“The Book of Eli,” Christianity, and Relgious Pluralism: An Appeal to Grand Rapids Christians

Spoiler Alert! Throughout this post I give away some of the movie themes and toward the end of this post I give away the ending. If you don’t want to know what happens, read no further :)

A week ago my wife and I watched the engrossing movie The Book of Eli. It is an American post-Apocalyptic film in which the main character, Eli (played by Denzel Washington), is on mission to bring a book to the West Coast. That book turns out to be the last remaining Bible, the last remaining Bible, a King James Bible no less. Along the way another man, Carnegie (playes by Gary Oldman), seeks to recover the book to use it for his own powerful purposes.

Many things could be said about the movie, but six things stood out, three good and three not so good. First the good:

  1. A consistent theme was the idea of walking by faith and not by sight. Throughout the movie the only thing Eli knew was that he was to go from the East Coast where he came to the West Coast where he was to complete his mission by bring the Book there. He did not know what he would encounter or how he would survive. He only knew he would (because of the promise of survival and provision from the Voice who told him to ‘Go!’) and that he had to do this thing to which he was called. The same is true for us on our own journey called Life.
  2. On that note, his blindness plays a significant role in the ending: at one point Eli is forced to give up the Book he spent half a life-time defending and protecting to the man who wanted it for powerful, malicious ends. He finally gives it up, but when the villian goes to read it, it’s in brail. I can’t help but think of Jesus’ line, “Let those who have ears, here.” Likewise, “Let those who have eyes, see.” It was impossible for Carnegie to “see” the Holy Scripture because he did not have the eyes necessary to understand and interpret it, much less read it. I could be wrong, but that stood out to me. In the end we also find out he has memorized the entire thing, which leads to the last point and the ending.
  3. One line from Eli got me: “I’ve spent so long guarding and protecting this Book that I forgot to live out it’s teachings.” WOW! How true for much of Christianity! How many of us have memorized large portions of the Holy Scriptures, yet it never finds itself pouring out of our life? Toward the beginning there was a point when Eli stumbled across a husband and wife who were being harassed and assaulted by a marauding group of savages. Eli hid behind a rock and did nothing, right after he slaughtered a group of people to protect the Book inside his bag. He could defend the Book but not the people the Book told him to love. Reminded me of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Though the idea of defending the Text and caring for people in the process is not mutually exclusive (meaning we should only care about loving people at the expense of loving and defending what the Text says about how we are to live) it also reminded me how often we defend Scripture at the expense of other people.

Now for the three disappointing things:

  1. The Book/Bible is portrayed as a weapon used by the powerful to gain/maintain authority and power over the weak. This was captured in Carnegie’s lust to get hold of this Book at all cost, including murder. Carnegie believed that what was contained within the Book could make him powerful and he could use it to control the masses in order to achieve his powerful aims. This is consistent with Michael Foucault’s deep hermeneutic of suspicion of Institutions that characterize our postmodern culture, including the Institution of Christianity. As I wrote elsewhere, our postmodern culture pictures the Church in the form of Christianity as a Warring Despot hell bent on using any powerful means necessary to bring all people and people-groups in subjection to their version of normalcy, which is through “The Bible says…” I am not suggesting this is true, but it does reflect our cultures institutional angst, much less Christianity angst.
  2. The movie also suggested violence was justified to protect and guard the Book in order to carry out Eli’s mission. Throughout his journey to fulfill his mission, Eli killed or maimed in order to protect and defend the Bible. This movie, then, appears to be a scathing indictment against the ways in which Christianity has used violence to defend and promote its aims. While I understand many have done horrendous things in the name of Christianity (like the Crusades of a distant memory or abortion doctor killings of recent ones.), this is neither the Way of Christ or the Church at large. Though I could be misunderstanding this plot device, I am disappointed the movie would make this suggest Christians as individuals or the Church as a whole is simply about using violence (rather physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual) in order to live out its mission. Come on!
  3. Finally, ending basically ruined the whole thing for me. It was quite disappointing, though utterly predictable (though as a committed Christian, I am confused why Denzel would even do this film!). As I’ve written in three other posts regarding the trend within even Christianity to dismiss the exclusivity of Jesus Christ. In the end, Denzel recites the Bible verbatim and a Curator of Culture (stationed at Alcatraz of all places) copies it by hand and reprints it using a Gutenber-style press. It was then brought to a book shelf and placed alongside three other books: the Tanak, Torah, and Koran. In fact, there was a space already created between the Torah and Koran, suggesting that the Bible is one more book among many, one faith-option among a myriad of options.This doesn’t surprise me in the least for Hollywood to produce a film that sends this message. It makes sense. Our culture believes that the Bible and Christianity is one option among many. I am surprised and deeply disappointed, however, that a self-proclaimed Christian would star in a lead role in a film that pushes this message. In his new book, “It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian,” another self-proclaimed Christian and director of a Christian faith community, Samir Selmanovic’s, says the same thing when he writes, “to say God has decided to visit all humanity through only one particular religion is a deeply unsatisfying assertion about God.” (pg. 9) In fact, “As long as those of us who are Christians insist on staying enclosed in our own world of meanings, we have nothing more to say to the world. Without recognizing God, grace, and goodness outside of the boundaries we have made and without the possibility of expanding our understanding of God, grace, and goodness, we have come to a place where Christianity as we know it must either end or experience another Exodus.” (60-61).

It makes sense our world would deny Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world. I expect nothing less, to be honest. It doesn’t that self-proclaimed Christians do, which is what these Christians are saying when they say God is revealed outside of Christianity. Christianity is a straw-man, anyway. The point isn’t Christianity. The point is Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures (Old and New) tell of God’s complete Story of Rescue which points to Jesus Christ and Him alone.

A few weeks ago I wrote how I am taking a more hyperlocal focus with novus•lumen. While this post seems to be outside that new focus, it isn’t: I am deeply troubled by the trend within the local, West Michigan Church that is trending toward discounting and downplaying the exclusivity of Jesus Christ. In the interest of Inter Faith dialogue and religious accommodationism, it is not longer really about Jesus Christ, but It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian http://www.amazon.com/Its-Really-All-About-God/dp/0470433264″>really about God, a generic way of accommodating any and all expressions of God, which is really idolatry.

As Karl Barth said in His Church Dogmatics, “[God] is wholly and utterly in His revelation in Jesus Christ.” (CD II 1:75) “Any deviation, any attempt to evade Jesus Christ in favour of another supposed revelation of God, or any denial of the fulness of God’s presence in Him, will precipitate us into darkness and confusion.”(CD II,1:319). Why can’t Grand Rapids Christians proclaim this with as much boldness and courage as Karl? Or the apostles? When they (specifically Peter) was confronted by the religious leaders of his day, this is how he responded:

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. He is ” ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.” Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.

Then the Scriptures say that these leaders were “astonished” when they say the courage of the ordinary man Peter. Courage is what we Grand Rapids Christians need, not religious accomodationism. Tolerance of other beliefs and faiths, sure. I have no problem with that. Not at the expense of courageously proclaiming that “Jesus is Lord” and God raised Him from the dead and exalted Him to His right hand. I only wish Denzel had the guts to make this proclamation. Will the Grand Rapids Church?

  • Chip


    I share your observations and wonder if the Eli quote “I’ve spent so long guarding and protecting this Book that I forgot to live out it’s teachings” makes up for the shortcomings. Regarding that and the final shot of the multiple faith books all next to one another, I look forward to hearing the director’s commentary on the DVD.

  • http://www.benterry.com Ben Terry

    Great article!

    Here are my 5 reasons why the Book of Eli missed the point – http://www.benterry.com/?p=979