John Allen Chau and misplaced evangelical zeal

Excellent article! Is the Gospel offensive because of who it excludes or because of who it includes? I believe it is the later.

Sarahbeth Caplin

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I was sitting in a coffee shop a few months ago, working on a book review for a company I was freelancing for at the time. The book was about whether or not the Apostle Paul was bigoted, misogynistic, and homophobic, given what he wrote about slaves, women, and other groups.

The book was lying face-up next to me on the table, attracting the attention of a man near me. He looked about my age, maybe slightly older (I’m horrible at guessing people’s ages). He asked if he could take the seat across from me to ask me about the book, because it looked interesting. I explained that I agreed with the authors on some things, and disagreed with them on others (par for the course with me when it comes to theology books!).

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Is Evangelicalism a Threat to Democracy?

—Oh boy, where to start? The title sounds like click-bait, and I wish it were. As I have stated in the past, I grew up in the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world and 4th largest Protestant denomination. Although fiercely non-Calvinist, the denomination shares much of the same inclinations of conservative Calvinist churches. Although I have very little in common with the denomination now, I have always held out hope that they would move into the 21st century and leave the 19th century behind. This of course, is my hope for the Calvinist groups like the Southern Baptist denomination as well.

—The Assemblies is the fastest growing church body in the Global South where Pentecostalism is spreading like wildfire, growing 3 times as fast as Catholicism. While Christianity is shrinking in the Western Hemisphere, in Asia, Africa and Latin America it is growing rapidly. But there is a disturbing side to all this. Those countries have been politically swinging to the hard right as of late. Brazil is one such example. (1)

—Brazil has had its share of financial and political problems and scandals. Socialist reforms have, in large part failed in the Global South as a result of widespread fraud and governmental corruption. Pentecostals have been slowly building influence and political clout in Brazil. Tired of the problems in their country, they have turned to a right wing politician that has expressed disturbing views. I bring this up as it fits a pattern we are seeing among evangelicals: support for and enthusiasm for authoritarian leaders. They fit the pattern of populist support of right wing oligarchs that promise “law and order.”

—Instead of the Global South bringing a new perspective: a non-white perspective, to evangelicalism, we are seeing the same fears and xenophobia exhibited south of the border as we are seeing among white evangelicals north of the border. Any hopes I previously held in this regard for the state of evangelicalism have been dashed.

—So what does this have to do with democracy; it fits into a broader ultra conservative backlash that we are seeing around the globe; a pushback, if you will against progressive ideals. This is exactly what is behind the almost monolithic support among evangelicals for such an antichrist figure as Donald Trump: he feeds off their fears, and represents a past where they felt they were in control of things.

—The ironic thing about the “average” evangelical, American or other, is the sense of “patriotism” they feel they are exhibiting. But in fact, the controls they wish to enforce on others, the limitations on other’s personal freedoms, the restrictions on immigration and asylum, are antithetical to a free democratic society. What we are seeing among many evangelicals is similar to a “soft fascism.” The yearning for a regimented society, strict laws and an ultra-Nationalist viewpoint; all hallmarks of the Trump agenda as well as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

—As Trump has recently expressed, he is a “nationalist,” (2) so too are most evangelicals. Evangelicals in America have so completely identified with a white brand of nationalism that true democratic principals are almost impossible to find. Let me be clear; all forms of government are man made attempts to solve real world problems and evolve the use (or misuse) of power. Democracies, dictatorships, communism: all fall under the category of “principalities and powers.” As such they are more or less antithetical to the Kingdom of God as they operate on the principals of coercion rather than self-sacrificial love. But some systems allow more leeway for the principals of the Kingdom of God to operate than others. Fascism is definitely not one of those systems that allows for free expression of a cruciform church.

—This is what I have tried to express in past posts; a church that is controlling, that seeks power, that marginalizes others is not in the will of God. It is not reflecting the cruciform love of Christ. This is not only bad news for the witness the Church is supposed to have in society, it is bad news for a free democratic society. I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but I think evangelicalism has become dangerous!

1 https://theconversation.com/brazilian-evangelicals-swinging-hard-to-the-right-could-put-a-trump-like-populist-in-the-presidency-96845

2 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/10/texas-trump-speech-takes-turn-nationalist-181023143833295.html

Smallfoot: Too “Liberal” for Evangelicals?

Last week I saw a delightful little cartoon, “Smallfoot” in the theater. I expected a silly kid’s cartoon but was surprised at the postmodern message. I found it had a much deeper message than I expected. And of course, was curious to see the evangelical response as the movie’s agenda was to reassure kids that it was ok to question dogma, that it was not bad to question authority.

I won’t go into the details of the storyline but it involved a society of yetis whose culture revolved around the sayings/rules written on small stones and worn as a robe by the spiritual leader of the yeti clan. The stones were unquestionably excepted as propositional truth. Sound familiar? In short, the stones were devised by the “stonekeepers” to protect the yeti clan from the dangers “out there” beneath the clouds, i.e., humans.

The parallels to modern evangelicalism were not lost on the evangelical gatekeepers: the Gospel Coalition. The response was, swift and negative. First off, the author, Bret McCracken uses a typical evangelical response by reversing a fundamentalist principal and applying it as a negative to liberals:

“If one stone is wrong, then others could be as well,” one yeti says, voicing an argument that is suspiciously similar to liberal claims that any seeming inconsistency or scientifically implausible thing in the Bible means the whole thing is up for grabs.”

