Compile a short list of great religious satirists in our day and Kevin Smith will not appear on it. Smith is known more for films laced with profanities, sexual fixations, and the yin-yang slapstick team of Silent Bob (Smith) and his rarely silent friend, Jay (Jason Mewes), who appear as side characters in three of Smiths earlier movies—Clerks (1994), Mallrats (1995), and Chasing Amy (1997). Smith is a lifelong Catholic who dabbled in Calvary Chapel for a time, but now says he has returned to regular attendance at a Catholic parish. "Everyones there because theyre afraid to go to hell," Smith said of his fellow Catholics in a 1997 interview with Zug, an online humor magazine ( Dogma is the latest chapter in a never-ending story: A director shoots a provocative film that seems to attack either Jesus or Christianity (The Life of Brian, 1979; The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988; Jesus of Montreal, 1989; Priest, 1994). Various Christians protest loudly or organize boycotts. The film earns far more box-office profits and critical attention than it would have without the controversy, and the church stumbles ahead until the next broadside.Christians are sometimes tempted to suppress a film (Last Temptation) or to comment on films they have no intention of seeing. Perhaps it would be easier to consider attacks on Christian faith preferable to apathy—but Christians can hardly be faulted for objecting when they believe the attacks are more against Jesus himself than against the faith.After several months of resistance from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Dogma seems like a wimpy target. Smith takes his shots at the Catholic Church, but mostly through the pitifully modernist and publicity-mad Cardinal Glick (George Carlin), who unveils a winking, thumbs-up Buddy Jesus statue and asks, "Doesnt it pop?"Some of the more poignant statements come through Bartle by (Ben Affleck), one of two angels ejected from heaven and trying to sneak back in. "[God] gave them more than he ever gave us," an enraged Bartleby says of humans. "He gave them a choice."A scene in which Bartleby and his fellow fallen angel Loki (Matt Damon) confront a boardroom filled with evil white male corporate executives—the promoters of Mooby the Golden Calf—offers the righteous indignation of prophets, but then descends into a mere bloodbath.When Smith tries to transmit deep thoughts through Rufus (Chris Rock), a "thirteenth apostle" excluded from the Gospels because he was black, or through a muse named Serendipity (Salma Hayek), the menu is suddenly Syncretism Lite."It doesnt matter what you have faith in," Serendipity says. "What matters is that you have faith."Rufus announces that religious thoughts are good, but an "organized belief system" is manmade and self-evidently bad. If only Augustine had known! He could have graced the world with McKuenesque couplet rhymes rather than Confessions.Despite these flaws, Dogma becomes an oddly touching film, especially when Smith resolves the battle between good and evil. Rock singer Alanis Morissette portrays a God who shows tender regard for creatures and Creation, but also does not shrink from executing divine justice. (The novelty of Alanis Morissette playing God is not as PC or shocking as it seemed when early versions of the Dogma script appeared on the Internet.)Smiths other heroes are a different story. Silent Bob and Jay appear as prophets, but Jay has the relentlessly vulgar mouth of a man who considers a skin magazine philosophical reading.Dogma poses honest questions about the problem of individual suffering and resolves those questions with less nuance than even a TV evangelist. (Rufus informs us that TV evangelists are, like bigotry and war, blights on the world.) Dogma is so knee jerk in its anti-dogmatism that it becomes sentimentality.Contrary to the theological aphorisms of the ersatz apostle Rufus, God does not shrug and settle for people believing whatever they like, so long as they are sincere about it. Even the script of Dogma makes no sense if God is a theological libertarian.Anyone looking to Dogma for more than comic relief will come up mostly empty, although Kevin Smith shows nascent gifts as a visual stylist and a storyteller. If he can ever write about sex with more maturity than a boy who has memorized every naughty sentence he ever read in Playboy, Smith may even make a great film someday.Related ElsewhereSee our earlier review of Dogma, "Smile, God Loves You!" and our coverage of what other Christian critics are saying about the film, both by Steve Lansingh. Also see our Amassed Media piece looking at Kevin Smith's media blitz.January 10, 2000, Vol. 44, No. 1, Page 80

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