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Is the ‘Book of Eli’ a Christian Film?

Book_of_eli_posterThe Book of Eli is rated R for adult content, profanity, images of rape, and excessive violence. It also, rather startlingly, has an overt, fairly profound Christian theme.

So is the Book of Eli a “Christian film”?

That question — and the film — illustrates the ambiguity of the concept of “Christian” anything. Especially Christian art.

Many of the reviewers of the film illustrate the conundrum Christians have created for themselves. On the one hand, we demand clear biblical themes and references. The Book of Eli has these. But on the other hand, we demand sanitized, family friendly fare. And this is where the film falls short. Way short.

During its pre-screening, one reviewer noted that “‘The Book of Eli’ contains just as much (if not more) Christian imagery as ‘The Chronicles of Narnia.'” Nevertheless they asked, Will Christian Audience’s Embrace Denzel’s ‘Book of Eli’?

“I’m really going to be interested to see how this movie plays with Christians,” says Paul Asay, associate editor of Focus on the Family’s Plugged In, an entertainment site for evangelical Christians. “My guess is that evangelical leaders will have a difficult time fully embracing the film, but a lot of actual evangelicals will go.”

The question was, “Will true believers rally around a violent, hard-R movie like ‘The Book of Eli’ — even if it heavily promotes Christian themes?”

New York Post film critic Kyle Smith, in his review Onward Christian Soldier, the film as an “overtly, unabashedly Christian one.”

“The Book of Eli” is not only a well-done action picture but an overtly, unabashedly Christian one in which Denzel Washington plays a soldier of God. He’s on a divinely-inspired quest — yes, a literal mission from God — to take The Book to the West as a swarm of wrongdoers led by Gary Oldman try to stop him.

But even though Smith would go on to call ‘The Book of Eli’ a “Christian blockbuster,” the problem is the film’s excessive gore, dismemberment, rape, blood splatter, and the standard R-rated language. Both body count and cussword count have kept believers from going “all in” on “Eli.”

In fact, not everyone was thrilled about meshing violence with the film’s religious content, leading one columnist ask, Is the Book of Eli anti-Christian?

Devout filmgoers will soon realize that “the brand of Christianity on display in ‘Eli’ is as warped as they come,” says S.E. Cupp in the New York Daily News. Washington’s character is a “crusader” who defends the Bible by “beheading, stabbing, shooting and head-butting” anyone who gets in his way. Only “violent, fundamentalist” Christians will relate to this “Hollywood caricature.” (bold mine)

In i09’s interview with the Hughes brothers, the directors admitted reluctance about “the religious stuff or the spiritual stuff” in the script, and were concerned to make sure the film did not come off as “preachy.”  But when the interviewer suggests that Eli “walks the line of being an evangelical film,” the directors downplayed any connection. It was Denzel Washington, a professing Christian, who sold the story. One Christian review site even described Washington as “protecting” the film the same way his character protected the Book.

“Denzel by nature is a very religious, spiritual man,” said [Director] Albert Hughes, “and he makes no secret of that. He brought all that to the project and helped us with it, because we’re not exactly the most dedicated Bible readers in the world.”

“I spent a lot of time going through the Bible to find passages that Eli could quote at appropriate moments,” said screenwriter Gary Whitta. “Denzel found a bunch as well because he’s a Christian man. He’d come into script meetings with the script on one hand and the Bible in the other. He found all these parallels, and had Post-it™ notes all over the place because he’d been up all night finding these things.”

Apparently, the script and the passion Denzel Washington brought to the project, left a mark on the directors.

“There’s a scene where Gary Oldman’s character makes a statement that the Bible isn’t just a book, it’s a weapon, and that made me go ‘Whoa!'” said Allen Hughes. “The whole movie leading up to that point had Eli reciting Scripture, and you knew he was a man of the Bible, a man of faith. But when you hear this other character say that, I thought, ‘This is deep. It’s about something, and not just blowing stuff up.'”

Still, it’s hard to get past all the “blowing stuff up.”

