Johnny Cash once remarked that he wasn’t “A Christian Musician” but a “Musician who was Christian.”  That might resemble a circular logical fallacy, but think about that for a second.  It’s actually quite a profound.  As a statement, it plays with the meanings of words, individuality, and role religion plays in one’s life.  “Christian musicians” are quite easy to find — just look at that victim of a tanning bed, Carmen, and the some of the people you might find on the Trinity Broadcasting Network who scream or shout “Christ” like they have a severe onset of Tourette’s Syndrome.   Those are people with religion on their sleeves, and if they had a “Christian” name tag, they would proudly wear it and let that obscure everything else.  Contrast that, for a moment, with an artist like Cash, who was a devout believer.  Yet, the name of Christ wasn’t in the forefront of everything he did.  Yet, one would be a fool to look at his song writing and think that he was not informed by something spiritual.  And so, this brings up an long running aesthetic debate about the value of polemic, sermon, and the place of “art” when it comes to an artist’s message.  Preaching is always the death of art.  This is why “Christian Rock” or “Christian Country” or “Christian What-The-Fuck-Ever (insert trademark or copyright symbols here)” can never compare to something conceived as “art first” and “spiritual second.”   Johnny Cash certainly cared more about writing artistically sound songs first and not foaming at the mouth in the name of Christ.   But, his songs are still informed by his faith.

I thought about this recently, while watching Denzel Washington in the Hughes Brother’s film, “The Book of Eli.”  This is not a “Christian movie,” but it most certainly is a film with Christian values.  And I say that as a devout Secular Agnostic.  Yet, I would suggest the the message the Hughes Brothers are trying to send would not be welcomed by Carmen and the TBN and evangelical set.    Denzel aka Eli walks across the post-apocycalypitic waste land filled with cannibalism and casual inhumanity.  He carries with him a copy of a King James Bible.  It’s the only one left in this world and Denzel aka Eli must defend this last remaining copy at all costs.  Yet, at one point, towards the end of the film, he is forced to let go.  This valuable book is forcibly taken from him, but instead of going back and having an epic shoot out to reclaim it, he continues on his journey.  He comes to a revelation, basically, and it’s hidden from the movie watcher at first.  But still, he comes to a revelation that “The Book” is actually within him.  He’s read it everyday for 30 years.  He can recite chapter and verse on command.  So, preseverving the “artifact” or the “object” of the book itself is not as important as preserving the content of the Bible.

Contrast that with the film’s antagonist, played by Gary Oldman.  He is hellbent on possessing the King James bible as an object, not as an intangible.  Oldman’s character think’s the book is tool for mind control and ultimate power, in a world where life is meaningless and casually dispensed off.  Yet, Oldman’s character obsession ends up costing him, dearly.  He loses a lot of henchmen at the hands of Denzel aka Eli, and the control over the town and society he wishes to build crumbles as a result into anarchy.

The conflict here is obvious, and it is not “good versus evil” but rather “material versus spiritual.”  Possessing a King James Bible as a material object compromises everything.  Gary Oldman’s character doesn’t really “learn” this, but it is what happens to him.  His desire to possess a Bible makes him lose sight of everything else, and as a result his control on things turns to shit.  Eli, on the other hand, dies anyway, but in the end, his quest is fulfilled.  Eli can die happy, and with satisfaction.

So, is “The Book of Eli” the pinnacle of spiritual film?  Of course not.  This movie has its shares of flaws.  But the spiritual topic matter resonated with me.  I have lived in the American South, near bible fanatics and people who thought they could sell just about anything if they stamped “Jesus” on it.  I once saw a Bible packaged and sold as “BibleMan’s Bible” — think of Batman styled super hero marked up with Christian iconography.  The publishers of that particular version of The Bible though putting him on the cover could “move copies.’  Still, I guess “the lesson” of all of this is personal.  I am used to Christians telling me how I should live my life, even though I may not subscribe to their belief system.  However, I have met far more militant Christians who were more concerned with shoving the “object” of their bible at me (while standing in my front door), than were willing to discuss how the carried that bible with them.