Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Second Messiah includes discussion questions and a Q&A with author Glenn Meade. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. In The Second Messiah, the idea of a second coming is proposed by the author. Do you think that the world needs a second coming? If so, why? Do you think it’s necessary for mankind? What do you think the effects of a second coming would be worldwide? What effects would it have on you personally? If a second coming was to occur, how do you think it would manifest itself?
2. The new American pope, John Becket, decides to renounce all the trappings of a wealthy and a bureaucratic church, to leave the pomp and circumstance of religion behind and to embrace the simple ways of Christ by going out to the people, much as Christ’s apostles and disciples did. How practical do you think such an act would be if a church leader did likewise? Would it be popular and embraced by Christians? Would it spur them on to stronger faith? Would they admire such an act or consider it reckless?
3. John Becket wishes to unite different faiths to a common purpose. Do you think that’s feasible? Are different faiths really more alike than unalike in their belief in the idea of one God? Have we enough in common to find a shared ground that will help us to work together with a shared purpose in mind of spreading Christ’s word? What are the likely barriers to this shared purpose? How could they be overcome?
4. Do you think that our society has become too materialistic? Too caught up in our own needs, wants, and pleasures? Or do you believe that God wants us to enjoy our time on this earth and indulge ourselves with our financial and material successes? How does the pursuit of wealth help us/affect us?
5. What did you enjoy most about the story? The thrilling action sequences? The characters and their relationships? The unraveling of the enigma of the second messiah?
6. John Becket offers us reasons for our existence. Do you agree with his reasons? What do you think is the true purpose of our existence on this earth?
7. The Dead Sea scroll that archaeologist Jack Cane discovers contains a dramatic revelation. From what you’ve learned in the book about the Dead Sea scrolls, do you think it likely that such a scroll will ever be discovered at Qumran? What kinds of secrets, revelations, or prophecies do you imagine it might contain?
8. If such a scroll containing the revelation of a second Jesus were actually found, how do you think it would affect the church and the faith? Would it harm it? Help it in any way?
9. Do you think that the important messages and teachings of Jesus Christ have been corrupted in any way since they were first communicated to us? If so, in what way? Is there anything we can do, individually or collectively as church members, to clarify those messages?
10. Jack Cane makes a habit of visiting his parents’ graves, where he prays and speaks to them. He likes to believe that his departed hear his words. Do you think the spirits of our loved ones have the ability to listen to us and watch over us? Have you any experiences of sensing departed loves ones close to you, in times of crisis or otherwise? Does this suggest to you another dimension of existence?
A CONVERSATION WITH GLENN MEADE
Most of your other books have been about political intrigue and murder in the twentieth century. What made you decide to take up the topic of archaeology and the Vatican in The Second Messiah?
Sometimes, stories find the writer and not the other way round. I think that happened with The Second Messiah.
Archeology and religion have always interested me—I’ve written about both before, though in a minor way—but I guess mulling over my own life kick-started me into combining both subjects in a novel.
At certain milestones in your life—once you have children and mature, once you lose a parent or a loved one—your own mortality smacks you like a billy club. For me, at least, I started to dwell a little more than usual on the eternal questions: Do I really believe that there’s a God and why? Is there definitely an afterlife, or am I gone for good once I exit stage left? After all these life experiences, what do I truly believe in?
Truthfully, I think I wasn’t just looking for answers to important questions—I was also looking for a subject for another book and somehow the two combined.
Big subjects interest me, especially topics that have a major influence on our lives. And there didn’t seem any bigger a topic than Jesus Christ, whose presence has had such profound consequence for the world.
It struck me that I had never read a novel or seen a movie that explored the premise that there might have been not just one messiah in existence at the time of Jesus, but two (apart from the absurd movie, The Life of Brian). It occurred to me that if such had been the case and two messiahs had existed side by side at the same time—and the Bible is peppered with references to false saviors and prophets—then the pillars of faith might just stand on shaky ground.
Then the ‘what ifs’ started. What if, at the same time as the pillars of faith are being shaken by this revelation, a new pope is elected in Rome, a figure whose true motives are uncertain, who could wind up either being an antichrist or even a second messiah . . . ?
As I set about exploring the premise I knew that in many ways I would be stress-testing my own faith, or lack of it, and all those beliefs I had been brought up to accept as given without ever really questioning their veracity. The notion both intrigued and troubled me—and made for a very interesting journey.
Your books have been translated into more than twenty languages and distributed throughout the world. How do you feel The Second Messiah will resonate with Middle Eastern audiences as opposed to European and American audiences?
The Second Messiah has recently been published in the Middle East. It sold surprisingly well and received very good reviews.
