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Kyle Smith (Twitter: @rkylesmith) is critic-at-large for National Review, theater critic for The New Criterion and the author of the novels Love Monkey and A Christmas Caroline. Type a title in the box above to locate a review.

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    Onward, Christian Soldier

    By Kyle | January 12, 2010

    Hollywood’s Christian blockbuster is finally here. Remember how, after “The Passion of the Christ,” Hollywood was going to get wise and make some big mainstream movies that acknowledged the Christianity of a majority of this country? Didn’t happen. Until now. “The Book of Eli” is not only a well-done action picture but an overtly, unabashedly Christian one in which Denzel Washington plays a soldier of God. He’s on a divinely-inspired quest — yes, a literal mission from God — to take The Book to the West as a swarm of wrongdoers led by Gary Oldman try to stop him.

    In a post-apocalyptic wasteland (the movie hedges its bets on the usual war-or-environment question: this time, both have occurred), an unidentified man known as the Walker (a badass Denzel) strolls through the nightmare defending himself and slaying vicious predators who try to rob him along the way. The one semi-organized remnant of humanity is led by a Mussolini-loving leader (Gary Oldman) who is introduced reading a copy of a bio of Il Duce. Oldman has sent his gangs out looking for a copy of a specific book, although his men are dunces and can’t read.

    They come back with whatever books they can scrounge up — including, hilariously, a copy of “The Da Vinci Code” (the movie is landing a little jab on the Dan Brown book’s message) but not The Book.
    Because the only copy left of the Bible is the one Denzel is determined to carry to the West, having heard the voice of God commanding him to do so. Moreover, the Walker seems to be divinely protected: In a shootout, every bullet seems to whiz past him. Even the heavy villains have started to notice the aura of untouchability about him, and they find it unnerving.

    The Oldman character wants The Book because he’s convinced its words will enable him to control the world, not just the dirtbag town he oversees. But the Walker is the Christ standin determined to redeem mankind with the Bible.

    The movie is ingeniously designed, the action set pieces are well-executed and it has wit (who would have guessed what the last 45 rpm record in the world might be?). It’s also got guns galore. It’s like “The Road Warrior” as rewritten by St. Peter Paul. (But note: It also has a fond shout-out to Islam and Judaism). It’s going to do heavenly business at the box office.

    A couple of readers want to know what the shout-out to Islam is. I’m reluctant to give it away, since doing so would involve telling you the entire last act of the movie, which contains lots of surprises, but let’s just say it’s a respectful reference to the Koran. (Or the Qu’ran, as the movie calls it.)

    Topics: Books, Movies, Politics, Religion | 42 Comments »

    42 Responses to “Onward, Christian Soldier”

    1. KS Says:
      January 12th, 2010 at 5:59 pm

      All Christians are going to “The Blind Side.” I think that the R rating for “The Book of Eli” will discourage some people. “Avatar” is just PG-13.

    2. Kyle Says:
      January 12th, 2010 at 6:07 pm

      “Passion of the Christ” was rated R.

    3. Kyle Says:
      January 12th, 2010 at 6:08 pm

      I don’t really see “The Blind Side” as a Christian movie. It’s not like people sit around studying the Gospels in it.

    4. yankeefan Says:
      January 12th, 2010 at 6:15 pm

      @ KS: “Passion of the Christ,” while R-rated as Kyle notes, was also one of the most relentlessly and sickeningly violent movies ever made, and this didn’t stop the faithful from bringing their youngsters.

    5. Christian Toto Says:
      January 12th, 2010 at 6:35 pm

      did you like who/what they blamed the war on, though? (blind spoiler alert)

    6. KS Says:
      January 12th, 2010 at 6:53 pm

      I know that “Passion” was rated R, but many Christians thought that it was like seeing the crucifixion, as opposed to seeing fiction. As for “The Blind Side,” Christians know that it’s a positive movie about a Christian family.

      Is “The Book of Eli” about a lost book of the Bible or about the last copy of the Bible?

    7. Patrick. Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 1:47 am

      “It’s going to do heavenly business at the box office.”

      Okay. You need to be called out on this. Define “heavily” and I will literally arrange the means so that I could send you money if it makes more than $35 million, which is not happening.

    8. Patrick. Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 1:47 am

      Edit: Define “heavenly.”

    9. yankeefan Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 10:32 am

      A couple of thoughts from Jesus-land…

      From what I’ve read about “Eli,” including here, this doesn’t sound like a Christian picture. Much more Old Testament, with the main character not a Christ figure but more of an avenging, angry Old Testament prophet. (Christ did say he came to “bring the sword,” but not in the way Denzel wields it here.)

