Twenty years ago, Kevin Smith’s Dogma had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. The film aroused enormous controversy. A dispassionate look at the film’s message cloaked underneath a shell of vulgar dialogue is valuable in that it helps us to understand how many Gen X-ers, and even more millennials, perceive Christianity and where we have failed in preaching the gospel to these groups.
In 1993, Kevin Smith was a 24-year-old film school dropout working at a convenience store in Leonardo, New Jersey. The first thing taught in many creative writing classes is to write about what you know. Smith did just that and penned a screenplay about one day in the life of two buddies, Dante and Randall, clerks at a convenience and video store who hate their jobs and spend their days talking about love, Star Wars, and sex.
Although production costs were a mere $27,500, Clerks looks professional. While the actors were amateurs, the performances are fine, especially that of Brian O’Halloran as the frustrated Dante, who blows off his customers and cannot decide which one of two women he loves. In 1994, the film premiered at Cannes, was picked up by Miramax, garnered critical praise and commercial success, and made Kevin Smith a household name.
Clerks resonated with Generation X, the children of Baby Boomers born between the 1960s and early 1980s. With its alternative rock soundtrack and DIY aesthetics, it is the cinematic anthem of the 1990s. After Clerks, Smith made Mallrats, a sophomoric travesty for which he apologized at the 1996 Independent Spirit Awards. In 1997, he made his most mature film, Chasing Amy, in which Ben Affleck plays comic book artist Holden who falls in love with a lesbian, who surprisingly reciprocates his feelings. After learning that his girlfriend had a sexually promiscuous past, Holden is plagued by insecurity, which ruins his relationship.
Many viewers in their twenties and thirties could relate well to Clerks and Chasing Amy. Few filmmakers have so effectively captured the anxieties and insecurities of being a young adult. In those two films, Smith shows what it is like to be a confused twenty-something, insecure yet wanting to be loved and to find fulfillment. Chasing Amy is, like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, a rare example of a romance movie that speaks to guys.
Yet Catholic viewers will find much of the dialogue in Clerks and Chasing Amy and the approach of their characters to sexuality deeply troubling. While almost entirely devoid of nudity, Smith’s films contain numerous obscene verbal descriptions of the characters’ sexual encounters. Smith’s characters instinctively feel there is something wrong; the protagonists of both Clerks and Chasing Amy are horrified to learn about their girlfriends’ previous promiscuity. Yet they continue to treat sexuality not as a gift of God intended to express marital love, but as a contact sport.
Dogma, however, focuses not on relationships, but on faith. Kevin Smith is a comic book fan who owns a comic book store in Red Bank, New Jersey, and has named his daughter after a Batman character. Dogma follows the convention of a comic book-style fantasy action-comedy. It is about two fallen angels, Bartleby and Loki (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck), who realize that they can get back to heaven if they enter a church in New Jersey where, during a re-dedication ceremony, pilgrims will be granted a plenary indulgence upon the initiative of the faithless Cardinal Glick (played by the obscene, misanthropic comedian George Carlin). However, doing so would prove God fallible and thus destroy all of existence.
While Dogma is primarily an indictment of conservative Christianity, Cardinal Glick – who replaces the “depressing” crucifix with “Buddy Christ”, a statue of Jesus giving a thumbs-up – is a great parody of progressive Catholicism.
To save the day, the angel Metatron (Alan Rickman) employs Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), an abortion clinic worker who, we later learn, is the last living relative of Jesus (in the Gospel according to Smith Christ was conceived by a virgin, but He had brothers and sisters). She is assisted by the thirteenth apostle, a black man named Rufus (Chris Rock) who has been written out of the Gospels because of the racist Evangelists; the muse Serendipity (Selma Hayek); and the prophets Jay and Silent Bob (the latter played by Smith himself), petty pot dealers who are recurring characters in many of Smith’s films. These unlikely heroes travel to New Jersey to try to stop Bartleby and Loki from ending the world.
While having a creative plot, I consider Dogma to be one of Smith’s worst films. It proves that Smith should stick to what he does best: films driven by social observation and dialogue. Dogma tries to tackle serious subjects such as the nature of faith and religious crisis, yet it cannot be taken seriously with scenes such as one in which a demon trying to thwart the heroes’ crusade sends upon them a “Golgothan,” a monster made of the feces of those crucified at the Place of the Skull.
Dogma was extremely controversial upon release, leading to vigorous protests by Christians, primarily Catholics. At the forefront of Dogma’s detractors was the Catholic League, which objected to the depiction of a relative of Jesus employed at an abortion clinic and irreverent references to figures that are sacred to Catholics. For example, when claiming that Jesus was also black, Rufus calls the Lord a “n—a;” when explaining that although Jesus was immaculately conceived, Rufus said that Christ had brothers and sisters, because like any couple, Mary and Joseph “got down” and “got laid.”
Of course, using such irreverent terms to refer to the Mother of God and to Jesus Himself is insulting. While not excusing Smith, one has to bear in mind that this is how his characters talk. With the exception of Jersey Girl, a failed attempt at a family comedy, all of Kevin Smith’s films are filled with uninterrupted vulgarity. In all likelihood, Smith didn’t intend to mock Mary or Jesus; he was just being himself when writing the screenplay.