And that’s the dilemma many Christian filmgoers seem to have with “Eli.” The Associated Baptist Press review of the film uses this Christian reviewer as an example:

The movie’s hard edge may give some religious moviegoers pause. Angela Walker, director of producer relations for ChristianCinema.com, wrote that she pondered the movie’s objectionable content for a month after seeing an advance screening before deciding the film’s spiritual themes were redeeming qualities.

“Personally, I want to support filmmakers who explore questions of faith in their films,” she wrote. “For me, choosing to see this film is casting a vote for Hollywood filmmakers to keep making films about faith. It is telling them I will buy tickets to films they create about topics I’m interested in.”

I concur with Ms. Walker’s conclusion.

When I first saw The Book of Eli, I liked it. Only mildly. I thought the violence was way too excessive. But the twist ending and the biblical theme won me over. Plus, “I [too] want to support filmmakers who explore questions of faith in their films.”

So is “The Book of Eli” a “Christian film?”

While Focus on the Family’s Plugged In review counts cusswords —

More than a dozen f-words and half-a-dozen s-words. God’s name is paired with “d??n.” “B??ch,” “b??tard” and “h???” are said.

the reviewer is forced to concede:

The Book of Eli is, perhaps, the most explicitly Christian film I’ve seen come out of the secular film industry since The Passion of the Christ. Indeed, it’s something of a Sunday sermon wrapped in a Mad Max adventure.

Does the violence eradicate Eli’s message? No.

Does the message redeem Eli’s violence? No.

This, then, is a spiritual tale told through the prism of a dystopian Western; a religious story shellacked with gore.

Even the ultra-conservative Ted Baehr and his Movieguide seems to capitulate:

THE BOOK OF ELI is very captivating, awe-inspiring, and ultimately uplifting, with excellent production standards and absorbing character portrayals. The movie’s blatant support of Christianity and the overt references to the Bible are greatly encouraging and very surprising. Throughout the story, Eli prays, teaches others to pray, quotes Scripture, and walks by faith in God. Regrettably, extreme caution is advised for the movie’s excessive amount of extreme, brutal violence, some scenes of implied, attempted rape, and unnecessary foul language.

Apparently, as long as a film or book contains “blatant support of Christianity” and “overt references to the Bible,” body count and cussword count are excusable.

Really?

Whatever you conclude, “The Book of Eli” may be the perfect example of the dilemma consumers of evangelical pop culture have created for ourselves.

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{ 156 comments… add one }
  • Greg (Tiribulus) March 5, 2014, 4:59 PM

    Joanna says: “That said, you’ve just completely proven to me that you care only about wining your argument. The way *you* brought her skin melanin levels into this shows you were more interested in preemptively crushing her objections than in reasoning with her as a member of the body of Christ. “
    I’m very sorry you see it that way, but before my God who knows my heart, you have grievously misapprehended my motivation. For all of this in fact 🙂
    I have brought the most substantive and biblical points by far bar none in this whole discussion. They are here for all to see.

    • Joanna March 5, 2014, 5:19 PM

      If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

      • Katherine Coble March 5, 2014, 6:00 PM

        Joanna, don’t bother. Johne Cook said the same thing. Didn’t take.

        • Joanna March 5, 2014, 6:09 PM

          I know, that’s why I didn’t add any commentary. I want to just leave it there.

  • Mike Duran March 6, 2014, 6:21 AM

    To Greg, and others who are following this thread — I have officially blocked Greg from further comments here. I generally appreciate dissent, even when it gets testy. But the tone of Greg’s interaction, his persistence, and the general anxiety his involvement has elicited, has concerned me. I have been contacted privately by half a dozen people who have been concerned or vexed by this conversation. Also, I was informed that large blocks of comments have been lifted from this thread and posted at Greg’s site. From what I understand, this is legally questionable. Technically, the comments and feedback that are posted on a website are granted to the site owner with a non exclusive license, but they remain the property of the individual posters. Without permission of those commenters, a line is potentially crossed that, as web owners and surfers, we should all be aware of. This isn’t a threat as much as it is evidence of the degree to which Greg is adamant about making his point.

