Dogma is one of the most
entertaining films ever made about religion. Keep in mind that it's a comedy,
indeed a satire which aims directly at the flaws and pretensions of organized
religion. The movie opens with a series of disclaimers that set the tone for what
follows. "Not to be taken seriously." And in case you miss it
the first time, the warning continues: "To insist that any of what follows
is incendiary or inflammatory is to miss our intention." And finally:
"Please - before you think about hurting someone over this trifle of a film,
remember: even God has a sense of humor. Just look at the Platypus. Thank you
and enjoy the show." But methinks the film maker protests too much.
These words, meant to deflect criticism,
strike a pose of mock humility. In case anything within this movie offends you,
the film maker appears to be saying, not to worry, this is only a movie, a mere
"trifle." But on the other hand, the film maker invokes the spirit
of God in his satirical purpose. Between the lines of dialogue and slapstick humor,
Smith is inviting us to follow him on his own faith journey and teasing us to
share his vision of a God who shares his own sense of humor.
was right to anticipate some people would object to this film even without the
benefit of actually seeing it. At Dogma's US premiere, throngs of protestors
attempted to intimidate people entering the theater. As Smith arrived, he tried
to engage the protestors in conversation, explaining that he intended to produce
a "devout, pro-faith film." But as right-wing protest organizer C. Preston
Noell of The American Society for the Defense of
Tradition, Family and Property later explained, a film so full of slapstick
comedy, profanity, and violence could in no way be a work of faith. Dogma
was "made by sad, silly people who, in effect, are puppets manipulated by the
devil" said Noell. And he pledged that his 200,000 followers would picket theaters
across the country wherever Dogma was playing.
According to a publicly
available script, the Disney/Miramax produced movie, Dogma, mocks everything
we hold sacred—God, the Church, the Mass and Mary’s virginity. It condones what
we condemn—murder, obscenity, violence, profanity, drugs, drunkenness and rebellion!
-- From TFP press release
Controversy has followed this film
since word of its tone and content began circulating on the Internet. Harvey and
Bob Weinstein originally produced it for Miramax, their Disney subsidiary. After
threats from the Catholic League for
Religious and Civil Rights, they then purchased it from Disney for $12 million
to spare the parent company from controversy and eventually distributed it via
the independent Lions Gate Films.
While the critics interpret
the film as either anti-Catholic or anti-God, Smith has convincingly argued that
the movie is nothing less than a personal statement of faith. Despite the disclaimers
at the beginning of the movie, he has gone to great lengths in emphasizing the
integrity of his purpose.
"It started with me asking some questions
about my own faith but the flick doesn't attempt to hold out answers to any of
those questions," says Smith. "It's meant to make you laugh." He continues: "'Predominantly,
what I've always done is relationship movies and this is a farce and a fantasy
about the relationship with God."
opens on the steps of a Red Bank, New Jersey church, where Cardinal Glick (George
Carlin) is holding a press conference to announce the launch of the new "Catholicism
– WOW" campaign that he hopes will reverse membership decline in his parishes.
In addition to a new breakfast cereal (the wafer-like Hosties) and the new "Buddy-Christ"
(a winking, cartoon-like, smiling Jesus), Glick also explains that this particular
church is home to an all-forgiving arch that will erase the sins of anyone that
passes through it. It is this promise of a "plenary indulgence," that
sets up the movie's plot line. It appears that two fallen angels see the Cardinal's
offer as an opportunity to find their way home and re-enter heaven, so to speak,
through the back door. The only problem is, if they succeed in doing this,
God's will will be thwarted and Creation will be undone. Life as we know it will
come to a grinding end.
It is this tangled web of circumstances
against which the film's story line plays itself out. The two fallen angels: Loki
(Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck) have been banished from heaven to a place
they find worse than hell, namely, Wisconsin. And they set out for New Jersey
in hopes of finding their way through Cardinal Glick's magical arch. God's faithful
angel, Metatron (Alan Rickman), is determined that this will not happen, and he
recruits a wavering and discouraged Catholic named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino)
to stop them. Despite her initial reluctance and incredulity about the entire
situation, she too sets out for New Jersey. Along the way she encounters the forgotten
13th Apostle Rufus (Chris Rock), left out of the Bible "because it was written
by white guys," the reluctant Prophets, Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and director
Smith himself), and a stripper/muse named Serendipity (Salma Hayek). The forces
of evil are led by the demon Azreal (Jason Lee) who employs a trinity of rollerblading
henchmen. Alanis Morissette personifies God as a playful figure who comes to earth
regularly in human form mostly so she can play skee-ball.
satire against the excess of organized religion is telling at points. For
example, Cardinal Glick's Catholicism WOW with its "Buddy Christ," is
devastating in pointing out the superficiality of a church which mimics secular
marketing strategies in a misguided attempt to "succeed." How a church
that centers its devotion upon a Savior who chose to die rather than conform to
this world's standards of success can dare to take "success" as a serious
goal is one of the bewildering questions of our time.
more interesting than what this film tells us about the fallibility of an all
too human church (nothing new here) is what it tells us about the figure of God.
Smith posits a God who has gone through
a process of change and transformation from the vengeful, patriarchal God of old,
to the more merciful, playful, and feminine God represented by Alanis Morissette.
This is a deity who takes time away from the rigors of running the universe to
play skee-ball on a New Jersey boardwalk. More importantly, this is a deity who
has given up on fire and brimstone. This God relies more consistently on the power
of persuasion and is apparently willing to work with flawed and fallible creatures
like Bethany, Jay and Silent Bob. By no means a God of philosophical abstraction
or correct doctrine, this God is in some ways closer to the original: the Old
Testament figure who took walks in a garden and frequently visited earth in various
angelic forms and manifestations. Dogma offers nothing new in the suggestion
that the church has fallen short of its own ideals; but Dogma breaks new
ground in film-making by teasing viewers into thinking about God in ways they
have never thought before.
While Dogma was not
a huge success in its initial run in the theatres, it has attracted a significant
following in video and DVD formats. This movie works very, very well in stirring
up discussion about the meaning of faith, the nature of God, and the role of organized
religion in our lives. I see it as a first rate resource for use in the class
room, in churches and schools and recommend it highly in such settings.
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you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call: 917-439-2305
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.