An exercise in both Faith and Critical Thinking, NETFLIX’s series “Messiah” tests personal limits and ruffles morality feathers worldwide tackling humanity’s biggest issues via bite-size questions, vague clues, and sustained advocacy for personal agency. Needless to say, I am looking forward to a second season.
In 2012, during an episode of the Australian television program “Q+A”, host Tony Jones asked biologist and skeptic Richard Dawkins “[..] what proof [..] would change your mind?”, referring to the existence of God. To that Dawkins replied “That’s a very difficult and interesting question because, I mean, I used to think that if somehow, you know, great big giant 900 foot high Jesus with a voice like Paul Robeson suddenly strode in and said “I exist. Here I am”, but even that I actually sometimes wonder whether that would…”
The moment continued with (then not convicted for sexual abuse) Cardinal Pell’s intervention – “I’d think you were hallucinating.”, and Dawkins agreed.
That was the moment when I started asking myself the same question and to this day I do not think that I have found a satisfactory answer.
“Messiah” brings this exact mental exercise to life in a 10-episode series that explores the social and personal implications of a context where a messianic-like figure makes his presence known to the modern world, a world now forced into a deep-level self-analysis meant to guide its future steps and, ultimately, seal its faith.
It’s this minute-by-minute guided self-analysis that makes an otherwise mediocre movie a significant element of social inquiry.
With that comes a variety of psychological themes and subjects worth considering and investigating. I will address several main such concepts and subjects below.
• SPOILERS AHEAD •
THE STORY AND THE SETTING
In its 10-episode first season, “Messiah” follows the story and development of a social phenomenon, more than that of a main character. It explores the reaction of the modern world to what appears to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ – a belief found in both Christian and Islamic religions referring to the return of Jesus (Son of God for Christians, a prophet for Muslims), said to bring about delivery from evil and sin and eternal peace on Earth.
Al-Masih, the central character of the series (played beautifully by Belgian actor Mehdi Dehbi), makes his appearance in modern-day Damascus, Syria, soulfully preaching to crowds whose lives have been shaken by the ongoing wars in the Middle East. His presence and words offer them direction and hope, both much needed in times of senseless destruction. But it all goes beyond motivational and into the supernatural and providential the moment he manages to preach, without having any food or water, for 30 days, during a sandstorm that puts a pause to local terror attacks and offered his followers the opportunity to flee the area.
He then leads them through the desert to the Israeli border, in a symbolic attempt to initiate peace between the two warring countries.
That’s how it all starts, catching the attention of CIA agent Eva Geller (somewhat flat performance by Michelle Monaghan) and Mossad agent Aviram Dahan (Tomer Sisley). Most of the story then unfolds on American soil, where al-Masih suddenly shows-up to save people during another natural disaster – a tornado in the small city of Dilley, Texas.
UNCERTAINTY AS STIMULUS
What drives everyone’s interest in al-Masih is uncertainty regarding his nature and intentions. Is he the real Messiah or a trickster? Is he there to bring about peace or terror? Is he a man or a divine entity? Good or evil?
This is what everyone tries to find out, thus making al-Masih a world sensation – everything is televised, thousands try to reach him, and security services try to understand whether he’s an opportunity or a threat.
COGNITIVE DISSONANCE AS RESULT
Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort that arises when two conflicting ideas, beliefs, or behaviors exist in the same mind.
In “Messiah”, this mental conflict is triggered by uncertainty and causes people to acknowledge the inconsistencies in their values or behaviors and forces them to assess their options in an attempt to solve the discomfort and unlock their next moves.
Long-time believers may find themselves not trusting that al-Masih is the real Messiah, which may cause their decision to not follow him. But would that make them bad Christians or bad Muslims, sinners?
Those who have never believed in the existence of a deity but who consider themselves able to change their minds in front of relevant proof may worry about a resulting hypocritical stance should they fail to see it.
FAITH, AGNOSTICISM, AND SKEPTICISM AS ANSWERS
Cognitive dissonance is resolved by choosing to validate one of the opposing ideas, values, or actions that generate the inner conflict.
In this case, one may choose to follow al-Masih on principle, even if he turns out to be a mere human, just to maintain their “good Christian”/”good Muslim” self-image. This will cause many to become blind followers.
