The Book of Eli

Derek Ouellette —  January 23, 2010

My wife and I just got back from watching the Book of Eli starring Denzel Washington, and I have to tell you that we weren’t quite prepared for what we saw.

My wife described the movie as “poetically violent”. I like action movies but I’m not really into gore (squirting blood and all). So if anyone has seen SAW or Rambo 4 you may not relate, but this has been one of the goriest movies I’ve seen in a long time.

Putting that criticism aside (and the fact that there were a few “F” bombs), it was a fascinating and even stimulating movie.  I sometimes felt as though Eli (Denzel) was like a futuristic Abraham, receiving a divine call to go to a land he doesn’t know and to – quite literally – walk by faith (you have to see the movie, I’m not going to spoil it for you).

I’ll share a bit of the plot here, but don’t worry no spoilers. The movie takes place sometime not far from “now” after WWIII turns the surviving humanity into nomads, and sometimes cannibals. And Eli has within his possession the last remaing copy of the Bible in the world, and with it he’s been given a divine mission.

The villian in the movie is a man who remembers the “power” of the Book and has been searching for years to get his hands on it. Upon discovering that it is in Eli’s possession the man stops at nothing to obtain it.

Throughout the film Eli turns a blind eye to people who are in need, who are in danger and who are being killed and raped; reminding himself to keep to his mission and that nothing else matters. But at one point in the film Eli and a young woman who has “tagged along” are surrended by the bad guys. The woman was held a gun point and Eli is asked to give up the Book to save her life. To everyone surprise he does just that.

Later he is asked why, if the book is that important, would give it over to the enemy to save her life. His responds with a lesson we Protestants need to take to heart.

I have cared for it for so long, and I got so caught up in protecting the book, that I have forgotten to go and do what I learned from it.”

“What did it teach you?”

“Do unto others more then you do for yourselves. At least that’s what I’ve gotton from it.”

Sometimes we can get so caught up in defending the Book, in protecting the Book, that we have forgotten that the Book – as important as it is – is only a book apart from its Author. I hear the concern from my Catholic friends that we Protestants have fallen into a kind of idolatry, worshipping a book over it’s Creator. Many treat the Book as though it is magical in its own right, going so far as the chant it for healing like a warlock might do as he casts a spell. Many think there is power in the Word; and by Word they mean the ink on the pages of their genuine leather KJV.

But the scriptures are emphatic. The Word of God is not an object, a thing. He is a person, the Son of God and the Son of Man. John states, “In the beginning was the Word…” but he does not continue, “and the Word became a book, ink, pages, bonded leather, gold imprinted KJV” or any other nonesense like that. He writes, “and the Word became flesh”. The risen Jesus states that all authority has been given to Him [Matthew 28:18]. By whom? Paul writes that all authority is from God [Rom 13:1].

As N.T. Wright points out, when the Reformers utter the phrase “authority of scripture”, that this phrase was a short way of saying, “authority of God as it is exercised through the scriptures” [Chpt. 1]. But the shorthand way of refering to Gods authority exercised through the scriptures has become so common that it has actually supplanted the intention of those who used it.

People have forgotten that the phrase, “the authory of the scriptures” is actually a reference to Gods authority and not just the authority of a book. I think that if we would all begin to get this write it would clear up many confusions, bad doctrines, biblical abuses (such as the “venerable dogmatic approach” as one scholar put it – proof texting [Larry Heyler p.32) and even begin to clear some debris between Catholics and Protestants.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father. [John 1:1, John 1:14]

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Eric Gregory

    Wow – I’ve gotta see this movie!

    It’s impressive how well a piece of Hollywood cinema still makes us think. It’s odd that we get so wrapped up in the “correct” understanding of Scripture, to the point of verbal or even (in the Reformer’s case) physical violence to prove just how right we are. I had a friend once suggest that if we obeyed the red letters instead of arguing about the black ones, we’d all be better off. I don’t quite agree, as Paul and even the Gospels have some pretty important information that didn’t come out of Jesus’ mouth directly, but his point is well-taken (as is Eli’s): we need to DO what the book says, and not merely concern ourselves with keeping the book/message “safe” for the next generation (which is arguably what many Protestants hope to do with their adherence to biblical literalism and book burnings, to take two extremes).

    I’m glad this movie has this specific message – it’s one I’ve sought to champion as well.

  • Jose HC

    I am going to challenge you on something here. Something that will be completely contradictory to the mainstream (and even mainstream Christianity)… But do we have to watch a movie such as this one to remind us of the important statement you make? It’s in the Bible already… why damage our souls with a gory and violent movie when the answer is in scripture?

    What’s the net result? A scarred soul? Images of violence (and who knows what else) in our minds?

    Do we become better servants by drinking from the same dirty fountain?

    I know that what I am saying is potentially inflammatory but only because we really don’t know how much damage the violence, the sex and other influences really cause in our hearts? At the end does it make us better servants? Or damaged ones?

    Just wondering …

    • Derek Ouellette

      In answer to your first question I’d have to say no. If the question is, “do we have to watch a movie such as this” to receive the message I received which can be found in the scriptures, the answer is “no”.

