Movie Messiahs, Eschatological Events, and a Thesis on the Philosophy of History

Our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.
                                                —Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

I have been impressed recently by how much of our culture’s touchstone literature operates from a messianic view of history. And I am not talking about explicitly religious texts like the Bible and the Qur’an. Nearly all of the great mythic sagas of our time—think about Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Dune, Percy Jackson, and hundreds more—reproduce a basic trope of messianic salvation borrowed from the Abrahamic religions. 

The core myth in all of these narratives goes something like this: an ordinary young person (usually, but not always, male) discovers, not only that they are quite extraordinary, but that their extraordinariness has been foretold by a prophecy that everybody seems to believe in. They are the “chosen one” who has been ordained to bring balance to the force, reforge the sword that was broken, overcome the realm of darkness, or otherwise save the world from forces that would bring about chaos and destruction.

The texts I have mentioned are not (by most definitions) religious texts, and, with the exception of The Lord of the Rings, they are not even texts by particularly religious authors. But the mythos at the core of these books—and of the movies, comic books, TV shows, video games, action figures, and plush toys that they continue to generate—is profoundly religious and does not even make sense in a secular context. All of these myths are messianic, not just in their view of a “chosen one,” but in the assumptions that they make about history, progress, and human nature. Let’s break this down before going on.  

  • The messianic view of history believes that the world in its current configuration has been allotted only a certain amount of time. When that time is up, history, as we understand it, will end. The job description of the Messiah has always been to disrupt the normal flow of history and bring about a new order that will be at once theocratic and fundamentally just.
  • The messianic view of progress is that there is no such thing as progress. Think of how the world of Harry Potter seems stuck in the seventeenth century, or how almost every planet in the Star Wars galaxy looks like a junkyard of old technology that people keep fixing. These tropes come from a worldview that rejects the idea that anything other than a messianic intervention can create meaningful change. Gradual improvements don’t happen in a world governed by messianic expectations. The same things happen over and over again, and, while technology might shuffle the deck, the game does not change and will not change until the eschatological event ushered in by the Messiah occurs.  
  • The messianic view of human nature holds that human beings are incapable of solving the problems that they create. Human efforts can only rearrange the world; they cannot improve it. Either because we are too fallen and selfish, or too weak and limited, we are essentially passive observers in a world governed by forces we can neither understand or control. Only the Messiah will be able to understand and control these forces and bring an end to them before inaugurating something fundamentally different, and fundamentally better, than the world we live in now. All we can really do is wait for it.  

Messianism is not just a theology of redemption; it is a view of reality that was forged in the fires of Second Temple Judaism under the oppressive rule of both the Seleucid and Roman empires. Because the writers of the New Testament intentionally framed Jesus as the Messiah when writing to Jewish audiences, the entire Messianic worldview was passed on to Christianity—with the apocalypse postponed to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ because it did not occur during the First.

The more I read the New Testament, however, the less I see these messianic assumptions in the actual words and teachings of Jesus Christ—and the more I have come to believe that our attempts to turn Jesus into an apocalyptic prophet have caused us to ignore the plain meaning of many of his words, which emphasize that the Kingdom of God is within us and that we have both the capacity, and the responsibility, to construct it on the earth. We might call this view “messianic,” as it emphasizes a fundamental rupture with the world we know, but it is a view that asks us not to wait for, but to become, Messiahs.

We see the same view in other places. The great Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, writing at the height of European fascism— when human ingenuity and technology were being used to increase the barbarity with which some humans killed and tortured others—came to two important conclusions. First, he concluded, there is no such thing as progress; history is simply the movement from one catastrophe to the next, and only a messianic intervention can change it. Second, each generation of history has been endowed with a “weak Messianic power” that, while insufficient, is also the best that we can do.

What Benjamin gestures towards is a theology of changing the world that is, at once, incremental and fundamental. The foundations of the world can be destroyed and replaced gradually by thousands of messiahs in each generation exercising the “weak Messianic power” to change some things. This is not quite the same as saying that the existing system can be perfected without eschatological change. But the eschaton doesn’t have to happen all at once, nor must we wait for the chosen one to start doing chosen things.