As always, stories are principally about characters and plot, but by taking readers on a journey into unfamiliar but interesting territory—in this case, one in which they learn about dark dealings and subterfuge in the Vatican and in the world of archeology—you’re hopefully going to stimulate their interest, regardless of their religious beliefs.
Of course, Middle Eastern audiences are very familiar with the life of Jesus—considered an important and respected prophet by Islam—so they’re not entirely on unfamiliar ground.
The Second Messiah is both an impressive work of fiction and research. How much of this book is factual? Where and how did you do most of the research for The Second Messiah?
Although I like to think that my premise could be feasible, the story is of course fiction, braided with a lot of historical and contemporary fact. Even the Roman commanders and officials I mention by name in the course of the book existed. (We’re all prone to errors, even the experts I consulted with, but I like to think I did my research pretty thoroughly.)
Also, the background details I used in the various scene settings and locations, whether an ancient monastery, a location inside the Vatican, an archeological site in Israel or Syria, or just a restaurant in Rome, these places exist in reality.
Most of my research was done in Rome and the United States, with sources in the Middle East helping me with research there.
The vivid descriptions of many scenes in The Second Messiah, such as those set in the ancient Roman remains or the monastery in Maloula, suggest that you personally visited these sites. How many of the locations in the book were you able to visit, and how did these visits translate into what takes place in The Second Messiah?
I earned some air miles, for sure. I didn’t get to Maloula but I’ve visited places like it, and I did visit the Vatican and Rome on several occasions. As part of my research I stayed for many weeks in a monastery in Rome run by Armenian monks, where I had the smallest room in the cloister and the hardest mattress in the universe. Most evenings, while I was stuck in my closet-sized room mulling over research material, the Armenian monks drank wine with dinner and had their girlfriends over—when the latter made my eyebrows rise I was told by one of the monks that lucky for them the Armenian religious have an opt-out clause in regard to celibacy . . .
I kept this monastery setting in mind as the kind of refuge Pope John Becket flees to when he decides to leave the Vatican for good. But as tempting as it was to weave all the original details into the story, the monks were not Armenians who had their girlfriends come visit . . .
I also spoke to archeologists and scroll and Bible experts in the United States and the Middle East and took several private and public tours of Rome’s incredible underground ruins—which feature in some of the book’s action sequences.
While you were doing your research, how helpful or reticent did you find the Vatican Press Office to be? Did this influence how the Vatican is represented in your book in any way?
To be honest, I didn’t find the Vatican Press Office all that helpful. I did thank them in the acknowledgments and they were certainly courteous in their dealings with me, but typical of most Vatican offices it often proved bureaucratic and guarded with its answers.
I felt that the press office dodged getting its teeth into any questions I posed dealing with controversial subjects. Wander into that minefield and you began to feel like you’d gotten typhoid—they avoided you.
It was my experience that many Vatican officials were ever busy trying to protect their rear. (I’m reminded of the life-long bureaucrat who famously wanted inscribed on his tombstone: “Am I covered?”)
By far the most helpful were individual Vatican priests and senior clerics who spoke to me off the record.
There are some wonderful, hardworking men and women serving the church. But for sure the Vatican seems to have its share of the disaffected—quite a number of clerics I spoke with appeared unhappy with the church’s direction and its past failings in dealing honestly with various scandals and their victims.
A priest I met mentioned graffiti painted on one of the Vatican’s walls, allegedly by a disgruntled padre: “The Church believes in truth and justice—but obviously not for the faithful or for Vatican employees.”
What was the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of writing The Second Messiah?
That I managed to both pose and answer for myself a lot of deep and troublesome questions that had rattled around inside my head for much of my life. In fact, no other book I’ve written has made me think so long and hard about my own existence and my faith—or why at times I’ve had a lack of it—and to try to figure out what’s really important in my life.
The writing of a book is always a journey—it sounds so clichéd but it’s true. Often, too, it’s an emotional release, a way to pressure-valve emotions and feelings. Fortunately for me, by the end of the journey I knew that I had answered many of my own difficult questions, or at least as best I could. I also encountered some of the most interesting minds I’ve ever met.
Even more happened in the process of writing but I think it’s too private to share in public. It’s enough to say that I feel the better for the experience of writing The Second Messiah. And grateful for the important truths that I learned along the way.
There seems to be a critique of the secrecy of the Vatican and the general atmosphere of mystery within the Catholic Church in The Second Messiah. Do you wish there was a real-life John Becket who could take similarly courageous risks?
I sure do—a hope I’m pretty certain many of us would harbor. I think we all long for a messianic-type Christian figure to again appear who would set us to rights once more, reinvigorate our religious beliefs, and reset the world’s moral compass.
