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Messiah - how might a secular world respond to the reality of faith?

Spoiler alerts...evidently...and pictures from IMBD

Netflix has released another punchy, disruptive series - well-produced with a good cast and a multi-lingual script: Messiah. Unlike some of the new series put out by the new media producers, this has good production values and seems popular with the people although not so much with the pundits. There are great crowd shots in this series, a sense of being caught up in the reality of every day life and hubbub of the contemporary world, but also an intimacy in the filming and believable sub-plots and characterisation. This is perhaps not surprising given the subject matter - the return of Jesus - or rather the appearance of al-Masih, first in Damascus, then in Jerusalem, then in the US (of course).

The great theme of the series is who is al-Masih and what is his actual message? The early episodes explore his message in a number of interactions with muslim teachers in Syria - he quotes (il)liberally from the Qu'ran and the (Hebrew and Christian) Bible. Although often adjusting the quotes rather than delivering them verbatim - putting a modern twist on the words pushing his listeners towards a great sense of interreligious dialogue rather than promoting a more sectarian message. But this in turn produces dissent from his early followers.

The Christian Post has already asked whether this series is "christian" or "blasphemous". Is al-Masih a con artist or the real Messiah. But, as the review points out, his story does not conform to Revelation. He does not appear to all people as promised in the texts about the second coming - indeed there is very little that conforms to accounts of the second coming of Christ - despite the Hollywood Reporter's assertion that this is Netflix's retelling of Left Behind. He seems increasingly reticent to declare his identity or his own beliefs - constantly shifting attention back towards God and his will. In that regard he reflects Jesus' own reticence in Mark and John to reveal himself - constantly pointing out that he can do nothing without the Father. Similarly, he calls himself "the Word". But what 'word'? How could the 'Word' be at the same time a pawn of russian oligarchs, a victim of the system, a psychological maniac?

But that final scene - how tantalising!

Others have gone further: Paul Tassi in Forbes queries whether al-Masih is the Antichrist. Notably, al-Masih tends to move quickly from one hotspot to another and seems to care little for the people he leaves behind - leaving his original companions stranded at the Syrian-Israel border without food or water; ignoring the sick and needy who come to him in Texas, abandoning a massive rally just before he comes forward to speak. This seems to confirm that al-Masih is developing a personality cult rather than representing Christ's second coming - he's in this for his own glory not to bring transformation, to bring in the new heaven and the new earth. The CIA/political establishment's pursuit of his past seems to both confirm this reading of the events and of the man but also to make him even more mysterious. They seem hell-bent on seeing every religious experience as a fraud and so our empathy with al-Masih increases rather than decreases. Although at the same time, our unease is stoked - perhaps we are being duped as well? It's not hard to feel a sense of resentment to his constant meditation and apparent lack of concern for the massive issues happening around him that he could actually have challenged and changed, and the people who he could have healed (poor Raeah...).

Indeed, this is perhaps the greatest weakness of the series - a failure to explore the kind of personal and societal shift which Jesus promised at the Day of the Lord. There is no overturning of society here. There is no shift of power. There is no sense that Jesus or God have a social agenda to challenge the wealthy and powerful. There is an apparent acquiescence to the state of the world - or even an attempt to weaken the West through military withdrawal to establish something even worse. Wouldn't Jesus have asked the President to make a more fundamental change to world poverty, to starvation, to inequality than to bring the troops home? Is this the Messiah, a con man or perhaps al-Masih is indeed an antichrist - al-Masih ad-dajjal? Although, it has to be said, the parallels with this figure in Islamic eschatology are not as clear as it would seem in some of the reviews - walking on water is not one of the miracles the false messiah was meant to copy, and the Jews were meant to be much more welcoming!

Again, this doubt about his identity is promoted by the way the story is told and the constant insistence by the various security agents to read al-Masih as a terrorist. For many of his political opponents, al-Masih cannot be spiritual, authentic, life-giving because that kind of reality simply is not accepted by them. They have to read him through secular eyes. Intriguingly, the main CIA agent, Eva Geller, played by Michelle Monaghan (also in "Mission Impossible"), proposes that this is the next evolution of (state-sponsored) terrorism/civil disruption after the fall of ISIS - that a rogue state has decided that religious revival is their new way of disrupting the West, of making use of social media and proclaiming a radical new way of being. Although, the idea of state-sponsored disruption based on overt religious policy is hardly news - state-sponsored disruption of religious experience for geopolitical gain has been a hallmark of human history throughout time (the irony is missing from this article in the Indian press).

