Losing My Religion: The Rapture (1991)

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The Rapture, written and directed by Michael Tolkin, and starring Mimi Rogers in a stunning (and unprecedented, for her) performance, is a harrowing experience which seems to come from out of a clear blue sky. It is noticeably low-budget (there are no extras, it is mostly interiors, and the special effects are often fudged), but that adds to its gritty brutal (and also dreamlike) atmosphere. If there were more money, perhaps the special effects would be more elaborate, but something essential would be lost. The End Days are here, in The Rapture, and the Book of Revelations gives us many frightening and beautiful images of what that will be like. A CGI-fanatic would have a field day with some of those passages. In The Rapture the end of the world and the second coming is merely suggested (and quite effectively), and it keeps the focus where it should be: on the story at hand and the philosophical and moral implications at stake, as well as the raw relentless fearless performance by Mimi Rogers at the center of it. It’s one of the best pieces of acting I have ever seen.

The Rapture is Tolkin’s first film as a director. He was finding his way, learning as he went. Rogers said that she and Tolkin did a two month “emotional intensive” before shooting. They would meet in a big warehouse space, and Tolkin would give her acting exercises – playing snippets of music and having her react, with her body (allowing no forethought, no planning: just go). He wanted her stripped down to her essentials, he wanted her without protection. He also sensed in her, the person, a kind and caretaking impulse, and he wanted her to get past that in order to play the character. Mimi Rogers, in real life, is a person with good manners, who is always consumed with making other people feel comfortable. Tolkin wanted her to look at that, and also leave that OUT of the character. Tolkin and she would go out to breakfast together and he would say to her, “I want you to see what it feels like to not say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ when you are talking to the waiter.” Rogers found the exercise so painful. It went against everything she believed in, but it gave her the narcissism and selfishness of the character’s psychology. The private work they did before filming pays off, and tenfold.

Sharon, the character, is a woman who negotiates her empty life with an almost agonizing buzz of unacknowledged pain at the heart of every moment. Her life is about narcotizing that pain through random sex, cigarettes, booze, pushing herself further and further into experiences – orgies, swinging, anything goes … because she is unable to feel anything. Something in her has been cauterized. Perhaps she was always this way, or perhaps the years have done a number on her, deadening her to joy and beauty. The reasons for why she is the way she is are left out. It’s part of the film’s power. Knowing that Mimi Rogers is not actually like Sharon, in real life, makes her performance even more astonishing. There are hard edges to Sharon, a coldness, a detached amusement at the foibles and follies of her fellow man. She has no compassion.

Mimi Rogers said a very interesting thing about her character, “You know how it is when you’re in great pain. People who are in great pain are very selfish – it’s so difficult to look around and see other people and realize what they might be going through when you’re in so much pain …”

So that was how she approached Sharon, in the first half of the film.

I don’t want to say too much about the film, because watching it unfold is part of its horror and power. Sharon is a telephone operator, who spends her nights cruising the streets of Los Angeles with her corrupt “boyfriend”, looking for couples to seduce. In this way she meets an aimless yet kind of sweet guy named Randy (played by David Duchovny, in one of his first major roles). The sex is graphic in The Rapture, graphic and yet totally un-erotic. Sharon can’t get “lost” in sex, because there’s nothing really in her that COULD get lost. She is a shell of a person. So the orgy goes on, and at the heart of it is Sharons’ barely-hidden contempt for everyone and everything. Interspersed with these lush disturbing sex scenes, are scenes that take place in the cold clinical bank of cubicles, where Sharon sits, redirecting calls, monotonously. The juxtaposition fills the screen with emptiness.

Sharon’s apartment is all beige, with nothing in it besides furniture. No pictures on the wall, the kitchen looks unused, it’s not a lived-in space. All of the spaces in this film have an eerie unearthly look to them – and perhaps that was partly due to the lack of money for big-time set decoration and production design – but it ends up working. Sharon is not IN this world. She is connected to nothing.

Randy (Duchovny) is lost, too. In a key scene, he confesses to her one night that he once killed a man for a thousand dollars.

