Sunday, July 12, 2009


I got around to watching the film Knowing recently. Except for Roger Ebert, most of the critics despised the film. In one or two respects I can understand their reaction, although I think that’s an overreaction.

I think, for example, it was a mistake to cast Nicolas Cage as the protagonist. It’s a sympathetic role, which requires a more sympathetic actor. Cage isn’t very likable. He’s annoying to watch. Of course, that’s subjective. Thankfully, the child actor who plays his son is far more appealing.

I also understand why critics found the plot confusing. Yet I also think that’s largely the fault of the critics. They’re ignorant of the literary allusions. If, however, you view the movie as, in some measure, a religious allegory, with subtle illusions to the Bible, then the plot makes more sense. What’s driving the plot is a biblical subplot.

But that, in turn, raises the question of how much subtext we should discern. It’s possible to either overinterpret or underinterpret a film like Knowing. Only the director and screenwriters are privy to their ulterior intentions.

There is, though, some reason to expect that Knowing goes deeper than the average SF flick. The original screenplay was penned by a professional SF novelist and Roman Catholic. The director is a sophisticated, thoughtful director. And there were several other screenwriters whose precise contribution to the final product is indetectable. And least one of the screenwriters is a Christian (Stuart Hazeldine)–or so I’ve been told.

The film is ambiguous. It could either be given a secular gloss or a Christian gloss.

The secular gloss would involve a ufological interpretation of the Biblical allusions, a la Erich von Däniken. On this reading, the Strangers are really aliens.

Or you could view it in reverse: the Strangers are really angels. The alien paraphernalia is a cultural accommodation to the human observers. (e.g. Heb 13:1-2).

Some of the biblical allusions or Scriptural parallels are explicit. In other cases, it may just be coincidental.

For the sake of argument, let’s exhaust all the possible, literary allusions. This may result in overinterpreting the film, but it’s an interesting exercise to see how far you can push it.

1.Koestler is the son of a clergyman. Ezekiel is the son of a clergyman (Ezk 1:3).

2.Koestler is a widower. Ezekiel is a widower (Ezk 24:15-18).

3.Lucinda’s envelope contains oracles of doom. Ezekiel’s scroll contains oracles of doom (Ezk 2:9-10).

4.Koestler tries to warn his contemporaries of impending disaster, yet his warnings are ignored. Ezekiel tries to warn his contemporaries of impending disaster, yet his warnings are ignored (Ezk 2:3-7; 3:7).

5.In both cases, the oracles of doom are inexorable.

6.In Knowing, the earth is incinerated. In the oracles against Gog and Magog, Ezekiel also describes the eschatological judgment in the imagery of a cosmic conflagration (Ezk 38:17-23; 39:6).

7.In Knowing, only a chosen remnant are able to hear and heed the Strangers. In Ezekiel, only a chosen remnant are able to hear and heed the voice of God (Ezk 11:19-20; 36:26-27).

8.In Knowing, only a chosen remnant survive the catastrophe. In Ezekiel, only a chosen remnant survive the catastrophe (Ezk 11:15-20; 39:25-29).

9.In Knowing, the “spacecraft” which rescues the chosen remnant has a set of wheels within wheels. In Ezekiel, the divine chariot has a set of wheels within wheels (Ezk 1:15-21). In Jewish tradition, this gave rise to the “Ophanim.”

10.In Knowing, the chosen remnant are transported to an Edenic paradise with a tree of life. In Ezekiel, the Consummation envisions an Edenic paradise with a tree of life (Ezk 47:7,12).

Strictly speaking, the film doesn’t identify the tree as the tree of life, but in the history of Western art, the iconography is unmistakable.

11.In Knowing, the name of Koestler’s son, a member of the chosen remnant who will be transported to the new Eden, is Caleb. In the Pentateuch, Caleb is one of just two survivors of the Exodus generation who will enter the Promised Land.

12.In Knowing, the Strangers emit a nimbic aura. In Ezekiel, the angels emit a nimbic aura (Ezk 1:7; 40:3).

13.The boy and the girl, with two rabbits, as they are swept to safety, are reminiscent of Noah’s ark.

14.In one scene we have an explicit reference to 1 Cor 12.