This view, I think, is very close to what I read Jesus saying in the New Testament—and it is fiercely opposed by those most influenced by the deep assumptions of the messianic worldview: that human beings are fundamentally reprobate and that history as entirely constrained by prophecy. This influence doesn’t just come from religious belief, as, in our culture, secular myths have become just as messianic as scriptural texts.   

Embedded in all of these myths, though, both the sacred and the secular ones, is a certain idea of agency that works against the predestinarian logic of the larger messianic narratives: Harry can override the Sorting Hat, Luke can give up and move to the Island of Green Milk, Percy wasn’t the chosen one after all, and so on. At some point, Messiahs are always created by choices, and those who chose to make fundamental changes often turn out to have not been quite as chosen as we thought.

Messiahship is a tricky business in the movies; it is even more so in real life. Fundamental change can happen slowly, and ancient prophecies have nothing to do with the choices we make today. We can all be the droids we are looking for.

Comments

  1. Allison says:

    Love this: “….the eschaton doesn’t have to happen all at once, nor must we wait for the chosen one to start doing chosen things.” I’m recognizing the value (or dare I proclaim truth?) of this I’m my life, that even though I believe God can make things right in the end (whatever that even means), it doesn’t preclude us from the business of making things right (or better) in the here and now, even knowing our attempts are messy.

  2. Kristine says:

    ‘Fess up. You thought of the last line first and wrote a whole essay to get there. Love it :)

  3. Stephen Hardy says:

    What a great essay!! Thanks for this. Sadly my soul died just a bit. No mention of Battlestar Galactica??? And no mention of GoT with its clear-cut Adam-GoT theory? For shame!

  4. Roger Hansen says:

    I’m not sure I totally understand your point. But I see Christ as a rebel, an advocate for social justice. You seem to be saying that this message is overshadowed by obsessive belief in the Last Days, etc. A statement I totally agree with. I also believe in an ongoing Creation, and that we, through our earthly actions, are co-creators. We shouldn’t wait for the millennium for the Kingdom of God. We should work for it while we are mortals.

    I often find it disturbing that when a crisis or natural disaster occurs, the first idea and frequently only recommendation is to pray. Pray for peace in Ukraine, pray for rain to end the drought, etc. My general reaction is more along the lines of “Let’s do something.” I was recently encouraged when Pres. Nelson made the point that in addition to prayer, action is needed.

  5. eastofthemississippi says:

    I’m always struck by how many faithful members love… science FICTION. Said as somebody who reads 95% non fiction.

  6. matthew73 says:

    @ Kristine: :)

  7. You’ve made me wonder about the obvious connection between right-wing Christian fundamentalists and conservative (stuck in the past) politics. All the progress we have experienced in recent years has come from progressives (in social spheres) and scientists (in physical matters). Science is ultimately progressive in nature, always searching for improvement. It is probably no coincidence that conservatives are the ones who are overwhelmingly anti-science on almost every front.

  8. Dave B. says:

    No, no, no. Frodo did not seek to reforge a sword that was broken. He carried the Token of Doom and became the halfling that sallied forth to stand firm in the face of Evil. I have been struck by the idea of Frodo carrying around the End of the World in his pocket. That’s more of a Ragnarok theme than a redemption theme.

  9. Michael Austin says:

    @Dave B.

    Frodo is not the Messiah figure in The Lord of the Rings. Aragorn is. And he is as close to the Second Temple idea of the Messiah as any figure in literature has ever been: the rightful heir of the Davidic/Gondorian line who emerges at the end of history to marshall the forces of good against the forces of evil at a desperate last battle, which he wins and, in doing so, closes out one era of history and inaugurates another. It doesn’t get more Messiah-y than that.

  10. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t have just one Messiah figure. Good cases could be made for Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo. Frodo’s case is especially compelling when one sees the One Ring as symbolizing sin.

  11. Gilgamesh says:

    Allison, I also liked the quote, “But the eschaton doesn’t have to happen all at once, nor must we wait for the chosen one to start doing chosen things.” This is precisely what the church did after Joseph Smith died and they were expelled from Nauvoo. Instead of waiting for Christ to come and redeem the people, they got to work and started redeeming the dead themselves. Hence the emphasis on temple work.

