The ‘Book’ in memoriam: The Book of Eli and The Secret of Kells

Numerous scholars of the Abrahamic religions have called Christianity, Judaism and Islam “religions of the book” in reference to the central role that the sacred text plays in each tradition and all three sharing similar narratives albeit interpreted theologically in differing ways.  As someone who studies and inhabits the Christian tradition, I would be a called a ‘person of the book’ as well.  The collected 66 books that constitute the Christian scriptures – representative texts that inhabit the Hebrew scriptures coupled with the New Testament corpus – are the ‘norming norm’ of the Christian faith and while there is a quite a large span within the big tent of Christianity reaching from those who hold the texts to be inerrant (wholly and complete as holy inspired and therefore without error) to those who espouse the texts as authoritative as inspired texts yet still formed with human agency to those who see them along other ‘weltliteratur‘: a text among others containing moral values and historical heft yet ultimately a product from within human cultural history.  Therefore ranging from fundamentalist frenzy to merely supplemental reading in a Great Books curriculum, the Bible continues to be one of the most influential (if not THE most influential) book in human history.   The role that the Bible plays in the forward movement and sustaining center point of human history have been discussed as the main concern in two recent films – The Book of Eli and The Secret of Kells.  While there a number of stark differences between these films (one is a fairly standard post- apocalyptic action film made for the multiplex while the other is an indie Oscar nominated animated short film looking back to the age of the illuminated manuscript that had limited release in art houses), what unites these films though is a deep sense that without ‘the Book’ – this text that is somehow imbued with Divine initiative and unique in all the world – civilization as we know it will fall into darkness and akin to WB Yeats’ The Second Coming we will fall into a spinning apocalypse beyond human control:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In The Secret of Kells, the tale is woven around the monastic community of Kells in Ireland and the production in the 9th century of an illuminated manuscript of the synoptic Gospels.  The story is told through the eyes of young Brendan, an orphan living within this monastic community who is introduced to Aidan of Iona, an elderly monk who is said to be the greatest illuminator of texts in all of Christendom.  Brendan’s uncle is the abbot of this monastic order and fears that their community will be overtaken by ‘Northmen’ – Viking invaders that have been savaging the lands throughout Scotland and Ireland and thrusting the world into anti-intellectualism and darkness – as well as pagans who continue to hold to folk religion.   In order to protect the monastic community, the Abbot erects large walls to cloister the community and seal it off from both Northmen invaders and the pagan outsiders.  Ultimately, the tale shows the tension between which future will be best – choosing to build bigger and better walls to protect a way of life from everything that is different or to journey into the pagan lands, to listen and experience what the world has to say in all its hopes, its loves, its dangers and its fears and allow art to speak into all these places as a dialog of hope and grace.  It becomes clear that the illuminated Gospels will never be completed unless it is taken outside the walls that cloister and ‘protect’ it for only in the pagan realm are there the materials and inspiration to truly make the text a thing of light or a deeply ‘illuminated’ work.  It is this journey of choice between creating stronger walls or finding the light of the world that already dwells ‘in’ the world with which the sacred text can be read by that the movie moves the viewer to choose for themselves.

The Book of Eli is in many ways a much simpler film – a ham-handed morality tale told through video game violence in order to keep a violence-saturated multi-plex audience attentive for the full two hours.

Yet that would be too harsh a judgement as the film is actually better and asking bigger questions than it perhaps even realizes.  Akin to The Secret of Kells, The Book of Eli has as its central concern the fate of civilization that while not the dark ages (saeculum obscurum) arising after the fall of the Roman empire but post-apocalyptic dark age that has haunted the imaginations of Western culture from filmic visions such as Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner and George Miller’s The Road Warrior to the contemporary literary visions cast by Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  As with the exhaustion of virtues and morality that cast the world into darkness in The Secret of Kells, the ravages of the nuclear option burn through the aesthetics of The Hughes Brothers film with Denzel Washington fending off simple-minded madmen with a machete, amazing martial arts skills for a guy walking for 30 years and sweet Oakley sunglasses to boot.   Behind the goofiness though is the haunting question of what will bring civilization back from oblivion and offer a center point around which human flourishing can prosper.  The answer seems to rely upon the same book albeit in a decidedly different form than the illuminated Gospels of Kells (you will have to see The Book of Eli to find out just how different… I won’t spoil it for you).  As the sinister character Carnegie (played to maximum scene-chewing pitch by Gary Oldman) makes clear when trying to get the Book from Denzel Washington’s Eli, what is seen as salvation to some is also power and domination to others:

[it is] a weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It will give us control of them. If we want to rule more than one small, f$%^&’ town, we have to have it. People will come from all over, they’ll do exactly what I tell ’em if the words are from the book. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. All we need is that book

After watching both films, I was taken that in both cases there is still this haunting sense that this book as ‘the Book’ is still thought of as having such power and the ability to making society or destroy it.  Is this really the case in an age when every motel has a Gideon bible that is as ubiquitous as the free shampoos and conditioners?  Many people speak of the post-Christian age – a time that has long since seen this book as ‘the Book’ lose its luster and hold on the hearts and minds of thoughtful people.  Is this truly something that people, if they would but read it, find the center and still point in this ever twisting chaotic world or is it merely the stuff of film?

What do you think?  Are St. Augustine’s words ‘take up and read’ enough?

2 Comments

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  1. Oh Dr. Keuss! How I love your blog! I absolutely LOVED The Secret of Kells and I’m so glad someone else has seen it! Somehow it captured the mystery and majesty that I somehow manage to find in the book. I can’t think of any way to throw Frodo or Troy Bolton into this post, but I think The Secret of Kells is worthy of some reference status if I ever write a paper for you again!

    This is Nick Davenport by the way! Long time reader, first time commenter.

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