Life of Pi

By

It’s hard for me to get excited about the popular stuff.

Then sometimes I read it (or watch it or listen to it) and I remember that just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s lame. That mindset is a remnant of my anti-establishment tendencies in high school. Football was popular, so I hated football.

(Now I think it’s a great game, and though its significance was blown wildly out of proportion in my little town, now I find that slice of small town American culture fascinating.) All my friends loved country music, so I hated country music. (Now I live in Nashville, and Alison Krauss regularly makes me cry.) As an adult I was like that with Harry Potter for a while, and with Coldplay, and with the first couple of seasons of Lost.

life_of_pi.gifI look for reasons to decry the popular thing whose only crime in most cases is popularity. I hope my listeners aren’t as finicky as I am, or (God forbid) if I ever sell a zillion records they’ll stop listening. They’ll rake me into the pile with the sellouts and style-mongers. Sometimes something is successful because it’s dumbed-down and easy and requires little thought. It makes promises that it doesn’t intend to keep; it tells lies that we buy into because they speak to our greed and we wish they were true. (I’m thinking of a book about an Old Testament character named Jabez.)

But sometimes something beautiful happens, and the Thing in question attracts the attention of the masses not because it’s sensual or fashionable but because it’s telling the Truth. It is wise without being highbrow, it is accessible without being patronizing and simpleminded. It gives its viewers/readers/listeners credit for being image-bearing souls with complex emotions, relationships, doubts. It acknowledges the suffering in the world and in our hearts–and the universal hope for a reprieve from it.

This started out as a recommendation for the bestseller Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. Back to business.

When we Petersons moved from suburbia to this place we call the Warren earlier this year, we traded a bigger house in the ‘burbs for a smaller house on a few acres of quiet land. We miss our old house now and then (especially Jamie, who had a big, open kitchen and now has a hallway with a stove and sink) but the trade was a good one. I’m not complaining, but it goes against American culture (and human nature, maybe) to downsize your house. Our kids are getting bigger by the minute and our house shrank by about 25%.

One casualty of that downsizing was, sadly, my books. More than half of them are boxed up and in storage, and the shelves that once held stories and ideas and adventure now contain pots and pans and casserole dishes (I told you about the tiny kitchen. We have exactly four cabinet doors’ worth of kitchen storage–have I mentioned that my wife is amazing and (almost) never complains?).

Where was I?

Ah. Life of Pi.

Having little selection, I finally, after hearing our own Eric Peters suggest the book, picked up this one. I went for the popular thing. I joined the millions who read it, and I’m glad I did. I’ve never read a story like it. With the millions of books written every year, somehow Yann Martel wrote something new. I was a little put off by the universalism of the main character, whose comments on God, Jesus, and Krishna are sometimes a little specious. But if you can move past that and into the wonder of the story itself, you’ll find a haunting, engrossing tale. I talked with Eric about the book yesterday, and both of us were moved and mystified by the ending.

Here are a few lines from what the author claims are the core chapters of the book.

…the founding principle of existence is what we call love, which works itself out sometimes not clearly, not cleanly, not immediately, nonetheless ineluctably.

And:

I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!”–and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.

My main contention with the book, now that I think about it, is that the author makes a strong, beautiful case for the value of faith over fact, as if the two don’t mingle and co-exist. The Christian story is profoundly moving whether it’s true or not. But if it didn’t really happen, it is ultimately a waste of our time. That the story of Jesus is as sweet and harrowing as a fairy tale adds weight to the fact that the story actually happened; that it actually happened adds weight to the beauty of the tale.

The book claims that the story of Pi Patel will make you believe in God. I don’t know if that’s true or not (since of course I already believe in him). At the very least, it helped me to believe that there are good (sometimes even great) stories still to be told, and the best of them ask us to believe.

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


11 Comments

  1. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    AP,

    Christianity is indeed a waste of our time if it is not fact – Paul said if Christ wasn’t raised from the dead we are to be pitied above all men. But the Christian life is indeed rooted in facts which are there for anyone who cares to look into it. At the very least, something radical happened 2000 years ago which caused a social explosion and is still making waves this far down the time-line. Jesus is an either-or proposition; either he is who he said he was, or he isn’t.

    That said, a believer can certainly find light, truth, and beauty wherever he looks – if he is looking for it. If we’re looking for darkness and anti-Christian bias and corruption, we’ll find that as well. I used to go to movies and see anti-Christian bias all over the place, just as I used to hear some sermons and hear them all shot through with Law and self-effort and death. Light now comes to me in the oddest of places because as a child of light I am more interested in light than in darkness.

