Mysterious, controversial, influential, charismatic. Few figures evoke as much wonder and emotion as the prophet. I am not talking about one person in particular here, but about the position or function of prophets in our societies past and present, such as (most famously) Jesus Christ and Mohammed. Figures with often mesmerizing characteristics, who draw out the innate human desire to know hidden secrets, passed down from the divine. Often the prophet claims to profess the true word of God or is attributed with the messianic promise of saving or redeeming his followers and initiating a better future, and therefore tends to attract large groups of followers.
A thought-provoking new Netflix series released this month, “Messiah“, plays on the complexity and mystery surrounding such characters. Many on the web have already commented about the inconsistencies in the show and the lack of a clear revelation as to the true identity of the main character, called Al-Masih (‘Messiah’ in Arabic) by his first group of followers. The term is suggestive of a Christ-like figure, but is that what he is? While Al-Masih leads his followers to the Israeli border, he eventually abandons them there, leaving them at the mercy of the Israeli army and charity workers. What was the purpose of the confrontation exactly if not to enter the ‘promised land’? Some are subsequently recruited by a Muslim group with more sinister intentions, leaving the viewer with the troublesome question whether any of these leader-like figures actually cared for their followers. Al-Masih himself in the meantime preaches that history has ended, implying that he may indeed be a kind of Messiah, heralding in a new age, but he does so in front of the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem. The series continues to flirt with both Christianity and Islam (and even some Buddhism) in these first episodes until Al-Masih professes “I walk with all men”.
The mystery of his identity and intentions drives the show and frustrates some viewers, but the show’s creator Michael Petroni wanted to leave this question open to interpretation for precisely the same reason that the arguments and responses in the show appear chaotic at times: everyone responds to Al-Masih’s mysterious appearances from a different perspective. In a recent interview Petroni said:
By the end of the season, what you have is a mosaic of points of view about him, but you never know who he is, ever, which then lands it back in the viewer’s lap and asks them, “What do you think?”
As the show hypothesizes how different people would react if a prophet or messiah-type figure would arise today, it plays with the expectations of the people on Al-Masih’s path, but also with our expectations as viewers. What sort of person would we be willing to accept as legitimate and on what basis? Where would we expect a new prophet to arise? And in what circumstances? It is a given, in the Christian worldview, that the Messiah will one day return to earth. The Bible (as well as apocryphal literature) even gives hints as to the kind of signs we may expect to see, but it leaves open when this may happen (thus giving room to numerous apocalyptic movements). In both Islam and Christianity the Second Coming of Jesus is preceded by the presence of false prophets who will then be defeated. In Matt 24:4-5 Jesus himself warns against false prophets who will seem to be the Messiah, but are in fact deceivers and antichrists.
Matt 24:4-5 “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many.
It is noteworthy that, despite having been given the title Al-Masih, at no point does he refer to himself as such or wish discuss his identity. He brushes it off as unimportant. This in itself invites people to fill in the blanks. “Messiah” plays on this uncertainty by exploring the kind of evidence we would look for if such a figure arose today and how easily we would be convinced. Pastor Felix is initially convinced by the mysterious stranger who appears just as a tornado wrecks his entire town with the exception of the church. Later in the series, however, his faith is tried as Al-Masih walks out on a TV performance he arranged. The CIA, not unsurprisingly, consider Al-Masih a threat and identify him as the son of a pickpocketing Iranian illusionist and studied in the US under a professor now considered a cyber-terrorist. But just as the viewer is led to believe that Al-Masih is likely an imposter, he pulls off his greatest ‘miracle’ of all–if that’s what it is. Al-Masih arrives in Washington and, like Jesus Christ himself, walks on water. At this point, he delivers one of his most fascinating and telling speeches, saying that “What you see, will be your choosing.”
Al-Masih: ‘What you see, will be your choosing.’
So did he perform a miracle or not? The performance of this miracle is an important parameter in this discussion. If we are are to accept Al-Masih as a messiah or prophet, we would expect him to perform miracles to illustrate his divinely-inspired power. The choice of miracle is also not unimportant: walking on water is one of Jesus’ most famous miracles, one that even St Peter was unable to perform. Possibly for this reason, it is only occasionally copied in Saints Lives to illustrate the power of the respective saint. In the Life of Benedict (Book II.7), for instance, Pope Gregory the Great described how, through the power of St Benedict, Brother Maurus was able to walk on water to save Brother Placidus. (Note that it was not St Benedict himself!) In other parts of Al-Masih’s journey, however, where we might expect him to perform a miracle, he does not: he is not able or does not want to save the little girl with cancer, nor does he save the dying dog, but rather shoots him with a shotgun. The dog no longer suffers, indeed, but this does not fit into the paradigm that is expected of a prophet or messiah and consequently the boy owner of the dog, crying, exclaims “You were supposed to save him!”. It is precisely this connection between the (apparent) performance of miracles, the hidden knowledge of people and events he appears to have, which so confuses the Mossad agent Avi, and the seemingly prophetic statements he makes, that evokes a prophetic paradigm. As St Adomnán wrote at the start of book two of his Life of Saint Columba (Vita Sancti Columbae)
Nunc sequens orditur liber de uirtutum miraculís quae plerumque etiam profetalis praescientia comitatur (Now begins the next book, concerning miracles of power, which are often accompanied by prophetic foreknowledge.)
But what foreknowledge (Gr. propheteia) does Al-Masih really claim to have? He starts off preaching from the ahadith in Damascus and proclaims that history has ended, but what kind of new era is coming is not specified. He has unexplained knowledge of people’s lives, but does not make predictions about the future – in fact, he is trying to influence it by convincing the American president to make a decision based on his faith rather than political action. He says that does “God’s work”, but is not beholding any one particular religion. His actions are ultimately unclear. He is partly a messianic figure heralding a new dawn, partly a miracle-working prophet, and possibly also party a con artist out to cause social chaos. And then that cliffhanger… But this is exactly the point of the show: it challenges us to think.
Coincidentally, I find the show a valuable way into reflection on how a controversial figure, such as Jesus, who professes what are initially radical ideas, becomes a mainstream figure. The show is almost a case study for the rise of another prophet. This is not as odd as it might seem: there has been a steady stream of Jewish claimants for the title of Messiah (in Jewish tradition the prophecy has not yet been fulfilled) and an equally long stream of doomsday cults, which often end in disaster (think of Shoko Asahara’s Aum Shinrikyo or the Branch Davidians). Perhaps it is only a matter of time before a prophet rises trying to unite the world religions. If so, how would you respond?