“The Book of Eli” is a parable about the battle for the Bible in a post-apocalyptic America that speaks profoundly to the battle for the Bible in contemporary America.
Ever since movie star Denzel Washington gave a shout out to our documentary “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims” first on Black Entertainment Television and later in Relevant Magazine, when he was promoting “The Book of Eli,” I’ve wanted to see how he connected our documentary and his movie.
What was it that he saw in our documentary that struck him so sharply that he tied it to his movie? I now have the answer – the power of the Bible.
Since I rarely go to movie theaters, I’ve had to wait until “The Book of Eli” was released on DVD. I wasn’t disappointed.
Know up front that it’s a movie about a desolate time in human history after “the flash.” The F-bomb is dropped too often. Some scenes are raw. Some violence is senseless; some violence has a redemptive quality, the kind of violence that extends justice. While the sky is not constantly gray, as in the movie “The Road,” the sky and earth lack vibrant color, much as the society lacks healthy color.
The action is so plentiful that one might miss the profundity of the dialogue about the Bible. If one is a person of faith, then perhaps the Bible discourse will be striking and hopefully it will open up the moral imagination.
Denzel Washington is a “walker” named Eli, a man on mission and determined to “stay on the path.” He is a pilgrim going West through a destroyed, lawless nation.
In a broken-down town with an outlaw chieftain whose gang is illiterate, a young woman named Solara notes Eli’s age and asks what it was like in “the world before.”
He replies regretfully: “People had more than they needed. We had no idea what was precious, what wasn’t. We threw away things that people kill each other for now.”
When the chieftain, a literate man named Carnegie, discovers the next day that Eli has a copy of the Bible, he demands it.
“I need that book … I’ll kill ya. I’ll take the book,” threatens Carnegie in a face-off in the middle of the street reminiscent of a Western shootout.
“Why? asks the unemotional Eli. “Why do you want it?”
“I grew up with it. I know its power. If you read it, then so do you. That’s why they burned them all after the war,” answers Carnegie.
“Just staying alive is an act of faith. Building this town is an even bigger act of faith. But they don’t understand that. None of them do. And I don’t have the right words to help them. But the book does,” says Carnegie. “Imagine, imagine how different, how righteous this little world could be if we had the right words for our faith.”
Carnegie mocks Eli: “It’s not right to keep that book hidden away. It’s meant to be shared with others.”
A few scenes later, when Carnegie’s senior officer disparages the book, an angry Carnegie explodes.
“It’s a weapon … If we want to rule more than one small … town, we have to have it. People will come from all over. They will do exactly what I tell them if the words are from the book,” spews Carnegie.
He reflectively mutters, “It has happened before.”
Later in the movie, at a campfire, Solara asks Eli, “What did you mean when you said, ‘It’s not just any book’?”
“It is the only one,” mumbles Eli. “After the war, people made it their business to find and destroy any that the fires didn’t get already. Some people said this was the reason for the war in the first place. Anyway, it’s the only one that survived.”
Still later, Eli reflects: “All these years, I’ve been carrying it and reading it every day. I got so caught up with keeping it safe, I forgot to live by what I learned from it … Do for others more than what you do for yourself.”
For my money, the movie is not really about post-apocalyptic America. The movie is about the Bible in America today.
I’ve seen this script played out over the past 30 years. Some Christians are so busy carrying their Bibles and doing their daily devotional reading that they bypass the Golden Rule. Some denominations are so obsessed with protecting the Bible that they’ve forgotten to live the message.
Some politicians of faith know the Bible is a weapon, sharper than a two-edged sword, that can control culture. And some secularists want to ban the Bible and to burn every copy, blaming the Bible for every wrong from the Iraq war to violence against women.
Maybe that’s why our documentary stuck with Denzel Washington. He saw Baptist Christians who honor the Bible and live out love for neighbor through positive engagement with Muslims – not Baptists who are battling over the Bible.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Editor’s Note: To order “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims,” click here.