It’s often such a powerful motif—a longing for a savior who will administer justice and moral guidance—and such a recurring theme in our story-telling that I wonder if the seed of its yearning is in some way planted in our DNA.
The church wasn’t founded on secrecy, intrigue, and bureaucracy; but on love, truth, and justice. Those bedrock virtues are so often ignored by the Vatican when it faces public and legal scrutiny during investigations into its various sexual and financial scandals.
As you were crafting and developing your narrative, how present in your mind were the recent scandals in the Catholic Church? Did they play a part in your decision to write this book?
To be honest, they didn’t. I was certainly aware of the powerful worldwide media attention they generated, but I really just saw them as another symptom of a seriously dysfunctional Catholic Church.
Scandal in various forms seems to be a constant—and incredible harm has been done to the Catholic Church over the years by pedophile priests in particular. (Though I dread to think of the harm that was done before the media age, when victims had little or no voice and the church’s authority went unquestioned).
I also think that the pedophile priests’ scandals have harmed as many good clerics as they have their victims. There are so many earnest men and women in the Catholic Church who dedicate their lives to Christ and who are sullied by the behavior of errant colleagues.
You mention in your author’s note that the account of a second messiah “has existed since the time of Jesus and is fact, not myth.” Can you elaborate on this?
Numerous references and warnings exist in scripture regarding false prophets and false messiahs. Jesus himself made some of these warnings. In Luke, for example, Jesus says: “Be not deceived for many shall come in my name, saying ‘I am Christ.’”
Acts 13:6 refers to the Jewish false prophet Bar-Jesus, encountered by Paul. Matthew 24:24 also refers to false messiahs and false prophets “who will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive.” Mark 13:22 says much the same.
And the Old Testament is peppered with warnings of false messiahs.
The Jewish Talmud claimed that Jesus himself was a false savior, and the Jewish Bible, the Tanakh, is full of references to false prophets, some of whom claimed to be the chosen one.
Regarding the premise of The Second Messiah, I think it’s highly plausible that Jesus had his pretenders and that such people existed in biblical times—some of them deranged, some of them fraudsters motivated by personal gain.
Two thousand years ago in the Holy Land, identity theft was an easy matter and Jesus would have attracted a lot of attention, adulation, respect, and awe from his followers. He also attracted crowds, gifts of alms and money, and was accommodated with food and lodging most places he went. Those are pretty tempting rewards to an impersonator.
Successful people have always had their imitators—pretenders who try to achieve notoriety on the backs of others. Whether it’s an Elvis impersonator or a businessman cloning a product idea, there’s always someone ready to cash in on achievement. Would it have been any different in Jesus’ time that someone might try to profit by imitating him? That you might have a Jesus alter-ego, a conman, traveling the Holy Land and hoping to profit by his pretence, financially, egotistically, or both? It’s possible. And it would have been easy to carry out such a deception.
Travel in the Holy Land back then was done by donkey or horse or cart, or in most cases, by foot. Word traveled slowly and nobody carried IDs. How many people would have known what Jesus looked like in a town where he’d never visited before? In those days if someone showed up and announced that he’s Jesus the Nazarene, there’s a good chance many folks are going to just accept it.
What’s next for you? Are you interested in continuing with archaeological thrillers or is there another project in the works?
I’m glad to say that my next book also has an archeological backdrop.
Some years ago I wrote a novel entitled Snow Wolf, much of it set in Russia. It proved very successful internationally and was translated into over twenty languages.
Russia intrigues me—the stoicism of its people; its vast, dramatic landscape and tumultuous history. And for all its legendary past enmity with the west and, in particular, the US, I have found that the average Russian holds the US and the American people in very high regard. Many Russians also remain deeply religious people—communism never managed to purge their faith. (I’ve visited the homes of old guard communists where I saw lit-candle shrines to Lenin on one side of the living room and religious icons on the other).
My interest in Russia goes back years. I can vividly recall as a young boy sitting in front of the TV and seeing my parents enthralled by David Lean’s movie Doctor Zhivago, based on Boris Pasternak’s sprawling novel of the same name. It was a wonderful story—powerful, dramatic, touching, and rich with many layers. As for the book, you either loved or hated it; technically it’s all over the place but it does capture the extraordinary essence that is Russia. For my next work, I decided to revisit that country and research a story that I’ve been interested in writing—like Snow Wolf, much of it is set in Russia and based upon truth.
I’m almost finished writing the book but for me, talking publicly about stories I’m working on is a no-no. I feel that a writer can easily talk his story to death and dissipate his own need to write about it. So I’ll just say that I believe it to be a powerful, emotional story and I hope that readers will feel the same way.