Or they may completely reject al-Masih and convince themselves that it is all a sham, regardless of the alleged miracles that seem to follow him wherever he goes, with no investigation in the alternative explanations. This will make them rigid, cloistered thinkers.
Another way is the Eva Geller way, who in my opinion is an agnostic, rather than a skeptic or atheist. She is determined to find the data that would support her view that al-Masih – real name Payam Golshiri, is not only a fraud but likely a terrorist with high-level connections and influence among those groups causing destruction in both the Middle East and the Western World, while at the same time allowing herself the freedom to explore her own emotional reactions to him.
In the first episode Eva says “The truth may look gray, but I assure you it is not”, and she seems to let herself be guided by that principle throughout the story.
Once a choice is made regarding the solution for the cognitive dissonance, the way one looks at the world may change as well.
Those who want to believe will only see the miracles and not the misses or natural elements about al-Masih, while those who are keen to prove him as fraud may only see the options that confirm deception. This selection is called Confirmation Bias – the person favors explanations that are aligned to their previously held beliefs and becomes dismissive of all other options.
FILLING THE GAPS
Our minds are prone to “see” links between elements, even when there is no link to be discovered. We want to find meaning and understand causes and connections.
This may at times cause us to mentally fabricate a connection when in fact we do not know the relationship between two contexts.
For example, believers tend to provide supernatural explanations for those situations where man does not have an answer [yet].
We know A – “Then a miracle happened” – and we arrived at B.
Those driven by a scientific “sense” may have other ways to deal with not knowing, one of them simply meaning that investigation is not yet complete and should be continued until we arrive at a reasonable explanation.
Al-Masih may have traveled extremely fast from the Middle East to the U.S. because he is of divine nature and he simply manifested himself in both places at will, or al-Masih the man had a private plane at his disposal to get him from point A to point B faster than regular travelers would be able to.
SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN
Belief in a higher power brings comfort to many, especially when that comfort may not be achieved by the person alone through other means. Religious beliefs are rather more active in contexts of poverty, personal insecurity, and low education.
People need hope, and the belief in God often provides just that, along with purpose. This is particularly the case for individuals with an external locus of control – they perceive the driving forces in their life to be rather external, outside of their control, than internal and controllable.
Al-Masih and the promises attached to the Second Coming provide comfort. This is also why many seek him with the hope that he will be able to heal them or their loved ones.
ILLUSION, TRICKERY, AND DOUBT
A boy is seemingly shot in Jerusalem. Al-Masih appears to remove the bullet from the boy’s body, leaving him unharmed. He seems to walk on water. Ultimately, he seems to be able to raise the dead.
But the thing is that there is no way to know whether al-Masih performs miracles or whether Golshiri simply creates the illusion of a miracle using all the tricks he’s been taught by his uncle, Yusuf the Magnificent.
At some point in the story, it is revealed that Payam and his brother, Adar, were trained magicians. This provides a rational explanation for his “parlor tricks” that may be perceived as miracles by hopeful crowds.
Aviram: “If he was God, he wouldn’t need these parlor tricks.”
Eva: “Uh. That’s all that Jesus did. Right? Walked around, performed tricks. Gets you an audience.”
Doubt’s been sown and doubt’s been balanced.
The result is more confusion.
THE MESSIAH COMPLEX
For those looking for definite proof that Golshiri may only be a master manipulator, there is physical, objective evidence to support that view. It turns out that Payam Golshiri has a history of mental illness. He’s been hospitalized for seven months, with a diagnosis saying delusional disorder and Messiah Complex.
This basically means that his grasp on reality is feeble and that he believes himself to be some sort of savior for those around him.
Enough evidence… but not really. Should a/the real Messiah show up in today’s world, wouldn’t we be prone to assess his claims in just this manner? Just a mentally ill person, one of the many who see themselves as important social figures with supernatural or extraordinary abilities?
Once again, doubt’s been sown and doubt’s been balanced.
Both theories still stand.
SOCIAL DISRUPTION: AGENT OF CHAOS
“I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair!”, said the Joker in “The Dark Knight”.
His chaos-inducing actions would reveal the true nature of individuals and society.
Al-Masih does the same.
Eva: “What better agent of chaos than a new messiah?”
Yes, an event so significant globally so as to force society to shed its automated, old functioning and create a new one based on a new, refreshed set of beliefs, is definitely the kind of disruption and transformation one could expect to be generated by a messianic apparition.