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Sharon is incapable of connection, not just with her fellow man, but with herself. Randy wonders if we would think that murder was wrong if we were not taught that murder was wrong. It’s a level of conversation Sharon finds irritating. It demands too much. Watching Mimi Rogers deal with Duchovny in this scene is to watch an actress who is not “acting”. She IS Sharon, reacting as Sharon would react – and therefore it is unpredictable and without cliches.

Through a couple of haunting encounters and overheard conversations, Sharon begins to feel like something is coming. Some event. She overhears things. People whisper at the lunch table in the cafeteria and then stop whispering when she sits down with them. Something is going on, something everyone else seems to know about. She overhears something about “the pearl”, something about “the boy”. What is it? What does it mean? She wonders if maybe she is missing out. She wants to be a part of the group, the group that whispers together in the lunch room.

Two men in ties show up at her door to tell her about the final days, and that she needs to be prepared.

The film goes into a realm that few films go into and it is astonishing to watch. It takes the Book of Revelations literally, and because of that the characters do not come off (as they usually do in movies) as caricatures. Religion is treated in a condescending manner in a lot of films, and here, the ballast is stripped away, and “religion” separates itself from “churches” and “organized religion”, and becomes an evocation of a LIVING faith, almost a living organism, breathing and pulsing in the air, leaving a wide wake around her. She scoffs at the message given by the two men at the door (which is not, let’s remember, a message of love. It is a message of “repent or else …”) and yet she keeps engaging them in conversation. Something in her wants to know. The scene is amazing. You keep waiting for the judgmental caricatures to arise, you keep waiting for the filmmaker to start making fun of these people … but Tolkin is up to something else here. It’s disorienting at first, and I remember my first reaction to the film: it so upended convention that I wasn’t sure where I was for the first hour of it. I’m not a literal Biblical fundamentalist by any means, but it was riveting to see a film that took them at their word. The film is not outside. The film does not sneer at such people. And so the proselytizers who show up at her door are not fire-breathing dragons. They are quite gentle, and understanding … One of them looks at Sharon and says (without condescension), “I used to be like you.” Sharon snorts with contempt. “I doubt it.” It is the lack of snotty condescension that moves this film into another realm, a realm of actual exploration and examination.

Sharon experiences a conversion. It is total and complete.

I hesitate to say more.

For me, the film is, when you get right down to it, about Mimi Rogers’ face. Its transformations, its naked pain, its fearless openness. At times it is hard to look at her.

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She experiences the love of God for the first time, and her entire life transforms. She turns a corner. Nothing fits anymore. And you can see the change in her face. You see softness there, joy. She sits at her telephone operator cubicle – and tries to spread the good news to the poor folks looking for the number of the ASPCA in Oakland. She is supposed to spend a maximum amount of 15 seconds on each call. Her calls are now averaging 7 minutes. Her boss calls her into his office to reprimand her. Now. For me, this was the most important scene in the film, and one that is so deftly handled – so delicately set up – that its power is so subtle you might miss it. Rogers said about this scene in the commentary, “Your vulnerability blossoms when someone shows you kindness.”

We all know what the cliche is for such scenes: Gruff boss man who has no understanding tells his employee to knock the shit off. And to some degree, yes, that is how the scene begins. But The Rapture coudn’t be less interested in cliches. Mimi Rogers does not play Sharon simply. She isn’t suddenly on her high horse, shouting, “I’m saved and you’re not!” She does not judge her fellow man. No. Just like the gentle man who showed up at her door and said, “I used to be like you …” she now knows that she holds a precious gift that needs to be shared. It is quite urgent. Not just the message of God’s love but the message of the final days. People need to be prepared. These are difficult things to play. One wrong step and the entire thing would unravel. Mimi Rogers does not take the easy way out. There is not one moment of “attitude” (which is what a college acting professor used to call cliched acting. “Get rid of the ‘attitude’,” he’d say to an actor who was taking the easy way out by going with a caricature rather than something real). Rogers almost pleads with her boss. Watch how he responds. And watch how she responds in turn. THAT is why this film is difficult and awesome. THAT scene.

The Book of Revelations is not a metaphor. It is actually a set of instructions and a warning: “Here is how it’s gonna go.” Never once does Tolkin step outside saying, “Heh heh, look at these nutbags …” He follows events to their most logical conclusion. And it’s not pretty.

