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The Catholic imagination of ‘Dogma’


Canadian pop singer Alanis Morissette as God? A God who does cartwheels? How blasphemous can a film be?

Is the film “Dogma” blasphemous? If it is, the blasphemy is Roman Catholic. Only someone who has attended Catholic schools and goes to Mass every week, as does director Kevin Smith, could possibly have dreamed up this zany, daffy, sometimes crude and tasteless, over-the-top movie.

Is it really blasphemous, however? Blasphemy involves the intention to do harm to God or religion or faith or the church. Clearly there is no such intent in “Dogma.” It assumes God is a comedian (or, perhaps, a comedienne). Otherwise, it says, why the platypus?

Is God offended by the movie?

Unlike those religious fanatics who are trying to ban the film, I claim no special access to the mind of the deity. I suspect, however, that God understands that the humor of the film is a prelude to making some very serious, and funny, theological points.

I am not endorsing “Dogma.” Some people will find it profoundly offensive. But then they don’t have to see it.

The crowd of young people who filled the theater the night I saw the film was not offended. They laughed, they cheered, they applauded God at the end. God presumably welcomes applause whenever it’s offered.

One young woman said to her date as they left the theater, “Do you think God is really like that?”

He thought about it and replied, “I sure hope so.” I see no reason why anyone should want to deny such young people the opportunity to see it.

The theological points click off at the end as if Kevin Smith was fully aware of what he was doing, though he may be so possessed by the Catholic imagination that he doesn’t have to reflect consciously on what he is telling the audience about God.

The deity is incomprehensible, strange, hidden, absent, mysterious — and also loving; indeed, God is love. Incidentally, God is playful, too.

The notion that God is often absent, or seems to be absent, will offend fundamentalists (of whatever denomination, including Catholic) who picture God as whispering in their ears several times every day and telling them exactly what he wants them to do.

However, since St. Augustine, at least, mature Christians have known God is a deus absconditus — an absconded God. Where God has absconded to and why is pure mystery.

Obviously God is everywhere and still is present. But God doesn’t seem to us to be around or to be interested in us. God certainly seemed to have absconded during the wars and massacres of this century. How could God have been absent during the Holocaust? How could God permit the needless accidental death of a single child? How could a God who claims to love all of us as his children possibly require that we all die? What kind of a parent lets his children die? There are simply no easy answers; indeed, no answers at all to that question.

God seems to have absconded through much of “Dogma” only to appear with a loving flourish at the end. It is the way it is with God, the film says, and it does us no good to complain. God is, as the characters keep saying, “strange.” We’d better believe that.

And Morissette as God?

Isn’t God an old white male? Unlike the fundamentalists, Kevin Smith doubtless understands that all God talk is metaphorical — it tells us what God is like, not what he is. It tells us we are all created in God’s image and likeness, and each of us reflects something of God’s beauty and goodness. The Catholic imagination leads us to believe not that God is like Morissette but that she is like God. She reveals to us something about God.

And the cartwheels?

Is not God’s wisdom presented in the biblical wisdom literature as playing and dancing? And did not God have to be playful to design the world to fit our mathematical theorems? And are quantum theory and chaos theory not only playful, but almost jokes?

Could not all of these truths have been taught without the film’s frequent vulgarity and tastelessness? Doubtless. But the young people who are Kevin Smith’s fans probably would not have come to such a film. Moreover, even if they do go to church next weekend, they are not likely to hear sermons that portray God’s strangeness, playfulness and love so vividly.

Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at www.agreeley.com or contact him via e-mail at agreel@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 1999