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kenmorefield

Are Christian Films Judged by a Double Standard

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Wasn't quite sure where to put this...and at least one pre-existing thread where it might logically fit was locked. Didn't want to high jack conversation about any particular current film. So I figured I'd link to this here

 

Christian films have a long way to go before they have earned the right to complain about being slighted. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the most popular films that could be included in that genre–The Blind Side, The Good Lie, Calvary–are often excluded from the conversation since some artists often don’t want to be associated with that label and segments of the audience always want the faith content to be more central and more explicit than it is. But conceding that faith-based films are often not very good doesn’t mean we can’t notice or comment on a tendency to be overly critical of them. Is there never a distinction to be made between average and terrible? Between “I didn’t care for it” and “worst movie ever”? Is it really that far out of line to ask whether, if (some? most? many?) critics hate every entry into a genre equally, they simply hate that genre?

 

 

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The Good Lie is "popular"? It only opened in limited release this weekend, and I believe the headline I saw said it had a "soft" opening.

But yes, there is probably a double-standard here. Recent debates over CT's review of Left Behind got me thinking about C.S. Lewis's maxim that only critics who appreciate a genre can be trusted to say what works and what doesn't within any entry in that genre.

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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The Good Lie is "popular"? It only opened in limited release this weekend, and I believe the headline I saw said it had a "soft" opening.

 

 

Well, I was thinking more along the lines that it was invited as part of the "special presentations" program at TIFF, had an 84% Fresh rating at RT and a 65% at Metacritic, got screened for critics in most areas (at least it did in Raleigh), etc. At the same time it got a mailer from Grace Hill with an endorsement from Rick Warren directed specifically at Christian media. Can't think of a film other than maybe The Blind Side that was embraced as much by faith audiences while still being esteemed by critics as a whole. 

Though, if the opening was soft and limited, and the push towards faith audiences was *after* release, that seems different to me than the "we must rally around this film" pre-release push one now associates with faith marketing.

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... I figured I'd link to this here

... But conceding that faith-based films are often not very good doesn’t mean we can’t notice or comment on a tendency to be overly critical of them ...

While I'd agree that there is a double-standard, I would argue that this is not it. It's not that critics are overly critical of "Christian" or "faith-based" films. These films, with Left Behind as a recent obvious example, are receiving the criticism they deserve. The double-standard comes into play when the same critics do not criticize many bad non-"faith-based" films for the same banalities and the same dumbed-down clumsy script-writing.

 

Recent debates over CT's review of Left Behind got me thinking about C.S. Lewis's maxim that only critics who appreciate a genre can be trusted to say what works and what doesn't within any entry in that genre.

You see, I don't think "faith-based" films qualify as a genre any more than bad propaganda films would qualify as one. I could see a respectable argument that Bible films qualify as their own genre (and it is one that I've have enjoyed seeing you specialize in reviewing), but I don't think a whole number of such films (whether directed by Cecil B. DeMille, George Stevens, Pier Paolo Pasolini or Darren Aronofsky) would qualify as "faith-based" - and they are not treated as such by the critics.

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Are Muslim and Hindu films also "faith-based", and if so, is there a double standard in play for them as well? I really don't know anything about such films, but I wonder. Is the recent LEFT BEHIND film a faith-based film? If so, what faith is it based on? And what films are not faith-based? I'm trying to think of some. Isn't it more fair to refer to GOD'S NOT DEAD, for example, as a Christian propaganda film? Are we too scared of the word "propaganda" to include that in a genre label. Anyway, these are very old questions, and "faith-based" seems like a vague, dissembling, throwaway label.

 

...but... if a film makes a claim, even via the genre is chooses, that it is about the most significant, most deep, and most profoundly existential questions any human can ever ask, and then also claims to offer the answer to those questions, it's no wonder someone would begin with a significant dose of skepticism and a "prove it to me" attitude before even seeing the film. Perhaps that is, at least, a part of the so-called double-standard if there is one. And if such films fail (by not asking the questions well, and by not answering them well), as so many of these faith-based films do, then anger and derision are not unforgivable reactions.

