Bookshelf Christians: A Theology of the Book of Eli

I sat in my room the other night and viewed the Book of Eli, a film featuring Danzel Washington and Gary Oldman.  In this post-apocalyptic drama Eli (Washington) has been commissioned to preserve the Bible after an apparent world-wide attempt to destroy every copy of it.   In contrast, Carnegie (Oldman) wants to wrestle it away from Eli in order to put it to good use, like being able to control the weak and ignorant masses.   Albeit a mean and violent blind Samurai-like figure, Eli is the good guy presumably.  He is the opposite of  Carnegie and his henchmen who rule the wastelands on a policy of murder, rape, pillage, and plunder.  Eli saves the day and himself by taking the Bible west, which he has memorized, where it gets printed and put on a shelf.

Practical Christians want to change the world, even sometimes through the misguided means of coercion and violence.  We have been through this drama before: The Inquisition, the Salem Witch Hunts, the Crusades, and the wars and squabbles of religion of the past centuries.

Did these holy convulsions make the world a better place?  Nope.  A radical outcome once the sacred dust of contempt, violence, and discord settled was that the world as a whole and the powers that be no longer look up on the church for wisdom as to how to change the current mess we are in.  Correspondingly, many Christians have retreated to a form of quietism, a privatized secluded religion on the underground.  Bookshelf Christians I call them.  They happily contemplate their Bibles resting on a shelf and only casually if ever, entertain  the foggiest idea as to how, if ever, it is supposed to make the world a viable haven for humanity.  Bookshelf Christians domesticate Jesus and the Gospel by cutting off any input to the outside world.  They talk only to themselves in categories that only they can understand.  Like Eli, they are blind to the implications of the Bible towards the wider culture.   In the meanwhile, the God’s Holy Book continues to gather dust unabated.

The alternative is to have the righteous revolutionaries of Biblical morality launch a campaign of indignation with the aim of shoving Biblical principles down people’s throat. The Bible then becomes a tool for compelling  conformity.  It’s our way or the highway to hell. It doesn’t work.  It can’t work.  Jesus was a stranger to power politics. He didn’t attempt to Christianise the power structures of his day. He didn’t boycott sinners.  He didn’t practice censorship of the lost, the least, or the left-out.  His religion wasn’t about controlling the meek and the weak.  Religionistas Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and John Hagee want to fight their enemies and if necessary, kill or hurl them in prison, all in the name of defending the Bible, praise God.  Contrast that with God’s humble servant, the man Christ who sacrificed his life for his enemies instead of casually blasting them to pieces.

We need a hybrid Christian.  People with the passion of both Carnegie and Eli, but whose means and ends to achieve justice in the world are at the polar opposite of oppression and violence.  Passivity won’t cut it.  The Bible isn’t going to grow legs any time soon by sitting on a bookshelf.  Employing coercion to get people saved or at least have them conform outwardly to Biblical morality will usually backfire.  Without aiming for  a transformation of the heart, the best we can do is fashion prolific, self-righteous pharisees whose use (and abuse ) of religion will make people want to rebel and look down on their inferiors. The victims of holy-than-thou characters normally end up crucified.  Jesus would have none of this.  We need balance.  We need passion and purpose without wielding the piercing sword of judgmentalism and self-righteousness.  Religion as dogma can be a weapon  for manipulation.   We must have God’s religion of love and the Spirit in order to experience true liberation, beauty, and due justice.