    In my last comment, I politely encouraged Greg to cease and desist. He did not. At this point, I feel I have no recourse but to prevent him from commenting any longer. While I appreciate many of his points, and even agree with them, Greg’s seeming inability to ratchet down the tone and/or simply move on has left me with limited options. If Greg is, indeed, speaking the Truth and fighting the good fight, I encourage him to trust God to continue the battle. At some point, shaking hands and walking away is the most spiritual thing we can do.

    • Patrick OToole March 6, 2014, 5:24 PM

      Mike, I agree with your decision about Greg. I found my posts on his site and was angry about it, asked him to remove them and he gave some “the web is public” argument I didn’t agree with but it’s no use fighting with him. At least he removed my name from the posts.

      I’m glad that’s over with.

      Moving on….

      • Joanna March 6, 2014, 6:03 PM

        FYI: I’m sure you don’t care to fight it, but you’re right. You do have copyright over what you’ve written (unless Mike has something posted around here that says if you post, you are giving him permission to use your post as he wants to.)

        Without prior permission from you, Greg’s breaking copyright law by posting that. And unless he’s using a small section of your post, there’s no way he’ll be able to claim fair use either.

        https://www.copyright.com/Services/copyrightoncampus/content/digital.html

  • Johne Cook March 6, 2014, 9:13 AM

    So I’m still interested – does a film have to be made by Christian people to convey Christian principles? For my part, I bought the idea of a post-apocalyptic hero (anti-hero?) whose superpower was spiritually-generated.

    • Katherine Coble March 6, 2014, 10:19 AM

      Did you happen to catch that article I posted to FB over the weekend from Tablet Magazine? It was about the truly religious (JudeoChristian) principles in movies like _Casablanca_ and _Groundhog Day_

      • Katherine Coble March 6, 2014, 10:22 AM

        In other words, they made the same case I would make: No, I don’t think so. In fact, some of the most classic stories are pictures of mankind wrestling with faith. And although they’re created in the shadows they exist because of the light.

      • Johne Cook March 6, 2014, 10:53 AM

        It occurs to me we may be having two similar but distinct conversations here.

        I have a theory that if the Bible is true and we are all created in the image of God, the things of God resonate to whatever less or greater degree in most people – selfless love, self-sacrifice, an appreciation of Good and a hatred or distaste for Evil, wonder, beauty, and so forth. But that is distinct from knowing and valuing Jesus Christ and His unique role in God’s Creation.

        I think that is where terminology can assist. Instead we should not try to shoehorn the term ‘Christian’ to try to describe ‘Biblical.’ For instance, if the upcoming film ‘Noah*’ were based on scripture, we would refer to it as ‘a Biblical epic’ and not ‘a Christian film’ where ‘Son of God’ could be described by both.

        * I acknowledge ‘Noah’ is likely a fantasy loosely based on the Biblical account. For the purpose of this example, I’m taking it at face value knowing that description likely won’t hold after its release at the Box Office.

    • D.M. Dutcher March 6, 2014, 12:28 PM

      Is that really a Christian principle though? Something like Fist of the North Star also had a post-apocalypse hero whose superpowers are spiritually generated. He just goes around making people’s heads explode with them.

      I don’t think a movie has to be made by Christians to do so, but I think a lot of Christians need to be honest that they are reading things into stuff they like. A Christian principle is not Eli blowing people to Kingdom Come, no matter how they add biblical language to it.

    • Patrick OToole March 6, 2014, 5:30 PM

      Johne, I don’t think so. In fact, I’d say no. There are a lot of people who don’t believe God but still hold to “Christian” principles. i.e love, fairness, integrity, justice, self-sacrifice, etc.

      It’s unlikely that a non-Christian would make a movie that lifts up the name of Jesus and inspires people to follow him. However, a movie with Christian principles, I think it happens regularly.

  • Johne Cook March 11, 2014, 6:26 AM

    This is off-topic but I found it interesting. With regard to Calvin, he wrote this about how wise people treat others: “Those truly wise towards God, while peaceable and tolerant toward their neighbors, yet make it their chief concern to sow righteousness, not cloaking men’s sins, but reproving them with such peaceable moderations as to be the physicians, rather than the executioners, of sinners.”

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