Photographer Jonas Bendiksen describes himself as “a man of little faith.” His latest project The Last Testament, a years-long exploration of the lives of seven self-proclaimed Messiahs around the world who claim to be the second coming of Christ, will resonate with doubters and the spiritually curious alike. But what about believers?
As someone who is a person of faith, who belongs to the religion that gave birth to these Christs, it’s easy to be cynical about The Last Testament. It’s easy, for example, to see the book’s references to classic lay Bible design — gold-edged rice paper, two-column paragraph format, semi-illuminated manuscript pages — as a bit contrived. Each of the book’s seven sections opens with a lengthy, sometimes meandering excerpt of the Messiah’s own preaching and writings, so the book’s first photograph doesn’t appear until page 33. And the subtitle, “The Truth Shall Set You Free,” is a bit heavy handed. Overall the book’s design concept is novel, but art cannot live by novelty alone.
But Bendiksen’s photographic approach is sincere enough to soften hard hearts like mine. Instead of confronting each Christ with a reporter’s skepticism, Bendiksen takes every Messiah’s claims at face value. In doing so, he helps viewers inhabit the minds and feelings of the Messiahs’ devoted disciples, resulting not in predictable voyeuristic derision, but in surprising empathy. The book is strongest when Bendiksen shows his ability to gain intimacy both with the Christs themselves and, more importantly, with their followers.
The stories of two Christs in particular — Moses Hlongwane of South Africa and Vissarion of Siberia, found in the closing chapters of the book — are truly touching, and at times breathtaking. These Christs and their disciples are the ones to whom Bendiksen seemed closest (he shared a bed with the Jesus of South Africa), and with whom he felt most comfortable capturing their everyday lives, beyond their preaching and their disciples’ acts of explicit devotion.
This is in contrast to media-savvy INRI CRISTO, who seemed keen to limit Bendiksen’s access to a positive, controlled photo op.
Bendiksen was so affected by one Christ, Vissarion, that he traveled three times to his remote Siberian village, where he admitted to being nearly won over by the Messiah’s words and the community’s warmth. He ends the book with his version of Vissarion’s Ascension.
The Last Testament softened my skepticism, but it didn’t make a me a believer. What it did instead was surprise me — with a deep and startling sadness.
I was sad because each new Jesus has a valid complaint against the expression of Christianity that exists in his culture. Jesus of Kitwe’s message is a response to the poisonous prosperity gospel that has taken root in east Africa, where “the bible you know is no longer free word of God, it is now business.” Brazilian Christ INRI CRISTO has spent his life addressing corruption within the Roman Catholic Church. Jesus Matayoshi of Japan sees a runaway capitalist Christianity that is on the wrong side of global economic oppression. And Vissarion, the Siberian Christ, laments Christendom’s contributions to environmental collapse.
That each Messiah identifies some of my faith’s deepest and most lasting problems is disheartening. But what is equally discouraging is that the best responses they can think of aren’t reconciliation, or reform, or even to join a different denomination — but to start over from scratch.
To be honest, I understand the appeal.
Christians have been starting from scratch for centuries. This October 31st marks an important 500-year anniversary for the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door. Today, millennials raised within evangelicalism like myself are notoriously skeptical of centralized church denominations (not just Catholicism and mainline Protestant denominations, but evangelical institutions as well). Many in my generation who don’t leave the faith entirely will choose to start or join their own independent church plants, often spearheaded by a few visionary leaders who believe that they can cultivate an originalist church body that is closer to what Christ would have wanted. Over time, these too can become fraught with the same sorts of scandals they had hoped to leave behind.
What Bendiksen’s Christs are doing is not that different from what modern nondenominational church planters, or Luther, or Jonathan Edwards or even what Billy Graham have done (aside from seeking to cement their authority by claiming to be Christ). With each new splintering off, the Church seems to stray further from Jesus’ final exhortation to his disciples, the Unity Prayer of John 17.
I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:23)
As I read The Last Testament, I find myself oscillating between disillusionment over my faith’s seemingly endless divisions, and defending the institutional Church (whatever that means) against Messiahs who want to further that splintering. I find myself bitterly nit-picking these Messiahs’ theology and accusing them of misleading their followers, or saying to myself, “If only they would just read the Catechism.” I find myself thinking: Maybe this is what the Pharisees felt like.
And, for perhaps the first time in my life, I empathize with the Pharisees.