Holy Terror in The Book of Eli
Not a critical failure, but a failure of critics.
by Everett Wilson
June 29, 2011
As the film unfolded, however, I realized that the critics I'd read either hadn't understood it or had decided before seeing it that it was not to be taken seriously.
I'll pick up his cue and ask the critics, "Didn't you guys ever read a classic written before the Enlghtenment? Macbeth, maybe, or Clarissa Harlowe, or a slug of others in which one or more of the characters is driven, even consumed, by a Holy Terror treated by both the author and the character as not only true, but truly dreadful? In those days a biblical worldview was ingrained in the Christian West. Some lived with a hope of heaven in their hearts, but the fear of hell still loomed in the darkness even for them. .
The first audiences watching Macbeth, for instance, would have seen it as a tragedy about mortal sin and eternal damnation. They would hear Macduff speaking the literal truth when he called Macbeth a hellhound, and would experience holy terror as they watched Lady Macbeth try to wash blood from her hands that only she could see.
That is the audience you must join the best you can, if you are going to appreciate The Book of Eli. Compare it to no modern book, not even The Lord of the Rings or The Chestnut King, for those largely take place in other worlds. The Book of Eli takes place in an imaginary future of the world we live in, but Eli cannot be compared to a modern hero, real or imagined.
Nor is he the hero of a god-story, like a Greek myth.
Rather, Eli is to be compared to an Old Testament hero--like Gideon, David, Jonathan, and the sons of Zeruiah, Joab and Abishai-- men who could do extraordinary things only when and because they were empowered and used by God. . They were men of war, but only in the service of God.
Eli makes war only on those who make war against him to prevent him from fulfilling the mission God has given him. Christians who have a problem with that must toss out the Old Testament, because that is mostly what the Old Testament is about! In the days of the Patriarchs, the Judges, the Kings, and the Prophets, God himself was at war with those who lifted their hand against him and his Anointed. All who persist in making war on God lose. Period.
The Book of Eli is fiction, but the only way to understand it is on biblical terms, as in in the preceding paragraph. Nobody has to see the movie, of course, but those who do have a better chance of getting it if they read a piece like this one instead of the reviews that almost kept me from seeing it.
About the Author:
Everett Wilson has been watching movies and reading books for nearly seventy years. He has been a theologian for fifty.
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