The Bible and Culture

The Bible and Culture

Theological Movie Month Part Two– The Book of Eli


The word Eli is the first word Jesus spoke from the cross— calling out to God.  El is the most basic word for God in Hebrew, and Eli a form of that word. It is part of the name Elijah (Yahweh is God),  or Elisha.   But this movie is not so much about God as about his book– the Bible, a book for the ages,  a book which can save the world, according to this movie.  The cast of this movie is excellent— Denzel Washington, the son of a Pentecostal minister and a practicing Christian  (on which see the article in Christianity Today—
plays Eli, a sort of guardian angel of the last remaining Bible on earth after the apocalypse. His mission– to take the Bible to the West, as in ‘go west young man all the way to the Golden Gate’. 

Gary Oldman, one of the best character actors of our day, plays the evil counterpart of Eli—  Carnegie (as in how to wins friends and influence people)  a dictator of a small town, and at all costs he wants that Book, in order to control the people. His is a “Bible is the opiate of the masses view”.   And then there is Tom Waits, the fix it man in a wonderful cameo appearance.   Jennifer Beals, hardly recognizable as the one who was once in Flash Dance, plays the blind and abused wife of Carnegie, and  Mila Kunis plays her daughter. 

The film is in glorious sepia tone, the browns of a post-apocalypse brown out, the browns of the desert Southwest,  the browns of a world which has fallen and can’t get up. Things are no longer black and white, especially when it comes to theology and ethics, that is, unless you are Eli,  and Eli is not a man to be messed with. At all costs he must protect this book and get it to its destination.  Eli has been guided by a voice in his head to find the book, and to head west.  More than that, he cannot say.  He moves by faith, not by sight, and just how true that is becomes apparent at the end of the movie.  For one hour and 58 minutes we hold our breath to see if Eli will accomplish his task, to see if God will protect him, to see if Eli can avoid the obstacles and temptations and overcome the trials along the way.  This is a Road movie, and in a sense it is an answer to the nihilism to another recent acclaimed road movie The Road— where the road leads nowhere, and there is nothing accomplished, nothing of purpose to accomplish in the end.

This movie is indeed a post-apocalypse western, produced by the Hughes brother, and it has the feel of the Mad Max survivalist films, especially the first one.   Water is precious and hard to find, food is rare and hard to find, and civilization is non-existent. The only town we encounter is more like an armed camp or a wild west town we saw in the Clint Eastwood movies. This movie has plenty of violence, but then so did the old frontier– it was in part how the West was won.  There is of course a good deal of irony in the ‘let’s fight over the Bible’ thrust of this film, when the Bible includes the message to put down your weapons and beat them into plowshares.  But then this movie is more like the book of Joshua or Judges or Exodus than like the Gospels.   

It can be no accident that just as Eli is a man of a book, so also is Carnegie, only his book is the biography of Mussolini– apparently he is learning how to be a petty dictator, but he knows he needs the Book so he can manipulate the people. And the people are illiterate. Only a precious few can read or write after the war made a hole in the sky and life as it once was known disappeared.  At one juncture Eli tries to describe what the world was once like to Solara (whose name means sun) before the war.  He says that people forgot what really mattered, what was really precious.  But in the post-apocalypse world in survival mode there could be little doubt about what was essential, except of course that apparently only two persons know what is most essential of all— that which supplies not merely life but everlasting life— the Word of God.

I highly recommend this parabolic movie. It is entirely an appropriate one for a country at war, as ours is, or a country trying to help a nation like Haiti recover from what must have seemed like a nuclear disaster.  This is without question one of Denzel Washington’s finest films, and Gary Oldman is superb as well. 

For those hoping to escape the final tribulation on earth, this movie has a simple message— buckle your seat belts, because no one, including Christians, are leaving this world without dying.  No one.  Eli’s coming, coming first, but Jesus will be a while later.      

Comments read comments(13)
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posted January 18, 2010 at 10:34 am

I think your article have not discuss one major point “Is it justifiable as a Christian to be come so violent?”

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John Umland

posted January 18, 2010 at 11:27 am

I wondered if we’d agree or not on this movie. We don’t.
God is good

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Ben Witherington

posted January 18, 2010 at 11:35 am

Hi John:
I quite agree with you that it is much too violent. And in fact at the end Eli admitted this was sin, if you were watching closely.