  12. Not a Cougar says:

    “I’m always struck by how many faithful members love… science FICTION.” People of many, many faiths and of no faith love science fiction. I’m not sure what connection you’re trying to make, ‘sipi.

  13. Michael Austin says:

    I’m not really a particularly big fan of science fiction and fantasy. I have read most of the basics, but I probably only read one or two books a year in these genres (compared to 25 or 30 books in the mystery/crime fiction genres). However, Science Fiction/Fantasy is where most of the mythmaking is done in our culture–or, at least, the myth-adapting. The conventions of the genre are well-suited to hero quests, epic journeys, battles of good and evil, and the like. The works that I am writing about here are objectively important cultural phenomena. Very few people are unaware of the basic outlines of Star Wars, LOTR, or Harry Potter. These works have transcended their genre boundaries and become huge repositories for the stories, myths, and values of the cultures that produced them–what the Iliad and the Oddysey were for the Greeks and the stories of the Hebrew Bible were to the ancient Israelites. This makes them worthy of our study, whether or not we are fans, because looking at them deeply can tell us so much about ourselves.

  14. “Thousands of messiahs in each generation exercising the “weak Messianic power” to change some things . . . [and] the eschaton doesn’t . . . happen all at once.”

    What I believe, with new words to say it. Thanks.

  15. Taking off from your penultimate paragraph that includes the idea the messianic figures have agency…. In the fantasy series that begins with The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold creates a world in which it is explicit that potential change-the-world heroes can and do choose to refuse the task they are offered because it is too hard. That leaves the evil situation in existence until someone comes along who does follow the task through to its bitter/triumphant end. It’s an interesting, compelling exploration of the power of God to force human hands and our responsibility to our faith and our God. (Not intended to be a thread hijack, but to build upon one of your ideas.)

  16. I wonder, whichever direction one’s belief goes in this, does it become sort of a self-fulfilled prophecy. Or maybe just a reflection of how we see the worth of others.
    Good article. Thank you

  17. I agree with the basic outlines: yes, many of our most culturally meaningful stories are deeply messianic/eschatological. But I think some of the nuances are significant.

    The popular (orthodox?) take on the Christian eschaton, I think, is that it will simply happen one day whether I’m ready for it or not. The eschaton of many of these stories is not inevitable: it requires the agency, perseverance, and individual virtue of the good characters to bring it about. Even Aragorn is not a self-sufficient messiah: his ultimate triumph depends on the agency and efforts of many, from the high and heroic, like Gandalf and Theoden, to the ordinary and everyman, like the Hobbits or even Barliman Butterbur, the innkeeper at Bree. The messianic victory of the Lord of the Rings (and other fantasy stories) is not a denial of the power and agency of ordinary, non-messiah folk; it’s a confirmation that the efforts of each individual, even the smallest and unlikeliest among us, can fundamentally change the world. In the Lord of the Rings, it’s not Aragorn who is primarily responsible for the eschatological overthrow of evil: rather, it’s a small, humble hobbit and his faithful gardener.

    This is why the Scouring of the Shire is such an essential part of the story. After the age-ending battle, after the dark lord has been defeated, after the messianic king as been crowned in his holy city, the hobbits return home to find that all is not well. The new age hasn’t magically solved all problems and uprooted all evil. Now the hobbits, without their royal messiah or their mentor messiah, must confront evils that are smaller but more personal and closer to home: greed, envy, middle-management, and destructive and dehumanizing economic models. There’s no magical way to vanquish these ills all at once. The hobbits simply have to lead a grassroots effort to take back the Shire from the ruffians (and the hobbits who sided with them) and then rebuild their home, one seed and one brick at a time.

    If these messianic stories are less like the inevitable eschaton that Michael seems to take issue with, they’re more like the messianic view that he embraces: they require the agency and steady efforts of seemingly small and less-important people to bring about fundamental change.

  18. Michael Austin says:

    Greg–what a great comment. Thank you!

  19. Left Field says:

    Even such a “small” character as Ghân-buri-Ghân plays a crucial role in Aragorn’s triumph.

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