*Dr. Tijani Boulaouali
After ten hours of interesting and exciting watching of the American thriller web television series Messiah, which consists of ten episodes, I extracted an important conclusion. This fictional story, in which reality mixes with imagination, truth with illusion and religion with metaphysic, deconstructs the traditional dogma of the return or appearance of Messiah. This dogma is considered to be an essential element in the three monotheistic religions, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but the figure of Messiah has been presented and interpreted here in a different way, where he transcends the particular and narrow religious borders to the human and the universal.
There is no objection regarding the artistic and aesthetic aspect of this series, which we can describe as one of fantastic contemporary filmish works, in terms of narration, sonography and acting. This is, in fact, another area for critics and researchers who are specialized in cinematic studies.
The focus of this review will be on the theological dimension that forms the core of this series, which deals with a fundamental issue of faith. How did the screenwriter Michael Petroni read and interpret the doctrine of the return of the Messiah, which takes a prominent place in monotheistic theology (Jewish, Christian, Islamic)? To what extent has the director been able to present a model figure who is somewhat identical to the expected Messiah? Has the director succeeded in achieving a consistency between the theological perception on the one hand and the popular perception on the other hand? To what extent were the makers of this series able to present a universal model of tolerance, love and coexistence that stems from certain religious elements towards different faiths, philosophies, cultures and contexts?
The full story
The Messiah series has been launched by the American media-services provider and production company Netflix this year (2020). It tells the story of a strange young man (represented by Mehdi Dehbi) with long dark hair on his back and a medium beard, called Messiah. He strives to spread his message that calls for peace and love worldwide. The story begins in Syria, where he was able to influence the people by his rhetoric and propagandist discourse and his charismatic personality, and he promises them that the danger will disappear.
In the beginning, he led his followers to Damascus, where he summoned a massive sandstorm that blew during a whole month, protecting the city from ISIS’s cannons. As a result, his supporters began to multiply in record time, especially after the prophecy that he promised them had come true. From there he continued his journey with two thousand people to the Israeli borders, where he was arrested and interrogated by an IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) inspector called Aviram Dahan. The biggest surprise is that Messiah knows everything about the private life of this inspector, and this will be repeated later with other people. Inspector Dahan put him in a cell, but Messiah would escape on the same night without knowing how this happened.
The events would accelerate until Messiah unexpectedly appears in the United States of America. This will break the sequence of the narrativity, and make the event exceed the limits of space and time. There, Messiah would miraculously save a church located in a small village in Texas from a hurricane that destroyed everything, and then he would convince the local priest that he carries a message. Social media grabbed this news, and so the pictures of Messiah and a scene of his steadfastness at the heart of the storm began to spread. CNN would also follow the event closely. This led to a rapid spread of the supernatural story of Messiah. His followers increased day by day, following him wherever he moved and settled.
The CIA was not unaware of what was going on. Rather, it was chasing the movements of Messiah step by step to reveal whether this charismatic person is really the Messiah or he is just a deceiver who hides other plans. From the beginning, detective Eva Geller questioned this person’s intentions, and was not convinced that he is the savior of humanity. Strangely enough, the CIA did not find any information about him in the databases. For this reason, there was a fear that this person is a terrorist who devised another method of carrying out criminal attacks.
In addition, the personality of Messiah continued to receive great acceptance from various social groups (men, women, children, patients, etc.), and even the President himself held two secret meetings with him in order to know his truth. On the other hand, there was an opposition party that aimed at eliminating the call of Messiah. In the end, while hundreds of people were waiting for the Messiah’s speech organized by CNN in one of the huge halls, he suddenly left and got into a black car in which the inspector Dahan was with other two inspectors. The car headed to the airport where Messiah was smuggled in a private plane to Israel. Suddenly, the plane disappeared from the radar screens and crashed before the arrival. The news spread throughout the world instantaneously, which caused great disappointment to his followers not because of his death, but because he was not the Messiah, but a person from Iranian roots. He previously stayed in a psychiatric institution, and also knew of the practice of magic, as his brother stated to a TV channel.
