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Box office Bible hero kicks serious butt

Posted By Drew Zahn's column On 01/17/2010 @ 10:37 pm In Diversions | Comments Disabled

First, there was the triumphant Joshua. Then, the confident David. In the book of Ephesians, the Bible describes a warrior who does battle with the very demons of the air, shielded by his faith and holding aloft the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.

Then, in 1996, Willie Aames of “Eight is Enough” and “Charles in Charge” gave Christian children a purple-clad cornball named Bible Man – and the reputation of the biblical warrior looked like it might never recover.

Until now.

Hollywood – of all places – has brought back the Ephesians warrior.

“The Book of Eli” offers moviegoers a narrative where the Word of God is humanity’s only hope in a desperate world, and where one, solitary man shielded by his faith, in obedience to Providence, defends the last remaining Bible on earth with prayer, trust in God and one seriously wicked knife.

“The Book of Eli” does not offer a family-friendly, sanitized version of the Christian struggle. The movie’s hero, Eli (played by Denzel Washington), kills his enemies the way King David did – he decapitates them.

Nor does the film stick to black-and-white, clean-cut morality that makes for comfortable Sunday school lessons. The film’s writers purposely portray Eli as a complex, flawed man, who occasionally goes astray on the path of following God.

But in a more gritty and realistic way, with the kind of gusto that could make even Rambo’s fans stand up and take notice, “The Book of Eli” defies any movie tough guy or cape-clad superhero to top the quiet strength of a man whose life is committed solely to God.

Eli, once a mild-mannered K-mart associate, walks with God and reads his Bible every day for 30 years, and in the end, emerges a silver screen hero that Christians can and should embrace.

The film is set in the not-too-distant future, where war “tears a hole in the sky,” allowing the sun’s radiation to scorch the earth. The last few remnants of surviving humanity, in the chaos, blame religion for the war and burn (almost) every Bible on the planet.

From this simple premise emerge a dozen, layered, complex, symbolic and discussion-starting ideas that make “The Book of Eli” a film that could inspire whole books – let alone columns – of commentary.

For example, in this post-biblical world, humanity reverts to a base, uncivilized state of rampant murder, robbery and rape. The parallels to the world of Noah’s time are glaring.

But is this realistic? Many in society today argue that man is intrinsically good, and that civilization develops its own ethics and morality apart from religion or some “holy” book. Scripture itself, on the other hand, argues that man without God will be enslaved and corrupted by his own sin. Boldly, “The Book of Eli” flies in the face of pop philosophy to agree with the book that Eli protects.

Cast into this barren future wasteland is Eli, a man who hears the voice of God directing him to the last Bible on earth (theologians, dispensationalists and anti-dispensationalists, you can have fun dissecting that – I’m not going there).

Eli is also directed to travel alone (see Mark 10:28-30 or Matthew 8:20) until he finds a place where a new civilization can be built on the Word of God (again, theologians … never mind). He wanders in the wilderness for 30 years (not quite the 40 of the Old Testament, but again, the parallels are obvious). During that wandering, he looks to the sky, presumably praying for direction (see John 3:8) and reads the Scriptures every day (see Psalm 119).

And I’m just getting started; there is simply no way to unpack every biblical parallel or teaching point in one column.

But any review of “Eli” would be incomplete without focusing on the battle between Eli and Carnegie, a regional tyrant who has been desperately searching for the Scriptures – not to protect them, however, but to use them.

Like the snake in the garden that whispered half-truths and half-lies to Eve, Carnegie weaves his web of deception over the Bible’s role in the emerging post-apocalyptic world:

“I grew up with [the Bible]; I know its power,” Carnegie declares. “I don’t have the right words to tell them, but the book does. … It’s not [just] a book. It’s a weapon aimed at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. People will come from all over and do what I tell them, if the words are from that book.”

Far from a slam against Scripture (as though it were some “opiate of the masses” or “guide for the feebleminded”), however, Carnegie’s words come from the throat of a character the film clearly portrays as a slithering snake, a type of devil, twisting and abusing the Bible for selfish ends. Carnegie’s words, in fact, run contrary to the spirit of the entire film, which is nothing but affirming of both faith and the Word of God.

Now, some will point out – accurately – that when Eli sums up the meaning of the book he carries, he blows it by quoting only the “Golden Rule.” He completely whiffs on “the first and greatest commandment” (which immediately precedes “love your neighbor as yourself” in Matthew 22:36-40) and skips the gospel message altogether. It’s a grievous, unfortunate concession to political correctness that sadly stains the film.

But to focus only on this failure is to miss the movie’s clearly demonstrated main point: Eli is a man of both faith and the Word, and both – even when sorely tested by the wiles of Carnegie – are proven to be true and victorious in the end. This is the film’s main point and what makes this Eli a hero for the ages.

Content advisory:

  • “The Book of Eli” contains a heavy level of violence and gore, including brutal fight scenes, briefly shown decapitations, slayings, bloodshed, gunfire, partially decayed bodies and other gruesome imagery. Though actually filmed with some artistry and not nearly as bloody as a “slasher” film or some modern war films, the handful of violent scenes may be too intense for some audiences. The film’s “R” rating is also tied to some profanity, but is mainly for the movie’s violent content.
  • On a related note, the savagery of the post-apocalyptic world – including scarring, poor hygiene, highway robbery, poverty, despair and animalistic behavior – could be startling for some viewers. A pair of scenes where gangs of men seek to forcibly rape women are depicted and intentionally disturbing, but cut away before nudity or the actual crimes are seen on screen.
  • The film contains a few dozen harsh profanities, and while much of it is fitting for the scenes depicted, there are a handful of instances where unnecessary cussing detracts from the dialogue. The moviemakers clearly showed restraint in comparison to other “action” films, but even more restraint would have made a better movie.
  • Outside of the implied rape scenes mentioned above, the film contains little sexuality. In a couple of scenes, women in slightly revealing attire attempt to seduce Eli, but he spurns their advances.
  • The film contains abundant religious references, including several direct biblical quotations, Eli’s spoken prayers, his testimony of how he came to devote his life to preserving the Bible and significant themes about God’s provision, direction and goodness. Parallels and metaphors are abundant for the discerning Christian, including a surprise ending rife with religious implications. Some mixed messages are included – opening yet another topic for discussion – on other religious works, including the Koran and Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code.” There is, however, no overtly depicted occult content.

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