Is there any ‘Good News’ in the Good Book? Theological Musings on The Book of Eli

Talking about the Bible in our Western cultural space, these days, can be a risky enterprise. The Book of Eli, does that, and there are a number of things we can learn from it.

I mean, 'cultural space' in the strict sense, of course. The film was a public success, after all. I am referring here to the less populated space of the film critics, our 'cultural judges', parasitizing as they are on the entertainment industry, who are in the business of shaping (or so they hope) the imagination of our generation.

It was in this rather smaller group that the movie appeared as nothing more than a sample of ‘fanatical fundamentalism in cool video game clothing’. But the fact that these haters cannot see, or perhaps more accurately, refuse to see in the movie anything more than a ‘confusion of cowboy conventions and evangelical bully pulpits’, should make 'The Book of Eli' all the more interesting for the rest of us, who believe not only that there is more to the world than meets the eye but also that the Good Book is really about the Good News announced by the angels on the first Christmas night.

The plot is set up in a post-apocalyptic world after a nuclear war. The cities are in ruins, the land looks colorless and lifeless. So is the sky with its dark clouds raining mostly ash rather than rain. There is scarcity in every way and drinking water is a sought after commodity since everything is contaminated by the nuclear winter.

It is in this bleak setting that Eli, played by Denzel Washington, embarks on the mission of his life. We learn that everything started with a call, 30 years earlier, when he heard a voice which told him to take a special book where ‘it needs to be’. He doesn’t know exactly where that is, but he knows that he needs to head West.

Eli is a prophet and a warrior at the same time. He sports a pair of cool glasses which protects him from the sun's rays, which are blinding, literally... But, as we will discover later, the glasses also hide a deeper type of protection... Unencumbered by the harsh conditions he fights (and often kills) hobos and low class criminals, reads his book and heads west through the wreckage of what once was the civilized world.  

In a desolate little town he meets Carnegie, a ruthless character who, as Eli learns, has plans to rebuild the world. Unlike his minions who talk and behave more like beasts than humans, Carnegie is smart and literate and we spot him browsing Mussolini. Yet, he is convinced that if his building projects were to succeed, he needs something better. He needs the Good Book. As he retorts to one of his commanders, ‘this is not a f... book, it's a weapon. Aimed right at the minds and hearts of the weak and the desperate'. Presumably, more efficient than Mussolini.

Eli quickly realizes that this is not the place for his book and a conflict ensues. With the help of Solana, Carnegie’s stepdaughter, he prevails once again and manages to take the book (or rather its content) to its rightful place, thus concluding his journey and fulfilling his mission.

The movie has a number of twists and turns that create tension and sustains pace. Its grand compass and heroic mission arguably make for a compelling action thriller.

Yet, it was the less thrilling part that caught my interest. In spite of its somber mood, its bleak and dusty imagery, I found the gloomy graphics mysteriously appealing. In fact, it was this contrast of misery and glimpses of grace, the seriousness, the bold tone that invites further reflection. Theological, that is…

Let me start with a disclaimer. I am not interested in retrieving the ‘intention’ of the producers. Besides, since for most, if not all, Hollywood movies, the ultimate upshot is financial success, such an endeavor would make for a different type of reflection, one which I don’t plan to undertake here. What follows is rather a series of reflections occasioned by the film.


First and foremost, the movie is about the journey of a book, the most important book, that is, a book worth fighting for and worth dying for, the book which is, as Eli claims, nothing less than the hope of humanity. 

There are tender moments in the movie, like Eli reciting Psalm 23, or his initial encounter with Solana... The universe of desire targeted in Carnegie's calculations appears petty and insignificant when contrasted with the so much deeper and wider perspective opened up by Eli's faith and calling... There is nothing moralistic in the scene. The ethical is ultimately upheld through the emergence of a different kind of beauty, an opening into something novel and surprisingly appealing; something that the sordid world into which Solana lives has never seen before. In the 'old world', Eli tells us, 'we had more that we needed' and 'we didn't know what was precious and what was not'... There were little things, like a shampoo or a perfume, things we waste and take for granted every day in our consumerist society... But nothing can be compared to losing the beauty and the universe of meaning opened up by the Word. All those scenes remind us of the transforming power of the Word and how 'living by faith' not by sight can be beautiful, desirable, enticing... In those of us who have seen better days (i.e. when reciting the Word was considered 'cool'!), it may also stir, I might add, a sort of nostalgia for a time when the Old Book would be restored to the glory and dignity it deserves and when the reigning ideologies of our time would be unmasked for what they really are: i.e. recipes for destruction...