This is not an easy film. For anyone. It’s infuriating. I found it nearly unwatchable at times, it made me so mad and edgy. It’s confrontational. Good. Films SHOULD be confrontational. If you’re the type of person who snickers at people who are religious, who sees all religions as a kind of cult, who writes people off who believe in such things – then this film will be totally confrontational, because you will never get a break and Tolkin never winks at you, saying, “Don’t worry … I’m with you …” I have no idea what Tolkin believes, and I couldn’t be less interested. In this story, in this movie, to these people, the Book of Revelations is literal, and so he follows that path. If you’re the type of person who believes wholly in a God of love and compassion, who doesn’t think too much about the final days, and who believes that good works are just as important as faith, then this film will drive you up the wall. Because it has no interest in your kumbaya hippie-dippie “isn’t love enough?” concerns. Tolkin decides to believe that they mean what they say. Whether or not he believes it in actuality is irrelevant. The Rapture examines what it would be like if you believed it. I suppose too if you’re one of those “I’m saved and you’re not” people, you would also find the film deeply confrontational, because Sharon’s journey has nothing to do with snotty pride or putting herself above others. And she pays a horrible price for her belief. As horrible as can be imagined. None of the believers in the film have that snottiness, or display any Jesus Camp kind of craziness. They are quiet, firm, and gentle. If you believe, they know. It is an “elect” club, no question about it.

Tolkin doesn’t pull his punches.

There comes a moment, late in the film, when Sharon realizes that God doesn’t pull his punches either. That He meant what He said. He’s not fucking around. The Bible is literal. Can she do it? Can she do what He asks?

It’s shattering. A shattering film.

Tolkin wrote the novel The Player – and he also wrote the screenplay for the Robert Altman film of the same name, another cold clinical excavation of an entire self-defined world with an insular mindset that might seem foreign to those not a part of it. You’re either in that world, or you’re out of it. If you live in Los Angeles you know that there is only one business. When people say “the business” in Los Angeles, they are not talking about construction or plumbing or education (although all of those businesses exist in Los Angeles as well). It’s “THE business”. It is an exclusive world, and only the elect get to join. Some odd similarities, if you think about it, even though the people in The Rapture are part of a very different club. And Tolkin, in The Player doesn’t chicken out at the end, although you think he might. Griffin Mill is a product of Hollywood and he behaves accordingly. He is hollow, just like that world is hollow, and any question of art has been long forgotten. He commits a murder. But in Griffin Mill’s world, he could get away with it. He could “spin” it.

It’s one of the most cynical movies ever made.

Tolkin wrote The Rapture too, and while I would not call it cynical, I would call it brutal. There is no rest. There is no peace. There is just a price that must be paid. God’s voice is a subtext here: Look, man, you read the Bible, you think I didn’t mean what I said in it? I TOLD you it would be like this, so don’t whine about it now. You KNEW what you were getting into. Pay up.

Mimi Rogers gives one of the all-time great performances, as far as I’m concerned. I’d put her on a level with Gena Rowlands here – and I don’t put anyone on a level with Gena Rowlands. No director has come along and made Mimi Rogers his muse, in the way John Cassavetes made Gena Rowlands his muse … and so Rogers’ career has stagnated (although it was wonderful to see her in the nearly wordless and totally nude scene in Door in the Floor: I watched her stand there, with full frontal nudity, at her age, with Jeff Bridges staring at her critically, there’s no soft light, it’s an unforgiving shot: not sexual, but objectifying, and awful … and when I saw her there, and realized it was her, I thought again of The Rapture, and her boundless courage, and thought: “Damn. That woman is fearless. Why isn’t she, to coin a phrase, more of a ‘player’? She’s not on the list of ‘great actresses’ when people talk about the greats of today … but she damn well should be.”)

It’s not a perfect film, by any means, and on some level, it might not even be a very good film. The little girl playing Mimi Rogers’ daughter is awful (and it’s a crucial part, terribly important). It might seem mean to criticize a little girl, but her performance is so terrible that it threatened to pull me out of it, which, in a film like this, just can’t happen. There are also some Ed Wood-esque special effects that make you wince, but in the end, all of that lessens in importance.

