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Jesus in a tracksuit: being disturbed by the ordinary in Netflix’s ‘Messiah’

Jesus in a tracksuit: being disturbed by the ordinary in Netflix’s ‘Messiah’

Simon Perfect is challenged by the series about a man who claims to be the Messiah. 21/01/2020

[Warning: this blog contains spoilers.]

A mysterious person turns up at your door, claiming to be the Messiah.

They tell you the deepest truths about yourself – truths that no normal person could possibly know. They go on to do inexplicable and extraordinary things, witnessed by hundreds of people and streamed around the world by TV channels and social media.

Would you be convinced by their claims, or think it some enormous con?

That’s the premise of Netflix’s series Messiah, which launched earlier this month. It focuses on a mysterious preacher, who emerges in war–torn Damascus and appears to save the city by performing a miracle. Soon he has gathered a band of followers who call him “al–Masih” – Arabic for “the Messiah”. They witness more miracles, and listen to him teach in cryptic language (“I’m here to tell you to throw away your assumptions about God. Stop clinging to what you think you know.”).

Suddenly the setting changes and al–Masih emerges in Texas, where he is received by a small–town pastor who had been about to burn his church down. The pastor, Felix, becomes convinced that al–Masih is Jesus returned. Felix goes on to manage al–Masih’s public appearances, as the world becomes transfixed by the miracle–worker. All the while, a sceptical CIA agent works to find out who al–Masih really is. Unlike Felix, she believes it’s all an elaborate and destabilising hoax.

The viewer is never quite sure either way – being forced to see al–Masih through the eyes of a believer one moment, and through the eyes of a sceptic the next. As the series progresses, the sceptic’s secular view becomes more dominant. And yet (perhaps in reaction against it) I found myself hoping that he would turn out to be something much more important than just a cynical conman. The final twist at the end throws up more questions than answers.

Messiah is a series about how a secularised consumer society, suspicious of authority but obsessed with celebrity, might respond if someone claiming to come from God appeared today. Some aspects of the plot are stereotyped and frustrating, and others have written elsewhere about their criticisms (e.g. here and here). In general, I found it both enthralling and disturbing.

Enthralling, because it brings together some of the major themes of our time: the return of religion to the forefront of geopolitics; populist threats to traditional authority; the power of social media to globalise movements in a matter of days.

Disturbing, because it confronted me with some uncomfortable questions about my own faith. As a Christian, how would I actually respond if someone like this came tomorrow?

Most of all, I found myself challenged not by the scenes that emphasised al–Masih’s power and possible divinity, but by the scenes that emphasised the opposite – his ordinariness– even as I continued to hope that he could be the real deal. At one point, Al–Masih takes to wearing a nondescript blue tracksuit. Ahead of a planned public speech by al–Masih, Felix gives him a long brown jacket and white cotton trousers to wear instead. Felix needs him to look the part of a Messiah – which, for the pastor, means looking different from the audience, in clothes that seem faintly exotic and mysterious.

I too found myself preferring al–Masih in the new clothes. I too wanted him to look different to myself, because it would be easier to believe in him. I didn’t want to see him in the tracksuit, nor to see him working out on the treadmill in his hotel room. Much better to see him in prayer – or better still, not to see him at all except for occasional appearances to deliver profound messages or to perform a miracle. In spite of myself, in these scenes I found his mundane humanity disturbing.

These scenes forced me to think about how I, as a Christian, tend to think about Jesus. I think I find it easier to imagine Jesus in a flattened, ahistorical way, moving swiftly from Gospel episode to Gospel episode. I can think about the ordinary humanity of Jesus – his daily life eating, sleeping, cooking, working, his myriad unrecorded conversations alongside his ministry – on a rational level, but appreciating it in a deeper way remains challenging.

The scandalous claim of Christianity is precisely that God is in the ordinary. That he enters into the messiness of the everyday, embraces it, and suffers in it alongside us. God is precisely not something that can be kept in a tidy, predictable box that conforms to our expectations. It means that God is in everyone, and can be encountered in everyone.

The claim that God enters into the ordinariness of humanity deeply disturbed the society of Jesus’ day. Programmes like Messiah remind us that that claim remains deeply disturbing today. 

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 Image credit: Netflix (Messiah Season 1 Episode 7)

Simon Perfect

Simon Perfect

Simon is a Researcher at Theos. He is also a researcher and tutor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he leads distance–learning courses exploring Muslim communities in Britain and in other minority settings. He is co–author of the book ‘Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter–terrorism’ (Routledge, 2021).

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Posted 21 January 2020

Religion, Review, Spirituality


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