We get to see smaller-scale effects whenever some sort of belief-based calendar or clock announces the end of days. Some people try to put their affairs in order by the time the moment comes and try to live the last days as best as they can. Others rejoice at the perspective of a peaceful, happiness-filled afterlife. But the most tragic outcome of them all is that there are also those individuals who decide to maintain control over their own demise and end their life, and sometimes even the lives of others, before the world is set to end.
Since it is difficult to predict how modern societies would react when confronted with a major global event, the main attitude from those likely to find out first about the specific event is to keep things to themselves until proper measures are developed to assist the masses in dealing with the issue. This is why, in the eventuality of contact with an intelligent alien civilization, we would be told a little later. The information is considered a high-risk context, with the potential to thrust society into full-blown panic and chaos.
Here is where I think “Messiah” partially misses the mark. There is no proper chaos induced by the potential messiah. People not going to school or missing work to drive around the U.S. or have conversations about the phenomenon is not proper chaos. I am thinking about the camp set in Texas, where many believers came to see al-Masih, when he mainly decided not to leave his tent. In real-life conditions, I think that could’ve been a more aggressive context, with people trying to reach him by all and any means since the promise of meeting him held the potential of a miracle. That happens to the Pope, pop stars, and movie stars, but not to the potential Son of God? Unlikely.
THE FALSE PROPHET CLUES
The straightforward interpretation for al-Masih is that he is the Messiah, Son of God or a prophet, Word of God. But there are also plenty of signs that the producers seem to have hidden in plain sight, an interesting mixture of symbols and story elements that could also entertain a more dark significance for Payam Golshiri – what if he is the Antichrist instead?
The producers and actors involved in the making of the first season of “Messiah” have made it clear that, at least for these ten episodes, they do not intend to offer any definite interpretation and answers for al-Masih.
“The whole point of ‘Messiah’ was to go: ‘What is faith?”, said “Messiah” director Kate Woods.
“Whatever people want to project on him or on the story or on the show is part of the show itself. The show doesn’t want to impose anything on anyone ideologically or politically.”, Mehdi Dehbi.
So, from their perspective, everything goes. In that spirit, mind my pun, let’s explore the version where al-Masih is the Antichrist, shall we? Here are some of the clues that might support that take:
- The Name. “Al-Masih” is the Islamic prophet, Jesus. But “Al-Masih ad-Dajjal” is a false prophet, a deceiver who, according to the Islamic beliefs, will make his appearance on Earth near the end of times, impersonating the real Messiah and trying to gain followers. He is also able to perform all the miracles performed by the real Jesus, including healing the sick and raising the dead. He is to be defeated by the real Jesus after a final battle.
- Location. According to Islamic belief, the real Jesus is expected to appear in Damascus, Syria, dressed in yellow robes, and having straight hair [seriously]. This fits al-Masih’s initial preaching to the crowds before the sandstorm. Al-Masih ad-Dajjal is also expected to emerge from the East, likely somewhere between Syria and Iran. Here’s where it gets interesting: Payam Golshiri’s birthplace is Iran, and we do not know whether the Damascus moment was indeed his first public appearance of the kind. The plot thickens.
- Full Control over the followers. Those who trusted al-Masih and followed him through the desert to the Israeli border had no resources to survive on their own. This interaction follows:
Man in Crowd: “He has led us into the desert with no food.”
Al-Masih: “And to leave me now is to perish. I’m here to tell you to throw away your assumptions about God. Stop clinging to what you think you know. In this hour, mankind is a rudderless boat. Cling to me.”
I don’t recall the Christian Jesus being this directive and controlling. He used to provide for his followers in the end.
- Indirect Vanity. Al-Masih goes to press conferences, agrees to go on TV shows – even if he later cancels, and allows Rebecca [Stefania LaVie Owen] to take photos of him and post them on Instagram. Overt vanity may raise suspicion, but vanity by proxy doesn’t necessarily trigger the same. Also, an interesting, funny-sad element here is that Rebecca starts getting a following of her own on social media after posting photos of him. The idea that you’d have to befriend Jesus to get famous in today’s world is a nudge to the morals and values of today’s society.
- He Kills. Al-Masih shot a dog who was trapped under debris caused by the Texas tornado. He doesn’t save it, but shoots him instead – in front of the kid who owned the dog, apparently sparing the father of this boy from delivering the shot himself. When it was convenient for him, he seemed to be able to save humans, but not this poor dog. Weird.