      Also, more accurate to say “Road Warrior” as rewritten by St Paul. Peter left no writing, and was actually closer in sensibility to one of Oldman’s dunces.

      None of this is to say that this picture won’t do well, just that it’s not particularly Christian. A Christian picture would have Denzel take one of those bullets for the redemption of the remaining post-apocalyptic dregs.

      The most explictly Christian ending to a recent movie was in “Gran Torino.”

    10. kishke Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 10:44 am

      Patrick: I’m pretty sure Kyle meant “heavenly” as a clever pun on the theme not a prediction of box office receipts.

    11. Kyle Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 10:46 am

      Yankeefan, I use “Biblical” and “Christian” somewhat interchangeably, but you raise good points. As to whether Denzel takes a bullet or not, you’ll have to see the picture.

    12. yankeefan Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 11:10 am

      Indeed, and the Old Testament is as much a part of Christianity as the New. In some more fundamentalist quarters, the vengeful God of the Old holds strong appeal. (On some days, I am a big fan myself.) I would not be surprised at all if the explicit, unabashed Biblical themes of the picture draw big Christian crowds. Will be interesting to see the marketing effort to that audience.

      My reluctance to see this has more to do with the fact that I still haven’t recovered from the other post-apocalyptic road picture. To paraphrase Denby, I don’t know if I can take another “brown-and-white” movie.

    13. yankeefan Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 11:15 am

      On an unrelated topic, I really should be going under the moniker “jetsfan” this week, in a nod to my loyalty to gangrene…I mean, Gang Green. I realize they probably won’t win this weekend, and if they do, the Colts will give them a whuppin’ worse than the one Caviezel got. On the other hand, they’ve got nothing to lose….

    14. KS Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 11:22 am

      @yankeefan: Who wrote 1 Peter and 2 Peter?

      About this whole issue, I’m not sure that there is such a thing as a “Christian movie,” except perhaps something cheesy starring Kirk Cameron. There are movies that generally appeal to Christian audiences ….

    15. yankeefan Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 11:32 am

      @ KS. To paraphrase Saint Yogi: Peter didn’t write the things that he wrote.(Most scholars believe Peter 1 and 2 were written long after his death.) Same is likely true of some of Paul’s writing; Paul didn’t write everything he wrote either.

      But I am now getting into seriously pedantic territory.

    16. yankeefan Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 11:39 am

      @ KS: My only point was, that to this Christian reader’s eyes, St Peter is not really known for his writing, even if a couple of minor books are attributed to him.(Good catch on your part.) St Paul is vastly more prolific, feverish, evangelical, impactful.

    17. Sage Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 11:52 am

      “a fond shout-out to Islam…” why? For what purpose other than some PC pabulum puke? Anytime the press tells me something is “christian” I have to take two steps back and hold my nose because what seems christian to the press is heresy to everyone else. There is ZERO reason a christian should give a “shout-out” to the prophets of Baal.

    18. Bruce R. Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 12:49 pm

      No No No No

      The quote is “Go Cowboys” – Ben Johnson

    19. John Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 12:51 pm

      Just want to say that I don’t think yankeefan knows what he’s talking about. Peter left no writing? Paul’s writing is “feverish?” Nope.

      Kyle you should have stuck with St. Peter. He was, after all, the disciple who whipped out a sword and cut off someone’s ear when they came to arrest Jesus. Sounds like that would fit right in to this movie.

    20. democratsarefascists Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 2:17 pm

      Knowing Hollywood’s (and Washington’s) hatred of Christianity, I’m sure any positive message was unintentional.

      Either that, or they’re just cashing in.

    21. Brandon Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 3:25 pm

      Wow. It must be a Christian movie judging by the anger from critics over at Rotten Tomatoes, 23% fresh rating with no specific criticism except a seeming dislike of the Bible. This being my personal favorite:

      “If you’re expecting action, you’ll be disappointed to find mostly empty religious propaganda.”

      More religious tolerance from the intellectual elite.

    22. Tennwriter Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 3:53 pm

      I had planned to skip this, probably altogether, but now I might Redbox it.

      And Biblical critics have said a number of silly things.

    23. Mike Bratton Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 4:12 pm

      Not to divert, but Peter wrote what he wrote, which was 1 Peter and 2 Peter. (And Paul wrote what he wrote, though he dictated a good portion of it.) Oh, and the two New Testament books of Peter are hardly “minor.” At the end of the day, God wrote the Bible, and used both Peter and Paul as two of His scribes.

      There are motion pictures that examine Christian themes, some more respectfully, even evangelically than others. Those are colloquially called “Christian movies.” As opposed to most motion pictures, which are either amoral or pointedly anti-Christian.

