This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 33, number 02 (2010). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington in the title role, is a post-apocalyptic movie about a man on a mission from God. In the aftermath of a nuclear winter, Eli has received a vision from God to protect the last Bible in America and bring it safely out West, where civilization can start over. Eli is a crack marksman and expert swordsman uniquely equipped to protect the sacred book. He’s been traveling for thirty years through barren wasteland and cities, fighting off roving gangs of cutthroats who kill for food, water, sex, or fun, making this movie a violent action saga with a Christian spiritual theme.
Eli arrives at a town ruled by a ruthless leader named Carnegie (Gary Oldman), one of the few people who knows how to read, since most of the books have been previously destroyed. Knowledge is power, but so is religion. Carnegie orders his minions of evil biker dudes to seek out every book they can find in the hands of unwary travelers because he is searching for a Bible. Why? Because Carnegie, who reads Mussolini, is a fascist who believes religion is a force to control people. He explains that the Bible “is a weapon aimed at the hearts and minds of the weak and desperate. They’ll do exactly what I tell them if I tell them the words are from the book.” Imagine Carnegie’s delight when he discovers the visiting Eli has precisely what he is looking for.
The movie is a parable of the battle between two philosophies of religion, that of controlling power and that of civilizing freedom. Eli is a holy man who fights only in self defense, and refuses to fornicate when Carnegie sends in the beautiful Solara (Mila Kunis) to tempt him to hand over the book. Eli teaches Solara the lost art of prayer and even quotes to her Psalm 23 by heart. When she questions whether he knows exactly where he is going, Eli explains in Abrahamic fashion, “I walk by faith, not by sight.”
The question of the movie is whether Eli really is called by God or is self-deluded, since each of his escapes can be explained in natural terms. When he walks away from Carnegie’s gang and they all miss him with their gunshots, however, we start to consider that maybe there is something to his claim of divine protection. Eli is finally robbed by Carnegie and left for dead, but he continues on, like Isaiah, with his “face like flint” set toward his Jerusalem, explaining to Solara, “I was so caught up with keeping the book safe that I forgot to live my life according to it. To do more for others than I do for myself.” Though this is an inaccurate quote of the Golden Rule, it makes for a legitimate challenge to Christians who spend all their time defending the orthodoxy of the “greatest commandment” while neglecting the second commandment, which is like unto it: the orthopraxy of loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
Through a twist that I won’t divulge, we see that Eli is in fact protected by God and he manages to get to a small community that is trying to gather books in order to save civilization (like the Irish monks did during the Dark Ages). He is able to transfer the text of the King James Bible to their librarians who will publish it on new printing presses. The story is essentially the Christian doctrine of inspiration: God uses fallible human beings to communicate and protect His divinely breathed message to the human race-Incarnation versus divine dictation.
Unfortunately, the end of the movie adds a multicultural nod to Islam that spoils the otherwise Christian theme. When Eli transfers the Bible text to the good guys, he shaves off all his hair and dresses in what appears to be Muslim garb as he lay dying. The shaving of hair is commended in the Qur’an (48:27) and the hadith (Hajj 1623 ff) for holiness in a pilgrimage (Islamic terrorists also shave off their hair in preparation for Paradise). The King James Bible is then placed on a shelf between the Tanakh and the Qur’an, implying a moral equivalency of these sacred texts-an irony, since Muslims do not agree with The Book of Eli that the Bible is the divinely breathed Word of God, but rather consider it the corrupted word of men.
Brian Godawa is the screenwriter of To End All Wars and the author of Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (InterVarsity Press, updated 2009) and Word Pictures: Knowing God through Story and Imagination (InterVarsity Press, 2009).