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Ben Witherington

posted January 18, 2010 at 11:48 am

Hi John Um:
Just tried twice to post a comment on your review, but it wouldn’t take it so I will respond here. The differences in the character of Eli and Carnegie are perfectly clear, including the differences in the way they related to women. Rape is certainly not explicitly depicted in this movie. It got an R rating for violence, which it earned. Eli, like most of our hero figures, is not without flaws, as the end of the movie indicates. But then even real heroes like MLK were not without serious sins either. So I think we should cut Eli a little slack here. His purpose was noble and indeed he did fight the good fight and keep the faith.

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posted January 18, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Ironically (or intentionally), I saw Denzel on Letterman recently, who gave a huge plug for the movie, including a clip. During the entire time, Letterman never mentioned the movie’s theme or purpose and the word “Bible” was never used. Had it not been for your review, I might not have even seen it, since I typically do not care for sci-fi, which is the way the Letterman show went. Now, I think it worthy of my time and money.

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John Umland

posted January 18, 2010 at 8:40 pm

Hi Ben. I approved your message quickly and responded. I’ve had problems with porn spammers so I moderate all comments. I replied there, but here are the highlights….
My problems with the movie are that the medium is the message. I think the story is redeemable, but not the presentation.
I don’t like rape scenes. With or without nudity, seeing women thrown around and attacked and held down and their legs pulled apart is entirely too graphic for me.
I also cannot fathom the depravity of our culture that asks women to pretend to be raped for entertainment. I cannot fathom the sick irony of asking those actresses to do this for a movie about the value of the Bible.
What is redemptive about Eli? That he let’s Solara tag along? That he let’s her drive him to San Francisco? What did the good news do to him?
God is good
Pray for the Haitians

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Ben Witherington

posted January 19, 2010 at 7:44 am

Hi John:
Here is where I say the story is about a lawless post-apocalyptic scenario, rather like Haiti at the moment. And all kinds of bad things go down in such settings. I think it would be unrealistic not to depict some of these sorts of things in such a movie, and I think it makes the movie more powerful to show how good could prevail and the Bible’s message rescued and shared even in such a hideous environment. Life is not pretty and I don’t think this movie condones such behavior or else Denzel wouldn’t have done it. The medium is not the message if the message goes counter to the medium! I don’t see anyone running out from this movie and saying— “wow, I saw a simulated rape in this film, it must be o.k.” Now if Eli had been involved in such an act, that would be different.

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posted January 19, 2010 at 1:51 pm

I really liked the movie, but I’m concerned with so many people labeling it as a Christian film and asking the question whether the Church should support this film. Here are my reasons why I think it should not be considered a christian film.

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Ed Brenegar

posted January 19, 2010 at 7:44 pm

Does Eli have any resemblance to Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz?
It too is post-apocalyptic, centered around a last book, in the desert SW.
Canticle was the first SF book I ever read.
I look forward to seeing Eli.

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John Umland

posted January 24, 2010 at 3:05 pm

The Bible portrays rape in a non-salacious way. Better movies have portrayed rapes by showing the victims in their post-victimized state. Showing the rapes, provides inspiration for the depraved and desensitizes the ‘praved. Just yesterday, I got 4 hits on my blog from the search terms “Book of Eli rape scenes.” I think some people want to re-watch those scenes, Ben.
The medium confounded the message, if one thinks there is a good message to be found in it.
God is good
Pray for the Haitians

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posted June 30, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Greetings one and all,
In my research for reviewing the film, The Book of Eli and found your blog and wanted to provide a different perspective that may or may not affect your discussion. Please see my review with the included link and I look forward to continuing the conversation.
kind regards,

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Watch The Book of Eli Online

posted July 1, 2010 at 6:24 am

I have to say that the movie seems to have a lot of potential. Maybe I’m just a silent Denzel fan, but still the trailer rocks. Watched it !!

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posted July 22, 2010 at 2:31 pm

You say you’re an evangelical Christian Mr. Worthington? And you support this movie? Shame on you. It is obvious from your blog posts that you have alot of knowledge in your head….but a follower of Christ does not delight in debased and disgusting depictions of violence for entertainment. Nor does he recommend a movie that places the Word of God on the same level with the false scriptures of false religions.

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