Scripts of the twiceborn

The faith of the twice-born is distinguished by its having passed through the dark night of the soul and transcended it to gain what Paul Ricoeur has called a "second-naivete." This is a faith sobered by the awful grace of God, the faith of many saints - perhaps the primary requirement of sainthood, although not the only one. This script can be found hidden within the sometimes prurient humor of the movie, Dogma, by the young filmmaker Kevin Smith.32 Like Wings of Desire, Dogma is a story about angels, but of the sick-soul type, which requires a shift of locale from Berlin to New Jersey. The movie opens with a cardinal in New Jersey launching a campaign he's named "Catholicism, Wow!" in an effort to freshen up the image of his Church and increase its appeal to a younger crowd. As part of the festivities surrounding the launch of the campaign, he invokes the ancient rite of plenary indulgence, whereby the Church draws on the accumulated merit of the saints to cancel in its entirety the punishment due to sinners to whom it is granted. Cardinal Glick gets the word out through a press conference that all who pass under the arches of the cathedral in Red Bank on the opening day of the campaign will be granted a plenary indulgence.

Meanwhile, we learn that two angels, Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), have been whiling away the last 4,000 years in Wisconsin, where they were banished by God following a small act of rebellion in the wake of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Loki was the very Angel of Death whom God had ordered to open the sluice gates of heaven in the time of Noah and, later, to rain sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah. Bartleby was a Gregorian Angel, one of the choir of angels, and a trusted friend of Loki. Loki had misgivings about the destruction of Sodom, and quietly raised the question with Bartleby about how it is that a loving God could be so full of wrath. Commiserating with each other, the two got drunk and gave God the finger. As punishment they were banished to Wisconsin, where they were to remain until the end of time itself, when they will be destroyed.

They are resigned to their fate and their tedious life in Wisconsin until they read a press report of the offer of plenary indulgence that has been extended by Cardinal Glick. Finally, a window of opportunity - to flee Wisconsin, escape their pending destruction, and "go home" to the God who rejected them. They board a train bound for New Jersey.

En route, however, they encounter one of Jesus' apostles, Rufus, who has been sent to stop them. What they had not realized is that if they return to heaven it will force a reversal of God's decree on their transgression, which was binding until the end of time. The reversal of any of God's decrees entails a metaphysical paradox that will result in the total negation of the whole of creation. All of existence will unravel in the instant they re-enter heaven. Rufus and his companions throw them off the train, and, reassessing the situation, Loki and Bartleby have the following conversation:

Loki: Look there is more to this than we thought about. That guy said there will be consequences.

Bartleby: You know what? My eyes are open. I had an epiphany. In the beginning it was just us and him, angels and God. Ours was designed to be a life of servitude and worship and bowing and scraping and adoration. But he gave [humans] more than he ever gave us. He gave them a choice. They choose to acknowledge God; they 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's made us. Had we been given free will we could choose to ignore the pain like they do. But no, we're servants.

Loki, alarmed at Bartleby's agitation: Look, all I'm saying here is that maybe one of us could use a nap.

Bartleby: Wake up! These humans have besmirched everything he has bestowed upon them. They were given paradise, they threw it away. They were given this planet and 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 - g 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? Expulsion from paradise. Where was his infinite f - g patience then? It's not right, it's not fair. We 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 think we may have to dispatch our would be dispatchers.

The astonishing revelation here is that these two long-suffering angels desire to "go home" at all, to return to bask in the divine presence of the One whose justice they doubt and whose judgment of them had been their undoing. After 4,000 years of stewing on God's wrath and their own rejection, they want back in. Behind the strange empyrean world of the film is the further revelation that Kevin Smith, a filmmaker who turned 30 the year the film was released, appears to agree with them, given the way he directs our sympathies on behalf of these two characters in his telling of the story. The story seems to concur with the idea that even a God whose exercise of justice is faulty is worthy of the longing of creatures who scramble to return to the divine presence. This is different from an earlier generation that, as William James observed, so objected to the image of a wrathful God that they either exorcised this attribute from God's countenance or abandoned their belief in God altogether. Like Tolstoy and Bunyan, Loki and Bartleby have undergone the depths of despair, suffered the dark flank of God, and come out the other side through a second birth. Smith, their creator, displays his own twice-born, sick soul in making use of arcane Catholic rites and symbols to explore a range of theological conundrums - theodicy, divine transcendence and immanence, God's wrath and mercy, human sin and divine forgiveness -conundrums he takes seriously. His use of these arcana suggests that there is still life in them, that their power to interpret our existence has not been exhausted.

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