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.
I 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.
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.