"Gimme That Old Time Religion"

A Textual Interpretation of the Movie Dogma

Sociology 129: Popular Culture
Prof. J. Bettie
Copyright © 2000 B. Collie Collier


This paper is dedicated to Dave, Scott, Mike, and Bob. Dave for the critical thinking, Scott for the screenplay, Mike for the title, and all of you for your patience. ;-)

In "Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream" Jhally & Lewis maintain the show intended to encourage the belief that if one only worked hard enough, anything was possible -- in essence, the American Dream. Unfortunately they believe what it actually ended up doing was to reinforce the hegemonic belief that denies social inequities and growing racial distinctions in the US, while maintaining white hegemony and class structures. By "envisag[ing] class not as a series of barriers but as a series of hurdles that can be overcome (Jhally & Lewis, p 73)," it laid the blame for inequality of opportunity upon the (undeserving) individual, rather than the society which was designed to perpetuate and strengthen the current economic and political system.[1]

This premise of a projected subversive text unintentionally replicating and sustaining social inequities is further explored in bell hooks' "'Whose Pussy is This?' a Feminist Comment." hooks notes Spike Lee's movie She's Gotta Have It is commonly considered a feminist movie with an independent, sexually liberated female protagonist. However hooks notes "[i]f lip service provides a pseudo-anticipation of challenge to old values and images, the real business at hand is to refurbish the established view (hooks p 235)." The film claims to tell the woman's story, yet privileges the male narratives. Thus we see Nola, the female protagonist, submissively surrendering her independent sexuality to one of her lovers after he rapes her. She ends up a fantasy woman "(who is in actuality a victim) [who] has the power to change this violent act [rape] into a pleasurable experience (hooks p 233)." hooks eloquently concludes the movie (unintentionally?) co-opts the ideals of feminism while subordinating them into a reinforcement of societal hegemony.

This concept, I believe, also extends through director Kevin Smith's movie Dogma. It purports to explore some radical and humorous new insights into Catholicism, offering a potentially non-patriarchal, non-hegemonic, questioning viewpoint. I shall demonstrate that although this is the director's stated intent, what he actually ends up doing is supporting, even reifying the status quo.

The basic premise of the movie is the protagonist's mission to prevent two fallen angels who have been banished forever from Heaven from walking through a particular Catholic church's front door. The protagonist is chosen due to her being the Last Scion, or the last human on Earth related (however remotely) to Jesus. For some reason historically God chose to make the directives of the Catholic Church binding upon both Heaven and Earth. The Catholic Church has decreed that for one day walking through the church's front door is a plenary indulgence, or in other words, will cause all one's sins to be forgiven. If the fallen angels walk through the door, allow themselves to become mortal, and are then killed, they will instantly return to Heaven. Since all existence is premised upon the infallibility of God, the return to Heaven of angels that have been permanently banished will demonstrate that God can be wrong, which will unmake all existence.

The most radical departure from current hegemonic imagery, and the one audiences most used to describe the film, is the portrayal of God as a woman. The actor is, in fact, Alanis Morrisette, a rock star, and viewers seemed to conflate her with the deific character she portrayed ("God is Alanis Morrisette in boxer shorts!"). If we continue to look only at the actors, rather than at their film characters, we see the protagonist also is a middle-aged white woman. She is aided by two working class young white men, a young black man, an older white Englishman, and a young Indian woman, in her mission to defend the existence of all creation against three young white males and three white male teens. This would appear to be an interestingly subversive beginning, at least as far as superficial imagery. However, when one unpacks the imagery a far less radical viewpoint appears. Since the appearance of God as a woman seems to initiate the most audience comment, I will analyze that role first.[2]

Is God actually female in the movie? What does this say about the intersection of gender roles and hierarchies? Actually God, like the angels, is carefully rendered as non-gendered in Dogma, as more an idea than a sexed individual. She is constantly referred to via both male and female pronouns, and appears in two forms in the movie; initially as an old, harmless looking bum, and later as a woman. In both cases God is white, leaving current racial hierarchies unchallenged.

However, while shown most often in female form, God is also re-created as curiously male and/or childish in behavior and in portrayal. For example, Her means of speaking to humans is an angel called the Metatron. She cannot speak to human beings, since (as Metatron explains) they "have neither the aural nor psychological capacity to withstand the awesome power of God's true voice." The Metatron's form is that of an older white man with an English accent and an aristocratic, sarcastic demeanor -- he even nags at God on occasion. The authoritative voice of God heard by mortals is therefore that of a patronizing upper class, white male.