The story did not end with this scene, in which deception was mixed with tragedy and strangeness, but a child grazing sheep in one of the Arab countries appeared in the picture. From a distance, he saw smoke coming from the far fields. He went there to discover a plane ruins, dead bodies, and the Messiah who had no apparent trace of the crash. Messiah approached the body of inspector Dahan, and as soon as he touched him, he returned to life. He did the same thing with another body that returned to life as well, which its owner began to kiss the hand of Messiah and thanked him. This supernatural position made inspector Dahan feel perplexed, because he used to hate the Messiah, and tried to kill him many times, and now he is his savior.
From the Theological to the Humanistic
This series assumes a different approach of the dogma of belief in the return of Messiah that goes beyond the prevailing theological visions, which are colored by the nature of the religion with which it is associated. The Messiah does not explicitly reveal his religious identity in the story. It is difficult to know whether he belongs to Judaism, Christianity or Islam.
Detectives and politicians continuously insist on linking Messiah to Iran. We do not know exactly why Iran? Are they afraid that Messiah will be a spy working from within the United States of America in the interest of Iran? Why does Israel attend remarkably in this story? What is the aim of the Israelis to arrest and smuggle Messiah on a plane that will be crashed? Does this refer to the early history of Christianity where Christ was crucified, according to biblical sources, by Roman soldiers with the support of some Jews? What about the unexpected appearance of Messiah in the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, where he preached to people in the presence of the media, and suddenly he disappeared even though the place was surrounded by the Israeli Rapid Intervention Forces?
Perhaps Jerusalem refers to the common origin of the three monotheistic religions that also share the doctrine of belief in the return of Messiah. This is what he focuses on in different phases of the story, where he stresses the value of human being, and affirms the positive universal values of peace, love and coexistence.
Humanism is present in one way or another in the discourse of Messiah, not only in its Western philosophical dimension, which came as reaction to religion in general and Church in particular, but in its monotheistic manifestation. Both the Bible and Qur’an confirm the centrality of human being whom God has given the mind to think before he decides. Human being is what he is and what he will be. Moreover, human being cannot be separated from his destiny, but in the end, he is the one who makes his destiny.
In addition, the mystic component is also present in the message of Messiah, in which various religious and beliefs intersect. This refers to the great Sufi Ibn Arabi, who emphasizes in his philosophy the unity of religions and the divine love that covers all people regardless of their origin, religion and culture. Therefore, people, despite their different beliefs, origins, social classes, and educational levels, find in the Messiah their calling, or what satisfies their spiritual vacuum and their need for truth. Thus, they visit him from everywhere to answer their questions about life, future, or fate. The patient asks for healing, the poor wishes for health, the lover dreams of the beloved, and so on.
Moreover, both the tolerant “Gabriel” and the extremist “Salem” were taught and inspired by the Messiah. These two young men were friends when they were with the Messiah in the desert and on the Israeli borders. After Messiah’s departure and sudden appearance in Texas, his followers split into two groups. The first group was embraced by a moderate Islamist group, and the second one fell into the hands of an extremist group. Gabriel was inspired by the peaceful message of Messiah, which was further strengthened during his stay at the moderate group. When he was giving his sermon of peace in a mosque in Palestine, suddenly his old friend Salem entered the mosque carrying an explosive belt, and when he wanted to blow himself up, he discovered that the person standing on the podium is his old friend Gabriel. He tried to change his idea of bombing, but the extremists had implemented their sinister plan by remote control of the explosive belt, and the mosque exploded. This led to the killing of many innocent people who had come to listen to the message of peace and love.
We conclude from the above that although the idea or dogma of the return of Messiah is shared between all monotheistic religions and it fundamentally affects dealing with various central issues such as conflict, dialogue, destiny, etc., the followers of these religions have not succeeded to make this common element (and other elements) a factor for coexistence and tolerance. Maybe the idea of the Messiah series came as a reaction to this fragmentation that the dogma of the return of Messiah causes, although in essence it refers to unity and a common destiny. So, this traditional monotheistic doctrine has here been deconstructed, not to destroy it completely, but to adapt it to the new context by focusing on common human values that transcend religions, ideology and geography.
*Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, KU Leuven Belgium