One Pastor’s Eye on The Book of Eli
By John W. Frye
[This review was posted on Jesus Creed hosted by Dr. Scot McKnight.]
Who would have imagined a 21st century movie made about The King James Version of the Bible? Denzel Washington’s The Book of Eli puts the 1611 Bible dead center in the story. The tag line of the film: “Some will kill to have it. He will kill to protect it.” This is a “battle for the Bible” like I have never seen. Having seen the film [spoiler alert], I am trying to find a way to synchronize its message with anything in the Bible.
Should we be glad a man named Eli (means “my God”) risks his life and slaughters many people in order to get the only surviving Bible to a printing press so that others can have access to it? The story opens 30 years after a global, nuclear holocaust; a holocaust sparked by warring religions. Survivors are living in the grim, chaotic and violent remains of civilization. Values are altered so that KFC wet wipes are exchanged as currency and water is extremely scarce. Eli (played by Denzel Washington) is “a walker” who is commissioned by “a voice” to head west to deliver the literary treasure in his possession. In the story, Eli is the good, yet stunningly violent guy. The Christian Science Monitor review labels Eli “a pacifist warrior” meaning that Eli is a peaceful man unless provoked. Eli’s nemesis is Carnegie (played by Gary Oldman) who is collecting books in his desperate search of copy of the Bible. Carnegie, the bad guy, wants the Bible because he believes he can use it to keep ignorant, bewildered people in sheep-like submission to his power. Carnegie seeks to capture the Bible faithfully carried and zealously protected by Eli. With Carnegie and Eli, we are presented with a post-apocalyptic Satan and a very uncharacteristic, gun-slinging, knife-wielding Messiah. Is The Book of Eli a postmodern, cinematic Pilgrim’s Progress? I don’t think so.
As a viewer I got caught in the story, eager for Eli to fulfill his quest with “the book” and fearful that Carnegie would succeed in his evil pursuit to seize “the book.” Because this film is about the Bible, it is not like Frodo trying to get the (one) ring to the Cracks of Doom. Eli and Carnegie are human beings who, for different reasons, are obsessed with the Bible. If Eli is a metaphor for a committed person who is willing to die for the Bible, then I would rest easy. But Eli convincingly demonstrates that “he will kill to protect it.”
As a pastor, I have questions. Can a Christian person be a pacifist until provoked and then become a killing machine? Does walking by faith and not by sight have room to use keen hearing to kill the enemies of “the book”? Eli is blind. There is a telling line in the movie when Eli confesses that he spent his life protecting the Bible only to realize that he must live its message: to treat others as he wants to be treated. This confession comes after massive bloodshed from his killing expertise.
The Golden Rule? That’s it? Eli is protecting the Golden Rule? This is where I felt the let down. The passion for the story evaporated. That, and the ending when the newly printed Alcatraz edition of the King James Version is placed next to the Koran. I wonder if Denzel, a professing committed Christian, really wanted this ending or was it the Hollywood, politically-correct thing to include? Or, is The Book of Eli sending a contemporary message to those who terrorize others in the name of Allah that they, too, will be terrorized by those who love the God of the KJV? I don’t know and I hope not.
The Bible is not about the Golden Rule. The Bible presents not a rule, but a Person—the Prince of Peace. The Bible does offer a love like no human love and that love has a name: Jesus the Christ. The closest the movie comes to any relationality about the God of the Christian faith is when Eli recites the opening verses from Psalm 23 to Solara, a young female devotee of Eli’s.
I wrote a novella titled Out of Print: A Novel. In this story, there are no Bibles except for what has been memorized by people. Scot McKnight wrote the Afterword for the book. Out of Print and The Book of Eli have a similar aim: to give the Bible its rightful place in the world. But the two stories are poles apart. For whatever reason if you like The Book of Eli, I invite you to read Out of Print. Eli’s line fits my story and the evangelical church’s story. Have we been so zealous to protect the Bible that we have failed to live its God-incarnate, God-inspired message? Out of Print suggests that the church not only has a Bible, the church is the Bible to a watching world one button away from the apocalypse.
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