Dogma in Dogma: A Theological Guide
By Steven D. Greydanus
From a religious point of view, Kevin Smith’s Dogma comes a lot closer to making sense if you just accept one premise: The angels in it — fallen and otherwise — are all really bad at theology.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In his review of Dogma, Roger Ebert wrote that the film "takes Catholic theology absolutely literally, and in such detail that non-Catholics may need to be issued Catechisms on their way into the theater (not everybody knows what a plenary indulgence is)."
"Absolutely literally"? As a product of parochial schools, Ebert should have known better. But perhaps he doesn’t know what a plenary indulgence is either. I doubt very much that Kevin Smith does. Certainly his angels haven’t got a clue — about that, and a great many other things.
Now, of course it must be noted from the outset (and indeed the film does note from the outset) that Dogma is a "work of comedic fantasy," for the most part "not to be taken seriously," either as an accurate representation of Catholic teaching, of Kevin Smith’s ideas, or of anything else.
Nevertheless, Ebert had a point about the need for some catechetical clarification on some matters. Catechisms being a bit pricey to hand out with movie tickets or video rentals, the Decent Films Guide is pleased to offer the following theologically correct guide to the serious, the silly, and the sloppy in Kevin Smith’s Dogma.
Of Angels and Indulgences
The concept of the plenary indulgence is central to the plot of Dogma. God has exiled a pair of semi-fallen angels named Loki and Bartleby, not to hell, but to Wisconsin. But now Loki and Bartleby think they’ve found a loophole: A church in New Jersey, with papal sanction, is celebrating its centenary with a plenary indulgence to all who pass through the arched entranceway. All they have to do, the angels reason, is pass through the arch, and their sins will be forgiven; they’ll have a "morally clean slate" — "no harm, no foul." Then they must simply lose their wings and "transubstantiate to pure human," and they’ll be able to die and go straight to heaven.
Now, Kevin Smith knows perfectly well that his depiction of Loki and Bartleby has virtually nothing in common with Catholic angelology, and doesn’t for a moment expect anyone to think otherwise. He’s simply taking artistic license for the sake of the comic plot. No grown-up Catholic really thinks that angels literally have wings, or even bodies. Dogma even knows (as some better movies don’t) that angels and humans are two separate classes of beings; that humans who die and go to heaven don’t "become" angels. (In Dogma one such human returns to earth, and he isn’t an angel, he’s a man from heaven.) By the same token, angels have no ability to "become" human, at least in reality.
Smith took the license of investing his fictional angels with literal wings — and the ability to cut them off and become human — simply because for plot reasons their scheme worked better if they could follow the normal human route for getting to heaven after receiving the indulgence.
So far, so good. But there’s another catch; one that doesn’t seem to be part of the film’s deliberate liberties. Even granting Smith’s fictional angelology — even if angels really could become human and receive indulgences — even then, Loki and Bartleby’s plan is based on a complete and total misconception about what a plenary indulgence is.
Loki and Bartleby think that a plenary indulgence is something that Catholics believe takes away all one’s sins, that gives one a "morally clean slate… no harm, no foul," guaranteed entrance into heaven. This is repeatedly stated to be a point of Catholic belief. It’s the central tenet of the film’s comedic premise, the one thing that has to be factual for the premise to work. But it’s wrong. In fact, not only don’t indulgences take away sins, they can’t even be received by anyone whose sins haven’t already been taken away, who isn’t already in a state of grace, already on his way to heaven.
In other words, even if angels could become human and could receive indulgences, the indulgence would do them no good unless they were already in the state of grace and already on their way to heaven — which of course these ones wouldn’t be.
The ironic thing is that, had Loki and Bartleby but known it, there was a much simpler solution to their dilemma; one that wouldn’t even have required them to go to New Jersey. Indulgences don’t give you a morally clean slate, but baptism does. Of course, like indulgences, baptism only works on humans; but since Loki and Bartleby could become human any time they wanted to, all they had to do was lose the wings and get baptized, and they’d have been on their way to heaven. They could even have baptized one another, if they had to. Afterwards, if they lived long enough, there would be plenty of time to think about indulgences.