The Catholic League was right in protesting these references. However, that was not the main problem with Dogma.
Dogma does not so much seek to slander the Catholic Church as to show the alleged dangers of dogmatic religion. The film itself presents the growing secularization of society as a negative thing. For example, an early scene depicts Sunday Mass: the congregants are falling asleep in the pews; one man listens to music on his headphones, while children fight. This is not a comical scene; instead, Smith seems to suggest that we have lost something valuable.
Bethany herself goes through the motions at Mass every Sunday, but has lost her faith in God. There is clearly a void in her life. Yet the most stinging indictment of secularization comes from a surprising source, fallen angel Bartleby:
These humans have besmirched everything [God] has bestowed upon them. They were given paradise; they threw it away. They were given this planet; they destroyed it. They were favored best above 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.
Today, Smith identifies as an atheist; in 1999, though, he still called himself a Catholic. While the 1999 Smith clearly did not think that de-Christianization was a good thing, Dogma does not believe that institutionalized religion is the solution. The film’s underlying message is similar to the approach of Gen X-ers and millennials who stop going to church, yet call themselves “spiritual,” seeking meaning in yoga or mindfulness.
Two sound bites are critical to understanding the film. First, when Bethany asks the muse Serendipity which religion is correct, she is given this response: “It’s not about right or wrong – it’s a question of faith. It doesn’t matter what you believe in – just that you believe.” Later in the film, the thirteenth apostle Rufus states that having “ideas” is better than “beliefs,” because it is difficult to change beliefs, which tend to lead to religious wars.
The increasingly frequent “nones” in the United States hold similar views. They don’t like dogmatism, but most don’t want to be atheists. While “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins present life without religion as carefree and liberating, wiser atheist thinkers like Albert Camus knew that accepting a bleak reality in which there is no God, no life after death, and no real meaning to life is deeply depressing. Relatively few post-Christian young Americans want to accept such a conclusion.
Many of the film’s apocryphal contents – Jesus had siblings, there was a thirteenth apostle, and God is a woman – suggest that viewers should never be too trusting of religious dogmas. The notion that institutionalized faith is dangerous appears again later in the film, when Rufus and Bethany try to persuade Cardinal Glick to cancel the re-dedication ceremony, saying it would be a mistake. “The Church does not make mistakes!” he snaps. Rufus and Bethany claim otherwise, citing the Church’s alleged involvement in the slave trade and supposed passivity during the Holocaust.
Of course, both characterizations are simplistic. Starting with the Church fathers, including St. Augustine, the Church has for centuries opposed slavery (although, of course, some prelates and even popes were complicit in the enslavement of Africans and Amerindians). In 1537, Pope Paul III issued a bull incurring excommunication for those involved in that odious practice. Meanwhile, although Pope Pius XII was much more explicit in condemning Stalinist crimes than Nazi ones, he personally hid several thousand Jews in the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo and in the Vatican itself. Ironically, less than a year after Dogma’s release Pope St. John Paul II publicly apologized for sins of the people of the Church throughout the centuries.
More importantly, Smith clearly does not understand that while a perverted understanding of religious fervor can cause acts of intolerance, an unadulterated belief in Christ leads to extreme acts of love. Would the mere flexible “idea” that all humans are created in God’s image and thus deserving of love and dignity have led St. Damian to travel half the world to administer to the lepers at the colony of Molokai? Or inspire St. Maximilian Kolbe to voluntarily give his life for a fellow inmate in the hell of Auschwitz, spending two hungry weeks in a starvation bunker and ultimately being finished off with a lethal dose of carbolic acid? Such acts make no sense from the perspective of evolutionary biology.
Dogma shows that the Church has not only failed to educate Kevin Smith’s generation on truth and the complexities of its history. The film’s approach to abortion also shows how many people do not understand why it is morally problematic. When going to work, Bethany is insulted by protesters, who call her a “whore.” “Holy s—! It’s the pope!” she yells, and they naively believe her. Later, Jay and Silent Bob identify as pro-abortion: “A woman’s body is her own f—ing business.”
Many think that pro-lifers are gullible and hateful religious fanatics. But opposition to abortion, however, is not a religious matter; most pro-lifers oppose abortion on scientific grounds. One does not need to believe in any God to acknowledge the biological fact that brain waves are detectable six weeks after gestation and that therefore an abortion is not a procedure comparable to a tonsillectomy. The late Nat Hentoff, a legendary jazz critic for the Village Voice and a Jewish atheist , was pro-life. He got it. Unfortunately, Smith and among of his generation don’t get it.
Re-watching Dogma twenty years after its release, I found it to be a juvenile and sub-par film that gets boring in its second hour. However, from a sociological perspective, it is very instructive. If we want to re-evangelize two increasingly post-Christian generations of Americans, we need to know where they are misinformed about the faith. Despite its artistic shortcomings, Dogma is in many ways a manifesto of how Gen X-ers and millennials see and understand Christianity.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!