Metatron's nagging of God does not appear to be unfounded, however -- God does not seem to take Her responsibilities at all seriously. For example, at movie's beginning God has sneaked off without telling anyone where She was going -- in order to play Skee-ball on Earth. Later, when faced with a horrific amount of devastation and murder by the two fallen angels She shakes Her head, then apparently simply wills it all away. There is no hint as to whether She restored the murdered to life or dealt in any fashion with the ramifications of Her carelessness -- it is simply gone, and She dusts off Her hands and looks satisfied. Once She's finished there She wanders off to do handstands against a tree (the famous "Alanis Morrisette in boxer shorts" scene) while everyone else attempts to recover from shock. Finally, when Bethany asks God why they are here, God simply beeps her on the nose in sole reply, then leaves. This patronizing response is referred to admiringly by Metatron as yet another example of God's marvelous sense of humor.[3]

Most appallingly, She doesn't appear to learn from Her mistakes. Not only is She described as historically indulging in repeated temper tantrums at things not going Her way, causing short-sighted dictums such as Her banishment of the two fallen angels and valorizing the Catholic Church over all other churches (an insulting premise in and of itself), but She continues to play thoughtlessly with the human beings She meets, demonstrating an almost childish arrogance.

For example, at one point Her carelessness causes the protagonist, Bethany, to be killed. God shows no remorse or concern at Her actions, She simply restores Bethany to life -- and in the process impregnates her as well. I found this horrifying for several reasons: not only did God murder Bethany, then impregnate her without permission, not only did this seem to reduce Bethany to but a vehicle for the next deific offspring, but the Metatron had previously stated that every time Jesus or a Last Scion is told they are either fully or partially deific they are horrified by the revelation, and furious at being played with by God. Is this God indifferent to how She shatters the lives of those She touches, or is She simply clueless?[4]

Thus the imagery of God offered in the movie ultimately offers no real resistance to the current hegemonic, racist, sexist, classist views of God. When in female form (which occurs for only a short while in the movie) Her voice is that of an upper class male, and She behaves with the arrogant carelessness one would expect from a member of the ruling class. In fact, God embodies ruling class ideals quite well: white, well-dressed, patronizing, accepting abject submission (by the working class, female, and black characters, but interestingly not the white upper class male character) as Her unquestioned, automatic right.

If, therefore, God does not succeed as a new interpretation of current meaning systems, perhaps the other individuals in the movie can offer resistant interpretations of race, class, or gender? Unfortunately I do not believe they do.[5] It is true the protagonist, Bethany, is female, but that is about as far as any potential resistance goes.

Bethany is an embodiment of the anthropological theory of cultures defining, using, and being inscribed upon female bodies. For example, it is through a single action by her that God is released from a temporary prison -- an action that results both in her accidental death through God's carelessness, and in the culture being saved from extinction. Thus the "culture" (or all existence in this case) uses her up to further its existence -- just as later she is impregnated, merely to provide another deific offspring. Furthermore she is repeatedly physically threatened throughout the movie (always by males), yet is always saved by the intervention of others, who are again overwhelmingly male, thus demonstrating the cultural paradigm of woman as both passive and acted upon by men.

She is focused almost exclusively on the role of female as mother, even to being a counselor in an abortion clinic. Her crisis of faith centers around her sterility due to infection -- she asks "Where was God then?" and demonstrates her male- and child-centered viewpoint by tearful confessions of her husband leaving her because she could not have children. In some ways she is the least defined personality in the movie, helplessly swept along by an indifferent genetic fate. She literally defines herself as nothing more than an embodiment of motherhood at movie's end, when she smilingly tells someone they have to talk nicely to her now, because she's "going to be somebody's mother."

The only other female in the movie is Serendipity, the muse. Serendipity too fulfills culturally determined roles, and does not offer much in the way of resistant thinking. She is the perennial sidekick, the passive inspiration who cannot actively create on her own (a situation referred to admiringly as yet another example of God's "great sense of humor"). She cannot fulfill the role of mother, since like the angels she too is without sexual organs, so instead she embodies both the role of passive receptacle of cultural knowledge, and the "bad girl." For example, she is presented as a sort of librarian of knowledge: it is she that first figures out what the ultimate goal of the demon is, although by the time she arrives with the information the others have already been told by the demon himself; and it is she who guesses how to slay the demon, although it is a man who actually does so.

Furthermore, we are initially introduced to her when she appears as a stripper dressed as a little girl, playing the bar's male customers off each other to increase her tips. It is true her body form in the movie is that of an Indian woman, but aside from a slight accent, her long black hair, and the bindi she always wears on her forehead there's not much Indian about her.[6] It is startlingly culturally ethnocentric, in fact, to claim an Indian woman is a muse (a Greek concept) who is submissive to the God of the Catholic Church. Ultimately she is gendered female but passively sexless, portrayed as visually ethnic but culturally white, shown as too weak to threaten the male demon or fallen angels, and submissive to a male-inscribed God. None of these are inspiring or resistant ideas.[7]

Since none of the women in the movie offer any subversive ideas, perhaps the men do. We have several to chose from. There is the black apostle, Rufus, and the two young white working class males, referred to as the prophets. There are also the fallen angels, Loki and Bartleby. Unfortunately once again, I do not believe any rewriting of societal expectations occurs.