For the record, what indulgences offer is not forgiveness of sins, but remission of temporal penalties due to sins that have already been forgiven. They are concerned not with eternal punishment, but with temporal consequences. (For more on indulgences, see "A Primer on Indulgences" by Jimmy Akin at the Nazareth Resource Library.)
Of course, Loki and Bartleby may not have been the brightest angels in the heavens. Take Loki’s satisfied remark after a religious discussion with a nun that leaves her in a state of deep confusion: "I just love [messing] with the clergy." Loki is apparently unaware that the "clergy" are deacons, priests, and bishops — those who have received the sacrament of Holy Orders — while nuns and non-ordained monks are still laity.
On the other hand, Loki and Bartleby aren’t the only angels who don’t know their catechism. Even Metatron, the "herald of God," introduces himself as "a seraphim, the highest choir of angel." Seraphim are traditionally the highest angelic choir, but the word is plural, not singular; Metatron would be a seraph, not "a seraphim."
Unmaking the World?
All these angelic gaffes raise a curious possibility: What if all the angels in Kevin Smith’s story are just clueless when it comes to theology? It would explain a lot. Take the goofy pseudo-paradox associated with Loki and Bartleby’s scheme. God has decreed that the two angels would never return to heaven. If the angels succeed, God would be proved wrong. But the world’s existence depends upon God’s infallibility; if God is proved wrong, "Up would become down, black would become white, existence would become nothingness." In fact, it will "unmake the world."
So says Metatron, who functions as God’s voice in the world because our frail nature is not capable of withstanding the true voice of God ("We went through five Adams before we figured that one out"). Metatron has come to earth to charge an abortion clinic worker named Bethany with the task of stopping the angels, who are unaware of the cosmic stakes and don’t realize they’re being manipulated by a demon named Azrael who actually wants to snuff out the universe. When Bethany asks why God doesn’t just intervene himself, Metatron explains that God could, but he prefers Bethany to do it.
Now, the bits about the angel speaking for God, and God wanting Bethany to stop the angels instead of doing it himself, are actually kind of interesting theologically. They suggest the principle of divine agency, the idea that God often delegates to creatures what he could certainly do for himself, in order to involve and ennoble his creatures.
Too bad it turns out not to be the case, at least with respect to Bethany. As it turns out, the film’s real explanation for why God doesn’t stop the angels is that he’s supposedly comatose in a hospital. You see… in Dogma, God has a habit of adopting a human form and coming to earth — he likes to play skeeball — and on one such occasion, in the form of a kindly old man, he was ambushed by a trio of hooligan hockey players from hell, who beat him into a coma and left him helpless in a hospital. (They didn’t kill him, since supposedly that would free him from his mortal form and restore him to his full divine glory and omnipotence.)
Then, at the climax, Bethany figures out that the old man on life support is really God, and she frees him from his comatose body by pulling all the plugs on his life-support equipment. That’s right: The climax of the film comes when an abortion clinic worker commits active euthanasia to bring God back to life and save the world.
Of course, even if it were really possible to confine the omnipotence and omniscience of God in a hospital bed — or even if for whatever reason God were simply to stop paying attention to his creation — well, right there you’d have your unmaking of the world. After all, the universe continues to exist from instant to instant sheerly by his will. Granted the premise, Azrael should have won and the world should have ended fifteen seconds into the film. Forget piddling around with indulgences and paradoxes; that’d all be moot once God were unconscious.
Of course, that wouldn’t be much of a movie; and the world doesn’t end. Maybe there’s never really any danger of it ending. I know, I know, Metatron thought there was, but he also thought he was a seraphim, so what does he know? Although it’s not what Kevin Smith intended, it is possible to watch the whole movie with perfectly orthodox assumptions on all of the following points: (a) indulgences don’t really get anyone into heaven; (b) God can’t really ever be unconscious or helpless; (c) Metatron was in fact correct that God could have stopped the angels but wanted Bethany to participate; (d) even if the angels had succeeded they wouldn’t have gotten into heaven; and (e) nothing any creature does could ever either "prove God wrong" or "unmake the world." All you have to do is assume that these angels are all theologically clueless (and there’s good evidence for that), and that God is playing a joke on them, and it all works fine.
He’s Funny… But He Isn’t Lonely
The more I think about it, the more the ignorant-angels theory explains. Consider:
- Asked about God, Metatron says thoughtfully, "He’s lonely… but he’s funny." In fact, the Holy Trinity is a perfect and eternal society, which means God always has great company and is never lonely.
