The Book of Eli – reviewed by Jeff Stauffer
In the movie The Book of Eli, we meet Denzel Washington (Eli) heading west in a post-nuclear war torn America. Eli is a man on a mission, a mixture of Mad Max and Frodo. As the movie plays on, we slowly unravel the driving purpose for his life: to carry the only surviving copy of the Bible to an unknown destination out west. Eli is not only a knife-wielding traveler, able to take on entire gangs of vigilantes, but he also wields the sword of scripture, gracefully and poignantly reciting from the good book. Eli is sometimes preacher and other times prophet, choosing wisely his words in times of crisis.
Without spoiling the movie ending, which has a nice twist that will make you want to see it one more time, there are several spiritual topics that come to mind that might be worth pondering.
1) The Word of God. The character of Carnegie, played wonderfully by Gary Oldman, is a power-hungry man on his own mission: to find for himself a copy of the Bible. Carnegie’s motives are not so noble, however. As Bibles are extremely rare in this movie setting, Carnegie realizes that if he can find one he can use it to control the people who follow him, not with brute force but instead with the “right words.” While the commoners are not familiar with Christian teaching or even know what the Bible is, Carnegie is old enough to remember its teaching as a youth. He knows the power that religious authority can wield and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to grasp hold of it.
This is a good reminder for all of us concerning the responsibility of our church leaders and others in positions of authority. God’s word is powerful but must be used in the hands of the humble and loving. Have we not all learned of instances of the Bible being used throughout history to control people or to abuse its powerful message? In Carnegie’s character we see the beginnings of a cult leader, a man who will twist God’s message to serve his own ambitious pursuit of power.
2) Water. There is a subtle parallel that I found in the movie, where water has become a valuable asset in the scorched, arid western landscape. The earth is barren, showing little signs of producing vegetation, and Eli is always searching for sources of water to survive another day. People come from miles around and stand in line and pay hefty prices to fill their canteens at a watering hole. It reminds me of when Jesus would speak to the crowds regarding a different kind of water. Whereas Jesus offers “living water” (Jn 7:38) that never runs dry, the people often didn’t understand his use of spiritual allegory, instead wondering if he himself dug a new, deeper well around the corner somewhere. In the movie, people are thirsting for truth, for hope, for a way out of their bleak existence. And when Eli begins to quote from Psalm 23 to his friend Solara, she craves more. She leaves everything behind to follow him.
3) Living out one’s faith. While Eli has clearly been given a task in life, he struggles with “staying the course.” Early on we see his westward trek interrupted by a group of motorcyclists who kill and rape innocent travelers. He is torn as whether to intervene or ignore the atrocities being carried out before him. As he hides nearby he repeats the phrase, “This is not your concern… stay on the path.” Eli is a private man, unwilling to get involved in other people’s lives. Yet, when he meets the young girl Solara who yearns to learn about his book, he can no longer ignore evil when it crosses her path. He finally realizes his life is more than just being a courier for the sole remaining Bible known to man: “In all these years I’ve been carrying it and reading it every day, I got so caught up in keeping it safe that I forgot to live by what I learned from it.” In the end though, Eli is grateful for how his life has played out, quoting from 2 Tim 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race…”
4) The Miraculous. It goes without saying that people will have varying opinions regarding whether or not miracles occur, and if so what they might look like. The movie provides several examples where one is confronted with opportunities to answer this question. Also, the ending provides new information that makes you reflect back and reevaluate where miracles may have come into play. And so I found myself asking these kinds of questions after the movie: Just what is a miracle? Can it be a “chance” meeting? What if someone literally dodges a bullet? What if they dodge 50 bullets? Did God move the bullets out of harms’ way or did he align the universe so that 50 defective bullets came off the assembly line headed for this particular battle? Or maybe He whispered in all of their ears, distracting their focus momentarily? Perhaps some of you are as strange as I am and actually think about such things?
What begins in the movie as explainable through skill or luck, you soon recognize to be the miraculous. Where one crosses this line depends on how closely you view God’s participation in this world.
While there are many spiritual aspects to this movie that makes it intriguing to watch and think about, it is also a very violent and often vulgar film. Its ‘R’ rating is very appropriate. Yet despite this, it is refreshing to see a Christian character, portrayed with a mostly positive spin, coming out of Hollywood.