Netflix’s “Messiah” – Are We Asking the Wrong Question?
I don’t know if it classifies as binge watching, but I watched all ten episodes of Netflix’s new series, “Messiah,” in four days. Pretty much a record for me! I have been mulling over various aspects of the program since then (over a week) and can’t seem to clear my mind of it so I just need to say what I think.
I have read several reviews of the program and most of them pan the series citing numerous flaws from ambiguity,poor story lines and character development, to “no deep theological grounding or specificity.” Some of these I agree with and some I do not even while acknowledging that I am by no means schooled as a cinema critic or theologian. I do believe that the program made some salient points regarding the coming of the Messiah – both first and/or second – and our receptivity – historical and/or future – of the Messiah.
The overbearing question throughout the series seems to be, “Who is he? Is the stranger, dubbed Al-Masih (the Messiah) by his followers, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, returned?” “Who is he,” is a centuries old question beginning when Jesus asked Peter, “But who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15; Mark 8:29; Luke 16:15). Folks through the ages have answered that question in a variety of ways and will continue to do so. With regard to Netflix’s “Messiah,” I believe perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Maybe the more relative question is, “Who are we; who am I?” Can we see ourselves in the characters portrayed in “Messiah?”
Are we the prostitute, paid by a high-level government official to seduce Al-Masih as a means to discredit him, who upon experiencing his gentle confrontation of her life, “How can you be the person God intended if you are not honest about who you are?” and hearing, even in the wake of her deception, the truth of God’s love for her walks away repentant and changed. Are we the agent who deceptively witnesses this encounter and walks away changed – to the point of quitting his job. Are we, am I, like these two — truly changed when touched by the love of God?
Are we Jabril, the young Al-Masih follower who stays true to his belief in Al-Masih even as Al-Masih has seemingly abandoned them in the desert at the Israeli border? Through injury, thirst, and hunger Jabril is sustained by his belief and the dreamy appearances of his deceased mother who had told him, “God has a different plan for you.” It is Jabril who courageously leads the remnant of followers into Israel, and some critics speculate that he is the real Messiah. Did Jabril’s touch revive the apparently deceased Qamar? Or, perhaps Jabril is not the Messiah but simply a true disciple and as Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works…” (John 14:12 New Living Translation). In all our claims to be Christian, are we, am I, like Jabril, a true follower of Christ?
Are we Pastor Felix Iguera who was disillusioned with church and ministry to the point of dousing his church with gasoline before it was miraculously saved from a tornado? Iguera experiences a roller coaster of despair, confusion, doubt, and hope only to succumb to his own weaknesses and family frailties. Claiming to be a humble servant and wanting only what God wants, he takes the reins and arranges for AL-Masih to appear on his millionaire, televangelist father-in-law’s show claiming “this is what God wants” Al-Masih agrees, but when he walks away from the appearance Iguera is again in confusion and despair.
When the story breaks that Al-Masih, by his own admission and hard evidence, is a mortal man, Iguera returns to his church and in what seems to be an act of lost faith he does indeed burn it down. This brings me to a question of our faith. If the true Messiah, Jesus, is not the literal Son of God, does that negate his message to the world? Does that mean Jesus was not God’s anointed? Is our belief in Jesus as God’s Word to the world based solely on our belief that he is the literal Son of God? Are we, am I, Pastor Iguera?
Are we Aviram, a hard-nosed, tormented, vengeful, often brutal Israeli agent, who is intent on catching Al-Masih and exposing him as a fraud? Aviram is unwavering in his purpose even as he is shaken by Al-Masih’s knowledge of his past bad acts. He flirts with belief yet remains hard-hearted. Not until he is facing imminent death and tormented by his sin, his “failure to choose goodness,” does Aviram say, “I’m sorry,” as the plane crashes. Are we Aviram — tormented with shame, hardened, and unable to accept God’s love?
Are we Eva Geller, the CIA agent, sparing with Aviram, and equally determined to debunk Al-Masih and uncover his real intent? Eva has issues. Her identity is in her work. She has a strained relationship with her father, grief and guilt over her late husband, is distraught over not being able to have children, and is sensitive about her mother and her Jewish heritage. In her own words to Aviram, “I am as messed up as you.” She too is shaken by Al-Masih’s knowledge of her past which further solidifies her efforts to find “the truth.” Even as she finds evidence of “the truth” of Al-Masih’s identity and suspects that the U. S. government shot down the plane carrying him back to Israel, she appears to continue to run from the truths of her personal life and emotional distress – she remains a lost soul. Are we Eva?
