I had the opportunity just before the beginning of Lent to watch the movie The Book of Eli (Columbia Pictures, 2010). It is a seemingly dark film set in an apocalyptic future, 30 years after a nuclear holocaust. The main character, Eli (Denzel Washington), wanders the wastelands of the former United States, following a calling from a mysterious heavenly voice as he carries a holy book westward to a place where it will be safe from destruction.
Though the movie is rather violent and surreal in its portrayal of humanity after such a great fall from grace, it retains an underlying beauty and a hopeful outlook through Eli, who never falters in his quest to fulfill his mission from God. His unwavering hope, calm resolve, and steadfast conviction spoke to my heart about what the journey of Lent and the journey of suffering believers endure for the Kingdom are all about.
The Desert and Undistracted Determination
Eli travels his lonely journey one step at a time, hunting for food, searching for the essentials of life, and faithfully reading his bible every day. He maintains his hold on his humanity as he listens to music on an old .mp3 player and cleans up with moist towelettes gathered from the rubble of former fast-food restaurants. He endures each solitary night and greets each morning with prayer and confidence, knowing he is under the protection of a mighty and gracious God. Though all around him is chaos and anarchy, Eli remains fixed on the one goal that shuts out all other distractions and desires.
These barren badlands are inhabited by younger, savage individuals who have no experience of the earthly paradise that existed before the war. They are marauders, preying on every passerby, ready to take, to kill, and to destroy for their selfish ends. When Eli is confronted by such evil men, he dispatches them with righteous fury, like an avenging angel exacting justice from fallen, sinful souls. And yet his spirit remains at peace, transfixed on a vision stirred by the holy words he reads.
Lent calls us to travel a desolate path through the wilderness of this broken world one faithful step at a time. Though we face distractions and despair, selfishness and moral decay, we know we can rise above the chaos by clinging to those things that keep us grounded to Christ. We can renew the vows of the baptism that has cleansed us from sin. We can call to mind the old hymns and modern poetry that stir our hearts to strength. We can pour ourselves into the word as we let its truth wash over us like Living Water.
In this season of self-denial, we come face to face with the harsh realities of our deepest sins and the demons that seek to take from us what God has so freely given. It is here in this dark night of the soul where we fight the good fight of faith, engaging in a battle to overcome the enemy of our souls.
We must seek the One who has called us to continue our quest through the wilderness of Lent to the days of the resurrection. Because we belong to Christ, we keep our eyes fixed on the prize ahead, determined to carry the Gospel with us wherever God leads.
In the World, Not Of the World
Eli finds his way to the burned-out remains of a city, populated with a fragmented group of individuals clinging to the illusion of civilization. It is run by a warlord named Carnegie (Gary Oldman), whose name is meant to serve as a symbol of the tragic and macabre carnival of lies to which the world has fallen. Carnegie and his militia maintain control of the city through fear and violence. He too feels a call to search for the same holy book, though he wants to use its sacred words to manipulate the people into submission to his twisted will.
When Carnegie sees Eli take out a group of guards in a bar fight, he hopes to gain an ally and tries to tempt him into joining his evil cause by offering him Solara (Mila Kunis), the daughter of his mistress, Claudia (Jennifer Beals). Claudia (whose name means “Lame”) is blind from birth and has named her daughter after the light of the sun. Both women are a picture of the shoot of hope that springs up from the barren soil of man’s despair.
Eli responds with love and respect to the two women, even praying with Solara and offering to share his food rather than sleeping with her. He then (miraculously?) escapes the guarded room where Carnegie had held him overnight and begins his quest again. When Carnegie’s men come after him Eli pulls out his pistol and mows them down one by one. Throughout this whole bizarre chapter of the story, Eli’s unwavering faith protects him and guides his hand as he wields his weapons and directs his path toward the goal that calls him ever onward to the west.
Lent is a walk among the fallen of this world, a journey through the temptations that call us to stray from the path of righteousness. Their offer of power or position pales in comparison to the light we experience when we bring our broken selves to the Father in prayer. We see our call to honor the hope that shines through the darkness as we seek to stay the moral course. Though men may seek to wound us, we know that we are sheltered by an unseen hand and guided in our steps to where the voice of Truth is leading us.
Carrying the Word Within
Carnegie and his men regroup and come after Eli who now is traveling with Solara to his destination. When these enemies catch up with the two travelers, they shoot Eli and take his bible, along with Solara, back to the wicked city. Solara manages to escape and finds the wounded Eli; and together, the two travel to the edge of the old world, and then by rowboat to Alcatraz, where they encounter a group of survivors within the walled fortress. The settlement is headed by Lombardi (Malcolm McDowell), whose name means “long-bearded” and represents the wisdom of tradition and age.
Eli tells Lombardi that he has a King James Bible with him. He asks Lombardi to get paper and pencil and, with his dying breath, dictates the entire bible, verse by verse, as Lombardi writes it all down. As Eli is speaking, the camera zooms in on his eyes, and we see that Eli is blind.
The bible he had with him was in braille and is of no use to Carnegie, who finds his city falling apart now that he no longer has his soldiers to maintain order. A wound from Eli’s gun has infected his leg and he has little time to live. With his dying breath, he asks Claudia to read the braille bible to him, but Claudia tells him it has been so long she no longer remembers how to do it.
As the movie closes, we witness the bible being printed on an old-fashioned printing press and placed on a shelf in a prominent and central place. As Eli is laid to rest we hear his final prayer where he, like the Apostle Paul, thanks God for leading him to the completion of his mission, for guiding him with signs and friendship along the way, and for giving him the strength to fight the good fight and finish the race.
The ending to the movie speaks so powerfully of what the journey of Lent and the Christian life is all about. We are called to take the word of God into our souls, to integrate it into our consciousness to such a degree that we can readily recite its truths to all who will hear. In Christ, the word carries us across the river of death to the refuge of hope where the light we have been given finds its fullest expression. We are to die to self and surrender all we have and all we are to build the new city of God.
We, like Eli, are called to be blind to the world so that the light of Christ may shine forth from within. To the dying who dwell outside the true city of hope, the word of God is as unfathomable as a braille bible to a sighted man. We know that in the end, the wicked will fall into chaos and be forever lost, while the righteous will flourish anew in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Giving Lent a Second Look
It was even more enjoyable to watch The Book of Eli a second time, knowing now that the main character was blind for the entire story. Some claim that God gave Eli his sight until the very end of his journey, but I chose to accept that, while his physical sight was gone, God did indeed provide Eli with a different set of eyes.
This is what Lent does for me and for all who surrender to its wonder and beauty. We become blind soldiers, guided by a heavenly hand, given sight beyond what our eyes can see, moving ever forward on the path to the goal that is revealed as dawn from darkness on the eternal joy that is Easter morn.
May you come to discover all that this journey can bring to your life. May it open your spirit to the ugliness of this broken world, to the beauty in those who seek the light, and the truth that comes when we follow the voice of the Spirit that speaks within.