Kutter Callaway on a Christian View of the New Netflix Show ‘Messiah’

Image: John Golden Britt / Netflix

On January 1, Netflix released its latest über-bingeable series, Messiah, telling an all-too-believable story about the rise of a contemporary messianic figure known as Al-Masih (played by Mehdi Dehbi). Appearing out of nowhere in modern-day Syria, he begins to heal the wounded, stand in the path of tornadoes, and even walk on water. Following each miraculous feat, growing throngs of faithful believers from around the world become increasingly convinced that this man has been sent from on high.

But it isn’t until Al-Masih calls for the disruption of the religious, social, and political orders of the day that he catches the attention of the CIA and special agent Eva Gellar (Michelle Monaghan). Claiming to be divine is one thing. Threatening the vested interests of global superpowers by calling for their complete disarmament is quite another, which is why agent Gellar commits herself to exposing Al-Masih as the fraud she knows him to be. A game of cat-and-mouse quickly ensues as agent Gellar moves ever closer to the revelation of Al-Masih’s true identity. Is he the second coming of the Messiah as his followers believe? Or is he simply another opportunistic charlatan suffering from a messiah complex?

Messiah is a genuinely entertaining show. But it’s also a thoughtful exploration of the infinitely complex and increasingly fraught political and global landscape we inhabit. The reason a show like Messiah is worth our time is not because it is “family-friendly” (it’s rated TV-MA) or because it depicts (or fails to depict) a Christian understanding of the end of the age. Rather, it’s because the show confronts viewers with what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now.” Messiah presents Christians in particular with a rare opportunity to reflect upon not the distant future, but the present. In doing so, it presses us to consider what kind of faith we need to embody if we are to become credible witnesses in such a time as this.

Let’s not sugarcoat it. The times in which we live are in flux. There is no shortage of voices suggesting that if certain politicians are elected to office (or not), or certain industries are allowed to survive (or not), or certain ideas are given airtime (or not), the world as we know it will come to an end. Some of this is simply clickbait, engineered by architects of fear. But some of it is based in reality.

The globe is shrinking.

Wars are raging.

Ecological disasters are increasingly frequent and devastating.

The threat of mass shootings hovers over our schools, our public gatherings, and our places of worship.

The world, it would seem, is on fire. Fear and uncertainty have set it ablaze.

Historically speaking, this is nothing new, so we shouldn’t make too much of how chaotic the world appears in comparison to past eras. But the constant disruption and tumult should be a sign to us. Just as Jesus indicated, they create the necessary conditions for messiahs of various kinds to emerge. He said as much to his disciples:

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. …

“At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you ahead of time. So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matt. 24:3–8, 23–27).

It’s pretty interesting that Jesus frames his comments about the destruction of the temple and his second coming in terms of the human tendency to believe. Rather than provide his disciples with a roadmap to the future, complete with step-by-step instructions for what to do and when to do it, Jesus reminds them that the profound faith they demonstrated by dropping everything to follow him could also make them susceptible to deception. Under certain conditions, says Jesus, their propensity to believe could become a liability. It could even lead them to place their faith in false messiahs.

Part of what makes us human is the network of built-in psychological mechanisms that give rise to belief. As my colleague Justin Barrett has suggested, humans are “born believers.” Whether religious or not, to be human is to interact with the world faith-fully, to devote ourselves to something or someone.

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Source: Christianity Today