Chasing Catholicism : Kevin Smith was in search of his Catholic faith when he created 'Dogma.' Now, others are after him.

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Kevin Smith is talking about the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility. He's fondly recounting how his eighth-grade religion teacher, Sister Theresa, sparked his hunger for deeper inquiry into topics like the lives of the saints and the Gnostic gospels.

He's even talking--seriously--about becoming a deacon after his movie-making days are over so he can use his gift of gab to sell Jesus in a hip and passionate way. This is the same 29-year-old wunderkind whose films--from "Clerks" to "Chasing Amy"--typically feature a crude stew of gross-out humor, comic-book fantasies and ribald references to sex, drugs and flatulence?

The fact is, Smith considers himself a good Catholic, even a "religious nut" of sorts. The writer-director sees his new comedy, "Dogma," which opens Friday, as a reverent act of faith: questioning some of organized Christianity's man-made doctrines but exuberantly affirming the existence and benevolence of God.

That his passion has been, in his eyes, so profoundly misunderstood by those who see "Dogma" as a blasphemous mockery of Catholicism perturbs, puzzles, and yes, pains him.

"It's a bit disconcerting because you're trying to do the work of Christ . . . to go out there and spread the good word," Smith said in an interview this week. "I don't make a movie like 'Dogma' to make fun of the Catholic Church. I talk about stuff in 'Dogma' to make the church more human so people aren't so put off by it. Faith is something you can attain."

Plenty of people don't seem to buy his vision. Smith and his film have been the target of hate mail, demonstrations and even a few death threats that have rattled him into fearing for the safety of his wife and 4-month-old daughter.

Smith's main nemesis, the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has taken out newspaper protest ads, distributed thousands of critical pamphlets and circulated petitions demanding that the Walt Disney Co. dump Miramax Films, the film's original distributor. Under fire, Miramax co-chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein bought back the rights to the film earlier this year for a sum reportedly between $10 million and $14 million and sold it to Lions Gate Films.

"The entire plot is one situation after another of making fun of the Catholic faith," declared Patrick Scully, spokesman for the 350,000-member Catholic League.

He acknowledged that he has not yet seen the film and defended league President William Donohue's refusal to call Smith directly to discuss their objections. Both points are sore spots with Smith, who sees the public attacks without consultation as un-Christian.

Father Gregory Coiro of the Los Angeles Archdiocese said the casting itself gives him pause: a cardinal played by George Carlin, who routinely spices his comedy acts with jabs at Catholicism; God played by Alanis Morissette, a rock star known for singing the praises of oral sex. The U.S. Catholic Conference gave the film its worst rating of "O": morally offensive for its "anti-religious japes, some intense violence, sexual references, substance abuse, assorted vulgarities, profanity and recurring rough language."

Film's Serious Intent Gets Wacky Characters

Ironically, the controversy the film has sparked was not the one Smith expected.

From the start, the New Jersey comic-book fiend envisioned his film about two fallen angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) looking for a loophole to get back to heaven as a way to explore serious questions of faith. But to connect with his congregation--mostly the unchurched, cynical under-30 set--he needed to use a hip and humorous lingua franca.

"I always wanted to do something that celebrated or validated faith for someone of my age without seeming corny or hackneyed or a bunch of baloney," says Smith, cutting a casually incongruous figure in baggy shorts and a clown T-shirt amid the formal Asian elegance of a Beverly Hills hotel suite. "If I was going to do that, I wasn't going to be making 'The Song of Bernadette.' "

Instead, it meant peppering his film with wacky and irreverent characters: a protagonist who works in an abortion clinic (Linda Fiorentino), a 13th apostle cut out of the Bible because he's black (Chris Rock), a stripper muse (Salma Hayek) and two pot-smoking prophets (Jason Mewes and Smith himself in roles similar to the ones they originated in "Clerks"). It also meant throwing in Smith's usual sexual and scatological asides--including a rubber poop monster--to sweeten the film's deadly serious sermonizing.

The movie traverses delicate theological terrain regarding God's gender, Jesus' skin color, Christ's bloody crucifixion as a central symbol of Catholicism. It asserts that Mary and Joseph had sex and produced siblings of Jesus. (That position is accepted by Protestants but rejected, Coiro said, by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, which hold that Mary was a perpetual virgin.) The film also takes on some of the church's more shameful moments, such as its passive posture toward slavery and the Holocaust.

What Smith feared most wasn't upsetting older, traditional Catholics like Donohue. He figured they never went to see his movies anyway. What he sweated over was losing his core fans. Would they see the film and think: "What happened to the 'Clerks' guy? He used to be funny but now he's become a Jesus freak."

But Smith was willing to take that risk, he says, because if he can't say something personal and meaningful, what's the point of making movies? And what could be more meaningful than an affirmation of God?

In fact, he says he deliberately did "Dogma" now to capitalize on his critical acclaim accrued from "Chasing Amy." A movie about Catholicism--not exactly a sure box-office bet--might not be as possible a few years down the road, should his popularity wane. And he figures he's only in movies for a limited time--his Web site says he'll make 10 films at most--and plans to bail out the minute he runs out of things to say.

"I figured if this was going to be the kamikaze to the career, in terms of losing all the people who like our stuff because it's funny, might as well do it now," Smith said. "At least it will be for something worthwhile: talking about God."

The germ of his idea came during a time of spiritual disillusionment in his early 20s, when he sat through too many homilies that seemed more about condemning sinners than extending Christian love. He saw people in church listlessly droning the Apostles' Creed, writing checks or even napping. It seemed they were in church because they feared hell more than desired heaven. What was the church doing to inspire and invigorate the faithful, he wondered.

So Smith left the Catholic Church for awhile and checked out the more exuberantly evangelical Calvary Chapel ministries. But after coming to the conclusion that Calvary did not have all the answers either, he returned to his lifelong faith: "At the end of the day, I decided it was better to be Catholic because I knew when to stand and kneel," he quipped.

He has gone over it again and again and again, in internal discussions with himself and God. Did he do the right thing with "Dogma"? Or is he wildly deluding himself? He even considered, however briefly, his critics' contentions that he was actually inspired by Satan. But every time he asks, the answer comes back: Yes, it was right.

So the film's protagonist, Bethany, is a descendant in Jesus' family tree? Why not? The gospel of Mark says Jesus had siblings, even names them, Smith notes. (Coiro said, however, that the Catholic Church officially believes the word "brother" was used only because Jesus' original Aramaic language lacked a word for the more accurate rendering, cousin.)

So Bethany works in an abortion clinic? So what? This, Smith says, is a classic Christian tale of a sinner's redemption through faith in God.

So the Jesus of "Dogma" is black? Plenty of historical evidence indicates the messiah had deep bronze skin and hair like lambs' wool, he says.

In any case, he is at peace with himself about it all. "I'm not saying the church is bad," Smith says, "just that God is better."

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