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Dogma: Kevin Smith's Sacred Satire

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. 

Smith 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."

Dogma 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. 

Smith's 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. 

But 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.

Charles Henderson

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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.

For further information about Charles Henderson.