does not reach a point of confessing publicly that Jesus was the Christ.
I imagine for Nicodemus the thought that “God so loved the world that he (sic) gave his (sic) only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16) was as unbelievable as the story of a tiger named Richard Parker. But we see in Nicodemus’ defense of Jesus and his decision to assist Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial, the possibility that he would overcome his skepticism; that he too would come to believe the unbelievable.
That possibility is at the heart of the relationship between Pi and the writer who comes to interview him in the novel and in the film. Pi is able to help the writer “overcome one of the largest hurdles to faith – believing in the unbelievable” (Life of Pi Explained, Ben Kendrick, Twitter@benkendrick).
Whatever story you believe in Martel’s novel and Lee’s film, Pi survived his ordeal at sea. The good news of the story of the God who is our creator, redeemer and sustainer is that by believing in Jesus we discover that we are more than survivors. We are, in fact, “children of God and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ . . . ” “It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (Romans 8:17, 16)
Mahalo ke Akua. Thanks be to God. Amen.