At the end of Life of Pi, Pi Patel sits in a hospital bed in Mexico and tells two stories. The first we hear long before we ever know he ends up in a hospital at all. It is the story that takes up the bulk of Yann Martel’s novel and leads us from Pi’s home in Pondicherry, India; through a harrowing shipwreck; across endless oceans in a small lifeboat accompanied by an ever dwindling zoo population until finally he is left alone with only Richard Parker, an adult bangle tiger; by an uninhabitable carnivorous island; to a sandy beach; until Pi is finally found by two Japanese insurance representatives in this hospital bed, his extraordinary tale’s telling situated for us in that room via Chapter 97, the sole contents of which are the words “The Story.”
Pi’s second story is a much simpler, if a much more brutal, version. No majestic, albeit ferocious, animals. No carnivorous island of meerkats. No Richard Parker. Just a sailor with a broken leg, a disgusting cook turned cannibal turned murder, Pi’s mother turned victim, and Pi turned Richard Parker — the violent beast within — when his revenge lashes out at the cook who took the only thing he had left in the world from him, his mother. In a single monologue — stark, bleak, forceful — Pi tells the insurance representatives a story much more believable than Pi’s floating zoological ark but no more desirable.
At the end Pi asks the only question that makes sense — “Which is the better story?”
And in this question lies also the duplicity that runs down the center of my faith.
Duplicity and ambiguity lie at the heart of Pi’s twin stories. It lies at the heart of my faith as well. It runs down the center of how I read the bible, how I think of history, go to church, how I pray, and how I doubt. And, as does the gospel, this duplicity centers ultimately on the person of Jesus the Nazarene.
Sitting at Parisi following church with two friends we began to discuss the nature of Jesus’ self-knowledge. Just how much did that Jewish man who walked Palestine two thousand years ago know he was God. On the one had I argue that Jesus’ self-understanding must be more like ours than unlike ours. As I read the gospels, beginning with Mark, I find a Jesus bearing up under the weight of a calling he does not fully understand, determined to fulfill the role in Israel’s long and torrid history and finding himself facing an ultimate death he cannot see beyond — God forsaken, abandoned by disciples, committing, per Luke, his spirit into the hand of a God he hopes will vindicate him but breathing his last not knowing if his prayer will be answered.
My friend argued for another reading of Jesus. A Jesus aware of his deity. A Jesus whose memory swam with the images of his life before incarnation. A Jesus who knew, though he was human, he was God as well. A Jesus unlike any other human. He knew he was God and his teaching, miracles, and resurrection were all foreknown and expected and embraced. A Jesus whose experience was more unlike ours than like ours.
I on the side of historic plausibility and Anthony on the side of ecumenical tradition, we teetered back and forth over the divide, trying to understand the fundamental disagreement which stood at the center of our discussion. And it was here at this crossroads that the statement that explained the divide came. Anthony said “I just can’t believe in a Jesus whose death transformed creation and inaugurated God’s kingdom and who is present with us each week in the Eucharist, yet whose life leading up to that death was completely as our own, devoid of any form of magic.”
And here I found my duplicity. On one hand, I believe in a Jesus who inaugurated God’s kingdom: breaking the power of sin and violence with his death and beginning a new creation with his resurrection.
On the other hand, I believe in a Jesus who threw himself on the wheel of history and was crushed by it, his mangled body hanging there still. A powerless Jesus pushed out of the world and onto the cross .
I think of Albert Schweitzer whose influential Quest of the Historical Jesus effectively ended the First Quest to understand Jesus as a historical figure. His final picture of Jesus was one who came as an apocalyptic prophet preaching the imminent in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. Yet the vision failed, the kingdom did not come and when Jesus tried to, as it were, force God’s hand, the lashes of Rome came down, the envy of the Jews reared up and brought the career of yet another failed messiah to a bloody and violent end. Yet it was this failed Jesus, this Jesus who could not bring the kingdom and whose death could not be avoided, who Schweitzer ultimately followed from his life of philosophy, theology, and music to accept a call to the heart of Africa as medical doctor. At the age of 30 he gave up all the prestige in order to go to Africa as a doctor and a servant to the weakest of these my brothers.
I think of N.T. Wright whose work on the historical Jesus, most fully laid out in his volumes Jesus and the Victory of God and The Resurrection of the Son of God, have effectively invigorated the so-called Third Quest for the historical Jesus by attempting to understanding him fully in the context of first century Jewish apocalypticism. He pictures Jesus knowing he is God like one might know they are in love, bringing the message of the Kingdom of God soon come to Israel, announcing the end of exile, a new exodus from the bondage of sin. He comes to Jerusalem, doing for Israel that role which YHWH alone was meant to do. In his death and resurrection he inaugurates a new creation. In Jesus, God’s future of is rushing towards us, bubbling up into the present. As the Church, we are a part of the ongoing story of this new creation advancing in eager expectation of its final consummation. It is this Jesus which has driven Wright to devote much time to his writing and speaking work aimed to equip Christians to live out a vibrant faith fully integrated with their cultural and social milieu in order to bring God’s kingdom into their present. It is this Jesus that drove his clerical work as Bishop in the diocese of Durham and has energized his role in the life of the church to address the deep social issues facing those who are weak and in need.
With Pi, my faith finds me on the lifeboat cast off the sinking ship. Like him, neither of my stories can answer the question of why the ship sunk. Nothing Pi says could satisfy the real thing the insurance representatives had come to discover. I cannot find those answers. I have two stories — I could have thousands more. A thousand narratives to deconstruct, critique, tell, wonder, and doubt yet these are the two stories I have to tell in the hospital room of my faith. In the boat with my zoological friends or my murderous companion — and always Richard Parker — it is these two stories I have to tell. One is full of magic and mystery. In the expanse of space the angels sing hallelujah and the eternity and now are pierced through with light and wonder. One is set in a world where a helpless man-maybe-god is caught is a tide of history and swept to his death, joining us in the darkness to scream with us in our god-forsakenness. Both stories are for me significant, poignant, and ultimately deeply moving.
I am in the lifeboat with Pi lost at sea. I am foraging on the island promising safe haven proved carnivorous. I am cornered by the tiger. And I am Richard Parker. I am mourning my inability to take a moment to say goodbye as I am forced to let go. I am sitting in the hospital bed. And I am telling two stories: one unbelievable but full of animals and magic, one believable but stark and haunting.
And I am asking you, “Which is the better story?”