20 Years Later, Dogma Is Still One of the Best Movies About Faith
You can't be anal-retentive if you don't have an anus.
Religion is super hard to talk about, and mainstream religious movies right now are all Evangelical propaganda or whitewashed Bible movies about Moses, Noah, and Christ himself. That’s what makes Kevin Smith’s 1999 film Dogma such an interesting one to revisit twenty years later, as we find ourselves at a time where the religious right is attempting to use their ideology and faith as a weapon against women, queer people, and people of other faiths.
Dogma tells the story of two banished angels, Bartleby (Baby Ben Affleck) and Loki (Baby Matt Damon), who were exiled to Wisconsin for all eternity for drunkenly defying God by not slaughtering people (Old Testament God, you know how She do). One day, they receive a letter that tells them about a rededication celebration in New Jersey, headed by Cardinal Ignatius Glick (George Carlin). By walking through the archway of the church, the two will receive a plenary indulgence, pardoning all sin, and it will allow them to reenter Heaven.
The problem is that existence is founded on the principle that God is infallible, therefore their success would prove God wrong and undo all creation. God has gone MIA, so Her voice, Metatron (Alan Rickman) calls upon Bethany Sloane (Linda Fiorentino), the last scion, to help save the world—with the help of Jay and Silent Bob, Chris Rock, and Salma Hayek.
Kevin Smith has a really complicated history of writing women. Sometimes, he gets it really right and isn’t afraid to frame his male leads as sexist and shortsighted in the way they treat good women. With Bethany, we have a depressed woman who is a counselor at Planned Parenthood and still grapples with her own faith crises by going to church every day despite not really knowing if she actually believes in God anymore.
It’s rare to see positive depictions of women who work at Planned Parenthood, and the fact that Bethany deals with women’s health and abortions but is still the heroine and the last scion is a remarkably forward-thinking move by Smith.
From a faith perspective, Smith both makes fun of Catholicism and Christianity and reinforces their personal importance to the individuals. Through Chris Rock’s character, Rufus, he touches on the fact that Christianity has whitewashed Christ and would probably be very uncomfortable supporting a man of color as its savior. The muse Serendipity (Salma Hayek) says one of the best ideological things in the movie after providing some theological exposition to Bethany:
“When are you people going to learn? It’s not about who’s right or wrong. No denomination’s nailed it yet, because they’re all too self-righteous to realize that it doesn’t matter what you have faith in, just that you have faith. Your hearts are in the right place, but your brains gotta wake up.”
At the core of the film is that principle. Faith isn’t a bad thing, but what happens in the name of faith can be, and the people who bring the word of God can also be flawed people, women, and outcasts. One small thing I really appreciate is that, in one scene where Bartleby and Loki are enacting their “righteous fury,” they mention that one of the men they are judging is a bad person because he disowned his gay son. The fact that they frame the sin as not homosexuality, but the disowning of his child, is really great, even though Smith does have a tendency to drop “no homo”-style jokes in his films.
As someone who went to Catholic school and struggled with the dogma of Catholicism and Christianity, but always felt an affinity towards Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and many of the Saints, Dogma was a movie that made me feel good about my confusion when I saw it in my late teens. It allowed me to realize that what I believed in, as long as it did no harm, and brought me comfort, was a good thing—that my ideas were good and the things I needed from faith didn’t mean I had to force my beliefs on anyone or subscribe to any one faith. I’m a happily blended Pagan/Polytheist because of Dogma.
It’s certainly dated in many ways, but its heart is genuine, and it’s good to see a movie that can dissect and probe religious ideology from a place of good faith (lol). The right doesn’t have a monopoly on religion, nor should they have the monopoly on religious movies, especially when Dogma leaves you feeling more at peace with the world than God Is Not Dead one or two.
Not too bad for a movie with a literal shit demon in it.
Also, this movie does mean that Matt Damon has played Loki twice.
(image: Lions Gate Films)
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