The reason to see it is Mimi Rogers. Not many actresses (or people, for that matter) are that honest with themselves, that fearless in showing us their ugliness and pettiness and fear. Perhaps fame is its own jail, making actresses more cautious in their choices, more protective. You see it time and time again. At the time of The Rapture, Mimi Rogers had nothing to lose so she tossed herself ferociously into that part with an abandon that puts other actresses to shame.

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29 Responses to Losing My Religion: The Rapture (1991)

  1. Kent says:

    Thanks Sheila, for not only pointing out Rogers’ brilliance, but for bringing this film up in the first place. I LOVE The Rapture, and find myself regularly revisiting it just to see if it holds up. I enjoy comparing my perceptions over my own history, now that I have some. There are books I reread as I age for the same reason. The first time I saw The Rapture my lovely new wife and I went as lovers of The Player, curious to see what Tolkin had cooked up as a director, sans Altman. We were in no way prepared for this film, which made it an even greater experience than we had anticipated!! We were rapturous and recommended it to everyone! They all HATED it. HATED it. We learned a lot from this film. Subsequently, I have only seen it at home, which is a drag because I can pause it when it gets too intense, and I do. It’s just not the same as sitting through it in one long stretch in a dark theater… riveted and at times repelled, with an audience that is squirming and even TALKING back to it! WOW, I LOVE it when people yell at the screen in a theater!

    • Liking it says:

      Mimi really showed depth of emotions, conflicts of the soul and heart, and put out there the questions that we all ask about what comes next.
      She lived out the human struggle that falls from grace into doubt and disbelief and again to belief when we learn that live is too empty without something spiritual on which to base our existence. Mimi’s best performance that I have seen. Real. Earthy. Imperfect. Compelling.

  2. sheila says:

    Kent – Laughing at the image of all of your friends hating the film. Ha!! Yes, I can imagine that response … The film has almost zero pleasant moments – except for the pleasure of being in the presence of something authentic that has the courage of its convictions – not to mention Mimi Rogers’ brilliance in her role.

    Fascinating to hear about the talkback in the theatre – I have only seen this in the privacy of my home, and now wish so much that I could see it with a crowd. I know that when I watch it I have these kneejerk responses of outrage and fury and I talk back (BY MYSELF) to the screen … It really does bring up these powerful responses (and I’ve probably seen it 5 times or something like that, and each time I feel the same way).

    There is NOTHING about this film that is expected. The “believers” are not what you would expect, Duchovny’s journey is not what you would expect – and yet so often this actually is how it happens for people who have conversion experiences. It is treated with respect but also with an underlying warning: These people mean what they say. God means what He says.

    I loved what you said on FB about it being an LA noir – a connection I hadn’t really made – but I agree that the Los Angeles shown in the film is a real ‘movie Los Angeles’ – the city of angels, lost angels, the city of aimlessness and emptiness – something Tolkin obviously has very strong feelings about.

    I find the film legitimately frightening, and is an object lesson in how you do not need special effects to “jolt” an audience. A closeup of white horses’ hooves galloping is enough to make you want to run for the hills. A glimpse of a hooded rider in the rear-view mirror galloping after her car … Fucking terrifying.

    It’s really gritty. There’s no glitz. Very very effective. It still frightens me.

  3. sheila says:

    Not to mention what I call her “second conversion” – after her time in the desert where the tragedy occurs.

    When she turns on what she has accepted, and refuses to deal with the implications.

    She REFUSES. The final standoff, silent and strange, is just incredible. I love that Tolkin et al had the courage to really “go there”. It’s unforgiving and won’t let you escape. “This is what you signed up for, people. Don’t bitch about it to me now.”

  4. Kent says:

    You know, Sheila, just reading and thinking about this movie gives me the chills this morning! “It’s unforgiving and won’t let you escape.” Far far more than, say, The Exorcist… and it makes me want to see it… AGAIN!

  5. Craig says:

    I found the simplicity of the special effects pretty spine-tingling: like when the woman in her prison cell begins singing and all the bars collapse. A deeply unsettling movie.

  6. Todd Restler says:

    Love the movie, and the performace. I mentioned this as one of my favorite female performances in one of my first posts here. She’s really just amazing in this movie.

    The ending of this movies really shook me. She goes through a second conversion, as you said, and the very end of this movie leaves her in some sort of terrifying spiritual limbo. Impossible to forget.

