I’ll admit to being way behind on this one, but I just saw the 1999 film Dogma for the first time last night, 11 years after the Catholic League boycotted it, and 10 years after the controversy was completely forgotten (as it always is… think about the anti-semitism accusations surrounding The Passion of the Christ.)
As one might expect, Dogma opens with a disclaimer. Actually it opens with a series of disclaimers that get increasingly ridiculous (inspired, no doubt, by Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) The purpose of the disclaimer is to try to neutralize at least some of the controversy, and reduce, if only by a fraction, the quantity of inevitable hate mail. But as much as a disclaimer may claim that everything you are about to see is a complete joke, and that God does indeed have a sense of humor and would probably think our movie is hilarious, it’s obvious that the makers of Dogma have a serious message to deliver, and that the humor is intended for two things: a) fun, and b) deflection of criticism. My point being, if you have a beef with the theology of Dogma, you have a right to express it, and even to be offended by it. And if you feel inspired or enlightened by the message, you have a right to ponder it and allow it to influence your belief system.
Because nothing… nothing… is ever “just a joke”.
And if there were just one scene from the movie that impacted my theology, it would be found in a conversation between the two semi-fallen angels Loki and Bartleby (note the choice of name for the latter, as an exile from heaven, supposedly derived from Herman Melville‘s Bartleby the Scrivener.) Here’s the script from that conversation, which occurs just after they realize that the agents of God are tracking them in their effort to “beat the system”, and re-enter heaven on a technicality.
Loki: Are you all right, man? Your eyes are kind of–
Bartleby: My eyes are open. For the first time, I get it. When that little innocent girl let her mission slip, I had an epiphany. See, in the beginning, it was just us and Him–angels and God. Then, He created humans. Ours was designed to be a life of servitude and worship and bowing and scraping and adoration. He gave them more than He ever gave us. He gave them a choice. They choose to acknowledge God, or choose to ignore Him. All this time we’ve been down here, I’ve felt the absence of the Divine Presence, and it’s pained me, as I’m sure it must have pained you. And why? Because of the way He made us! Had we been given free will, we could choose to ignore the pain, like they do. But no! We’re servants!
Loki: Okay. You know, all I’m saying here is that one of us might need a little nap.
Bartleby: Wake up! These humans have besmirched everything He’s bestowed upon them. They were given paradise, they threw it away. They were given this planet, they destroyed it. They were favored best among all His endeavors, and some of them don’t even believe He exists! And in spite of it all, He has shown them infinite f***ing patience at every turn. What about us? I asked you, once, to lay down the sword because I felt sorry for them. What was the result? Our expulsion from Paradise. Where was His infinite f***ing patience then?! It’s not right! It’s not fair! We’ve paid our debt. Don’t you think it’s time? Don’t you think it’s time we went home? And to do that, I–I think we might have to dispatch our would-be dispatchers.
I read a poem once that purported to represent the angels’ point of view, as they covet the humans’ capacity to feel both pleasure and pain, success and failure, blessings and curses, and as they long for tangibility and sensory experience. Bartleby here adds to that an envy of our gift of free will, accompanied by God’s infinite mercy and forgiveness.
Like most blessings, we as humans take free will for granted. This is partially because we don’t feel we have anything to compare ourselves to. (Think about how the wealthy forget they are rich when surrounded only by the rich. Or how the talented forget how unique they are when they are in tight competition for a top spot.) We don’t compare ourselves to animals because they don’t even have spiritual cognition. And we don’t compare ourselves with angels because we don’t understand them.
When we do consider the angels, we might be tempted to envy them, because of their glorified state of being, and their immunity from pain, disease, strife or disappointment. But I appreciate the insight of director and screenwriter Kevin Smith, as he supposes that the reverse is also true. (Isn’t the grass always greener?) And whether or not a single angel has ever felt this way, doesn’t it benefit us to suppose it?
Shouldn’t we spend more time appreciating the supreme love of God that would give us the choice to ignore him? Because true romance can only result from a choice, and God created us to participate in his divine romance, that occurs when neither He/She* is required to love us but does, nor are we required to love Him/Her*, but do.
What better reason is there to love God than that? God has thrown a party (the way Jesus tells it) and has not given us a mandate to attend, but rather an elegant, personalized invitation. Because he wouldn’t want a party without you.
*See first comment