Dogma (1999)

1999, Lion’s Head. Directed by Kevin Smith. Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Alan Rickman, Chris Rock, Salma Hayek, Jason Lee, Alanis Morissette.

Decent Films Ratings

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?F
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? -4
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Content advisory: Constant vulgarity, crude language, and profanity; crass sexual references and innuendo; some violence and carnage; fleeting drug use; lots of bad theology, not all of which is meant for comic effect.

By Steven D. Greydanus

Although it’ll go without saying ten minutes or so into these proceedings, ViewAskew [Kevin Smith’s production company] would like to state that this film is — from start to finish — a work of comedic fantasy, not to be taken seriously. To insist that any of what follows is incendiary or inflammatory is to miss our intention and pass undue judgment; and passing judgment is reserved for God and God alone… — From the disclaimer prefacing Dogma

Like the creators of Dogma, I feel the need to begin with a disclaimer of my own. This review is an exercise in film criticism and commentary informed by Christian faith. It is neither an anti-Dogma activist polemic nor a pro-Dogma apologetical treatise. I come not to praise Kevin Smith, nor to bury him, but to critique his work. I will tell you what I think is good about it, and what I think is evil, and why I think the work as a whole deserves its unacceptable rating (not only from this site but also from the ). But this is a complex film, and deserves careful evaluation. Those who are only interested in one-sided spin, whether bad or good, will not find it here.

Let’s begin where Dogma does, with the disclaimer. Dogma, we are told, is a "comedic fantasy"; and the film lives up to its billing. Consider an early scene in which George Carlin plays a Catholic cardinal spearheading a media and public relations campaign called "Catholicism Wow!" Among his proposals for revamping the Church’s image are retiring the crucifix, which was determined (doubtless by focus groups) to be depressing and spooky, and replacing it with a smiling, winking, thumbs-up "Buddy Christ" figure.

Outrageous and provocative? Sure. But even devoutly traditional Catholics — some of whom have actually suffered silently (or not-so-silently) through similarly banal and shallow efforts of liturgists and others to make worship more "relevant" and "up to date" — need not take offense here. After all, the scene plays as satire; the Cardinal’s proposals obviously go to ridiculous extremes, making such trendy and revisionistic liturgical monkey-tricks look as silly as they are.

Then in the next sequence Matt Damon as a semi-fallen angel named Loki (also the name of the Norse god of mischief) has a goofy monologue on The Walrus and the Carpenter as religious allegory: The Walrus, he says, stands for Eastern religions, since by his girth he resembles the Buddha and with his tusks he evokes "the Hindu elephant god"; while the Carpenter, naturally, stands for Christ, and by extension Western religion. This is just funny. I had Christian friends in college who did riffs like that; I remember a couple of guys developing a complex theory of higher criticism based on the cartoon-like illustrations in the Good News Bible.

There’s a lot more buffoonery as the film progresses, including a fiery angel who gets doused by an extinguisher; a black "thirteenth apostle" named Rufus (Chris Rock) who claims that Jesus was black too; a muse named Serendipity (Salma Hayek); a giant poop monster with an origin story you’ll never guess in 2000 years and a vulnerability too silly for a comic book super-villain; and a demon who confidently invites a human character to take a swing at him with a golf club, little dreaming that this particular club happened to have been stolen from a cleric — from Cardinal Glick, in fact, who despite his liturgical revisionism turns out to have been old-fashioned enough (the heroine inexplicably uses another descriptive term) to bless his golf clubs, inadvertently making them deadly to demons. (The Cardinal is even capable of declaring that "The Church doesn’t make mistakes", a remarkably pious profession from so irreverent a character; but then, this is a comedic fantasy.)

Infinite patience

But is it true, as the disclaimer insists, that Dogma is comedic fantasy "from start to finish"? Absolutely not. Dogma has a gospel to preach, and it’s as earnest about its message as a Billy Graham special.

And what is the gospel according to Kevin? Well, like the Christian gospel of sin and redemption, there’s the bad news and the good news, the problem and the solution. Smith’s good news is essentially a message of faith to a faithless world; which is, on the whole, a positive thing. Consider this brief monologue by Loki’s companion Bartleby (Ben Affleck):

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.

When was the last time you heard a speech like that in a mainstream Hollywood film? When did you even hear the words "besmirched" and "bestowed" in the same sentence? That’s got to be worth something.

What about Smith’s bad news? Well, as the above excerpt implies, unbelief would seem to be bad news. And at times the film takes on a catalogue of sins including idolatry, adultery, suicide, and cheating on taxes. "The big sins never change," Loki maintains. Loki is the erstwhile Angel of Death, and in one scene he visits judgment upon a roomful of entertainment industry executives for a variety of offenses, including one man’s spending money on himself while neglecting the needs of his aging mother (an offense for which Christ himself had harsh words in Mark 7).

On the other hand, we are also told by Rufus that God’s "only real problem with mankind" is not idolatry or even unbelief, but the bad stuff "that gets carried out in his name — wars, bigotry, televangelism. The big one, though, is the factioning of all the religions. Mankind got it all wrong by taking a good idea and building a belief structure out of it." That’s right, God prefers "ideas" to "beliefs," because ideas are easier to change.