Rufus, the black apostle, is a fast-talking hustler, here on Earth mostly to protest his being the "forgotten" thirteenth apostle who was deliberately left out of the Bible. His biggest regret is apparently that he didn't "get any" while he was on Earth last time -- yet another young male obsessed with sex. He arrives nude, falling painfully and ridiculously down to Earth, and frequently looks or behaves in an absurd fashion -- such as his voice cracking shrilly when he is startled. He is not a very impressive or challenging depiction of blackness. His main role in the movie seems to be as a sidekick/messenger with some useful but not unique information, although I found it fascinating when later reading the screenplay to discover that a scene where he describes Jesus as also being black had been cut. Perhaps that was considered too radical even for this movie's intended goals... although I find it sad that God as a white woman is societally more acceptable, to Hollywood's point of view, than Jesus as a black man.

The prophets are the characters the director most empathizes with (he plays one of them) and are unkempt, shabbily dressed, and frequently clueless as to what's going on around them. Their "prophetic natures" aren't made very clear -- their few revelations seems more accidental than not -- but they do seem to be physical enough that they can repeatedly protect the heroine. They are literally obsessed with sex. For example, they are at the abortion clinic to pick up "loose women," and one of them cannot seem to get a single sentence out without using the word "fuck," tries to have sex with Bethany during the climactic final battle scene, and when she tells them she's been impregnated by God he tells her that it's possible to have sex up until the third trimester.

I found it disturbing that their obsession with sex was so naturalized that Bethany never protests their cheerful assumption and discussion in front of her of when, how, and where she would be having sex with them -- that, in fact, this obsession is depicted as merely a bit of light humor within the movie. Their portrayal as sexually obsessed, clueless, shabby, but well-intentioned working class white males offers the audience no challenge to traditional middle class social expectations.

In contrast Loki and Bartleby, while insanely psychopathic, are at least well dressed and well spoken. They routinely shatter the faith of the faithful through specious and deliberately deceitful theological arguments, and commit multiple murders when the whim strikes them, but these acts are self-justified by a desire to keep the clergy on their toes, and after all, they only kill sinners. It is interesting that the only people we see Loki (the main murderer) threaten on screen are a white woman, whom he declares an innocent and reluctantly spares, and a dark skinned, ethnic and working-class-seeming man whom he proclaims an adulterer and kills. Loki also, like Serendipity, is another example of religio-cultural ethnocentrism, in that while the name Loki is from the ancient Norse pantheon, he is here portrayed as the Christian Angel of Death.

The two fallen angels are disturbingly sympathetic -- first when we discover that Loki had the courage to publicly tell God to Her face that he was sick of the job of God's assassin, and secondly when Bartleby has his crisis of faith, realizing angels were cheated by having been created as eternal servants lacking in free will to an indifferent God and a destructively, faithless humanity. I say disturbingly sympathetic, because if anything the identity the movie offers us for them is that of misled young frat boys out on a lark, that go just a little too far -- when what they are actually doing, as implied by off screen cues, is messily murdering people. But it's all in God's name, and so by some cinematic sleight of hand it's somehow not their fault.

The hypocrisy and emptiness of a religion that condones this sort of behavior is beautifully embodied by the Catholic cardinal (played by George Carlin) who starts the whole problem by making the plenary indulgence part of his new PR campaign, centered around the image of Jesus as hip, with-it, surfer-dude -- a priest so shallow he blesses his golf clubs so he can get an advantage in his game!

In conclusion, my reading of Dogma is of a text which takes pains to suggest the superficiality of outward markers of class, gender, race, or religion -- but in the end denies any real change to the status quo.[8] However, the Gramsciian view of hegemony notes the endlessly negotiated nature of culture, and I believe this case is no different. I am myself aware of both approving and more disapproving interpretations of Dogma's textual content. A college-educated, agnostic, middle class, white, male friend who considers the movie brilliantly subversive argued long and productively with me over my textual analysis of the movie. His interpretation of the movie's thematic message was not the directorially unintended "the status quo should/will be maintained," as I've presented here. Rather, he saw it as a deliberate "religion should be reclaimed as ideas, not stifling commandments -- as mythological concepts formulated to encourage reflection and self introspection, in order to better both society and one's life." He felt the oppositional meanings of the imagery used in the film encouraged this hegemonically subversive goal perfectly.