15.Ascending to the heavens (as the “ship” whisks the children away) is a stock metaphor for going to heaven (e.g. 1 Thes 4:17).

16.The stones may be an allusion to Gen 2:10-12–another Edenic motif which is carried over into Ezekiel (cf. Ezk 28:13-14,16).

17.The use of numerology in Knowing would dovetail with Biblical numerology, such as we encounter in the Book of Revelation.

18.Caleb is hearing-impaired, but he can hear the Strangers. This dovetails with the Biblical distinction between natural and spiritual perception. Some people can have keen sight and hearing, yet be spiritually blind or deaf, while other people can be blind or deaf, but have keen spiritual discernment. Only the sheep know the voice of the Shepherd.

19.Caleb and his dad use a bit of sign-language with each other. Ezekiel also used sign-language (Ezk 4-5).

20. Knowing has 4 Strangers. Ezkekiel has 4 angels (Ezk 1:5).

21. The Strangers have wings. The angels have wings (Ezk 1:6).

On a broader note:

22.The film includes a conversion experience, where Koestler goes from being a bitter atheist to a believer or revert. Koestler is a backslider who, at the end, returns to his former faith.

23.There’s a predestinarian undercurrent to the film. This is inevitable, since the film deals with prophecy, and the future can only be foreknown in case the future is foreordained. On a related note, there's a line of demarcation between the elect and the reprobate.

24. There's a scene at Caleb's school where the kids sing "This little light of mine," a classic Christian children's song, based on Mt 5:14-16.

25.Knowing contains an extrabiblical, literary allusion to Arthur Koestler, the science writer who took an interest in telepathy, synchronicity, and Johannes Kepler (among other things).

I don’t know how many of these apparent parallels are deliberate. But the degree to which, without having to strain, you can view the film as an allegory of Ezekiel (and other Scriptural motifs) is certainly striking. Some of these themes could also be lifted from the Book of Revelation–which is partially indebted to the Book of Ezekiel.

Of course, many Hollywood films ransack Biblical eschatology. But in this case the level of specificity is fairly intriguing.

Since most film critics are biblically illiterate, this would go right over their heads. That's why they were baffled by the plot. The subtextual logic of the plot was lost on them.

Of course, had they been aware of the biblical subtext, they would simply despise the film for a different reason. Indeed, some people are now attacking the film because of its hidden theological agenda. They assail the film as deceptive religious propaganda.

But, of course, that’s silly. Atheism doesn’t hold the copyright to the SF genre. And SF stories are often allegorical. There’s nothing inherently wrong with recasting Biblical eschatology in SF imagery. And, indeed, since Christ will return at a time when modern technology is the norm, there’s no reason why a film about the Day of Judgment and the world to come shouldn’t have a hitech dimension. That’s realistic.

Moreover, it’s not just a case of Christianity baptizing SF. Often it’s a case of SF secularizing Christianity.

This is not to say the film is, in every respect, logical or orthodox. Some of the characters who are left behind assure the elect that they will see them again. But if everyone winds up in the same place, why rescue the elect from the impending conflagration?

I don’t know if this contradiction is due to logical and doctrinal indifference. Due to too many screenwriters having a hand in the script. Or just an effort to blunt the catastrophe. Make it more emotionally palatable.


  1. One more thing. The aliens/angels have wings. The aura that comes from them forms wings when they take the children on board the ship. I was absolutely shocked at the tree in the middle of the field at the end of the movie.

  2. Steve, This is off-topic, but what do you think of Schreiner evidently becoming premillenial?

  3. I don't think that affects the overall value of Schreiner. Although I'm an amil, blogging on the millennium has never been one of my priorities. I think premillennialism results from a flawed hermeneutic. However, some of our finest contemporary exegetes are premils, so it works out better in practice than in theory.

  4. Steve, If you don't mind my asking, what is the flawed hermeneutic which results in premillenialism? Thanks.

  5. Traditionally, premils are committed to the literal fulfillment of prophecy. But while some prophecies are literally fulfilled, I think the Biblical principle of fulfillment is a more subtle, complex phenomenon. Some contemporary premils like Bock and Blomberg appreciate that fact.