Watching ‘Messiah’

“Raise up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

That’s in the Bible. I believe in this holy book with all my heart. At the same time I’m a very disobedient child. There are warnings aplenty for those who say and don’t do. That they’ll be cut off. That they’ll reap the whirlwind.

What will I reap? What have I sown? Am I damned? Or is my faith so unshakable in the premise that my belief and acceptance of Christ is the foundation of Heaven and my salvation is not of works? This little light of mine seldom shines. The older I get, the more prodigal I feel.

Into my inner turmoil comes the Netflix presentation of ‘Messiah’, created by Michael Petroni who is also executive producer along with Mark Burnett, Roma Downey, James McTeigue (who doubles as director on six episodes with Kate Woods directing the other four) and Andrew Deane. The writers are Michael Bond, Amy-Louise Johnson, Michael Petroni, Kelly Wiles, Eoghan O’Donnell, Bruce Marshall Romans, Brandon Guercio, and Emily Silver.

Mehdi Dehbi has the title role of Al-Masih (Messiah), a poker-faced political dissident who attracts international attention by preaching during an unprecedented sandstorm that drives an invading army from Damascus. When it’s over he leads a group of refugees to the Israeli border only to abandon them. He miraculously (with the help of a chartered plane) reappears in Texas just as a tornado is about to land in a small town.

John Ortiz is Felix, the pastor of the only church in the tiny town of Dilley. His budget is in the red, his daughter is a hellion and his wife an alcoholic. Running away, his daughter escapes being blown away by hiding in a drainage tunnel where she is found by Al-Masih, earning him the gratitude of her parents. Felix becomes his most loyal disciple. At first, at least.

Michelle Monaghan plays Eva Geller, a widowed CIA agent with fertility problems. She smells a charlatan from the very beginning and sets out to prove it. Tomer Sisley plays her Shin Bet counterpart, Aviram Dahan, a man estranged from his family and haunted by the things he’s done for the sake of his job and Israel.

Outbidding Felix for the job of truest believer is Jibril (Sayyid El Alami), an illiterate Palestinian orphan who follows Al-Masih to the border and embodies symbolic protest when he braves gunfire to lead the refugees into the promised land. His pal Samir (Fares Landoulsi) is more skeptical and hangs around for lack of anything better to do. We can forgive him that because he reads The Little Prince to Jibril with such touching innocence in a war-weary setting. Both teenagers become pawns of a hard-line Muslim sect after their faces are plastered over television news shows.

The plots are predictable and the characters do what we imagine they would. This isn’t the fault of the actors, though, and the writers do form compelling story lines. Monaghan’s lovely face expresses such bitter determination and Sisley is downright scary in portraying a man so devoted to his job and nation he’ll do anything for them. Mehdi utters carefully worded platitudes that espouse no particular religion even as he draws on monotheistic themes. It’s no great wonder there. Islam, Christianity and Judaism are the only ones looking for a messiah.

Al-Masih draws heavily on the ideals of Jesus, all the while never claiming to be. His early-on healing of a boy shot on Temple Mount and walking on water at the Washington Memorial are evocative of the miracles of the Son of God. The intrepid Agent Geller uncovers his Iranian heritage and a brother who reveals they were raised by a magician uncle who taught the boys all his tricks. But how is he able to get under the skin of his Doubting Thomas nemeses with such unerring skill?

What this show gets right is the parallels between Christ and Al-Masih. Jesus was called a faker and religious rebel. Crowds thronged around both. The searchers, the desperate, the fearful all flock to this mysterious man. Discord is sown among those in doubt and rioting and looting are rampant both in America and the Holy Land. And when the wash gets hung on the line Felix, like Apostle Peter, is the first to hit the dirt.

I was reluctant to waste my time watching this at first but have concluded I’ll tune into season two. Why? I don’t believe they’ll try to put Al-Masih forward as a real messiah. I, as a Christian, believe He’s already been here, done that. What’s more likely to happen is Al-Masih being outed as a fake and The Amazing Randy going on tv to show how the walking on water was done. Someone’s bound to uncover footage of the boy’s “miraculous” healing of the gun shot being staged. What I’m going back for is to see how the writers finesse the mystery. Are they going to find a deeper meaning to the word “faith” or are they just going to dismiss believers as a bunch of weak fools who need the opiate of the masses?

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