Edited by Tucker

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"Faith-based" is a marketing term more than anything else. But I do think there is a place for "Christian" films -- made by and for the Christian community -- the same way there is a place for Christian scriptures and Christian art, etc. (This would obviously exclude most Hollywood movies, like Noah and Heaven Is for Real, which are often not made by Christians and are always made with a broader audience in mind.) Some of it is good and some of it definitely isn't, but if you're going to dismiss the category out of hand, your comments about any particular specimen won't be that helpful.

To put this another way: I think Rapture theology is risible and dangerous, but I *love* Daniel Amos's Shotgun Angel medley, which is based on that theology. It's good art.

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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"Faith-based" is a marketing term more than anything else. But I do think there is a place for "Christian" films -- made by and for the Christian community -- the same way there is a place for Christian scriptures and Christian art, etc. (This would obviously exclude most Hollywood movies, like Noah and Heaven Is for Real, which are often not made by Christians and are always made with a broader audience in mind.) Some of it is good and some of it definitely isn't, but if you're going to dismiss the category out of hand, your comments about any particular specimen won't be that helpful.

To put this another way: I think Rapture theology is risible and dangerous, but I *love* Daniel Amos's Shotgun Angel medley, which is based on that theology. It's good art.

This is interesting to hear and it makes me want to think about this more deeply. The reason is because I don’t believe there is a place for “Christian” films or “Christian” art. I don’t believe the greatest works of religious art in world history were “made by and for the Christian community.” I’ll admit that T.S. Eliot’s essays have strongly influenced my opinion on this.

But I do find his arguments persuasive. Historically, even religiously themed works have not been (and should not be) designed only for the appreciation of some special, privileged or elect group. It would be theological error for any Christian to teach that God’s truth, goodness or beauty could be somehow presented in a way that only believers could enjoy. Of course, this has to do with one’s theological position on universals and the idea that every human being is created in the image of God.

There is a strong sense in which even works of art which were specifically designed for the outside or inside of a church building were not primarily designed to only be appreciated by believers. They were also designed to attract nonbelievers. Neither did the church insist on the artists necessarily being believers themselves. Instead, the church used the best artists they could find under the assumption that the higher the quality of the work itself, then the greater glory to God.

To argue that there can be “Christian” art is to take a theological position I’m uncomfortable with.

Besides, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy both arguably had some theology that was risible and/or dangerous, but they still designed works based on theology which qualified as good art without being designed only for believers.

 

I'm glad you've questioned this though, because now you're forcing me to re-evaluate the issue, which I think for me has been due for a re-evaluation.

 

Edited to add: The reason I haven't moved this to a different thread is because I think this question profoundly affects the question of "Christian" art being judged by a double-standard.  If "Christian" art is criticized more harshly than just art, that may not be a bad thing if there is something fundamentally and theologically wrong with the very idea of "Christian" art in the first place.

Edited by J.A.A. Purves

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I'm not particularly interested in who has "the greatest works of art". Church icons, for example, serve a particular religious function that is obscured if all we're asking ourselves is whether they can compete with works of art produced outside the church. And in the Orthodox tradition, at least, the "writing" of icons is supposed to be accompanied by prayer, so I think it would matter very much if the artist was a believer.


"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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(This would obviously exclude most Hollywood movies, like Noah and Heaven Is for Real, which are often not made by Christians and are always made with a broader audience in mind.) 

 

I'm sure that would be news to T. D. Jakes, Todd Burpo, and Randall Wallace. 

 

Certainly any attempts to define this genre beyond "I know it when I see it" would probably require some grappling with auteur theory since it probably isn't possible that every person involved in a production identifies as Christian. But when you have the producer, the story writer, and the director...

Agree on the second half, though. These films at least *attempt* to engage a broader audience. (Whether they succeed or not is an open question.) But I also think they both *attempt* to particularly or peculiarly engage the Christian audience.,So perhaps one of the open questions for defining the genre is whether it a work must be directed exclusively (or primarily) addressed to Christians or whether it need only be peculiarly or particularly directed to them, amongst others. 

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J.A.A Purves said:  But I do find his arguments persuasive. Historically, even religiously themed works have not been (and should not be) designed only for the appreciation of some special, privileged or elect group. It would be theological error for any Christian to teach that God’s truth, goodness or beauty could be somehow presented in a way that only believers could enjoy. 

