Holy Roll


When faced with the tough choice

of either seeking the truth at

the risk of his life or cozying

up to an all-powerful ruler in

return for comfort and security,

17th-century French

mathematician and problem

gambler Blaise Pascal didn't

think twice before doubling down

on the latter. "If God does not

exist, one will lose nothing by

believing in him, while if he

does exist, one will lose

everything by not believing,"

Pascal wrote famously, adding

that only an idiot on the order

of Jimmy the Greek could pass on

that sort of action. Given such

great odds, Pascal concluded

with Pete Rose–like

certitude, "We are compelled to


"Pascal's Wager" became the

model for the self-serving

justifications and moral hedging

that have characterized the

French nation ever since

(indeed, we need only substitute

"Hitler" and "win" at the

appropriate moments in Pascal's

formulation to understand

France's collaborationist

strategy during World War II).

What a shame, then, to see such

a loathsome Gallic product —

the ethical equivalent of a

Citroën — becoming just

about the last truly viable

French export to these United


Of course, as with most imports,

Pascal's Wager has been changed

by American bettors, who tend to

fear God's wrath less than that

of the buying public. The

result: Whenever blatantly

sacrilegious, scandalous art

hits the stands — even and

especially when sacrilege is the

only possible thing the art has

going for it — its creator

and supporters are quick to pour

holy water on the flames of

controversy and claim that,

contrary to the obvious, the

movie/painting/book/whatever is

in fact the work of an

oh-so-tortured believer (Luc

Besson's rap on his current Joan

of Arc biopic, The Messenger,

indicates such gutless posturing

is still alive and well in

Pascal's own homeland). The

American culturati is willing to

take any gamble except this one:

The open admission that they

just like to make fun of Christ.

Consider how this works in the

most recent example of

American-rules Pascalian

wagering, Kevin Smith's Dogma.

The film opens with a disclaimer

that the film is "not to be

taken seriously" and features

self-evident heresies like

George Carlin as a cardinal who

creates a "Catholicism Wow!"

public-relations campaign

replete with a winking,

thumbs-up Jesus figure; Linda

Fiorentino as an abortion-clinic

worker descended from Joseph and

Mary; Chris Rock as an apostle

cut out of the Bible for being

black; a holy week's worth of

crap and fart jokes; a demon

made of shit; and Star Search

runner-up Alanis Morissette as

God (this last being the most

blatantly heretical act in the

century since Nietzsche first

scrawled "God Is Dead" on a

bathroom wall — and paid for

it with his life).

Depending on one's faith,

Dogma's gags may offend or

delight. We suspect, for

instance, that all nine

Waco-surviving Branch Davidians

are rolling on the floor

laughing in theaters everywhere

— and not simply because

they feel lucky to be alive.

But what is surely an anathema

even to atheists is Smith's own

ostensibly earnest and

pathetic-if-true posturing that

the film is in fact

"pro-Catholic" and "a love

letter to both faith and God


"I believe," Smith said in a

typical interview, "that there

is nothing controversial in the

movie…. There is nothing

offensive to the Christian

faith." For his sake, we hope

that Smith, who also claims to

attend mass every Sunday ("to

feel a little closer to God"),

is simply dissembling to protect

himself from the wrath of both

God and His self-proclaimed

enforcers on Earth, the

hot-tempered Catholic League,

which successfully pressured

Disney and Miramax to dump the

film, forcing Dogma to be

released through a smaller

vendor. Hey, we'd tremble, too,

in the face of a vaguely

threatening League statement

redolent of nothing so much as

the good old days of the Spanish

Inquisition: "Ben Affleck, who

stars in the movie," wrote League

president William Donohue before

the movie was even released,

"[said] these things,

definitely, are meant to push

buttons. The Catholic League has

a few buttons of its own to

push, and we will not hold


The theory that Smith's public

religiosity is a Pascalian Wager

suggests that the auteur lacks

the courage and machismo we'd

expect from a Superman

scriptwriter (maybe that's why

he got canned from the project).

But it is certainly preferable

to the alternative hypothesis,

which is simply that Smith is as

moronic as his comments imply

(key support for this theory

comes largely from Smith's

post-Clerks cinematic output,

especially the execrable

Mallrats, which we're sure is

still playing in cineplexes

throughout Hell to torment the

damned in ways we'd rather not

think about).

We observed similar Pascalian

action going down all over the

place in the other recent

high-profile art-religion flap,

the controversy over Londoner

Chris Ofili's contribution to

the retirement fund of British

artrepreneur Charles Saatchi,

otherwise known as the Brooklyn

Museum's "Sensation" exhibit.

Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary

infamously features clumps of

elephant dung and more beaver

and bung hole shots than a year's

run of Hustler. Although the

piece's only potentially redeeming

social value — besides the

beaver and bung-hole shots —

is its ability to shock

Bible-thumping rubes and (of

course) Catholic League types,

its defenders in the American

chattering classes were quick to

suggest that, no, there is

nothing sacrilegious about

Ofili's Mary. If anything,

suggested this famously

hostile-to-religion class, it is

really, really, really devout.

In this, they took their cue

from Ofili himself who, in the

words of one incisive critic,

"adopted a tone of hurt surprise"

at the outcry that was "pitiable

if sincere."

Writing in The New York

Observer, for instance, Anne

Roiphe demonstrates that Ofili

is not the only one adept at

flinging shit. While

dissertating on the "incredible

shrunken brains of the

bourgeois" and insinuating that

the yokels living outside of

Manhattan are uptight religious

prigs, she also goes to great

lengths to argue that the

painting is not "anti-Catholic

or anti-religion," claiming

that, "If I were in the great

African veldt and saw the

swaying of the herd as they

stopped by a pool of water under

the blazing sun,… I might be

awed … by the turds elephants

leave behind, smoking in the

heat. I think the artist was

telling me of that awe with his

painting of the Virgin. I

suspect he was not thinking

anti-Catholic thoughts at all.

Well, maybe not. But, then,

where exactly is the fun if

Ofili's Virgin Mary is just

another tribute to the latest

movie-of-the-week heroine? To be

sure, we can appreciate the

heavenly and earthly impetuses

behind covering your

metaphysical ass, but this

drains the joy out of the

ostensibly edgy artwork faster

than Andres Serrano could zip up

after completing Piss Christ,

which remains the Sistine Chapel

of Pascalian wagering in

contemporary America. Although

that infamous objet d'art —

a plastic crucifix submerged in

a Plexiglas container

apparently filled with the

artist's urine — would seem

to be the last word in

straightforward blasphemy,

former National Endowment for

the Arts head John Frohnmayer

gives it an explication as

Jesuitical as Hanoi Jane's

immaculate-abortion detective

work in Agnes of God (another

work of art that posed

"provocative questions" about

"the sanctity of religious life"

and failed to melt the flinty

hearts of American Christians).

Outraged religious freaks, wrote

Frohnmayer in the 1993 memoir

Leaving Town Alive, "screamed

blasphemy…. [but] Serrano may

have intended the crucifix in

urine to be a statement against

commercialized Christianity….

[He] disclaimed any attempt to

blaspheme … and when I

conversed with him … he

indicated that the piece could

be described as expressing

disgust at the sugarcoating of

the cross." Leaving aside the

rather uncomfortable realization

that "commercialized

Christianity" had been more

effectively taken to the

woodshed by annual airings of A

Charlie Brown Christmas, such an

explication denies the piece its

power while trying to retain its

shock value.

So it is with Dogma and The Holy

Virgin Mary. Pascal's Wager may

be a sure thing. But what a puny


Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.