They take their religion mighty seriously down in Bullock County, Georgia. So when Mel Gibson's blood-flecked epic Passion comes to town, small wonder it sparks off a theological debate.
When Melissa and Sean Davidson, a pair of thirty-something amateur theologians who'd been married for some ten years, strolled home from the movie, they chatted amiably about the precise metaphysical status of ‘the father’ referred to in the film.
Sean contended that this term referred to a purely human father, whereas Melissa preferred to interpret it symbolically - laying her emphasis more upon divine fatherhood of the suffering Christ. One thing led to another, Melissa was left with injuries to her left arm and face, Sean had a scissor wound to the hand and his shirt torn off, and both of them called the police.
When detectives arrived, they found that a hole had been punched clean through a plasterboard wall: both deny doing it, although presumably this happened when Melissa tried invoking Cyril of Alexandria's theory of the impersonality of Christ's manhood, which would have been the last straw for Sean. No wonder he swung one.
Melissa and Sean Davidson of Bullock County, besides being mental, represent the two tendencies within Christological thought: the Arian, which emphasizes the humanity of Jesus - a man who was born, suffered, prayed, made furniture and died on the cross in agony; and the Docetic, which sees him as God in human form - an expression of the eternal Logos, whose divine nature can no more suffer than it can change.
The early Church attempted to resolve these two tendencies at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, at which a furious Domnus, Patriarch of Antioch, hoisted his robes around his hips and launched an Kung Fu style kick at Eutyches the Archimandrite, yelling “your Monophysitic errors are the scourge of Christendom” and booted the erroneous cleric square in the nuts.
The famous resolution of Chalcedon is that Jesus Christ is “the same perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in manhood, very God and very man” - which is very much not the tack that Mel Gibson takes in his movie.
Gibson set up his camera on the Arian side of the fence. The film opens with Jesus before his arrest: quaking, terrified, drenched in sweat. Jesus is less the miracle worker, more the the clever carpenter who invents the dining room table, (“it'll never catch on” he's told).
Mel's Christ bleeds and bleeds and suffers and gets punched and scourged, thrown off a bridge, and nailed up to a cross and he cries to heaven that God has forsaken him and he dies. The glory is in the suffering. Human fists are drawing human blood.
Why has Gibson has chosen this angle? Well, apart from his ultra-Catholic obsession with the Stations of the Cross, his emphasis upon the pain and the horror is a reflection of how Christ can fit into modern cinema.
Power and magic have been claimed by warlocks and wizards. Magic is not the preserve of the divine (nor even a lone Superman character) but nowadays there are hundreds of little Harry Potters running around, flapping their wands and turning water into wine. Elvish queens on white horses trotting round every copse. Flying swordsmen do battle across the treetops. Magic is easy. It's being human that's hard.
On cable, Jonathan Edwards, Derek Acorah & Co. give us access to the 'other side' every day of the week. It isn't so hard to believe these days that there are mystical powers above us, dimensions of light and glory beyond the humdrum of existence. What's hard to believe in these days is a God who is actually, genuinely involved in human affairs. Who might suffer along with us. Who even exists.
We live in an Arian age, and God is going to have to shed a lot more blood if we're going to give a damn about him.