On the other extreme of this spectrum of textual analysis is what appeared to be a self-identified "scientific," Christian, working class, white, male viewpoint (I use quotation marks on the word "scientific" since I found the supposed scientific reasoning used in the site to be specious at best), exemplified by the ChildCare Action Project: Christian Analysis of American Culture web site. The site's author/movie reviewer claims "Dogma was quite possibly presented [sic] more danger than South Park in a more subtle or 'acceptable' way." He also mentioned "Hollywood's trumped-up 'messages' to excuse, or manufacturing of justification for aberrant behavior or imagery." To this audience Dogma was obviously successfully presenting subversive and dangerous threats to the hegemony.[9] Indeed, the reviewer could not bear to sit through the whole movie, but left after 38 minutes.

This wide range of response to the movie encouraged me to examine Dogma again, as a potential subversion to hegemonic thought. As hooks notes, while "aesthetic judgments should not rest solely on ideological or political criteria, this does not mean that such criteria cannot be used in conjunction with other critical strategies to assess the overall value of a given work (hooks p 228)." Thus I tried to examine the movie from several varying viewpoints and political ideologies.

I still believe my textual interpretation, in regards to the movie's ultimately supportive relationship with mainstream texts, is correct. However, I do not believe that any or all subversive reading of the text is impossible, nor that my view is the only possible reading. As Fregoso notes in "Humor as Subversive Deconstruction: Born in East L.A. " it is humor that makes life's misfortunes bearable, and it is comedy, effectively used, which most effectively and subversively critiques dominant racist, sexist, and classist discourse. This I think Dogma does successfully accomplish.[10]

It therefore seems reasonable to me that some of the dominant social codes deconstructed in the movie might be new concepts to some of its audience, effectively (if temporarily) challenging their old values and images. Also, while it is true methods of ideological co-option were active in the movie, I cannot deny the humorous presentation of various forms of resistance (however small) to hegemonic codes. As Fregoso notes of Born in East L.A., the movie Dogma "forces viewers to engage dominant codes of valorization and, in so doing, positions viewers in the unsettling role of questioning hegemonic racist [and also sexist and classist] signs (Fregoso p 59)."

It is worth noting the audience seemed appreciative and amused when I saw the movie, not angry or threatened by violated social expectations of their normative assumptions. Also, public textual discourse[11], while not always complimentary, did at least cover some of the religious issues challenged by the movie. Ultimately I found myself wondering, both while listening to friends discussing the movie and while writing this paper, if religion based on questioning and perhaps subtly rephrasing or reclaiming old images, concepts, and ideas was really so much worse than religion based on inflexible hegemonic dogma?

I therefore currently find myself questioning my own internalized assumptions concerning popular culture. Just because I personally do not find a cultural text subversive does not mean it has failed completely in this respect. Furthermore, humor as resistance is a much more successful tool of discourse than arrogant assumptions of superior insight or cultural capital. It seems to me that ultimately all I can confidently assert concerning the movie is that it proves Gramsci's point -- cultural texts are endlessly negotiated, and Dogma embodies this concept well.

In essence life imitates art imitates life: the movie's director (a self-styled fan of pop culture) has externalized his questioning and challenging of societal and religious normative assumptions, expressing this through his movie. The audience internalizes that which they wish to take from the movie, that which does not too radically violate their social expectations, and they will reflect it back through society in various forms of self-expression... just as the director originally did. The guardians of the hegemony will resist as well, of course, but in the constant process of negotiation small resistances to the status quo are subversively ingrained into hegemony, concept by concept.

Once again I will reiterate the movie does not appear to completely embody a totality of anti-hegemonic thought, but rather co-opts several radical images to express a more palatable image of the status quo.[12] However, if present-day society is built upon what has gone before, it seems reasonable to me to believe that any lasting change of this society's present unequal and limiting principles must also be built slowly, step by step, on what has gone before. A sudden, radical alteration of our culture into one lacking any inequity whatsoever is, by that definition, impossible.

Instead, the sort of ideological hybridization demonstrated by Dogma seems a far more likely vehicle to initiate lasting social change -- it is but one small step amongst many, on the path to a society not based on racism, classism, or sexism. Did the movie in fact accomplish the director's goals? Were those goals actually resistance to hegemonic thought? There is no way to know for sure. However, the very fact that the movie provoked a small storm of discourse and inquiry would indicate to me its success as yet one more small expression of the cultural struggle against societal inequity.


  • The bibliography for this paper
  • The TA's commentary
  • The Religion & the Bible page
  • Collie's Bestiary

    Last Updated: Wed Apr 19 2000