Risking the better story.
"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." Pi, from The Life of Pi (2)
I know they are just characters. They are nothing more than words strung together on a page, incarnations of an author's imagination. But for me, and for any reader, Jonas and Pi are so much more. Jonas belongs to The Giver, a novel written by Lois Lowry that takes place in a futuristic utopian society. In his world, choice does not exist. There is no color, no music, no love. There is also no pain, fear or hatred. Life is regulated and life is safe. Pi belongs to Yann Martel and his novel, Life of Pi, which chronicles the adventures of a shipwrecked boy who must share his life raft with an adult Bengal tiger. Pi is a survivor who challenges convention and lives to question, to wonder and to believe. These characters are unique, the novels fantastic. But for some they are frightening. The Giver was one of the most censored books during the past ten years. Like Life of Pi, it reveals an often unexplored side of what it means to be human. These books, these authors, these characters--they don't try to make you feel safe. So sometimes an adult's instinct is to shield, to remove what threatens, to remove the danger from the bookshelves. But these characters experience the danger that walks hand in hand with the beauty of this world and they are better for it, as are their readers. With characters like Jonas and Pi, you don't get the safe story but you get the better story.
Until Jonas is chosen as the new Receiver of Memory, he has never read a book. Literature is a well of knowledge and knowledge is a threat because it opens doors, illuminates options, provides choice. Allowing children to see the bigger picture, to experience good and bad equally, is a risk. It's a risk Jonas' community is unwilling to take and so they go to "sameness" where every personal decision, from the color of a toy to the selection of a spouse, is eliminated. Everything they need to have a successful life is provided. They are given food, clothes, education, occupations and yet none of it belongs to them. They can't own their success because failure was never an option. And as humans, that's what we do; we try and we sometimes fail and yes, the consequences can be frightening. "Oh, I see what you mean. It wouldn't matter for a new child's toy. But later on it does matter, doesn't it? We don't dare let people make choices of their own." (3) If they can't screw up the little things then the bigger picture is safe. Without anything to choose between, there is no fear of choosing wrong. So Jonas and the community are protected. But they are missing out.
As a novel, The Giver exposes readers to difficult subject matter. Christian audiences have called it New Age. Parents are concerned over topics like euthanasia and adolescent sexuality. But if this is all they see in The Giver, they truly are missing the better story, the amazing story that Lowry offers her readers. Thanks to the memories he receives, Jonas chooses to break free from the community. He hears music and sees color. He reads books and learns about a distant past where snow fell and a bright yellow sun hung in the sky. He also discovers war and hunger and the potential for evil but decides the danger is worth the beauty. To feel pain is to understand joy. To know hatred is to value love. The fall, the triumph--life is about both. We can't change that by pulling books off the shelves. Novels like The Giver should be seen not as a threat but as an opportunity. Unlike Jonas, we don't live in the kind of world where we can forever protect children from the tough choices. Why not let them choose their books, just as they would the color of their toys, so that they start small, ask questions and grow up equipped to stand on their own. We can be there to teach, to guide, to read and walk with our children as they experience and choose for themselves. But we can't eliminate the risk. To try and do so would be to eliminate the flip side, to drain the color and halt the dance and miss the point of being human.
"I know what you want. You want a story that won't surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won't make you see higher, or further or differently." (4) Pi Patet is no ordinary character. He knows what the reader expects and delights in deviating from the norm. He grows up revering Krishnu, connects with the Muslim form of worship and falls in love with the humanity of Jesus Christ. So why not be all three, why not be a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian? Though it makes perfect sense to Pi, it shocks and frustrates his religious teachers and may be a tough pill for some readers to swallow. We all cling to our upbringing because it's comfortable. If we've been taught that Christ is the one and only way to heaven then Pi, as an embodiment of life's gray area, is a threat to a world founded on black and white. I've watched Christians react to Pi with confusion, reluctance, ambivalence and sometimes fear. I doubt it would be different for the other religions because to be human is to crave safety and there is safety in established conventions. But what is easy is not always best. What feels safe may in fact serve only to promote ignorance, widen the gap, draw more lines in the sand. Three of the world's major religions are connected through Pi and he makes it work. He sees the beauty in each, values their strengths and finds wholeness where there is so often discord.
Shipwrecked and struggling to survive alongside a tremendous threat, Pi lives the adventure that mirrors our daily lives. Richard Parker is a large, ferocious Bengal tiger. He is beautiful and terrible and Pi must live with this dichotomy every day, as must we all. He is not destroyed by the ever-present danger. Instead it keeps him strong, keeps him fighting and in the end, serves to define him. "It was Richard Parker who calmed me down. It is the irony of this story that the one who scared me witless to start was the very same who brought me peace, purpose, I daresay even wholeness." (5) To shield young audiences from the ambiguity, the oddness and the unanswered questions in Life of Pi would be to shield them from life as it really is. Why feed them a lie that's based on contrived, easy answers that have no hope of holding up against reality? Life is complicated, unpredictable and ultimately we cannot live it for them. This novel is only as dangerous as the limited assumptions we bring to it. Given the chance, Pi will win you over, open your heart, and show you truth and beauty where you never thought to look.
Jonas and Pi are wonderful characters. Their creators breathe life into ideas that redefine a reader's view of the world. And maybe that's what's so scary. These books push you with each page, force you to think, to confront assumptions, to question everything. It may seem safer, easier to give adolescents the simple books with the readily identifiable morals and characters quickly labeled as good or bad. We may think they aren't ready to face the real story; but the truth is, none of us is ever really ready for life. We just live it as best we can. To censor these novels, these characters in particular, would be the height of irony because Jonas and Pi fight for individuality, they fight for a voice and for the right to choose their own path. And as much as we wish for our children's safety, we owe them that same right, that same voice. What is life after all without love, color, imagination and Bengal tigers? They come with a price, they come with a risk and so as adults and educators we are forced to choose between the safe story and the better story.
(1.) Lois Lowry, The Giver (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), 128-129.
(2.) Yann Martel, Life of Pi (New York: Harcourt, 2001), 64.
(3.) Lowry, The Giver 98.
(4.) Martel, Life of Pi, 302.
(5.) Martel, Life of Pi, 162.
Marissa Elliott is a 23-year-old Gordon College graduate with a BA in English. She works as a writing assistant and will return to school in the spring in order to pursue a teaching career
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|Title Annotation:||christian literature|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2006|
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