Monday, August 16, 2010

Losing Sight of Truth: The Book of Eli

Have you ever seen one of those mega-churches on television? You haven't? Oh, you've got to -- if for no other reason than to stay current on cultural trends. And in the name of culture, let's play with language for a second. Mega comes from ancient Greek and translates as (no surprise here) "big." But when we use it as a prefix, we usually mean something that's really big, and that describes the mega-church -- it's the kind that gives new meaning to the word huge.

I'm not going to mention names, tempting as it is, because I don't want someone from the Universal Church of Televised Numerical Superiority to show up on my doorstep with a Writ of You-Have-Been-A-Bad-Boy. Let's just say some are so big they look like indoor football stadiums and have to practically pass out binoculars with the morning bulletin in order to see the minister.

Please understand, I'm not trying to be offensive, it's just that empire-building comes to mind when I see these programs now and then, and that strikes me as alien to the nature of church as a community of faith. Now the reason I'm bringing this up today is because empire-building is a theme played out in the 2010 film The Book of Eli.

In case you haven't seen it, The Book of Eli takes place thirty years after a war that resulted in pretty much universal devastation. Earth and sky are colorless, the landscape is barren and windswept. Survivors live however they can, some having turned to cannibalism. In this milieu we encounter Eli, portrayed by Denzel Washington, a man with singular purpose: he has an extremely rare book -- the last copy of its kind -- that he wishes to get to an unnamed, unspecified location somewhere in the western United States.

In the course of his journey, he arrives at what could be loosely called a "town," seeking a charge for the battery on his i-pod, a remnant of life before the war. As it happens,
Carnegie (Gary Oldman) the town's most influential person, has been searching for the very book in Eli's possession, convinced it has power and the one who wields it will control the growing, illiterate and impressionable populace. And he wants to be that one.

Eli, naturally, refuses to give him the book and conflict ensues. Eventually, Eli escapes, aided by a woman who has found him to be a man who may be trusted, something as rare in her world as the book is to the entire Earth. While we get glimpses of it's identity, only near the end does Eli name it, a King James version of the Bible. To save the woman's life, he gives the book to Carnegie, little good that it does him since it's written in braille, a language Eli has apparently learned and no one else remembers.

Eli is a pilgrim, and the woman becomes a disciple. He has a spiritual strength that she first experiences when he prays over their food, but he neither advertises nor seeks notoriety because of it. He's an ordinary, run of the mill person who has a vision to which he is determined to remain true.

The place where Eli and the woman finally end up is a library of sorts located on Alcatraz Island. It's ironic that one of the world's most infamous prisons is the source from which civilization will be reborn. He dictates the entire thing from memory before dying and it becomes the first volume issued by Alcatraz Press, much as the Guttenberg Bible was the first volume ever produced on a printing press.

The Road (see 8/9-10/10) is a film about hope; The Book of Eli is ultimately about faith and devotion: Eli's to a vision, the woman's to Eli. It's also about contrasts. For Eli, the message of the book is, "Do unto others more than you do for yourself." For Carnegie, it's a means to an end: dominance and control over the minds of the vulnerable. Eli dies having fulfilled his purpose, Carnegie dies in despair. Eli found meaning in his journey and the words he memorized, Carnegie lost everything and gained nothing.

Too many times we hear of ministers who have managed to build an edifice and watch it crumble at their feet because they gave in to greed, lust, or narcissism. Do unto others gets lost in the passion to do for self. Even Eli admits he'd gotten so absorbed in getting the book to the West that he momentarily had forgotten to live by it. It is easy to become so enamored with the trappings of faith and the semblance of spirituality, that one loses touch with its essential truth. And whether it be religion, politics, or the realm of interpersonal relationships, truth is the one thing that matters above all.

(Creative Commons image of Eli by scriptingnews)

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