 

-

 

I largely agree with this, although I can say that from watching the reactions of those whom I've screened my own short film for, and chatting with them afterwords, it has become evident to me that only Christians, and even to some degree those with deeper Christian maturity are grasping some of the deeper meanings and questions in the film, or for that matter seeing that these are there to be wrestled with in the first place.  

 

The film IS very much intended for a wide audience, but it was also intended to be layered and people seem to be able to grasp the deeper layers in accordance with where their Christian understanding is at.  The whole intention was of course to have layers of meaning that were just outside of some people's reach in order to provoke them to pursue, think and question these things, so I'm actually fine with not everybody grasping everything, especially at first viewing.

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"Faith-based" is a marketing term more than anything else. But I do think there is a place for "Christian" films -- made by and for the Christian community -- the same way there is a place for Christian scriptures and Christian art, etc. 

To argue that there can be “Christian” art is to take a theological position I’m uncomfortable with.

 

 

 

I have always tended to agree with this, though I now often wrestle with examples of what I think PTC may be referring to. I have attended a church that developed short cinematic clips specifically designed for a liturgical/worshipful setting in a church service. These were often linked with the didactic component of a sermon and would help transition the community from a pose of listening to a pose of worship/response.

 

These become more subject to description as icons, perhaps.


"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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kenmorefield wrote:
: I'm sure that would be news to T. D. Jakes . . . and Randall Wallace.

 

Or DeVon Franklin, sure. That's why I said these films are "often", not "always", made by non-Christians. Either way, the film watered down the evangelical Christianity of the book -- and even contradicted the evangelical Christianity of the book -- in order to appeal to as broad an audience as possible.

 

: But when you have the producer, the story writer, and the director...

 

The producer who optioned the book and got the ball rolling was Joe Roth, a non-Christian who played a part in getting prayer banned from public schools back in the '60s (which isn't necessarily a bad thing from a separation-of-church-and-state point of view, but is certainly kind of amusing in light of his involvement with this film and his efforts to market this film to a particular audience).

 

And Todd Burpo was not the screenwriter, the director was.


"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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J.A.A Purves said:  But I do find his arguments persuasive. Historically, even religiously themed works have not been (and should not be) designed only for the appreciation of some special, privileged or elect group. It would be theological error for any Christian to teach that God’s truth, goodness or beauty could be somehow presented in a way that only believers could enjoy. 

 

-

 

I largely agree with this, although I can say that from watching the reactions of those whom I've screened my own short film for, and chatting with them afterwords, it has become evident to me that only Christians, and even to some degree those with deeper Christian maturity are grasping some of the deeper meanings and questions in the film, or for that matter seeing that these are there to be wrestled with in the first place.  

 

 

 

Well Jesus said "he who has ears to hear..." which implies to me that some do not. The sower sows the seed on all ground, but it's not going to bear fruit on all ground. Not to channel David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, but I'm hard pressed to see how God's truth goodness or beauty could be presented in a way that non-believers could enjoy. It would be to me like suggesting that the only seed that is God's seed is the type that grows in all soils.

I don't profess to understand a lot of the Bible's teachings in these areas, but I do think there are places where a distinction is made between those inside and those outside. To the pure all things are pure; to those outside, everything is parables. etc.... I've certainly heard preachers claim that a good sermon can have elements that are specifically directed at Christians and not be at all evangelical (directed to those outside) just as a sermon can be entirely evangelical and offer little to the person who is already saved. I'm not sure why art should be any different. If I make my movie in French, it is directed towards French speakers and privileges them in a way a movie in English does not, doesn't it? That's not to say that non-French speakers cannot understand my movie or get anything out of it, but I would be hard pressed to say I made it for them. And if it was perceived (rightly or wrongly) that most movies were made in English, my decision to make it in French might be motivated by a desire to serve or reach an audience that I thought was too often asked to do the work of translation rather than having something in their own language that others could translate (or not) if they cared to do so. 

 

 

And Todd Burpo was not the screenwriter, the director was.

