The Burden of Hope:
Safeguarding the Gospel in The Book of Eli in view of the OT prophets
By Daniel Cross
OT 512 – The Kingdom of Israel & Her Prophets
The Book of Eli is primarily a story about hope, despite overwhelming circumstances. In the story, Eli is a man who is entrusted with the last surviving copy of The King James Bible after the world has been destroyed. Now, venturing through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Eli follows a vision from God to travel with the book and to safeguard it from those who would misuse its power. Ultimately, The Book of Eli paints a picture of an ideal messenger: one who follows God into the wilderness, in spite of overwhelming burdens to protect the sanctity of God’s word.
The protagonist of The Book of Eli is the titular Eli, a man who suffered through the destruction of the world, and was ultimately led by a voice to discover the Bible buried beneath some rubble. Eli then narrates how the voice told him to journey with the book. He says, “It told me that a path would be laid out before me, that I'd be led to a place where this book would be safe. It told me I'd be protected against anyone or anything that tried to stand in my way. If only I would have faith.1 It is with this charge that Eli sets off to the west, walking across the wasteland for more than twenty-five years with the faith that God will direct him to the right place.
What should be noted about Eli is that he is incredibly protective of the book, as he is aware of the power it has over people’s minds and hearts. This protection of the sanctity for scripture is directly parallel in the book of Daniel, wherein the message that Daniel brings to the world is directly met with opposition and hostility. Yet it is through this hostility that God’s reign is asserted, even as the outcome of Daniel’s actions seem bleak. In his book on the Old Testament prophets, J. Gordon McConville says, “The faithfulness of God is not made dependent on a return to the homeland; rather it is played out in the exile itself. The issue is now whether God will and can protect his people from the all too visible power of kings who do not recognize the God of Israel, and who may at any time try to assert their power against his claims.”2 As with Daniel, God’s hand is shown through the many hardships that Eli endures.
While Eli is acutely aware of the power that the only remaining Bible has over the hearts and minds of the people, he is not the only one. Carnegie, the leader of the desert town that Eli stumbles upon, is actively searching for the book, but for an entirely different reason than for preservation: he wants to use it to rule over the people. When prompted by one of his henchmen, Carnegie lays out his plan. He says,
Don't you see? It's not just any book. It has the power to motivate people. It can give them hope, it can terrify them. It can shape them. Control them… that book is a weapon. Aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. Just imagine what I could do with it. The water in this town may run dry, but faith - that springs eternal! …it will help me build a new world. In my image…Oh, it'll say what I want, I can promise you that. Because I'm going to rewrite it. I'll keep the parts that work for me and make the rest whatever I need it to be. A new bible, for a new world.3
The character of Carnegie is the polar opposite of the humble Eli, and seeks to misuse Scripture to bend the people to his will.
Upon seeing this scene, I immediately thought of 2 Kings 22, where Hilkiah finds the Book of the Law. When the book is presented to King Josiah, he immediately tears his clothes and laments that the mandates of God are being ignored. Both Eli and King Josiah understand the gravity of God’s word impacting people’s lives, and both strive mightily to remain faithful to Yahweh, even as the whole world seems to be living for themselves. Both Josiah and Eli embrace the idea that humanity itself is to blame for the sinfulness of the world, and both seek to humbly intercede to God on behalf of the greater masses who are oblivious to their sins.
In Eli’s world, the earth has been ravaged by nuclear war, and very few humans remain. As more and more of Eli’s character is revealed to the audience, he is shown as a man who carries several burdens. Naturally, the most overt burden is his charge to protect the Bible, but Eli himself seems to bear the weight of humanity’s downfall, and sees himself as part of the reason that the world was destroyed. Yet despite seeing the world as a shattered husk of what it once was, Eli seems to have a deeply-seeded reverence for it, much in the way that he has a deep reverence for the Creator whose voice he follows westward. In fact, the first scene where we meet Eli shows him intensely calm and focused on his task of gathering food, which shows an almost symbiotic relationship with the world he inhabits.
