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The Secular Faith of Book of Eli

By  · Published on February 10th, 2017

Walk by faith…or not!

There are plenty of reasons why movies do not get their proper due upon initial release, and often the film itself bears no responsibility for its relegation to the cinematic wastelands. However, there are instances where choices made by screenwriters and/or directors place audiences at arms-length and the gap proves too formidable to correct.

The Book of Eli is in the latter category…and also the former.

Released in 2010, the post-apocalyptic action/drama stars indestructible Hollywood monument Denzel Washington as Eli, a man on a mysterious mission that finds him walking west carrying a mysterious book. Here’s where we cross into the spoiler badlands so far all you lost souls who haven’t yet seen Book of Eli, turn back now.

Eli believe himself to be charged with a holy quest to deliver a copy of The Bible to a place out west. This location turns out to be Alcatraz where a group of historians and intellectuals are collecting books, technology, and artwork from the time before the war; converting Alcatraz into something more akin to the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The fact that Eli is our hero, and sterling example of humanity, and his story arc is so steeped in Christianity put off a lot of viewers who believed the movie to therefore be too preachy to fit within Hollywood’s generally secular entertainment delivery system. There was also a discontent with the idea that The Bible would be the artifact that restored the world after the apocalypse; arguing that such a stance undermines the significance of other widely-held religions.

I do not stand on any pulpit. I will not assert one faith’s value over another nor the merits of the presence of Christian ideology in this movie. Instead, I would argue that regardless of your personal religious affiliation or lack thereof, The Book of Eli is not a preachy movie. It is the story of the desperate preservation of humanity itself. Eli may be carrying a Bible, and yes he walks by its tenets, but once he reaches Alcatraz, it becomes apparent that the higher power served by the collectors is the human race itself.

The moment wherein Malcolm McDowell places the completed Bible on a shelf right between The Qur’an and The Torah is testament (no pun intended) this installations respect for these important works, regardless of any personal affiliations to any specific religion. It is a respect for documenting the history and spectacularly varied culture of humanity. Not so subtly, this group of scholars has fashioned a printing press to cast their own editions of what they consider to be the books most vital to telling the story of humanity; as if starting the history of record time anew.

The Book of Eli can obviously be a very meaningful piece of cinema for Christians, and there is no reason to rob that group of that meaning, but that does not preclude people of all faiths (or no faith) from connecting with the power of its ending. It is just as meaningful whether you are a devout fan of the Bible, or simply a bibliophile.

Take a walk with us as we thumb through the pages of The Book of Eli on this week’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. If you like the show, please consider supporting the podcast via Patreon.

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to a weekly bonus episodes covering an additional cult movie, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.