 

 

Yes, that's why I said "story" writer. He didn't write the screenplay, but he had (if we believe him) influence over who did, and thus influence over it. But it sounds like we are on the same same page.
Edited by kenmorefield

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kenmorefield said:  Well Jesus said "he who has ears to hear..." which implies to me that some do not. The sower sows the seed on all ground, but it's not going to bear fruit on all ground. Not to channel David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, but I'm hard pressed to see how God's truth goodness or beauty could be presented in a way that non-believers could enjoy. It would be to me like suggesting that the only seed that is God's seed is the type that grows in all soils.

I don't profess to understand a lot of the Bible's teachings in these areas, but I do think there are places where a distinction is made between those inside and those outside. To the pure all things are pure; to those outside, everything is parables. etc....

 

 

-

 

Completely agree.  This was part of my understanding when making the film.  I do think in this that a "seed" (being a layer in the film - in this particular case) can also spur a heart on to a deeper understanding, that can be retained or lost depending on that particular "ground", at least at the time.   In this I also believe that Holy Spirit can be working alongside a piece of art, literature, music, or what have you, giving people a little "nudge" here and there.

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perhaps this goes here: How Christian Critics are Killing the Christian Film Industry

 

there's just too much in this article/rant that disturbs me to offer any comments on it

 

Wow.

 

I love the current caption to the hammer graphic: "How Christian Critics are Killing the Christian"


P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

"Forget it, Jake. It's Funkytown."    

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I really wish those who complain about the treatment of Christian films to expand their idea of Christian.  That would mean there are a whole lot more Christian films than they think.


A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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Darrel Manson wrote:
: I really wish those who complain about the treatment of Christian films to expand their idea of Christian.  That would mean there are a whole lot more Christian films than they think.

 

Care to expand on that? (So to speak!)

 

Earlier today I was reading Alissa Wilkinson's response to the backlash against CT's Left Behind review, and she made a comment that kind of puzzled me, in which she said that "Christian film" sometimes refers to films like This Is Martin Bonner, Calvary and Tree of Life on the one hand and it sometimes refers to stuff like God's Not Dead on the other hand. And I found myself wondering who ever uses the term "Christian film" to mean that first category. People certainly do use those films to put down the second category, as examples of what *could* be considered "Christian films" if only we got our minds out of that second-category ghetto. But when does anyone call them "Christian films", without qualification, as a general categorization?


"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Earlier today I was reading Alissa Wilkinson's response to the backlash against CT's Left Behind review, and she made a comment that kind of puzzled me, in which she said that "Christian film" sometimes refers to films like This Is Martin Bonner, Calvary and Tree of Life on the one hand and it sometimes refers to stuff like God's Not Dead on the other hand. And I found myself wondering who ever uses the term "Christian film" to mean that first category. People certainly do use those films to put down the second category, as examples of what *could* be considered "Christian films" if only we got our minds out of that second-category ghetto. But when does anyone call them "Christian films", without qualification, as a general categorization?

 

I can't speak for Alissa, but I suspect she meant that critics/marketers (and maybe artists?) sometimes try to expand that term. If there is an expectation that a journalist/venue ought to cover (or champion good) "Christian" films, pointing at or including such films is a defense of sorts that says, in effect, "we/I do."

Calvary did get a push from publicists specifically directed at Christian media. 

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Calvary did get a push from publicists specifically directed at Christian media. 

 

 

Yeah. If my inbox is any indicator, the notion of what will appeal to the "Christian" demographic is expanding such that I now get invites/screeners for films because of their "religious" or "Christian" content that I would not have in the past. 


"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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Marketers don't call them "Christian films", though. Their bosses would never allow them to pigeonhole or ghettoize those films like that.


"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Wasn't quite sure where to put this...and at least one pre-existing thread where it might logically fit was locked. Didn't want to high jack conversation about any particular current film. So I figured I'd link to this here

 

Christian films have a long way to go before they have earned the right to complain about being slighted. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the most popular films that could be included in that genre–The Blind Side, The Good Lie, Calvary–are often excluded from the conversation since some artists often don’t want to be associated with that label and segments of the audience always want the faith content to be more central and more explicit than it is. But conceding that faith-based films are often not very good doesn’t mean we can’t notice or comment on a tendency to be overly critical of them. Is there never a distinction to be made between average and terrible? Between “I didn’t care for it” and “worst movie ever”? Is it really that far out of line to ask whether, if (some? most? many?) critics hate every entry into a genre equally, they simply hate that genre?

