'Book of Eli" is a gritty film, set in a post-apocalyptic world full of brutal scavengers, cannibals and ruthless leaders. The main character, played by Denzel Washington, is named Eli. He's a rare literate person and appears at the very beginning to be carrying a precious book.
I hope this won't spoil the movie for you, but the book turns out to be the King James Bible. The book is at the center of the film's tension because the villain, Carnegie, who manages a tough town, wants that book so he can use the words to control people. In his mind, the religious texts are practical tools to bend people's wills to his own. In an imperialistic vein, he wants to establish other towns, and he needs to use religion to his advantage.
This practical use of "religion," rather than the actual practice of faith, riles me to the bone. Carnegie doesn't care if the faith contained in the religious words is actually true. He just knows that when people are inspired, they do great things. His goal is to harness that power for his own gain. Eli is a powerful hero because he protects the word from this illegitimate use, and tries to bring it to a place where people will protect it and find wisdom from it and share with others for God's will in their lives.
From the book of Corinthians, Paul tells ministers that Scripture is greater than a tool of manipulation; it is to be plainly spoken and received by rational people:
"Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Corinthians 4:1-2).
I believe that practical religion, the religion of Carnegie, is a common thing. I have done it, when I have prayed for something I really wanted. I remember praying for a video game system when I was younger. These days I would probably pray that things go well at work. We all have things we would like to see made real for us.
The problem with practical religion is that it places God in a box. It says, if God isn't working for me, then what good is God? It is the same mentality one might have in a court case if the judge does not act on behalf of a plaintiff or a defendant. One person in a case will lose, even though both of them may have asked for a win. If the judge acted fairly and honestly dealt with the facts, one can still trust the legal system. It is even more so with the creator of the universe. God can be trusted even when we don't get our own way; even when the world seems to be falling apart.
There are people with absolutely nothing but the faith they have and the joy it brings them. They bring peace and joy to everyone they meet. I hope this Christmas, you will rediscover your trust in God, and that your happiness will be dependent on God's goodness, despite how much we have under the tree this year.
Daniel Griswold is the director of youth at St. Andrew By-the-Sea United Methodist Church. Read his blog at www.danielgriswold.wordpress.com. Follow him on Twitter @dannonhill.