The profundity of director Kevin Smith's movies can be charted in the evolution of his recurring drug-dealer character, Silent Bob (a part Smith himself plays). In Smith's first two and most juvenile films, Clerks and Mallrats, Silent Bob's quietude was a mix of Zen detachment and stoned disinterest. Then Bob broke his silence in Smith's more intelligent third film, Chasing Amy, to deliver a monologue driving home the movie's point; at last he had something important to say. If that's the case, then Silent Bob's transformation in Dogma from zoned-out observer to full-fledged participator—he still doesn't talk but he communicates frantically in mine-like pantomimes—gives us an indication that now Smith has something really important to say. In fact, Christians would agree it's really the most important thing anyone can say: God is sovereign and Jesus is Savior.
So why all the fuss over the film from religious organizations? If you've followed the news about Dogma at all you've heard that protests from The Catholic League and other religious groups caused Disney-owned Miramax Films to drop the movie. (It's now being distributed by Lion's Gate, though the American Family Association has still called for a Disney boycott—go figure.) Objections toward the film ranged from its raunchy sexual humor and rampant obscenities to its inaccurate theology and its supposed attack on the Roman Catholic Church. I could see the point of these criticisms if Smith's objective were to shock religious moviegoers with his outrageous antics, but on the TV show Politically Incorrect Smith said his aim was instead "to speak about faith to an audience that doesn't really think about faith or go to church anymore." In other words, he's trying to shock his disaffected Gen-X audience with a truthful conversation about his Catholic faith.
Cleanliness is less than godliness
Dogma is a kind of comic fable that centers around a lapsed Catholic (Linda Fiorentino) whose faith is gradually restored when God calls her to stop two fallen angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) from trying to reenter heaven, thereby negating all existence. Along the way she trades humorous theological banter with those who gradually join her party: messenger angel Metatron (Alan Rickman), a thirteenth apostle named Rufus (Chris Rock), who was left out of the Bible because he was black, former muse Serendipity (Salma Hayek), and Smith mainstays Silent Bob and Jay (Jason Mewes), who are raised to the status of prophets in this film. If it sounds like a jumbled mess, that's because to some degree it is. From a pure filmmaking standard, Smith's story is overlong and disjointed, he's drawn uneven performances out of his cast, many of his punchlines fall flat, and his special effects are horribly cheesy. Really, only a glimpse of who God is gets through the bluster.
But again, consider his audience is one that would more likely pick up a comic book than a novel about the Tribulation, or tune in to South Park instead of a TV movie about Mary. A glimpse of God coming from a peer's honest wrestling with religion might wake a spiritual hunger more effectively than a lecture of a thousand pat answers could. Smith's complex depiction of God—powerful, patient, righteous, joyful, wise, merciful, and utterly beyond our comprehension—tells audiences that perhaps they haven't thought enough about who God is to dismiss him so casually. And by all reports it's working: USA Today's Susan Wloszczyna writes in her review, "I personally haven't thought this deeply about the religion of my birth since being confirmed," and Charles Taylor of Salon.com says, "if Dogma can move an old agnostic like me, it can move anybody."
Our God is an awesome God
Does the movie have anything to say to the community of believers? I believe so, although the message arrives more like an indictment than encouragement. For example, Cardinal Glick (George Carlin) unveils a promotional campaign called "Catholicism Wow!" in order to attract parishioners, which includes retiring the crucifix and replacing it with "buddy Jesus"—a cartoonish Jesus giving a big wink and a thumbs-up sign. Nothing in the film made me laugh harder than the absurd buddy Jesus, and nothing convicted me so forcefully. I know that I struggle, in an affluent America where I rarely feel need, to rely on Jesus as the bread of life, to see him as the awesome savior and majestic king instead of a ticket toward well-being. I forget sometimes that the Christian life isn't about my needs but others'. There's a scene later in the movie where Metatron tells Bethany about the time he had to tell the 12-year-old Jesus who he really was. Smith humanizes Christ here, letting us see him as a person instead of just an icon.
If Smith is criticizing the church at all (he characterizes it as "ribbing"), he's saying that icons of God, church dogmas (plenary indulgences take a big hit in the film), and ritualized practices of faith are not the complete picture of God and our relationship to him. Any time we think we understand who God is and know his will, Smith argues, we are shortchanging God's immensity, his sovereignty over all creation. Now, I could make pointed rebuttal arguments championing creeds and dogmas as sustainers of faith and boundaries of community; the film ignores that side of church doctrine. But I would rather take his overarching assertion to heart: Let God out of the box I keep him in.
Watch where you step
Probably no one would dispute that there's some truth in Dogma; the controversy is focused instead on the mixture of that truth with theological inaccuracies and just plain surreal components. (The gang fights off a monster made out of feces, for instance.) Some of the inaccuracies are obviously—and probably intentionally—wrong, such as the inclusion of muses, who are part of Greek mythology. Some are incorrect but probably due to sloppy writing more than anything: One character says it doesn't matter what you have faith in as long as you have faith (pluralism alert!), but little else in this pro-God film would support that idea. Some are incorrect only according to Catholic beliefs, such as Mary having more children after Jesus, but do not run against Protestant beliefs. Still others are statements which Christians still disagree on, such as the assertion that the Bible was supposed to be written gender-inclusively, but not necessarily wrong. And then there are some that are only barely inaccurate, like Rufus' background. A black man named Rufus does appear in Mark 15:21. He was probably a disciple, since Mark's mention of him by name only implies the early church's familiarity with him, although chances are he wasn't one of Jesus' inner circle, as the film suggests.
Now, to some people's way of thinking, this mixture of truth and falsity makes the movie dangerous, since viewers could have a hard time separating the wheat from the chaff. But my guess is that Kevin Smith never intended for the audience to swallow the movie whole; he's trusting viewers to understand that much of the film is tongue-in-cheek. (Casting himself as a prophet is clue number one.) I think his intention is to prod audiences to think and search and seek instead of looking to be spoonfed easy answers. And despite his ribbing of Catholicism, I think he points viewers toward the church at the end of the film by depicting the building as the dominion of God. As far as primers for modern American Catholicism go, this one is raucous, naughty, and somewhat scrambled, but it's the only one that has dared to reach out to the Beavis and Butthead set. In front of an audience that's cynical about everything, Smith questions his own faith with no restraints and finds that when the dust settles his God still stands.
Steve Lansingh, who writes the weekly Film Forum department for ChristianityToday.com, is editor of thefilmforum.com, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.
In yesterday's Film Forum, Lansingh looks at what Christian critics are saying about Dogma, as well as The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Pokemon: The First Movie, and other top films.
The official Dogma site includes a "Hate Letter of the Week," still photos Kevin Smith shot while filming news about the film's reception, a diary from the set, message boards, and other stuff.
Ted Olsen, online editor for ChristianityToday.com, had a preview article (click here, then scroll down) of Dogma in the November/December 1998 issue of our sister publication, Books & Culture. (After seeing the film, he has changed his mind on a couple of points.)
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