Lions and Tigers and Balaam’s . . . Oh My!

To follow up on this post, I went and read Life of Pi. (If you haven’t read the story or seen the movie and you plan to do so soon, you should skip reading this post for now. Spoilers to follow. You have been warned.)

The book has set me to pondering its main idea, “choosing the better story.”

Growing up fundamentalist, I learned that fantastical things were only allowed to be believed if they were written in the Bible – and then they must be believed as literally, historically, factually true. Santa, not true. Satan, true. Flying reindeer, lies. Talking donkey, historically accurate.

When I was nine, my mother read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to my brother and me at bedtime. I just couldn’t get it. I asked her, “did this really happen?” There was a wardrobe (of sorts) at the foot of my bed. I tried once or twice to walk through it, with no luck. I doubted that Narnia was real, and my mother affirmed my suspicions.

I asked her why she was reading us this story, then. Why is it important if it’s not real? I wanted to know. She told me that these Narnia books are good for the development of children’s imaginations.

Who needs an imagination, I wondered, when only true things matter?

Throughout my adult life, I have mostly preferred nonfiction reading to fiction. I’ve wanted to learn new information and understand other people’s views and ideas. I haven’t had much time for stories, because I’ve believed that they aren’t true.

The Life of Pi, however, has challenged these thoughts. Or struck a chord I already know but haven’t played enough.

In my college years, I read Jane Eyre, and the story somehow changed me, deepened and darkened the shallow pastel tones of my life. Recently, I reread it. I’ve been rewatching Doctor Who episodes; and although I’ve read the book and seen both the theater musical and the movie starring Liam Neeson, I went out and saw the latest Les Miserables movie.

When I reread or rewatch a story, I haven’t necessarily forgotten the plot line. It’s not that I don’t know what happens in the story. And yet it is that I don’t know what happens in the story. Beyond (or within?) the actions of the characters, the plot development, there is a whole reality – a whole life – that I can enter into, again and again. And each time (if it’s a good story), I will have lived a little more life, grown a little wiser, learned something true that nonfiction cannot convey.

So what is this “better story” stuff? Does “choosing the better story” take us back to that tiresome dichotomy of rejecting science for art, dropping reason in favor of faith?

It might feel that way from a superficial reading of Life of Pi. There was the “factually true” story and the “better story.” Reason and faith (or fact and fiction, or science and art) were competing, and faith/fiction/art won.

But I would suggest that choosing the better story does not mean denying the truth of the “lesser” story. Science and art/reason and faith/fact and fiction are not mutually exclusive stories. Art/faith/fiction helps us go beyond the bare facts and literal account of an experience. So much more is happening in every moment than anything we can convey in a scientific theory or a reasoned argument. Reason is what we believe. Faith is what we believe in, the deeper meaning we apply to the facts.

The stories I learned in Sunday School begin to breathe when released from the demand that they be factually correct. They shimmer with touchpoints on my own experience of the world; they poke into the transcendent nature of things which thoughtful, honest scientific research also points me towards.

I cannot – and do not – deny the bare facts of evolution as the most accurate explanation of the origins of life. That includes classifying myself and yourself as highly evolved “great apes” in the animal kingdom, formed from a process happening over billions of years and manifesting itself through countless life forms and an unfathomably long string of births and deaths. There are moments when this cold hard truth chills me with its starkness.

But there is a better story I embrace, one which gives me courage to accept the lived and living reality of the lesser, equally true story. This story (my chosen faith tradition) paints in richer hues not only the beauty and joy that exists in the cold hard truth (and there is plenty when you take the time to look), but the violence and suffering as well (there’s also plenty of that). It gathers up the facts and re-creates them, not to deceive, but to reflect.

Maybe I only call my faith tradition the better story because it puts me – or my kind – at the center. Pi’s better story put him at the very center. He was the boy and the tiger.

But isn’t it true? From your perspective, you are the center of the story. Everything is happening, ultimately, in your own mind, your own conscious being. That, at last, is the best witness you have to anything you call reality.

Maybe it is possible to choose the lesser story – facts and facts alone. But it seems to me that one of our most widely shared human experiences is to take the facts before us and to tell the truth again – in a better story. This story can take various forms – faith, art and fiction are a few of the names we give it. But in making any sort of comment or reflection on the factual truth (processing it within our own selves), I suggest that we are reaching for the better story.

When I approach my Christian faith tradition and its “holy book” of the Bible as the “better story” that I have chosen, then I can interact with it. I can move in and out of the stories. I can argue with the characters and the things they say about God. I can argue with the characters labeled God, too (they are inconsistent and sometimes infuriating).

On good days (which would be most of them), I get out of bed in the morning because I believe that I am part of this mystical something bigger than myself, this truth that is living and real. I am a character not only in the lesser story, but also in the better story. The holy book may be closed, but the story it began to tell continues to unfold, and it’s my story too.