      I still don’t know if I’ll be going, but from pre-show buzz, just as with POTC, my children won’t be attending at all.


    24. yankeefan Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 5:03 pm

      @ Brandon. You are stereotyping the elites, which is no better than the elites stereotyping the “rubes.”

      Maybe reviewers just didn’t like the movie. Maybe it isn’t all that good. Maybe it is, indeed, “empty propaganda.” Speaking as someone who is both a member of the superstitious-peasant class and, yes, the “elite,” I suppose, I can tell you it’s possible to be devout and to find a film such as this to be empty. (I haven’t seen it.)

      Go to the Metropolitan Opera sometime when Wagner’s “Parsifal” is being performed, perhaps the most intensely Catholic work of art I have ever seen. Watch the “elites” line up to see it, and view it with awe.

      Great art is great art. Empty propaganda is empty propaganda. Don’t assume that reviewers have any other agenda.

    25. allyHM Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 5:19 pm

      Well, THIS Christian will be seeing it, and likely in the movie theatre which is a rare occasion for me. (Last one I saw on the big screen was “Up”; didn’t see “The Blind Side” due to work schedules and husband health issues but will see it on DVD and/or cable and will likely purchase the DVD.)

    26. whiskey Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 6:46 pm

      The old Testament is very Babylonian, in a vengeful god who picks sides and demands obediance.

      The New Testament is very Greek humanist, married to Jewish monotheism. A God who loves humanity, sends his only son to die for them.

      So, knowing nothing about the movie, other than “who is to blame for the War” I can imagine that Christians and Americans get the blame. This being Hollywood.

      You can’t trust Hollywood — everything they do is crap. I’m sure it is all White America’s fault, and Christians too. Because that is Hollywood. Hollywood can’t even BEGIN to understand ordinary people, they are so corrupt and decadent.

      Why celebrate Islam? It is a religion filled with Polygamy and violence, a god who demands obediance and does not love us. It is perfectly Islamic to kill poets who mock someone — Mohammed did just that. It is in the Quran.

      Not all religions are equal. Some insist on human sacrifice, violence, polygamy, and degradation. Hollywood so loathes its own culture and Christianity that it cannot even make that elementary value judgment.

    27. yankeefan Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 7:01 pm

      >>>Hollywood can’t even BEGIN to understand ordinary people,

      Whiskey, if this is so, how do they routinely get millions of people to fill the cineplexes?

    28. yankeefan Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 7:02 pm

      …that is, millions of “ordinary people.”

    29. m12edit Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 7:33 pm


      Hollywood doesn’t seem to understand ordinary people when they get politically preachy…

    30. Shanggui Says:
      January 13th, 2010 at 8:34 pm


      When you refer to Washington’s “hatred of Christianity” do you mean the actor or the government? Denzel Washington is the son of a preacher who has repeatedly talked about the importance of his faith and given millions of dollars to Christian churches and organizations. There are few more vocally Christian actors in Hollywood.

    31. Steve Schaper Says:
      January 14th, 2010 at 12:05 pm

      I think you’ll find if you actually read it, that God in the Old Testament is just as loving and forgiving as in the New, and just as Holy and Just in the New as in the Old.

      As to “Christian film” this doesn’t mean a new book to the Bible, or an evangelistic tract. It means a film that comes out of the Christian worldview, even though imperfectly (how else in a fallen world?)

      As to Peter and Paul’s letters both the internal and external evidence show them to be contemporary with them, rather than written long after their death. Too many discoveries in the last 100 years made it impossible for the modernists to keep making their claims honestly – but they still try.

    32. yankeefan Says:
      January 14th, 2010 at 12:46 pm

      Shanggui, you are asking a rational question of someone who calls himself democratsarefascists. Just sayin’.

    33. salzig Says:
      January 14th, 2010 at 2:18 pm


      The books of Peter are not just “attributed” to him. The author of these books claims to be the apostle Peter:

      “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,” (1 Peter 1)

      “Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours:” (2 Peter 1)

      After careful scrutiny, the early church accepted Peter as the author of both books, which is why they have been included in the New Testament.

      There are a lot of false teachers today, trying to cast doubt on the authenticity of the Bible, but their claims don’t hold up to close examination. Don’t be taken in.

      Most scholars who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God believe that the apostle Peter wrote I & II Peter.

    34. yankeefan Says:
      January 14th, 2010 at 4:28 pm

      @Steve. If you are commenting on my post, I didn’t mention God (at least in the sense of God the Father), and I agree with your point about God in the Old vs New.

      I was just saying that based on what I have read about “Eli,” it doesn’t immediately seem like a particularly or specifically Christian movie, that’s all.

