Twenty years ago, filmmaker Kevin Smith released his most controversial film to date. Following his initial ‘New Jersey trilogy’ of comedies, Dogma was a religious comedy that garnered attention for its portrayal of Christianity, the Bible, and the Roman Catholic Church.
Set in New Jersey, the film follows two rogue angels who were kicked out of heaven, never to return. Having found a loophole in Catholic Church dogma, they plan to return by entering a church with the promise of forgiveness for anyone who does so. Should they do this, they risk undoing reality entirely, as it would technically prove God to be wrong. It falls on a small ragtag group of people to stop them, including the last remaining relative of Jesus (Linda Fiorentino), an apostle left out of the Bible because he was black (Chris Rock) an angel (played by the late Alan Rickman), and two stoners (Jay Mewes and Kevin Smith).
As the above description shows, Dogma had much that could be said to be offensive to Christian’s sensibilities. And yet, the film served as the basis for discussion of theology. Particularly insightful is the concept that people should hold to ideas that they are willing to depart from should more evidence surface, whereas rigid adherence to beliefs may serve to only foster misunderstanding and resentment among believers. In 2019, this irenic message seems to hold more resonance, and not less.
While it is easy to disagree with some of Dogma’s suggestions (women left out of scripture because of their gender, for instance, is an easy argument to dismantle) this functioned at the time as a chance for many to consider the process of how the Bible came to be. The film is witty and thoughtful, and yet at other points immature, in keeping with Smith’s intent not to make a didactic piece. The thoughtful discussion that the film provides on faith not being the same as certainty is counterbalanced by a rubber poo monster that threatens the heroes in the second act.
For all the controversy it caused, Smith has long pointed out that the film was not a serious, didactic effort. Dogma begins with a long, detailed disclaimer that observes the film is meant to be taken as a “comedic fantasy” and that “passing judgement is for God and God alone (this goes for you film critics too…just kidding)”.
The furor surrounding Dogma was widespread in Catholic circles, but did not make its way to official channels. While the activist Catholic Church League did condemn the film in strong terms, the Vatican never issued an official response.
Smith was the target of several protests and at least two death threats. For his part, the filmmaker insisted that, as a devout Catholic himself, he did not take the protests too seriously. In one of his Evening with Kevin Smith events, he told the story of joining one such protest himself, incognito.
While Smith would occasionally talk up a possible Dogma sequel, he does not have a desire to make any more religious films, confirming in 2017 that it will not happen.
Twenty years on, Dogma also stands out as a rare film
that is not available on digital platforms, something of an anomaly that Smith
has attributed to a distribution deal that was struck.
Twenty years on, it is also worth noting that Dogma’s wider legacy can be seen in more recent examples of religious comedies that followed. These include the recent comic book series Second Coming. Originally slated to be released by DC/Vertigo, the series will now instead be released by Ahoy! Comics after controversy over its content that echoed the furore Dogma generated.
In 2017, Smith suffered a life-threatening heart attack, prompting the director to adopt a new diet and lose weight. The event was the subject of another religious controversy, this time precipitated by actor Chris Pratt calling on Twitter to pray for Smith. In the wake of gun violence in Florida, the term thoughts and prayers has taken on meanings of inaction, but the filmmaker expressed his gratitude for Pratt’s prayerful support.
Dogma is rated MA 15+ and is available on DVD and Blu Ray.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor