The Book of Eli: Taking Civilization for Granted

The Book of Eli (2010) starring Denzel Washington is set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future that reminds one of the Mad Max movies of the 80s.  Some worldwide catastrophe struck the planet 30 year earlier leaving only a savage remnant of humanity to etch a dismal, brutish living out of a barren wasteland.  The main character Eli is on a pilgrimage to protect and deliver the only surviving copy of the Bible to a mysterious place which he knows only vaguely is located West.  Along the way he passes through a small community where he encounters a gang of vicious ruffians led by a despotic ruler, Carnegie, who himself is seeking earnestly a copy of the Bible, sending his henchmen on murderous forays for books with the hope of finding it.  Though a wicked man, he understands the power of the Bible’s words to control people and wants to use it to enlarge his political power.  The plot centers around Eli’s conflict with Carnegie who discovers Eli has a copy and tries to take it from him, while Eli presses on toward his mission of taking it “West” where a group is collecting books in a secure place to help restore civilization by educating survivors about the world that was lost.

Eli not only possesses the Bible but reads it daily and applies its teaching in the way he relates to people with respect and kindness.  His behavior is in stark contrast to the savage conditions into which society has degenerated since the catastrophe:  America has become a lawless place in which the chief aim of life is survival at all costs even at the expense of the lives of other human beings.  Life is miserable, chaotic, and short.  Gangs of armed men roam the streets looking to plunder and rape weaker travelers.  Widespread hunger leads to many to practice cannibalism.   And these despicable acts go on without any system of justice to punish wickedness and thus restrain evil.

This film starkly portrays the horrifying consequences of the collapse of civilization and shows the innate tendencies of human nature toward brutality and savagery in the absence of civilizing influences.  Though very little of the Bible is actually quoted in the film, it honors the Bible as a symbol of civilization and acknowledges the Bible’s influence in forming a just civilization in which the rule of law is upheld and human rights protected.

As our society becomes increasingly secularized, at least in public life, we are prone to forget what the foundations of civilization are and arrogantly presume that human nature is noble and righteous enough to build a just, peaceful civilization apart from the reality of God and acknowledgment of the divine will.  Western civilization is founded on the biblical doctrines that men are created in the image of God and therefore have inherent dignity, and that there is an unchangeable moral order, rooted in the nature of God, that all men are obliged to obey regardless of status or situation.  Such beliefs function as glue that bind society together and produce a semblance of social order and harmony.  If such beliefs are forgotten, there is no foundation for law, justice, and human rights, and thus civilization as we understand and experience it collapses.

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