      As for who wrote Peter’s and Paul’s letters, I really don’t have dog in that hunt. I was just suggesting to Kyle that St Paul would be more representative of a prolific writer than Peter, which is empirically true: Far more was obviously written under Paul’s name than Peter’s.

    35. yankeefan Says:
      January 14th, 2010 at 5:13 pm

      In true Episcopalian fashion, let me reach for my Bartlett’s:

      Karl Barth: “I take the Bible too seriously to take it literally.”

      Martin Luther: “The Bible is like the manger in which the baby Jesus lay; while it cradles the word of God, it also contains a lot of straw.”

      Steve and Salzig, I’m not saying you are arguing for literalism (though perhaps you do), but you’re getting deep into that territory. The literal authorship of Peter’s books makes it no more or less True.

    36. salzig Says:
      January 15th, 2010 at 1:32 am

      @yankeefan #35:


      I am not familiar with the Luther quote. What was the context? It sounds like a combination of two other famous Luther quotes, and the result leaves the impression that Luther did not believe the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant Word of God, which is false.

      Here’s a relevant Luther quote: “It is impossible that Scripture should contradict itself; it only appears so to senseless and obstinate hypocrites.”

      As regards the books of Peter, Luther never expressed any doubts that they were written by the apostle Peter, as far as I know. Here is his testimony about I Peter, in particular:

      “In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine”

      As to your charges of “literalism,” I would just say that I believe in a Bible which would be less true if the author of I Peter were lying about his identity, for whatever reason.

    37. kb24seven Says:
      January 18th, 2010 at 6:04 pm

      KS – I saw Eli over the weekend while playing some tunes in Columbus and I enjoyed the film. Good action, excellent acting (Denzel and Oldman? Come on!) and shot with a great eye to detail.

      But a friend – who is an admittedly staunch atheist – hated it. I asked him what he hated about it, and his reply was typical of anyone who’s challenged about faith: “it was just stupid.”

      Ok, fine – he can’t be objective when the question of faith and God is so much a part of any plot. But I think I can, and I’d say perhaps one of the biggest things I took away from this film was that it was more about the lost meaning of the Bible as opposed to any magical or physical copy. It’s easy to portray faith as perverted today because it is in just about every corner of the round world.

      I also like the moral compromises “Eli” had to make in order to fulfill his mission (are you willing to do whatever it takes to fulfill your mission for the greater good? all: the greater good. can you ever save everyone along your path? and where do you draw the line?). And I liked “Carnegie” very much – reminded me of how Jerry Jones would be in a post apocalyptic world with no rules. Of course instead of towns he’d probably put up football stadiums.

      Now for some unabashed gushing to/for Kyle Smith…

      Bought your book Love Monkey the year it came out…I’ve never stopped thumbing through it and reading from random points. LOVE it. I just wish the jackholes at NBC (or whatever crappy network got its grubby mitts on the rights) didn’t run any potential it had as a series (or movie) straight into the unholy ground they slither across. I accidentally saw 2 episodes. That deserved to be a HBO or Showtime series – at the very least. But I’m sure you knew that.


    38. KS Says:
      January 20th, 2010 at 1:33 am

      Kyle, I saw your name mentioned in a moviefone piece about “Eli.” I think that the writer believes that William Wilberforce wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace,” so I wonder what else she’s mistaken about.

    39. Sarah Wilson Says:
      February 9th, 2010 at 1:02 pm

      Hi! Saw your blog and thought you might be interested in a brand new pre-publication offer from Logos Bible Software on film analysis from a Christian perspective:

    40. JackW Says:
      May 21st, 2010 at 2:28 pm

      @ yankeefan. If you pay attention to the movie, you will realize that the last thing Denzel Washington (Eli) wants is to kill people and spill blood. There are numerous scenes where he tries to avoid it. Having the ability to defend ones self, and using it when necessary, does not make someone a violent, avengeful, or blood seeking person.

      Quote (yankeefan)- “Much more Old Testament, with the main character not a Christ figure but more of an avenging, angry Old Testament prophet. (Christ did say he came to “bring the sword,” but not in the way Denzel wields it here.)”

      Well, he didn’t seem very angry at all, rather very calm. I suppose he could have weilded the sword in a more peaceful way, as I’m sure it would have pleased God if Eli would have let his friend get raped. God asks us to turn away from violence, but not when we must protect the innocent from that which is wicked.

    41. yankeefan Says:
      May 21st, 2010 at 8:40 pm

      @Jack W. I’d reply, but I have completely forgotten that this picure even existed, as has, evidently, most of the USA.

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