God in a Lifeboat (with a Tiger)

The Curious Novel Life of Pi Uncovers Real Faith

Though more than 90% of us in the U.S. say we believe in Him, God may seem no more real to many of us than, say, Arnold Schwarzeneggar?sure, we’ve seen Him in the movies (Morgan Freedman in Bruce Almighty, Alanis Morissette in Dogma ), but isn’t He making his big impact somewhere else (Sodom and Gomorrah? California?).

The mother of all precarious situations
Yet for our age of the secular believing, novelist Yann Martel has given us Life of Pi , “a story that will make you believe in God.” Not a miracle story, not a sentimental touched-by-an-angel story, this is the tale of Piscine Molitor Patel, an Indian teenager (named after a swimming pool in Paris) who has been set adrift on the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat alone with a Bengal tiger (yes, you read that right).

You might call it the mother of all precarious situations.

“Pi Patel” manages to survive against the odds by faith. His very religious faith is neither crutch nor some squishy-soft-touchy-feely thing, but that delivering of oneself over to God in darkness and silence, that translates to deep strength. For Pi, even the reality around him seems to come and go, but faith is genuine, built on providential coincidences and his own skillful responses to those occasions of opportunity knocking. This kid only has to get hit by a flying fish once before he gets it: God has sent bait?time to start fishing.

Pondicherry Pi and his religions
Pi starts out the inexplicably religious son of good secular parents in the former French colony of Pondicherry in Indira Gandhi’s 1970s India. He collects religions like naturally extroverted people collect friends?they just seem to take a shine to him. This, of course, leads to hilarious consequences when all at once the imam, the Catholic priest, and the Hindu pandit discover he is romancing their religions all simultaneously.

Somehow novelist Martel is able to gently poke fun at us religious folk and our territoriality about God without ever abandoning serious respect for these three religions that Pi Patel is so devoted to. He reminds us that faith should always be served with humility.

Upon this tiger I build my church
I know what you’ve beenthinking since the beginning of this review?how can anyone make being shipwrecked with a Bengal tiger, a totally preposterous situation, the plot for an entire novel (and a matter for spiritual reflection)? But Martel pulls it off. How Pi manages to survive becomes a captivating adventure tale as well as a testament of faith. His desperate, grinding, absurd ordeal reminds us once again that it is adversity and not comfort that forces us to develop our inner resources, that makes human beings most creative, skillful, and alive.

Then there is Richard Parker , the Bengal tiger (named by clerical error) in the lifeboat. It would be easy in a book this absurd to let a tiger in a lifeboat deteriorate into something fluffy and cute by journey’s end?but this one is all maneater. Yet Pi finds that, like most of us, on a long journey he would even prefer to be threatened than to be alone.

Life of Pi is a marvelous book about life and faith in our times. Certainly even today few people belong to three religions simultaneously, but there’s something genuine about Pi’s fluid and mishmash faith (I thought of this the other night as I?Catholic priest that I am?finished my yoga class and emailed my Jewish-Buddhist editor). Even so, Pi’s faith proves mysteriously solid in the long run. And isn’t faith?in the end?one of the few things solid enough to hold us together in the shifting and rootless world that we inhabit?


Ordained in 1997 as a Paulist priest, Fr. Brett is clinical assistant professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles where he teaches pastoral theology and on the intersection of faith and culture. He received his Ph.D. in 2010 and has taught at Loyola University Chicago and the Catholic seminaries at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Fr. Brett is the author of three books, including the recently published Comfort: An Atlas for the Body and Soul (New York: Riverhead, 2011). From 2001 to 2004, Fr. Brett co-founded and then served as editor of BustedHalo.com.