But this, of course, is a secular reading of religion. Religious expression is fundamentally transformative? Religion is meant to mould society in its image not the other way around! Which religion does NOT seek to amend the world in which is practiced? If only Eva had read the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55); if only she had read Jesus' manifesto in Luke 4:16-21; if only she had read the prophet Isaiah's call for social justice (Isaiah 58), or Micah's passionate summary of faith as acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). Although, you might want to say the same of every character in this piece. Where is social justice in this series? Where is the alternative to market capitalism? Where is the call to move beyond the neuroses of the self to the politics of the public square?

Some of the most moving moments, that draw us into engagement argues Lucy Mangan in The Guardian's review, are when al-Masih sees deeply into the heart of the person he is speaking to. These moments are normally confined to intimate one to one scenes (in jail cells, mountain tops, hotel rooms) in which al-Masih reveals his knowledge of a personal issue in someone's backstory - their name, their greatest fear, even a message from a dead relative! Such episodes are rich with biblical symbolism, often seeming to reflect parables spoken by Jesus or events lived out in his life. So, when a girl is paid by the government to seduce al-Masih, he shifts the conversation to her own sense of loneliness and inner confusion. He proclaims "God loves you" and she is transformed - returning the money the government have paid her, setting out on a new way of life. And at such moments, the idea that this is the Antichrist seems so much less convincing. These are his most Christ-like moments.

But the big problem with al-Masih, as one critic notes, is that he fails to give true council. He fails to disciple his followers. Look at the way in which Jesus taught his disciples and sent them out on mini-missions. They are rounded, developing characters. When he leaves them, they continue his mission - fitfully it is true. But the contemporary church is largely built on the disciples' (new and old, led by Peter, Paul and Junias, men and women) initial development of Jesus' mission strategy, empowered by his ongoing presence with them. and by the infilling of the Holy Spirit. All of this is missing! Al-Masih has no strategy, no sense of purpose, no overriding mission. This is a self-centred, self-serving, media-hungry messiah, and hence why many would want to add 'ad-dajjal' - this is the False God proclaimed on the wall of Dilley Church.

Having said all that, "Messiah" is well worth a watch. The series is eminently clippable for scenes to illustrate sermons and to instruct congregations. It is a great parable of the power of social media to get the message out to the masses. Perhaps indeed the series shows a viable way in which the second coming will be a media event rather than an event physically present to all people. This would seem to make sense know we know we live on a globe (pace flat-earthers!). Perhaps the series points towards the way in which Jesus' return will be a religious reality across the Abrahamic religions, rather than just a Christian victory?

I fear that in a future series al-Masih will become al-Masih ad-dajjal. At key moments in this series, Mehdi Dehbi plays a Jesus, who is non-white, arab-and-hebrew-speaking, and definitively non-Western, a Jesus who knows the Qu'ran, the Torah and the Christian Bible. Such a characterisation of Jesus is sadly rare within Jesus films with some notable exceptions. The idea that Series 2 will reveal this non-White, non-Western, Syrian-Iranian Jesus as a fraud or as the Antichrist is deeply unsettling and would play too much into contemporary American geopolitics and the myth that all Iranians/Iraqis/Syrians/Palestinians are terrorists. Too often, the West wants a white Messiah. Such a rejection might be redeemable if the illiterate, innocent (?), brave Jibril (Gabriel, the angel of revelation in the Gospels and Islamic tradition), played by Sayyed el Alami, were the real Messiah after all, as Paul Tassi speculates. After all, we have already had hagiographic visions of his mother.

Have an open mind when you come to see the series. Watch how the secular world reacts to a(n apparently) miracle-performing messiah. Watch how individuals encounter him and have John's Gospel in mind in those encounters since it is in that Gospel where Jesus' encounters with individuals most closely follow the same pattern. But also ask "What would Jesus Do." Would he leave the Syrian followers? Would he disrupt Israel/Palestine and cause so much bloodshed? Would he fail to train his disciples, to empower them in their own mission, to leave them bereft? Would he ignore the unwell camped outside his door and spend his time meditating on the blackbird and the frost?

But that ending...


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