The sign of the true Catholic

And here we come to the heart of the gospel according to Kevin: "Faith" is good , but "religion" — systems of belief, dogma, ritual — these are not good (or "not so good," as Smith himself amended when I saw him in person). "It’s not about who’s right or wrong," Serendipity lectures Bethany, the heroine. "It doesn’t matter what you have faith in, just that you have faith."

This, of course, is hardly "faith" at all, merely a vague, inclusive spirituality. What’s more, Smith isn’t content merely to promote his own generic "faith;" he has to tell us, again and again, what’s wrong with orthodox Catholic belief.

Smith has an extraordinarily bleak impression of contemporary Catholic religious experience. "You people don’t celebrate your faith," Serendipity charges, "you mourn it." Later, Bartleby observes, "People don’t go to church to feel spiritual any more — they go to church and feel bored! But they keep going every week just out of habit!" The experience of the heroine is apparently thought to be pretty typical: "I don’t know why I still go [to Mass]. I can remember going to church when I was young and feeling moved. Now I go every week and I feel nothing." When she goes on to tell a coworker she thinks "God is dead," the coworker responds: "The sign of a true Catholic." (Incidentally, the coworker is Jewish.) In fact, Smith seems genuinely oblivious to the existence of any vibrant Catholic orthodoxy in our day (perhaps he simply hasn’t run across it in northern New Jersey).

The film advances some rather conventional examples of how the Church is supposed to have gone wrong. We hear, for instance, that the Bible is sexist; and, when God finally appears in glory at the end, it’s in the form of a young woman (Alanis Morissette). In a particularly odious speech, Rufus derides belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity as "just plain gullibility." Smith even hauls out the tiresome and false charge that the Church had a "policy of noninvolvement in the Holocaust" (see "How Pius XII Protected Jewish Lives" for more information).

And, notwithstanding some outrageously straight-faced political incorrectness from Jay and Silent Bob, the court jesters of Kevin Smith’s universe, the film’s real attitude toward a host of subjects is relentlessly P.C.: abortion rights, homosexuality, feminist theology, gays in the military, even the general theme of male-bashing (Bethany charges that the average male "is never [truly] a man even for ten minutes in his whole lifespan"; and, when Loki and Bartleby visit judgment upon the executives, every man in the room is guilty and the lone woman is innocent). There is something astonishingly perverse about the film’s climax, which requires an abortion clinic worker to commit direct euthanasia in order to bring God back to life and save the world (see my essay "Dogma in Dogma: A Theological Guide" for more information).

Much of this suggests serious sentiments behind the satire; and certainly the central tenet of "faith good, religion not so good," is quite seriously meant. Yet ViewAskew wants to claim total comedic immunity: You can’t raise serious moral considerations about our film, says the disclaimer, since it’s all comedic fantasy from start to finish. That’s very far from the most wrong-headed notion in the film, but it may be the most hypocritical. Christ had harsh words for hypocrisy too; especially hypocrisy about religion.

Tags: Anti-Catholic, Comedy, Religious Themes

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Mail: Re: Dogma

I’d firstly just like to say im not religious in anyway (yes i’ve been baptised but i don’t follow religion and your articles surrounding dogma have been extremely helpful) but I think Steven Greydanus’s review of Dogma was a little harsh, the film does make wild claims about religion but as the disclaimer states the film is “comedic fantasy” and should no be taken as seriously as some people have. Plus the film made me want to read the bible and I’m not the biggest fan of religion, so how can a film that supposedly anti-religion be anti-religion when its made me show a little faith?

I can understand your finding my review “a little harsh.” I don’t think it was myself, but sensibilities differ. Regarding the film’s disclaimer, which I discussed at the top of my review, I think I allowed that this reasonably gives Smith comedic license to noodle on religious themes — the Walrus and the Carpenter stuff, “Catholicism Wow!”, etc. — but as I argued, not everything in the film can be put under that umbrella.

For instance, Smith is completely serious that “Mankind got it all wrong by taking a good idea and building a belief structure out of it,” i.e., “Faith good, religion bad” (or “not so good”) as I quoted him in my “Is Nothing Sacred? An Afternoon With Kevin Smith.” And he seems to be serious that while “the Virgin Birth is a leap of faith,” belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity “is just plain gullibility.” See also “Dogma in Dogma: A Theological Guide.”

Fair is fair. If Smith wants to noodle and satirize, I’ll give him as much room as he wants; but if he wants to seriously critique religious ideas and beliefs, he can be a man and take his lumps.

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Article: Dogma in Dogma: A Theological Guide

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.

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Article: Kevin Smith: Is Nothing Sacred?

Does he think of himself as being part of a generation of filmmakers? Smith reflects. "If I am part of a generation of filmmakers," he says with typically self-depracating candor, "it would be the generation that got in too easily." He recounts the epiphany he had after seeing Richard Linklater’s 1991 low-budget indie comedy Slacker: "I thought to myself, ’This counts? This is a movie? ’Cause I think I could do that!’" The result of this epiphany was Smith’s first film, Clerks, a cheerfully obscene comedy that Smith admitted he "never expected to play outside Monmouth County" in New Jersey.

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