How are storytelling and religion related?
In Life of Pi, Pi survives through religious belief and telling stories. As he notes about both religion and story:
If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for?
One of the novel's main points is that there is a form of "reality" which is deeper than mere literal, physical reality and can be found in what many people would call fancy or the imagination, rather than in technical facts.
All major religions rely on stories. In what is called Narrative Theology—a form of understanding religion that has gained popularity in recent decades—stories are asserted as central to faith, more so than rules and creeds. Most religions can boil their belief systems down to a list of commandments, and in fact, religions do. For example, Judaism has Ten Commandments at the core of the faith. It is story telling that keeps religions alive, however, just as it helps keep Pi alive. Stories are open-ended, can be told in different ways, and can be interpreted through different lens. This adds a complexity that mirrors real life.
Pi knows that both religion and stories have a life giving potential through their imaginative possibilities. Both teach us that we can survive the impossible.
Before literacy reached the masses, most people relied on oral storytelling to learn about their religion, as that was the only way they could access the stories written in their book of worship. This storytelling allowed people to gain a deeper understanding of their faith, as they learned of the struggles and trials the characters in religious texts had to go through and applied the lessons of these stories to their own lives. All three major monotheistic faiths—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—use stories to guide followers who are trying to practice their faith in moments of hardship, and this is something that Pi understands as well. Pi relies on storytelling to understand the religions he is interested in and interprets religious parables from his own particular viewpoint. Like the characters in these stories, Pi is able to overcome impossible circumstances while lost as sea. It is through storytelling that Pi is able to survive and not give hope, even when his situation seems hopeless. The stories found in religious texts often provide a sense of comfort and guidance to readers faced with desperate situations, as readers encounter characters who are able to beat the odds, and this gives them the will to continue.
PBS is airing a series next week in which the first men,John Wycliffe, William Tyndale and Thomas Cranmer, to translate the Bible from its original Latin into English are portrayed as heroes. The story line goes further to offer them up as the founders of modern literacy as we know it today.
The relationship between storytelling and religion is complex. While religion has always been conveyed through fables and allegories, the construction of these stories has supported the maintenance of traditional power structures.
As the Bible was translated into the common tongue, and its stories and lessons became comprehensible to the common man, a certain degree of power was lost by the church. To a great extent the teller of the tale controls the message of the medium. To this extent therefore, the relationship between religion and storytelling is interdependent.
Storytelling and religion are very deeply related, both in this novel and in general.
In general, all religions have sacred stories at their hearts. We call these myths; they range from the creation stories of how the world came to be to stories of the faiths' founders.
In Life of Pi, the relationship is more direct. Pi experiences such a rare and transformative time (being cast away with a tiger) that it ruptures his previous religious answers about the nature of the world. To replace them, he must weave a new story that makes emotional and spiritual sense of this experience.