Remember “The Book of Eli”? It was one of a spat of post apocalyptic dramas with washed out color and characters who care more about surviving to the end of the day than dental hygiene. I love that genre. “Eli” came out in 2010, just a year after “The Road” starring Vigo Mortensen. In 2007, “I Am Legand” hit theaters. And more recently, television has blessed us with “The Walking Dead”. These are just a smattering of the wide array of end-of-the-world scenarios that have cropped up in the American cultural landscape lately. Why do we tell these stories? Maybe they allow storytellers to say something important about what it means to be human and what we value most. Whatever the case, I think “The Book of Eli” says something important about the place of belief in western culture.
On the surface, “Eli” appears to be a solid piece of movie-making with a subtle nod to the evangelical demographic. It has action sequences, a mysterious protagonist, a bad guy for him to fight, good visual effects and world-class acting. Plus, the inclusion of the Bible! But what does the film actually say about the Bible and its place in society?
Carnegie, the gangster who terrorizes a local populace of survivors, is obsessed with finding a copy of the Bible in order to leverage peoples’ faith for his own purposes. This is not an unrealistic idea. For hundreds or thousands of years people have misused scripture as a means of psychological leverage over those who aren’t Biblically literate. So far, so good. I can’t find anything wrong with this portrayal of how the Bible might be used in a hypothetical, post apocalyptic North America. But consider the final scene of the movie: Eli reproduces the lost text in it’s entirety, from memory, word for word. A fresh copy of the miraculously protected scripture is placed on a shelf, next to a Hebrew Torah and a Qur’an, in a repository of knowledge on the island of Alcatraz. The message of the entire movie arguably hinges on that sequence and its meaning.
What lesson are the film-makers trying to teach us? It is a subtle statement, but I suppose that they are saying one of two things about the Bible: 1. all scripture (from every religion) is sacred or 2. No scripture is sacred, but knowledge is sacred. With option 2, we would interpret the movie as depicting the preservation of one of a vast body of texts, all of which end up in California for safe keeping. In either case 1 or 2, it would seem that the subtlety presents us with a classic postmodern interpretive exercise: we insert our own preferred interpretation of the ending. (The movie “Inception” was a masterful example of that type of ending.) Let’s have a closer look at the problems associated with each option.
1. If the film is saying that the Bible is not the only text that is sacred scripture, we are presented with religious pluralism, in which each faith is accepted as an equally valid option. The problem with pluralism is that it views truth as a subjective matter, relative to the individual. However, spiritual truth is not a matter of preference or opinion, any more than the laws of physics. All truth stands in isolation from popular conceptions of truth. Is there a God? Our opinions don’t determine the answer. If not, it doesn’t matter what the evangelicals or Muslims say, he still does not exist. If so, the opinions of atheists don’t effect his existence. Either God is or he is not. One is true or the other. But not both. Is Jesus the incarnate son of God? If so, every other religion is invalid, because Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6). If Jesus is NOT the incarnate son of God, the entire New Testament is useless and Jesus was a lunatic megalomaniac! There is no point in the pluralist exercise of placing each faith perspective on a level playing field, because the major world religions have mutually exclusive truth claims that cancel each other out. They do not play well with others. They also have differing levels of epistemic merit, or warrant for belief, so it makes no sense to portray them as equally valid options. If the film-makers intended to present us with religious pluralism (which I consider the correct option), they are not preaching faith in God, but faith in faith, which is no concession to the evangelical community even though the Bible is a part of the plot.
2. If the film is saying that “no scripture is sacred,” (and by extension, that Eli’s actions were free of Divine intervention or influence), it is hard to understand why they have portrayed Eli’s Hurculean efforts to preserve the book. How long would it take a person to memorize the whole Bible? There are nearly 775,000 words in the 66 books of the Protestant Canon. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Eli was aggressively working to memorize all sixty-six books, and was able to commit 100 words per day to memory. Supposing that he never missed a day, it would have taken him 7750 days, or just over 21 years. But is it reasonable to suppose that Eli could have memorized the first hundred words of Genesis in year one and still recite them 21 years later at Alcatraz? no, Eli would have to have worked harder, for longer than 21 years to commit the entire corpus of Biblical writings to memory, if, as option 2 would imply, he was merely a man walking across North America to protect a man-made book with no supernatural significance. Why bother? I think its safe to rule out the idea that the film is telling us that Eli is preserving a “man-made” Bible merely for the sake of it’s cultural-historical value.
Here we are faced with a fine piece of cinema, which perfectly embodies the zeitgeist of our age. Is there something special about the Bible? “Possibly” says the film. “You decide for yourself, you insert your own meaning. But if the Bible IS sacred, it’s certainly not alone.” If “Eli” was an attempt at finding common spiritual ground between the world and the church, it failed. Although it might appear to be making concessions to evangelical thinking, it merely places Jesus on the same field as Mohammed and Moses. No thanks, Hollywood.
What are the practical implications of a postmodern approach to spiritual truth? Wordlviews which have room for pluralism are looked upon with favor, while exclusivists are cast as backward, superstitious or hateful. A prime example is occurring right now in the Maine State Legislature, where an act written to protect religious freedom is in serious trouble. http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/02/21/religious-freedom-bill-defeated-maine-house/Pdp5JK1vC8lbQW0xE0Sq4H/story.html
I don’t intend to launch into a political commentary, but I mention this to show that philosophical foundations (pluralism, in our case today) will eventually have practical implications. I am not arguing for a theocracy, but against relativism and pluralism. The end result of rejecting objective truth as a basis for law and society is disastrous: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Judges 21.25. Tragically, in the Biblical passage that immediately illustrates this unfortunate epitaph, a man allowed his concubine to be raped to death by thugs in order to save himself from a similar fate. This event precipitated a full scale tribal war. The Israelites were not anchored morally to any fixed point, and the author of Judges diagnosed this condition as the responsible factor behind their moral failures.
Apart from any suggestion that “Eli” might have for us, we have two real-world options concerning the Bible. 1. The Bible is man-made and contains some truthful sentiments, and many misguided religious untruths. In this case, there is no sense in preserving Christianity because it is a false religion. The moral weight of the Bible is nothing unique, every human knows right from wrong whether they read the Bible or not. The books themselves are not able to make anyone good any more than a measuring stick can make someone tall. Furthermore, the message of the Bible is not primarily a message of morality, but of reconciliation with God through Jesus. So if the historical person of Jesus was not who the Bible says he was, the moral value of the Bible is redundant and powerless to effect change in the human race.
Option 2: The Bible is what it claims to be and should be taken at face value. The historical person of Jesus is the son of God incarnate and has the ability to repair the broken relationship between man and God. As such, he has ultimate authority over the affairs of earth and is deserving of unrestricted ownership of our affections and obedience. That’s what the Bible says, after all. In the next post, I hope to explain a couple of reasons we can know that the Bible is what it claims to be.