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

November 10, 1999|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

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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