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Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash

Reality Check: A religion professor examines Dogma.

By Rita Pietropinto - Moviefone.com

We spoke with Elizabeth Castelli, a professor of Religion at Barnard College to get her insight on Dogma.

Moviefone.com: This film is termed a satirical fable on Catholicism. Would you agree with that characterization?

Elizabeth Castelli: I suppose I would agree with that characterization. I guess I would add "adolescent" as an adjective.

MF: Did you enjoy the film?

EC: I thought some of the religious critique was quite clever, and I also thought some of the film was rather cliched in its characterization of Catholicism. There were things I appreciated about the film, such as the critique of capitalism in the portrayal of the worship of "the golden calf." That's in the sequence when the two fallen angels go into the boardroom of Mooby enterprises and challenge the corporation's executives about their immorality and hypocrisy. But there were other elements of the film -- portraying the 13th apostle as a black man or portraying God as a woman -- that were not as "edgy" as they seem to have been intended to be.

MF: Is there any evidence of a 13th apostle in Catholic scripture?

EC: The number "12" is certainly an idealized and figurative number when assigned to the apostles. In the different gospels, if you compare the names of the different apostles, they don't completely align. Moreover, in the 16th chapter of Paul's Letter to the Romans, he names a woman (Junia) along with a man named Andronicus and calls them both "notable among the apostles." In addition, some traditions suggest that Mary Magdalene was counted among the apostles. The number "12" is probably used in the tradition to echo the 12 tribes of Israel.

MF: In the film, Bartleby and Loki are two angels trying to get back into heaven. Are Bartleby and Loki real angels in Catholic tradition?

EC: No. I've never heard of Bartleby (apart from the Melville character). Loki, however, is the name of a Norse god. He was linked with thunder and lightning and, according to legend, was a troublemaker among the gods.

MF: Are angels anatomically incorrect?

EC: I think the writer was playing with the idea that angels do not have gender.

MF: What about the demon, Azrael?

EC: There is a character who appears in Jewish apocalyptic literature named Azazel who is a demonic figure, often read as a precursor to the figure of Satan in Christian literature.

MF: Is there a messenger named Metatron who serves as the voice of God?

EC: Yes.

MF: Are muses part of Catholicism?

EC: No.

MF: Are there any accounts in Catholic doctrine of God assuming human form to come to earth?

EC: There is nothing other than the incarnation of Jesus.

MF: What did you think of the filmmaker's choice to refer to God as "She?"

EC: The filmmaker was, I imagine, responding to the theological problem that emerges from human beings trying to describe God in personal terms. Ancient cultures, like those that produced the Bible, used metaphors drawn from their own social worlds to describe God's power and other characteristics. From this, we get images of "God the Father" and "God the King," for example. The gender that is associated with these social roles ("father," "king") consequently also got attributed to God. Theologians would argue that this discussion stems from human limitations and from our incapacity to describe God without imposing our own social divisions of gender or, say, race. The film was playing with this problem of human limitation for talking about what is, by definition, infinite and unknowable.

MF: What did you think of the choice to have Alanis Morissette portray God?

EC: I thought it was an interesting choice. Morissette's reputation for writing and performing uncompromising songs about the suffering that comes with love will certainly register with many young viewers. I was also reminded of her song, "Forgiven," on her first CD which many people hear as a strong critique of Catholicism -- and wondered if she was chosen ironically by the director to portray God because of this song.

MF: The apostle in the film suggests that the bible is not accurate and that the authors skew the text. Is this a common thought among theologians?

EC: From a scholarly point of view, the Bible is a fragmentary record that was written by various religious communities to preserve stories about their shared pasts. Some of the texts in the Bible were also written with the explicit goal of persuading their audiences to accept a particular point of view. Needless to say, the collection of texts in the Bible is a partial picture of the full historical past. The Bible does not include, for example, all of the voices that were heard in the early generations of the church, especially the voices of women. What we have is an edited, filtered version.

MF: The film indicates that Jesus had brothers and sisters and that Bethany is the distant niece of Jesus Christ. Is there any evidence in scripture that Jesus had an extended family?

EC: There is a complicated history behind this discussion. In the canonical gospels, there is a passage in which Mary (the mother of Jesus) and Jesus' siblings come looking for him. When he hears that they are outside asking for him, Jesus responds by saying, "Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother." There is nothing in the early tradition to suggest that Jesus did not have brothers and sisters. It is only when the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity emerges that this passage, if read literally, becomes a problem. Later interpreters deal with the problem by making different arguments. Among these is the argument that Joseph had been married before and so Jesus' siblings were actually his stepbrothers and stepsisters. But there is no scriptural basis for this claim.

MF: Do any of the gospels dispute the fact that Mary was a virgin and remained so after the birth of Jesus?

EC: The gospel of Mark does not mention the birth of Jesus at all, so we must assume that the writer of this gospel knew no tradition of an unusual birth. The gospels of Matthew and Luke handle the scandal of the unwed Mary's pregnancy in different ways. It is unclear from the texts themselves what meanings they attribute to Mary's virginity. Certainly neither text claims Mary remained a virgin forever. The earliest reference to Mary continuing to be a virgin may be found in an apocryphal gospel from the middle of the 2nd or the early part of the 3rd century called The Protoevangelium of James. This text, which was not included in the Bible, contends that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. Church fathers in the 3rd and 4th centuries argued over the point, and it wasn't until the 5th century that this became orthodox teaching.

MF: The film suggests that the Vatican is hiding information. Is this a common belief?

EC: The United States has a long history of anti-Catholicism, and a dimension of this prejudice includes a fear of Vatican secrecy. I believe this fear has to do with the fact that, indeed, the Catholic Church's structures of authority and hierarchy do not align with American democratic values. As the bishops and cardinals remind us constantly, the church is not a democratic institution. Consequently, there will be those who view the church hierarchy as a secretive, even conspiratorial structure. But I think this sort of fear exists around other forms of institutional authority as well, including the U.S. government. When I teach about Catholicism, I try to stress that the institutional church is only one aspect of what it means to be Catholic and that the idealized monolith of the church is belied by the wide and vibrant diversity of Catholics themselves.

MF: What do you think the film says about the current state of Catholicism?

EC: I thought the film ultimately had a fairly conservative religious message that was conveyed at the end of the film when God appeared and tidily restored everything, effectively erasing all the damage and bloodshed enacted by God's creation (both humans and angels). And the miraculous pregnancy bestowed upon the sterile abortion clinic worker that ends the film also struck me as a rather conservative, utopian message. It seemed to be a plea for a certain kind of religiosity or piety that leaves human agency out of the picture.

MF: Does the number of apocalyptic films Hollywood is creating surprise you?

EC: No, I'm not surprised. Last semester, I taught an entire course on the millennium and became, as a consequence, especially attuned to all of the cultural artifacts that are being generated around the idea of the end of time. Of course, this isn't altogether new. Artists have, for centuries, been inspired by apocalyptic imagery and the book of Revelation's graphic portrait of the punishment of the wicked and the vindication of the righteous. Hollywood has, of course, gotten into the act too. I recently read a remarkable and rather appalling statistic that 40% of Americans think the end of the world will occur in their lifetimes. So there's a big market out there for graphic portraits of what it's going to look like.

Elizabeth Castelli graduated from Brown University and received her M.A. and Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate School. She teaches courses on early Christianity and the religions of the ancient mediterranean at Barnard College. She is the author of Imitating Paul: A Discourse of Power and, as a member of the Bible and Culture Collective, of The Postmodern Bible as well as the co-editor (with Hall Taussig) of Reimagining Christian Origins.

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