    I love how you mentioned that there are no cliched characters in the movie. I’m thinking of Wil Patton’s sheriff at the end. In most movie, this character would be a cliche, trying to get this “crazy” woman to follow the rules. But he shows her respect and understanding, which is the last thing I would have expected.

    Great film.

  7. Todd Restler says:

    And somehow the opening scene still haunts me a well, where she’s in her cubicle, mindlessly getting people phone numbers. “Is that a business or residence?” “Is that a business or residence?” ” Is that a business or residence?” ” Could you spell that please?” ” Is that a business or residence?”

    That could “numb” anyone.

  8. sheila says:

    Craig – I think the only special effect I didn’t like was when the people rose up off the ground. That, to me, was awkward and showed the limitations – other than that, everything else was wonderful (the horses, the bars falling – it had a real end-days feeling – like technology wouldn’t exist in the End Days anyway, so of course high-end special effects wouldn’t either). Those galloping four horsemen are an incredibly evocative and scary way to show the REALITY of the Book of Revelations.

    Love this movie, as unbalancing as it is!

  9. sheila says:

    Todd – I had forgotten that scene with the sheriff – yes, Patton does a wonderful job, and the script makes him human, not a functionary or just like a cop we’ve all seen before. He is truly concerned, and also curious. Kind.

    The movie is really original.

  10. Fionnchú says:

    Despite low-budget f/x, I liked this. People in the theatre were disturbed by its ending, and tried to titter it away, but I could tell it hit a nerve.

  11. sheila says:

    I mentioned the special effects because there were a few that didn’t work. It didn’t at all take away my love for this movie – on the contrary. This film lives on in my nightmares – I was FREAKED OUT by it when I first saw it, and I still think it is totally frightening.

  12. sheila says:

    And I could see how an audience might be tempted to laugh. I felt that a little bit when I recently saw Taxi Driver in the theatre – lots of nervous laughter.

  13. Kent says:

    Nervous laughter is fantastic in an audience! Also relief laughter… after a tense moment. In recent years there has been criticism of laughter in audiences at classic movies, which I think is an overbred purist response. The audience RULES. If dialogue which was once sacred now hits ears as corny, so be it. The audience is the live unpredictable entity, and I love listening to them, and trying to understand what is being evoked.
    In terms of The Rapture, and an audience of almost twenty years ago… there was both nervous tension, and outright rejection. But I don’t recall any walkouts. The talkback at the screen was not directed at the filmmaker, but at the CHARACTERS! YAAAY! It was a thrill, the audience was hooked from start to finish, like it or not. Compelling is the word that comes to mind with this movie. I am compelled and fascinated by its intelligence and power, again, as you say due to the incredibly human and disturbing performance of Mimi Rogers.

  14. sheila says:

    Kent – wow, I love your perspective on current audience reactions. I’m running out right now, but I want to get back to this!

  15. Steve Paradis says:

    Yes. Hell to the yes, as the kids say. This and “The New Age” were like happening on the Coens again. I don’t know what happened to Tolkin–he may have stumbled into the same cave as Monte Hellman, or returned to the future. Perhaps the producers he limned so well in “The Player” just can’t bear to get to the end of another of his movies, riven to the core.

  16. Michael Tolkin says:

    I returned to the future and wrote a few more novels about the past. I’m grateful for this essay. Anyone interested in what I did instead of directing more movies can read “Among The Dead,” “Under Radar,” and “The Return of the Player.” New book in the works.

  17. Michael Tolkin says:

    Oh, and as for walkouts: I saw people walk out with 30 seconds left before Mimi says, “Forever.”

  18. Ken says:

    I haven’t seen The Rapture yet, though I’ve been meaning to, if in an off-and-on way. What struck me about the essay, though, is Sheila’s description of Mimi Rogers here, and Heath Ledger in Batman: The Dark Knight. With what performers can go through for a role, it’s a wonder they manage to hang on to themselves, if you take my meaning.

    It makes me respect the craft even more, for the work that goes into it. It’s a bit like figure skating in that way: Seen at a distance (say, on TV), you think, “Oh neat,” but seen close up, it’s a couple of orders of magnitude beyond neat, plus one can see how much work it is.