      But I did not watch the movie to get that message. I watched the move and got that message. In other words, I watched the movie simply to watch the movie, and the message and illustration which followed were just added perks which further stimulated my thinking about the faith. Surely illustrations outside the bible can be useful to bring to light biblical teaching? Even though the bible already says it, illustrations help don’t they?

      Your other questions of thought are wise and cautious to be sure. But I also think there is a great deal of “gray” here and would of course strongly advise that someone with your convictions stay away from any such visuals. Though I don’t have to tell you that.
      .-= Derek Ouellette´s last blog ..Why Not Rather Be Wronged? =-.

  • Josh

    Awesome perspective and commentary on the film (as well as a really sound way of dialoguing about doctrine). I agree 100% with the thoughts on how it is God and His character that are really the focus of revelation. Our glorification (and defence) must be of the person of Christ (and the Father whom he reveals) and our reverence, our defence of the Scriptures is an outgrowth of the authority of God – the revelation of God in Christ.

    “The scripture speak of me” – Jesus

    The scriptures are to lead us to Christ. They are a catalyst, a means (along with the revelation of creation and the Spirit within the conscience) to point to the true End – the person, Jesus our Messiah and Lord. The information of that book (the Bible) is for the purpose of us coming into covenant, into community with the Trinity through the work of Christ. Relationship is the goal, doctrine/information is the means.

  • Josh

    I agree with you guys (Derek & Eric). Doing scripture always beats out solely thinking or talking about it… So much of what Jesus says is not much about “doctrine”, as it is about us “doing” or living out the character, the life of God by the power of the Spirit. Let’s live it out and talk about it on our journey’s together! This not to belittle doctrine or the importance of the Word by which we have received the revelation. But to not act (or live so little) upon it… is a greater condemnation then to never have heard it at all! Let us live out the Gospel we have heard! Let us live out the Resurrection that has been proclaimed to us!

  • Josh

    Also #2:
    Jose, I agree we should be careful about what we watch within the media, within our culture… The old adage “Garbage in. Garbage out.” isn’t just a cute saying. It’s a fact.

    BUT. I also must touch on the fact that we do live in a fallen world. One in which not only was our Lord (and many OT and NT followers of God) were brutally murdered (as Passion of the Christ hints at). But so many people day to day go through extreme violence. Terrible, dark, sickening things. Sex slaves, child soldiers, pimps and prostitutes, wife-abusers, serial killers and rapists…
    THIS is the world we live in. And we can’t cushion ourselves or take ourselves out of it. We like Christ are called to be incarnational! We must not only know about these things intimately, but we are called to do something about (be redemptive in the midst of) these unbelievable evils that are REAL.

    This is why I don’t mind watching a film that sometimes depict these things about life, in a sober non-sadistic way. Because they’re real! And it awakens me! To the fact that I am called to do something about them.

    I believe this isn’t a completely black or white issue. Liberty, discretion, and wisdom are needed in every aspect our media influenced lives (movies, tv, books, music) that we might bring glory to God in all that we do. Even watching a spiritually relevant movie like the Book of Eli (or even The Dark Knight). These sorts of films have tons of spiritual types and points of contact that we can dialogue with both Christian and non-Christian alike. These films can be a tremendous opportunity to converse with others about our faith and the truths of scripture!

    That’s my humble (maybe unfounded) perspective on it.

  • Eric Gregory


    I think the concern about “garbage in; garbage out” stems more from a faulty understanding of cinema than a true need to stay away from certain types of media.

    Serious film watching (and subsequent study) shouldn’t be for entertainment, but should cause us to think; it should force our minds to make connections we otherwise wouldn’t, and notice things like the framing of a shot (mise-en-scene), the color saturation, the actors’ ability to portray their character, how the story is told, what sorts of film techniques work and don’t work. In addition to these film-specific studies, we should also be looking at the story as a whole and ask, as we do in serious study of Scripture and other texts: “What was the author (auteur) ‘s intent? What was he, or she, trying to communicate? Is this important? Why”

    For “film” that’s pornographic in nature (for sexual or violent reasons), meant only to titillate the sense and draw one into debauchery/porneia, I can imagine counselling against watching (I’d also suggest that it’s not film in it’s truest sense, but that can be endlessly debated). However, it normally takes a viewing to determine this – if one is comfortable for that.

    For myself, I tend to shy away from any sexual explicitness as I’d prefer to keep images out of my mind that could have an ill effect on my married life, but neither violence nor “foul” language bother me. That’s not to say I would have my children watch “Alien” with me, but the benefit of speculative fiction far outweighs the harm of violence. Indeed, as Americans, we have far “too little” violence in our lives when compared with the rest of the world. I don’t suggest that we remedy this blessing with attempts to create fictional (or real) violence, but we shouldn’t immediately decry something due to “violence”. In fact, as one who has never had anyone close to me die until the age of 24, I am among a rather small minority who doesn’t experience death and human loss on a fairly regular basis. I am “lucky”, to be sure, but attempting to shield oneself from true suffering (even if only depicted in film or another medium) is unnecessary, unless it causes one personal emotional or psychological harm. Then, by all means, stay away.

    • Eric Gregory

      NOTE: Anne Rice’s comments on writing religious vampire fiction and then, after coming back to faith, refusing to do so are quite relevant to this discussion:

      Dark fiction (especially that of a speculative nature) is quite useful.