    I dealt with the “popularity” thing too – playing bluegrass growing up, I was into a music form that..well…didn’t induce cheerleaders to want to date me (banjos are quite repellent to most cheerleaders; it makes them think you might not have teeth). In playing this wildly unpopular music form in southern California in the 1980’s, it was easy to have a genre mentality: “This is MY music, and all these other people are blithering MORONS!” (well, maybe not that extreme…). Anyway, it’s been a long recovery from that attitude, but I feel as though, now in my 40s, I’m reaching something like real open-mindedness about many things. At the same time I am getting a real closed-mindedness to anything intruding into the holy of Holies in my heart, where the Holy Spirit resides above the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant. Paradox is always at the heart of truth.

  2. Shaun

    I have not read this book . In fact I had never heard of it until I came to this site, But I may look for it. I am really posting this comment because I was such a social rebel when I was a teen. I was so concerned with being different from every one else.
    I also ended up here because I love the music that you have recorded Andrew. When I start to really lose my focus on what is important to me I like to listen to the song “Family Man” because truly, this is not what I planned on doing with my life, but God Had a better one . Any way, that said I just want to thank you for the music that has grounded me and inspired me to keep on doing what I need to do.
    I too have become so much more tolerant or accepting of , well . people.
    There was a time when I was so zealous about my faith, that I am sure I turned a few people away from Christ . Now I can see that I need grace maybe even more than the ones I have looked down on . Sometimes I eally disgust my self.
    Thank you , & thank God ,
    Peace

  3. Todd Hollback

    Andrew,
    I wanted to follow up on your comment about moving to a smaller house – I moved my family from a 3800 sq. ft. house in the mountains of Colorado to a small Missouri farmhouse on 60 acres…My wife went from a kitchen with a gazillion cabinets & drawers and two ovens to a tiny farmhouse kitchen with literally ONE drawer. And, incredibly, all she ever did was smile…. wives are amazing things !

  4. Laura Irick

    Hi Andrew,

    My husband said of our last house, “If anybody ever breaks in here, I hope he likes to read.”

    When we moved into our German apartment, we faced similar challenges. German apartments have no closets and ours has no garage (imagine fitting everything from a 2-car garage- 4 bicycles, lawnmower, etc- into your living room.)

    To solve this problem inexpensively, we put a 3-shelf bookshelf on one of the kitchen counters for containers (flours, sugars, salt, oats), and put our microwave and toaster on top of what was once a changing table, filled the two doors under that with bowls, the top drawer with Saran Wrap/foil, and the bottom drawer with tupperware.

    We also don’t have a tv, which frees up our tv cabinet.

    This leaves more room for the books, which we have now added to the tops of 4 5-shelf bookshelves and the kids’ rooms.

    We did leave a room full of books in storage back in the states, so at some point we may be putting the bookshelves back-to-back like a library.

    LI

  5. James Dittes

    I teach Life of Pi to honors-level 9th graders at my high school. It’s a great book to teach in a public school because of it’s universalistic approach. It lets us talk openly about faith without feeling constrained–and I think all students who take the book seriously (and they love the book, because it’s sooo different from the Homer and Shakespeare I have already bored them with) find their beliefs strengthened.

    A couple of teaching related things. The single-best lesson of the year is when we ready about alpha-beta-omega animals, and I make the kids list the hierarchy of their lunch tables. They always get a kick out of that.

    It’s funny how people react after they read the twist at the end of the book. Kids who have a faith background embrace the better story; those who don’t invariably believe the more realistic one. It’s one of the few books I’ve found that yielded such diverse conclusions.

  6. Tellina

    I didn’t read this book. Not b/c it didn’t sound fascinating or have a beautiful cover. It just sounded too existential for me at the time my Aunt (who has a great pallate for literature, music, and food) recommended it.

    However, I find the challenge to believe in God interesting. The Aunt who recommended it is a born and raised atheist. It makes me very hopeful. I may even read it, if just for the chance of a conversation.

  7. Brad Griffith

    Andrew, I picked up this book based on your recommendation (I am indebted to you for the discovery of Watership Down and Wendall Berry). I, too, had to look past the universalistic perspective of the main character, but in the end I found the book quite rewarding. I was taken aback by the ending and would love to hear your thoughts on it. I don’t want to give any spoilers here. I don’t even know if anyone will see this as this is a fairly old post. I would definitely second your recommendation here.

  8. Annie Blankenship

    I am ten and love your books as soon as i finished North or be Eaten!. I jumped at of my chair and ran to the computer to put on hold the next book,I almost started crying when I realizied I was only the tenth hold out of ten!Still waiting to read it.Your amazing

  9. lady aliara

    “I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!”–and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.”

    I think the author might not understand what an atheist or an agnostic is. He mixed them up.

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