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The Book of Eli: Things to Watch For

(Warning: This post contains significant spoilers related to the movie "The Book of Eli." If you haven't seen the movie yet, and plan to, please skip this post. You've been warned!)

I'll be the first to say it: "The Book of Eli" is one of the first explicitly Christian films that I've seen since "Amazing Grace" that actually doesn't suck. As a writer, I have a bit of an axe to grind with the Christian entertainment industry, which often seems to trade more on the merits of its faith-based message than on the actual quality of the entertainment being offered.

"Book of Eli" is not your average Christian movie. It's rated R - and with good reason. Bullets fly, and so do limbs - and sometimes even heads. There are a few strong uses of profanity, and although no sexual content is ever explicitly shown, there's an attempted rape halfway through the film (Eli intercedes and puts a stop to it before anything happens, however, but shooting arrow through the villain's nether regions). Just a word of warning to parents who might think that this film is Sunday School appropriate.

"Book of Eli" is a bleak tale, taking place several decades after the earth's destruction by a cataclysmic event that ripped a hole in the sky and killed off most of humanity. Those left behind after the catastrophe struggle to survive in a barren wasteland, where water and other resources are scarce. But unbeknownst to most of the remaining population, there's a greater lack in the land that they yet realize - a famine of God's word. It is precisely this which Eli (Denzel Washington), the film's protagonist, carries in his backpack, in the form of an old, leatherbound Bible, which may be the last copy of the book in existence. Eli stumbles into a helter-skelter ghost town ruled over by the crafty Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who also wants to get his hands on the Bible - for purposes other than those Eli has in mind.

Not surprisingly, the film has a lot of spiritual content beneath its gun-slinging, limb-slicing exterior, ranging from Eli's overt quotations of Scripture to several more subtle themes. In this post, I'd like to highlight three of the more interesting themes that I picked up on while watching the movie last week; if you have others to add to the list, please add them to the comments section.

Dueling Views of Religion: Eli and Carnegie represent contrasting views of religion. Where Eli seeks to use the Bible to help humanity find its way forward from the brink of destruction, Carnegie repeatedly states that he wants to use "the book" to control the illiterate masses. For Carnegie, the Bible is a "weapon," a tool of power to be used to manipulate the people into doing his bidding. Thus, Carnegie represents an antithesis to Eli's pure faith which has often reared its ugly head in the history of the church - a desire to use religion as a cudgel to beat the population into submission to a leader's ideals. In the film, Eli immediately recognizes the danger of Carnegie's thinking, and refuses to let him gain control of the Bible. From a Biblical perspective, Carnegie reminded me a lot of the Pharisees of Jesus' day, who had a firm grasp of orthodox religious tradition, but used it to oppress, rather than liberate, the people in their spiritual care. For the modern Christian, a question arises from this conflict: where do we see Carnegie's version of religion at work in our churches and in our society? Will we allow the Carnegie version of the faith to become the defining 'face' of Christianity, or will we embrace the hope-filled, loving Christianity of Eli?

Protecting the Word vs. Living by the Word: In the early scenes of the movie, it's clear that Eli is a man with a one-track mind: he wants to protect his precious Bible at all costs. This focus drives him to continue his journey "west," but it also hardens him. Early in the film, Eli is confronted with a situation in which a woman is attacked by several thugs on motorcycles. Rather than intervene, he hides behind a pile of rubble, telling himself "it's not your concern, stay on your path." As a viewer, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for Eli to whip out his machete and spring into action, and when he failed to do so I thought: "oh my gosh, what a jerk. What kind of a Christian role model is this guy?" The effect is intentional. Later in the film, we see Eli evolve in his relationships with others, and it's ultimately his friendship with Carnegie's daughter, Solara, that brings out a more caring side in his personality. Faced with a choice between saving the Bible or saving Solara's life, Eli chooses Solara's life, letting the Bible slip into the hands of his enemy while he himself takes a near-fatal shot to the gut. Eli later explains to Solara: "I spent so much time trying to protect it (the Bible), that I forgot how to live by it."

Eli's conflict represents the vital balance between protecting the Bible and its teachings and the need to live those teachings out in practical ways. Although most of us will never have to protect our Bibles from gun-slinging thugs, a more subtle temptation exists to emphasize doctrine and the "purity" of our teaching to the exclusion of practical expressions of faith. This conflict shaped the fundamentalist-liberal controversy of the early 20th century, with the result that many churches fell to the extreme on one side or the other, by either emphasizing doctrinal purity as an end in itself or by abandoning the Bible altogether. Eli reminds us that our professed faith and the book it's founded on, are worthless if they don't drive us to "to do more for others then you'd do for yourself." (Eli's paraphrase of the "golden rule.")

"What You Meant for Evil, God Meant for Good:" In Genesis 50:20, Joseph tells his brothers, who had sold him into slavery: "You meant it for evil to me, but God meant it for good." The climax of the Book of Eli had me a bit confused at first, but after chewing on it, I've come to see it as an expression of the idea that God bring good even out of the evil actions of others. Near the end of the film, Carnegie succeeds in stealing the Bible from Eli. When Eli is unable to retrieve his lost treasure, Carnegie takes it back to his ghost town, intent on putting his evil plan for domination into control. End of story. Bad guy wins. Right?

Well, not exactly. You see, the Bible [MAJOR SPOILER] is actually written in Braile. Only Carnegie's blind wife, who has been abused and manhandled by her vicious husband throughout the movie, is able to read it. As Carnegie sits dumbfounded, demanding that she translate it for him, his wife runs her fingers over the pages of the Braile Bible and smiles briefly - a subtle indication that perhaps she has connected with something on the page. Shortly after this, she announces that Carnegie's town has descended into anarchy, and that he himself is dying of an infection caused by a gunshot wound that he received earlier in the movie. This leaves his wife as the only character capable of reading the Bible - and, perhaps, restoring order to the now chaotic town with its wisdom. Although it's never explicitly stated whether Carnegie's wife responds to the message of the Bible, it's implied that her daughter, Solara, returns to the town at the end of the movie, wearing Eli's coat and carrying his now famous machete, no doubt with the intention of continuing her mentor's work. Although Carnegie resorted to murderous ends and intended to use the Bible as a tool of power, his evil plot actually ended up putting God's Word in the hands of his chaotic village - thereby making him and his schemes a vehicle of the town's redemption, even against his own best efforts to do evil.

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