- At the rededication of St. Michael’s Church, when Cardinal Glick refers to the church as "God’s house," Bartleby cries out, "God’s house? God doesn’t live here any more." In fact, Christ is bodily present in every Catholic church in the blessed sacrament reserved in the tabernacle.
- At a Mexican restaurant Metatron orders tequilas and an extra glass half in English and half in Spanish (no attempt at an authentic accent). That may not be ignorant, but it’s certainly cheesy.
- Muses (from Greek mythology) may be clueless too. Dogma gives us one named Serendipity who’s got delusions of being responsible for inspiring the Bible, as well as most of the top-grossing films of all time (except Home Alone; "someone sold his soul to the devil for that one"): and she complains that the Bible’s human authors took certain liberties, such as changing her feminine references to God to masculine ones. In fact, the Bible was not just literarily "inspired," as if by a muse, but was divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Blessed Trinity. That’s why it’s the word of God. Also, there are good theological reasons for calling God "he" and "Father" instead of "she" and "Mother" (see below).
But not all the film’s theological problems can be attributed to ignorance, angelic or otherwise. Some of them are clearly intentional. For example, there’s the priest celebrating Mass at the beginning of the film who calls the Creed the "recession of faith" instead of the "profession of faith." This is in the version of the screenplay I saw, so it was apparently deliberate.
Then there’s the attack on the dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity, an essential belief for Catholics and Orthodox Christians (though not for Protestants). "Mary had Jesus without knowing her husband, this is true," pontificates Rufus, the movie’s fictional "thirteenth apostle" (in reality the "thirteenth apostle" was Matthias if you count Judas, or else Paul if you don’t). "The Virgin Birth is a leap of faith," Rufus allows; but believing that Mary and Joseph didn’t have sex — that Joseph would stay with Mary under such circumstances — "that’s just plain gullibility." (This is the basis for the plot point that Bethany is supposedly descended from Joseph and Mary.)
I don’t know whether Smith intended the point about Mary’s virginity as a conceit for the plot or if he really finds the dogma unbelievable. Given his characters’ constant preoccupation with sex, as well as their relentlessly profane attitude toward it, it’s easy to see how the concept of consecrated virginity would fail to make sense in Smith’s world. Frankly, though, I don’t much care whether Smith means it or not. Either way, it’s offensive to Catholic sensibilities. It’s one thing for Jay and Silent Bob to talk (or, in Silent Bob’s case, gesture) constantly about getting laid, but for mercy’s sake leave the Mother of God out of it.
Again, the fact that God appears in glory at the end of the film not as the kindly old man but as a lovely young woman (Alanis Morissette) is also seriously problematic. Of course God is neither male nor female, and the Bible uses both masculine and feminine imagery for him. But as mentioned above there are good theological reasons for using male pronouns and titles for God. For example, the Bible speaks of the Church as the "Bride" of Christ, and Christ himself is the "Bridegroom." The reality behind this symbolism is that God enters us and fills us with his life, and we become spiritually fruitful. This imagery simply cannot be reversed without destroying the meaning.
But the central theological problem with Dogma is its constant and quite serious refrain that "it doesn’t matter what you have faith in, just that you have faith." Smith pays lip service to the idea that Jesus came to "enlighten and redeem" us. If he came to "redeem" us, to set us free from sin and death, doesn’t that matter? "The message is what counts," admits Rufus. What message? That God approves of a vague spirituality and doesn’t care if we believe in him or in the Church he founded upon Peter? Was that the "message" Christ sent his disciples to preach and make converts to from every nation?
There is more wisdom in Bartleby’s remarkable speech: "These humans have besmirched everything [God has] bestowed upon them. They were given paradise; they threw it away. They were given this planet; they destroyed it. They were favored best above all his endeavors; and some of them don’t even believe he exists. And in spite of it all, he has shown them infinite [expletive] patience at every turn."
To the foregoing, Kevin Smith might have added, had he the wit and the humility: "He gave them the true faith, and they made smart-alecky and ignorant movies about it." But then, perhaps if he had the wit and the humility, Dogma might not have been such a smart-alecky and ignorant movie.