Keeping the Faith
Denzel Washington is one of Hollywood's most successful and respected actors. But the two-time Academy Award winner (for 1989's Glory and 2001's Training Day) is also one of Hollywood's highest profile Christians.
The son of a Pentecostal preacher from Mount Vernon, New York, Washington, 55, has been an active member of West Angeles Church of God in Christ for nearly 30 years, reads his Bible every morning, and always chooses roles that he can "bend" in the direction of a positive message or a reflection of his deep personal faith.
Faith is everywhere in Washington's new post-apocalyptic film, The Book of Eli, which opens Friday and is being marketed with "B-ELI-EVE" and "D-ELI-VER US" billboards. In the movie, Washington plays a mysterious machete-wielding traveler named Eli, directed by God to protect the earth's last remaining copy of the Bible—that's right, the Bible—and to take it "out West" for safekeeping while villains seek to take it by force and use it as a "weapon" of control.
Washington's character in the film is intensely violent—severing the limbs of bad guys at every turn—but begins to soften when he meets an innocent girl (Mila Kunis) who reminds him that we can get so caught up in protecting God's Word that we sometimes forget to live by it.
For Washington, "living by it" is chiefly characterized by love and sacrifice. The ultimate message of Eli, he says, is "Do more for others than you would do for yourself." It's a message Washington was surrounded by as a boy.
"We prayed about everything, everyday," Washington told members of the religious media last week in Los Angeles. "And we always ended with 'Amen. God is love.' I thought 'God is love' was one word. It took me a long time to learn what that meant. I don't care what book you read or what you believe—if you don't have love, if you don't love your fellow man, then you don't have anything."
Though Washington isn't a huge fan of the word "religion" and refrains from any sort of "I'm right, you're wrong" talk, he is not ashamed to speak bluntly about his Christian beliefs.
"I believe that Jesus is the Son of God," he says. "I've been filled with the Holy Spirit. I know it's real. I was in the room. My cheeks blew up, I cried like a baby, and it scared me to death. It kind of scared me off it. I backed up and went the other direction, to be honest with you. I didn't know what was going on. It was too strong. It has taken me many years to come back around."
Sitting in his house recently, reading the Bible (he's on his third time reading the whole thing straight through), Washington came across a passage about wisdom and understanding in Proverbs 4, which made him reflect on his life.
"I'm in this big house with all this stuff," he observed. "I've heard that saying, 'You never see a U-Haul behind a hearse.' You can't take it with you. The Egyptians tried; they got robbed. I said, 'What do you want, Denzel?' And one of the devotional words that day was wisdom. So I started praying on that. 'God, give me a dose of that.' I can't get any more successful. But I can get better. I can learn to love more. I can learn to be more understanding. I can gain more wisdom."
Like his character in The Book of Eli, Washington believes in prophetic calling and tries to make the most of what he believes God has given him to work with: In his case, worldwide fame and one of the most storied acting careers of his generation. Washington recalls a story from when he was 20 years old that demonstrates how intimately he relates his faith with his career.