 

 

Ken, this is a really excellent piece of work.  I appreciate your insight into the various critical styles. I especially like this quote, "The perfect Christian film was once described to me by a studio executive as one that faith audiences saw as explicitly directed towards them but that non-faith audiences would be comfortable viewing and not feel excluded from. Whether such a film even theoretically existed was–and is–an open question. The executive’s use of the metaphor for a “sweet spot” on a baseball bat indicated that if it did, its balance between announcing and hiding its faith focus would be a delicate one."

Edited by HJMLedman

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Marketers don't call them "Christian films", though. Their bosses would never allow them to pigeonhole or ghettoize those films like that.

 

Yes, but just speaking to Ken's comment above. A boss is going to want a marketer to publicize a film, even when it means using words like "religious" or "Christian" content in a personal email to a potential reviewer they know may be ideologically attracted to those kinds of terms.

 

 

Ken, this is a really excellent piece of work.  I appreciate your insight into the various critical styles.

 

It is the most sensible and self-reflective thing I have read on the question. It has now made me start thinking about who gets to call something a "Christian film" more clearly and why they would want to do so.

 

I find the Left Behind case he mentions fascinating because a critic has no ownership over the religious symbols they are responding to in a work of art. A critic can attempt to "disown" a film as a "Christian" film through a review by claiming that it abuses its religious symbols/narratives, or produces an errant symbolic world. But this assumes that they have some sort of ownership over the religious imagery in the first place.

 

So there are several types of critical pathways here, a few of which are problematic:

 

1. A non-Christian critic carte blanche saying all Christian films are bad for formal/technical reasons (as there are exceptions).

2. A non-Christian critic carte blanche saying all Christian films are bad for ideological/thematic reasons (as this does not adequately engage a film on its own terms).

3. A Christian critic carte blanche saying all Christian films are bad for formal/technical reasons (as there are exceptions).

4. A Christian critic saying a Christian film is bad for ideological/thematic reasons.

5. A Christian critic saying a film containing Christian symbols/narratives (Tree of Life) is bad for formal/technical reasons.

6. A Christian critic saying a film containing Christian symbols/narratives (Tree of Life) is bad for ideological/thematic reasons.

 

There may be more, but 4 is a uniquely problematic one. Perhaps Left Behind really is a good pre-trib film (assume for the sake of argument it is). The fact that you have a theological disagreement with it is not a film-critical statement. It is a church-historical judgment that is okay to make as long is it isn't construed as an aesthetic judgment. That is using cultural-critical language as a form of power or control - essentially the whole post-critical nightmare. (I believe this is partly what Ken was pointing out? Please correct me if I am wrong.)

Edited by M. Leary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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Yes, but just speaking to Ken's comment above. A boss is going to want a marketer to publicize a film, even when it means using words like "religious" or "Christian" content in a personal email to a potential reviewer they know may be ideologically attracted to those kinds of terms.

 

It is the most sensible and self-reflective thing I have read on the question. It has now made me start thinking about who gets to call something a "Christian film" more clearly and why they would want to do so.

Absolutely right!  Who calls something Christian depends entirely on what they want to gain from labling it.

 

A secular filmmaker or publicist wouldn't dare call something Christian unless they wanted that particular audience to buy tickets.  Even then, they might hesitate because it commits them to a standard they may not want to subscribe to (many Christians won't watch it if it isn't doctrinally "sound," according to them anyway, or it may be categorized in a genre associated with poor production quality).

 

A Christian filmmaker or publicist absolutely would call it that, because that is their target demographic and they obviously want to include their primary demographic in their marketing.

 

A movie critic could go either way.  If they don't want people to support it because they honestly disagree with the premise or feel that their faith is being misrepresented (to which you make a good point-- "their" faith, not the faith of the entire Christian community, which has largely differing views on hundreds of topics besides eschatology - take Heaven Is For Real, for example), then they may call it "not Christian." OR if they feel it reaches into some segment of the Christian population that will connect with it (like Pre-Trib folks), they may say it is.

Edited by HJMLedman

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