  19. sheila says:

    Mr. Tolkin – what a shock and a treat to find you here. As is obvious, I am a huge admirer of this film (and your work in general) and I am thrilled to hear about your books from the future. I will be sure to check them out.

    Thanks so much for stopping by! THE RAPTURE is phenomenal – it’s a movie that has stayed with me for years and years and years.

  20. sheila says:

    Everyone – it’s so nice to see the love here for this important and extraordinary film. It represents the best that we have to offer as a culture. It’s great to see it remembered.

    And if you haven’t seen it yet – then what are you waiting for??

  21. Bob says:

    I thought Mimi Rogers was just another pretty face until this film hit me over the head. (I love when films do that). I also found the ending to be more chilling than almost any movie I’ve seen – yet it is so simple.

  22. sheila says:

    Bob – I love it when movies do that, too. When you realize someone has been either mis-used in other films, or under-used … when you realize: “wow, she could do THAT all along??”

  23. Zeke says:

    Must also recommend Mr. Tolkin’s “The New Age”. In a way, it’s the perfect summation of his LA trilogy, the city after the end of the world. It, “The Rapture”, and “The Player” remind me and echo Denys Arcand’s concurrent (and succeeding) triptych: “The Decline of the American Empire”, “Barbarian Invasions”, and especially “Days of Darkness”.
    Peter Weller and Judy Davis are perfect in “The New Age” and the writing’s economical and razor-sharp. To paraphrase a great line from the film: when life sends you a collect call, have them reverse the charges.

    • Todd Restler says:

      Thanks Zeke, I wasn’t familiar with Arcand but I took a quick look and I think I’ll love those films. I have to see The New Age as well, I’m not sure how I missed it.

  24. Steven Boone says:

    Excellent, Sheila. One of my all-time favorite films. It describes the Christianity that I grew up with, where ultimately all is forgiven except lack of faith–the one thing that’s nearly impossible to maintain. Michael Tolkin: great screenwriter, vastly unsung great director. The film’s low-budget, very theatrical f/x reminded me of Fellini, Bergman and The Twilight Zone at their light-and-shadow simplest.

    Please keep doing the image-essay thing with actors. You really capture why, when I first saw this film in ’91, I could not peel my eyes away from Mimi Rogers. Well, there were naturally some excellent reasons to gawk, haha, but here it was her eyes that Tolkin and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli kept making the intense focal point of nearly every important shot.

    I see above he mentioned ditching films to write novels, but, damn, this film and The New Age really had me ready for more.

  25. sheila says:

    Steven – Yes, Mimi Rogers is almost unbearably intense here. I found it difficult to look at her at times, because she was in such pain. And her beauty is quite unique, I think – very womanly, very full. The transformation she goes through in this film just blows me away. What a journey!

    Would love to see Tolkin do more. Rapture is an important film – can’t think of another one quite like it.

  26. Chris says:

    A wonderful write-up. I’m increasingly convinced Rogers gave the best performance of the 90s in this film. What a travesty she wasn’t Oscar-nominated, didn’t get any awards appreciation, really. This is a movie, and performance, that deserves a revival.

    Is that the real Michael Tolkin who replied? Wow. I can’t say I blame him for abandoning movies to write novels – nobody seems to know what to do with movies like The Rapture – but I still think it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. And I think part of the problem is the auteur theory overpraises stylish visuals at the expense of actors and screenwriters. Neither the highbrows nor the lowbrows in the audience know what to make of a movie like this. This is not a particularly arresting film in terms of its visuals: where it achieves real greatness is in the brilliant script and mesmerizing lead performance.

  27. Gordon Ipock says:

    I am about the same age as Mimi Rogers. Evangelical Christianity and the Rapture cult are a big part of what I remember about growing up in the 70s and on through the 80s and 90s. I was raised by a mother who went through a religious conversion much like the one Rogers goes through here. The sad thing about our culture is that by the year 2000 this cult eventually became a dominant belief system among working-class whites first in the South, but also in the Mid-West and through most of the country. Today it has become a dominant force in politics. So the film is well worth watching because it deals with something that is so pervasive throughout America in the late 20th and now into the 21st centuries.

    Despite humble origins I somehow managed to get a good university education, learned critical thinking skills and escaped from the religion I was raised in. Anyone who has ever been touched by this perversion of Protestantism should watch “The Rapture.”

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