- Verbal Hints. “Everybody worships. The only choice is what we worship.” – Al-Masih to Aviram, who had a dark secret in his past. This could be a hint toward the possibility of some people, even unknowingly, following the dark entities instead of those of a divine nature.
- Those around him. I am mainly thinking here about preacher Felix Iguero [John Ortiz] and his daughter, Rebecca. They are the main supporters of al-Masih in the U.S. But if we look closely at their background, they may not necessarily be those to lead a following for Christ. Iguero lost his faith and was about to burn down the church where he used to preach, and Rebecca tried to capitalize image-wise based on her proximity to Golshiri. Technically, Iguero found his faith again after witnessing the miracles performed by the alleged Messiah, but in the end, he betrayed al-Masih for his own benefit.
- Lets Humans seal their own faith. Al-Masih takes little to no responsibility for most of his actions. Instead, he advocates individual choice and lets humans make the significant moves. Iguero is the one encouraged to choose the route the believers will follow when leaving the small city in Texas. Now, the whole point of following a Messiah is for him to actually lead the way. He’s supposed to know the where, and how, and whys. Al-Masih seems to subtlely guide Iguero, but the hints may also be a figment of the priest’s imagination since he needed any type of validation for his choices. He also lets his followers from Syria in a situation where their vulnerability is used against them in various ways – Jibril Hassan [masterfully portrayed by Sayyid El Alami] is tortured by Mossad’s Aviram Dahan and is almost left for dead in the desert, while his friend Samer is radicalized by a terror group and forced to carry an attack that, if successful, would make multiple victims, including Jibril.
- Mentally Tortures Aviram. In the final episode, on the plane, while the plane is on fire and becomes obvious that it will soon crash, an incredibly composed al-Masih finds the moment to be a great opportunity to make Aviram repent and redeem himself for his past sins. Referencing Aviram’s dark secret – he killed a Palestinian boy as revenge, al-Masih tells him “Our sins have a way of punishing us when we ignore them. That boy. He’ll be the last thing you see before you die.” Maybe not the best teachable moment.
THE REAL MESSIAH?
But if al-Mesih turns out not to be the Messiah, what’s the point of the series? To simply show us that we can be deceived by a con-man? Dull. Without a valid, divine religious figure to oppose him, Al-Masih ad-Dajjal’s appearance would make no sense either. So, who could be the real Messiah then?
The answer reveals itself episode after episode and it perhaps got everyone thinking. Jibril Hassan is the purest appearance in the whole show. I remember watching and thinking “this boy, he is so innocent, and does everything right. What if…?”
Clues that could support the theory and provide context for a second season:
- Jibril actually leads. He does not scream his leadership, he acts and others follow. He is actually the one who allows the Syrian-Israeli peaceful contact. He approaches the border naked, showing that he is indeed no threat and human, just like the people on the other side of the fence.
- He suffers for his people. Just like Jesus, Jibril is tortured in the context of an oppressive system. He is also the target of a terror attack.
- He starts as the underdog. Orphan, poor, vulnerable. Jesus was also only the son of a carpenter.
- He seems to be able to perform miracles himself. In the last episode of the first season, there is a hint that Jibril may also have healing powers. While laying on the ground, hurt from the explosion of the terror attack, he touches the hand of another man hurt in the attack – an agent, Eva’s colleague, who appears to be either dead or severely injured, thus hinting that healing or resurrection may be the potential result of this small interaction.
FREEDOM TO PROJECT AND WHY WE MAY NEVER KNOW THE ‘TRUTH’
The whole point of “Messiah” so far is to make the audience explore their own beliefs. “What would it mean for this man to be real?”, they ask, via one of the characters.
The secondary themes include awareness and calls to action regarding global issues that we have to deal with today to build a better tomorrow – the show tackles war and immigration policies, and also offers a possible unifying element for the East and the West, be it faith or doubt.
But the main subject remains personal-agency related. In the end, the first season is what we project. Al-Masih is what we project. And that is personal. If they continue with a second season, they may choose to maintain the confusion, fuel the controversy, and force even more soul-searching and/or mental analysis in the now-suspecting audience. Chances are that many of us will take that invitation.
P.S. The James Randi cameo in episode 7 is a nice Easter Egg.