Having lived before “the war”, Eli lived a life of luxury and comfort, “…throwing away things that nowadays men would kill for.”4 The very fact that he mentions this in such a somber tone reveals that he also feels guilty as to the state of the world. This brings up an interesting idea: guilt as repentance. In his article on “The Burden of the Gospels”, Wendell Berry says,
To be convinced of the sanctity of the world, and to be mindful of a human vocation to responsible membership in such a world, must always have been a burden. But it is a burden that falls with greatest weight on us humans of the industrial age who have been and are, by any measure, the humans most guilty of desecrating the world and of destroying creation. And we ought to be a little terrified to realize that, for the most part and at least for the time being, we are helplessly guilty.5
Eli lives his life under just such a burden, and much as King Josiah tore at his clothes at the state of the faith of his people, so too Eli mourns the loss of life and morality of the godless remains of humanity.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Book of Eli is that despite all of the hardships that Eli endures, he still maintains the hope that God will be faithful to him, even after wandering westward for twenty-five years. The hope that humanity could be preserved if The Word is kept safe is a running theme throughout. Much of this hope is echoed in Isaiah 28: 1-29, wherein Isaiah is trying to explain God’s actions and God’s character to his listeners. Carol J. Dempsey writes, “The rich agricultural and pastoral images embedded in this unit suggest to Isaiah’s listeners and later readers of the text that indeed God’s final word is not a word of destruction; it is a word of hope.”6 In fact, with such agricultural language being used to describe God’s teachings to the people, a strong contrast can be drawn to Eli’s world of barren lifelessness.
Carol J. Dempsey goes on to argue that the renewing of the world is like a bursting forth of new life, much in the same way that plant burst forth into blossom in the spring. I was particularly struck by this rendition, especially from a purely visual standpoint in viewing The Book of Eli. Eli is protecting the truth to deliver it into the hands of someone who would not abuse it, and he travels across a destroyed, dust-filled wasteland, with absolutely no green grass or plant life to speak of. It is interesting that Isaiah 28:23-29 details the planting of crops as evidence of being instructed in the ways of God: “When they have leveled its surface, do they not scatter dill, sow cummin, and plant wheat in rows and barely in its proper place, and spelt as the borders? For they are well instructed; their God teaches them.” (Isaiah 28:25-26, NRSV). As Carnegie sows seeds of destruction through his power-mongering empire, Eli is sowing seeds of truth and obedience to bring the light of truth to the world again.
The Bible in The Book of Eli is the cornerstone of the movie, as it is the cornerstone for all revelation and teaching from God. Some of the most iconic scenes in the movie involve Eli forgoing basic necessities in order to protect the Bible from untrustworthy hands. In fact, the most precious possession of the day (water) is shown to be of secondary importance to Eli, with guarding the Bible taking precedence. Trekking across a barren wasteland, Eli stumbles onwards, following God’s call on his life and soaking himself in God’s word. This, I believe, is the life we are called to as disciples of Christ.
Eli is the very much a modern-day prophet in The Book of Eli, who follows the call of God without concern for comfort or consequence. His loyalty belongs to God alone, and he rises up against injustice whenever it appears. As a son of the warrior God, Eli also defends the weak in their oppression, shelters those who are in need, and teaches the Word of God to those who will listen. Perhaps the most powerful scene in the movie (for me personally) is the scene where Eli and the slave girl Solara sit down to an evening meal, and Eli holds her hand and they thank God for their meal, and for their friendship. Even in the wake of annihilation, despite all of the death and violence and moral decay that is tearing the world apart, Eli is deeply grateful to God for his life, his meal, and his small friendships. To have my eyes so fixed on The Father is truly the deepest prayer of my heart.
Berry, Wendell. 2005. "The burden of the Gospels: an unconfident faith." Christian Century 122, no. 19: 22-27. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 24, 2011).
Dempsey, Carol J. Hope Amid The Ruins: The Ethics of Israel's Prophets. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000.
The Book of Eli, Produced and directed by Albert and Allen Hughes. 117 min. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Motion Picture.
McConville, J. Gordon. Exploring The Old Testament: A Guide to the Prophets. Downer's Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002.
1 The Book of Eli. , Produced and directed by Albert and Allen Hughes. 117 min. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Motion Picture.
2 J. Gordon McConville, Exploring The Old Testament: A Guide to the Prophets (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 127.
3 The Book of Eli.
5 Berry, Wendell. 2005. "The Burden of the Gospels: An Unconfident Faith." Christian Century 122, no. 19: 27. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 24, 2011).
6 Carol J. Dempsey, Hope Amid The Ruins: The Ethics of Israel’s Prophets (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000), 63.
Movies + Theology = Awesome.
Edit: Wow. The format of my paper was totally destroyed. All well!
Edit: Wow. The format of my paper was totally destroyed. All well!