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"Book of Eli" Is a Difficult Cheer for Persons of Faith
Gallons of ink and billions of blog pixels have already been spilled over "The Book of Eli," one of the first big-budget adventure films of 2010. That it has overtly religious - dare I say, Christian - overtones is not in question. But is it really something that Christians can be comfortable with?
The movie in a nutshell
If you haven't seen the movie yet, here's the plot in a thumbnail: After a nuclear holocaust destroyed the world thirty years ago, only one Bible has survived. Eli (Denzel Washington), having been charged by God with the task of protecting it, is on a crosscountry hike to a place where he knows it will be protected and reprinted. Along his journey, he runs into Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a wicked, slippery character who runs a Western town with his group of typical movie henchmen. Carnegie wants his mitts on that Bible because he believes that with it, he can manipulate people and expand his empire. After a standoff between Eli and Carnegie (where God magically deflects bullets from Eli), the latter takes off with Carnegie's daughter Solara (Mila Kunis), and they make their way to California. Once arrived, Eli gives the Bible to a group that can reprint it and promptly dies. Solara takes one of the Bibles and sets off into the sunset, the first post-apocalyptic Christian missionary.
So what's the problem?
First of all, let me hasten to assure you that I liked the movie. Snobs at Rotten Tomatoes notwithstanding, I felt that the film was better than a spaghetti Western. The production quality was definitely big-budget Hollywood, not the campy, cheap look of recent Christian films like "Facing the Giants" and "Fireproof." Unlike those films, it includes a healthy dose of profanity. And I have to admit, as a Christian, I often come away from films that mention the Bible with my teeth on edge. Hollywood is none too kind to the Bible. It seems perfectly content with respecting every religion except Christianity, and the Bible always gets misquoted, if quoted at all. (Think Jack Black, Jesus water into wine, for instance.) This movie had none of that. The Bible was respected, treated as something desirable. Oh sure, people misuse it, and the movie is honest about that. But still, there was something refreshing about seeing Eli reciting long passages of Holy Writ from memory, honoring the Bible in a way I've never seen before in a Hollywood action film.
"Book of Eli" is an incredibly violent movie. People waylay others on the road and eat them, their hands shaking with desire. People blow people up, people punch people out, people kill each other for fresh water, people shoot huge holes in houses and throw bombs at people. Bones crunch, blood flows freely, and severed limbs litter the bleak landscape. Solara tries to seduce Eli, starting to open his pants. She does this because her loving father Carnegie sends her to do it, and when Eli teaches her to pray that night instead of having sex with her, her loving father Carnegie grabs her mother and chokes her till Solara admits that Eli is, in fact, carrying a Bible with him. The whole movie has a feeling of despair, or evil, or waste, or something. In the last thirty years since the nuclear attack, the worst side of humankind has come out, and violence like a cancer has eaten through its humanity.
Sip the Honey, Throw Away the Sting?
"Book of Eli" is a movie that tries to straddle two worlds. It seeks to bridge the gap between adventure film and Gospel sermon. In some ways, it does this task admirably. Some have compared it to a modern Pilgrim's Progress.
However, I feel a bit uneasy about a few of the messages in this film. For instance, Islamic terrorism kills more people every year than the Spanish Inquisition did in its whole 300-year existence. Yet people constantly harp on how awful the Catholic Church was, lumping in all Christians with a small number of very un-Christlike nominal "Christians" who killed in the name of money. In the same way, "Book of Eli" reinforces the notion that religion is by nature a violent thing, and that the only way to cleanse the air of evil is to use weapons. Preferably with lots of high-power ammunition.
As Christians, we subscribe to a different creed. "Your Word is eternal, oh Lord," writes the Psalmist. "It stands firm in the heavens." The Bible is the most printed, most translated, most hated, and most attacked book ever. It has survived more persecutions, more burnings, and more purgings - even by "Christians" - than any other book. And it has survived, even thrived. Untold thousands of people like Tyndale have given their lives to protect the Book - but they did not take lives in its defence. There will never come a day when one man with a machete and a pair of sunglasses has to defend the last Bible. God will take care of that.