Yes, “Messiah” has spawned questions and controversy among viewers and critics. Of course, Christ, the Messiah, has stirred questions and controversy for centuries. Ultimately the question “Who is He?” is only answered by each of us individually in our own unique way based on our beliefs. In regard to the question, “Who are you/Who am I?” I am drawn to Al-Masih’s words, “How can you be the person God intended if you are not honest about who you are?” Honestly, answering that question is not easy. “Messiah” offers numerous character mirrors. Do we see ourselves in them, and what can we learn from them?
Garbage, Gardening, and Violence
Note: In light of the violent events of this past week, my thoughts have returned to the subject of violence in our society and this post that I wrote months ago but never published.
It is odd indeed that though I sit here in the peace of my private sanctuary, the quiet disturbed only by the hum of the ancient furnace and the tick of the clock, my thoughts keep going to “Violence.” Now why is that? I know, yet I have not succumbed and given “power and time” to my experience and restive thoughts on the subject. I suppose I must do that now if I am to know the peace of this place.
Several weeks ago I went to the movies. I rarely go to the movies, but I wanted to see “On the Basis of Sex,” the dramatization of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s journey into law and the beginning of her herculean efforts toward securing gender equality in our society. The movie was good; I highly recommend it. However, before I could watch the movie I was subject to a barrage of awful, loud previews full of angry, hateful, vindictive, and violent characters in multiple scenes of gun battles, fiery bomb explosions, sinister death plots, and human hurt and tragedy. “Cold Pursuit” is cold indeed, and “Serenity” is anything but serene. I was particularly aghast with the final words of the female lead in “Miss Bala.” She said as she cocked her gun, “in the end the bullet settles everything.” REALLY!!
It would appear that evil, crime, and subsequent violence are ever more the focus of our entertainment avenues regardless of modality—film, the printed word, video games. I could site a few James Patterson or David Baldacci works, but I won’t right now. I ponder the oft-posed conundrum, “Do our movies and literature (I use that term loosely and hesitantly.) reflect our society’s ways and mores, or do they influence and direct them? Yep, it’s the chicken and the egg question –which comes first?
Maybe it’s like garbage? For example: There is some garbage on the street, and we fail to pick it up and post “No Littering” signs to let everyone know that littering is not congruent with our values. Consequently, the littering continues and the garbage piles up. We become accustomed to the garbage – it’s unsightly mess, it’s putrid stench. It’s now the norm. Everyone expects it. What is there to do? Well, thankfully we saw the inherent harm in open garbage piles/pits and collectively sought to finds ways to safely dispose of it. Kinda, sorta! It is still an issue we must continue to address.
Just like our garbage, our societal violence is a moral issue complicated even more so by issues of mental health, socio-economic status, race, and stunted emotional growth and expression just to name a few. We seek to stem the tide with police action, punishment, and some limitations on guns and gun ownership, yet the incidence of violence continues to be alarming in our country. According to the Gun Violence Archives, in 2018 in the US alone there were 57,084 incidents of gun violence resulting in 14,712 deaths and 28,170 injuries. Of this total 3,501 were children and teens under 17 years old. Not included in these numbers are the 22,000 suicides by gun in 2018.
Back to the movies! I don’t think debate or a philosophical ponderance over what came first societal violence or movie violence is particularly helpful at this point. More important questions are Where do we want to go from here? and How do we get there? I think we all know what we want, at least I hope we all want it, and that is a peaceful society where differences are settled through understanding by way of conversation and compromise. Sorry, “Miss Bala.” We want words and moral action, not bullets, to have the last word. That’s the end game. Maybe a first play would be taking a moral stand against violent entertainment. Yes, violence is present in our society, but does that mean we want it reflected and glorified in our movies and literature. And what does it say about our society when we turn to violence for entertainment? With our violent “entertainment” are we flirting with the old acumen, “garbage in-garbage out,” and contributing to the perpetuation of that which we do not want?
I know our movies are not the root of our violence problems, but couldn’t we do something to start shoveling up the “garbage” and posting “No Littering” signs? Maybe some violence pruning? In gardening we know that if too much is pruned off the top of a plant, the system is disturbed and it will die if not tended to properly. Let’s prune some things — our violent entertainment — off the top. Maybe the pruning will weaken our system of societal violence while we continue working to remedy the root causes of our violence problem. Let’s use our words to speak up about and against specific media—movies, books, video games – that portray and glorify violence. Cast your protest against violence at the cash register and ticket booth. Refuse to partake of the “garbage” and encourage others not to. Let your local cinemas know of your opposition to violent movies. Use your social media – Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, etc. – to broadcast information on unacceptable violent content and urge “friends” to join you in protest. Organize a flash mob during the local screening of a violent movie. Call your governmental representatives and urge them to pass sensible gun legislation.
Above all, let’s practice non-violence in our daily walk treating everyone with dignity and respect.