In fact, it is precisely this latter concern that the film seems to address. But wasn't religion itself that brought about destruction in the first place? And doesn't eradicating religion in general, Christianity in particular seem like a good idea? Apparently it does for some of our cultural elites.

Indeed, most critics found scandalous the fact that the movie has the audacity to suggest that the Bible is worth memorizing, that it contains timeless council and memorable claims.  In their judgment, such beliefs necessarily places one in the fringe group of 'hard-liners'. This is hardly surprising, these days when the ‘fundamentalist’ label has become the reigning scarlet slander of the liberal media: It is OK to be a 'Christian', a 'cultural' Christian, that is... But as soon as you take your beliefs seriously, you are a 'fundamentalist'.

But there is something more to note at this juncture. The journey bespeaks more than attachment to a book, however valuable that may be, and what one 'can do' with it. It also unveils the order of reality that the book is about. In this sense, the Old Book's post-apocalyptic journey is not only heroic, but also miraculous. It is not only about human action but also about divine providence and protection.

The Christian knows that the career of the Word in history has been and continues to be miraculous… The Bible was put together in miraculous ways and its survival through the centuries was no less astonishing. In the movie, we don’t really see this until the end when we realize Eli was at least partially blind. We, humans, have a tendency to do the reverse: to explain away the miraculous once we have the end result… In the meantime, we assume, of course, that we have all the details, that everything can be organized in a neat sequence of causes and effects. Needless to add, by doing so, we adapt everything to our own world and reality, to our conveniences, to what keeps us within the confines of our comfortable lives. What we learn here is that history is more complex and often more dangerous than we commonly assume. But where 'sin increased, grace abounded all the more', says the Good Book... We miss that too, of course... We miss that the skill and the entitlement we claim for ourselves is much more ambiguous. That we are often blind not only to the dangers of this world but also to God's 'fundamental enabling' and at times, miraculous intervention.

Now, some may interpret the movie's conclusion as a mere call for a 'New Enlightenment' and may argue that it is the (politically correct) theme of 'proper use', that is eventually being made. We must respect the Good book, like any other sacred text for that matter, as they are all part of the cultural treasure of humanity. True, Carnegie wants the Book so that he can 'tame' and 'control' the emerging brave new world: 'It worked in the past, and it will work again'. But we, the civilized remnant should know better. We no longer burn books. Reason should once again prevail over blind passion.

Arguably, however, there is equivocation in 'taking the Bible where it needs to be'. Placing the Bible along other texts in a library may be a good thing, for a quite different reason... That is, not because it confirms the liberal dogma that all religions/ideologies are, or should be at the same level, or on the same footing, but because it depotentiates the question of 'proper use'. We, the 'users', what we do, our intentions and actions don't really have the last word... Besides, the Bible has always had to face competing ideologies. And its effectiveness, time and again, pointed beyond itself, to what the book is about. What is more, its power was often revealed in weakness, when human might and planning failed. Yes, Carnegie is right when, after shooting Eli, scoffs 'He is just a man'... That's certainly true. We're not only weak, but also imperfect, often incapable of seeing the grand design... But, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, we know that when we're weak, we're strong, since God's power is made perfect in weakness...

So, those who see in 'The Book of Eli' a risible plea for right-wing Christian fundamentalist militarism are missing the point. For the Christian knows that a different kind of power is apparent here, that his or her battle 'is not against flesh and blood' but against 'principalities and powers in the heavenly places', that violence is not the last word in the making of history.

In this sense, The Book of Eli may function as a prophetic parable targeting our own cultural landscape. A colorless and lifeless one, to be sure, the wasteland that once was the Christian America where the Bible has been banished from public discourse, where, to discover that the Good Book could be seen as a solution to anything constitutes a major disappointment… It is not difficult to see that, in an important sense, Eli's journey is already our own. The question is whether we are ready to tone down the cultural noise so that we could hear the call anew, whether we are ready to engage it afterwards and fight the 'good fight' (not 'our own' fight or a ‘trendy fight’) and whether we are determined to keep the faith in the process.

George Ille


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