From the first time I saw a trailer for Netflix’ Messiah, I wondered how they were going to bring it to a conclusion. It seemed that there were only two possibilities: either the main protagonist is the Messiah, or he is some kind of charlatan. Is he a fraud? Is he some kind of cult leader, or maybe a terrorist? Or is he actually the second coming of Jesus?
First of all, the show is well-paced and moves swiftly, and the main characters all gradually reveal their secrets as they come into contact with “al-Masih.” It’s a fascinating thought experiment: what if someone like a Jesus of Nazareth were to appear in our modern world? Social media plays a big part in spreading information quickly, along with the 24-hour news cycle. The multiple angles of any event, from multiple cell phone cameras, also allow various agencies to track what is happening around the world in near-real time.
You have the expected reactions and counter-reactions from the major modern religions. There are Muslims who first follow and believe that this man—who appeared to stop an ISIL attack on Damascus by means of a sandstorm—is the “prophet” Jesus come again in the flesh. You also have Muslims denouncing him as a heretic and a false prophet. Though Judaism is not as prominent, there is one modern Jew—maybe the most fully-rounded character in the show—who has rejected not only the idea of a Messiah, but of a God at all.
And when a church in a small Texas town is the only building left after a tornado, Christians (and others) flock to the town to hear from the pastor, who has been frustrated financially, spiritually, and within his family. There are protests and counter-protests at various places where al-Masih shows up. Is he a true or a false revelation from God? The cynics and the believers line up to place their bets.
Al-Masih gives sometimes different and sometimes conflicting impressions to those who are seeking answers. On the one hand, I think the show strikes the right notes, in the sense that people saw in the historical Jesus what they wanted to see, and they heard what they wanted to hear. On the other hand, the Jesus of the Bible is not so enigmatic. This “messiah” is far more humble about his “place” in the plan of God. He follows God, but doesn’t seem to have any innate direction. The Jesus of the Gospels, though, does not have any doubts about who He is, or what He has come to do. There is a single-mindedness to Jesus of Nazareth that the central figure of Messiah does not have.
In his actual words, al-Masih sounds like any random “spiritual” leader, encouraging people to look inward, listen and follow the “leading” of God, and try to figure out for themselves what God is saying. He can’t give them any answers. He’s not there to tell them what to do or give them what they think they need. He does seem to know things about people, and he is able to tell them specific things that they have done—or maybe he’s just a magician who is good at reading people. He walks on water—or does he? He clearly heals at least a couple people, but refuses to heal one person, and actively puts a dog out of its misery.
Messiah is, I think, what spiritual-but-not-religious people actually imagine Jesus would be like if he appeared now. He says vaguely religious things; some people believe and some people don’t. (And because he is more a series of “sayings,” rather than action, he sounds, unsurprisingly, a lot like the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas or other New Testament apocrypha.) The difficulty for a show like this is in the fact that the Jesus of the Scriptures did actually appear in history. He actually said things (or, for the less credulous, had things recorded that He supposedly said). So what would we make of such a person now? Christians would take into account that Jesus predicts His death and resurrection, and that those twin events were at the center of the apostles’ preaching from the beginning to the end. Christians would recall Jesus’ own words and the words of His apostles that many would come claiming, “I am He.”
But Messiah, besides the thought-experiment “what-if,” seems to run on two assumptions: that the individuals who come into contact with something or someone who pushes the boundaries of what they’ve experienced or take as truth all have pasts and secrets through which they’re trying to work; and, second, that all religion is essentially what the individual makes of it. The first is what rounds out the main characters’ narrative arcs. The second is a fundamentally modern assumption that fits well with how we, peculiarly autonomous individuals that we are, conceive of the world.
Both assumptions fit together. Each person is trying to work through who he is, or how she fits in the world. And so when the encounter comes with someone who breaks the limits of our experienced world, we make of that what we can. What we bring to the encounter determines what we take away. Even for the people who are changed in some way, their basic ways of perceiving are not changed. Most of the religious people in this show are what Lutherans have called “enthusiasts.” That is, they encounter God primarily from within, following an ambiguous and mysterious “leading” that is often unclear.
Felix, the small-town pastor of the church that is spared from the tornado, is the primary example. When the tornado hits, he’s about to burn down his church for the insurance money. He takes al-Masih’s apparent intervention as a sign that he should reconsider his faith and commitment to God’s leading. But he finds that leading in ambiguous signs that may be interpreted in various ways. And when those signs don’t pan out the way he expects, his despair and discouragement return in fiercer and more devastating ways.
That’s the way it is with such enthusiasm. What is at one time clear is suddenly, at another moment, more unclear than ever. There are times in the show when people speak in scripture-ish terms, but no one (that I can recall) ever actually consults the Bible for guidance or understanding. They act, as most people today do, based solely on what they see and feel. They do not compare words with the Word. In that way, the show accurately depicts how people today would react to such a figure.
Orthodox Christians would not actually accept that al-Masih is Jesus reincarnate (as if He had put off His flesh at His ascension, and now takes on some other embodiment). Nor could they accept that the Messiah would appear on earth without bringing this creation to its close and restoration. Nor, again, does he sound at all like the Jesus of the canonical Christian Scriptures.
But in some ways that’s not really the point. The caricatures that news organizations draw of substantial issues, particularly religious ones; the fact that such a figure would appear as either a blessing or a threat, depending on the perspective; the various pieces moving about the geopolitical chess-board; and the ramifications of all of those things seem all too realistic. While we are not given an answer to my expected either-or (since the ending clearly leaves open the probability of a continuing story), the way that people in the show work through the difficulties posed by such a polarizing character is well done and interesting. I’m intrigued enough to look forward to seeing how the story could be developed in other directions.