This is odd, because it is not actually a liberal statement, but one fundamentalists use constantly as a reason for the inerrancy of scripture. The Bible as a whole must be entirely inerrant or it cannot be trusted at all. It is the “house of cards” analogy that fundamentalist like James Orr (1844-1913) rejected outright as “a most suicidal position for any defender of revelation to take up.” I had a rather lengthy and unproductive dialogue with an inerrantist on my blog last year, Inerrancy At any rate, this is an entirely misleading and dishonest assessment of progressive thought on the inspiration of scripture.

McCracken goes on to state “Smallfoot joins films like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (among many others) in showing how seeking truth can be disruptive and dangerous, but ultimately freeing. These films also show how safe, utopian communities, insulated from the dangers outside (whether in different people or different ideas), never work if they are sustained by deception and fear-based control.”

I wonder if Mr. McCracken actually understands how evangelicalism works? He goes on to declare that the above is not the problem but seeing knowledge as “power” is: “This sort of faith is about fear and control, suppressing knowledge in order to preserve power. And thus the flipside is also about power. Knowledge, curiosity, facts, discovery—these are framed in the film as tools of empowerment. Taking down the man. Breaking free from systems of control. Putting power in new hands. Getting woke.”

If only the religious right was not about power, but it is naive to think otherwise and this is where The Gospel Coalition’s blindside resides: the inability to see that the Religious Right is ALL about power. By nature, authoritarian structures are not question based, but based on the few in power who establish the rules of governance. I will address whether or not evangelicalism is a threat to a free democratic society in a future post.

”Taking down the man,” is the real fear here. Who is the “man?” Well, white evangelical men is the obvious answer. The framers of the Democratic experiment known as the United States…all white men. In American fundamentalist Protestant circles, yep, all white men. And what else is the doctrine of eternal torment and hell for unbelievers about if it isn’t about “fear-based control?” American culture has been framed almost exclusively from the perspective of white male privilege, including conservative Christianity.

Evangelicalism as a whole is based on “if-then” propositions. Only, the ifs are not really ifs but self-evident “truths” that are excepted unquestionably, and that my friend is what the movie is getting at. Roger E Moore is one evangelical who “gets” this and has written why this propositional approach among evangelicals prevents true reforms within the movement. The stones in the movie are accepted as “facts,” even though they are not. This is a problem when we approach religions based on doctrinal “facts,” especially when the truths are not self-evident and at times contradictory.

McCracken goes on to say, “The film’s obsession with power is certainly of a piece with the 2018 zeitgeist, where gender, race, politics, class, even the NFL, are partisan, bitter battlefields over power. To our shame, many evangelicals have indeed become more known for our desperate grip on power than our Christ-like, gospel-shaped lives. And grievously, science, knowledge, and “facts” have also become pawns in the great power battles of our time.

Smallfoot mirrors this dysfunctional world and sadly encourages the next generation to follow suit. It shrinks knowledge into a power play wherein we get woke and the old order gets gets exposed.”

In this McCracken unwittingly betrays the problem with evangelicalism and its interaction with the non-evangelical: it views itself in a cosmic power struggle with society, “gender, race, politics, class, even the NFL.” Rather than seeking ways to work WITH society to achieve a better world, the world’s attempts are suspect and to be avoided. Unfortunately, this puts most evangelicals and certainly their leadership actually working against a better, more loving and exclusive society.

The movie ends on a happy note with the barrier between humans and yetis torn down and the beginnings of a diverse cooperative society. But this does not fit the evangelical narrative at all. First of all, it removes the “us vs them” mentality that shapes much of evangelicalism. Authoritarian structures need inferiors in order to maintain their superior status. The Romans had the Christians, Hitler had the Jews. Fundamentalism has had numerous inferior people groups in the past: Jews, Catholics, Liberals and black athletes who dare suggest there is a race problem in America.

Secondly, authoritarian structures like evangelicalism and fundamentalism function on the premise that there is unity in conformity. Conformity plays a big part in the movie. The yeti clan moves along smoothly because no one is allowed to rock the boat. Let me be very clear about this, evangelicalism does not entertain much diversity. Authoritarian structures are not set up for diversity. They crumble under non conformity. Conformity was the strength of the Roman Catholic Church for a millennia. Because Protestants could not agree on the “stones” to follow, but still had to have absolute conformity, they split into numerous denominations, and at numerous times actually killed each other. So it is not the search for answers that is the danger here, but denial of that search in favor of a “hive mentality.” In fact, those in yeti society that are nonconformists are forced to meet in secret to avoid being astracized. Christians should do well to remember that once they had to meet secretly in the catacombs because they did not fit into an authoritarian society.

Perhaps a more balanced assessment can be found Here 

“One of the characters in “Smallfoot” says something like this: “Truth is complicated and can be scary, but it’s better than believing a lie.” Truth is what we should always seek. We should blindly accept nothing, and our Lord does not ask us to do so. He has given us a world which showcases His creativity and declares His glory. He has given us His Word which resounds with truth and reason. Its claims can be answered. Its Author can be trusted. Its Savior can be called upon. Faith is not blindly accepting the flawed traditions of men… it is trusting completely in the One who made us and sustains us. And when we do so, we see that empty traditions, the world’s lies and the secular teachings of mere man that we may have once believed now ring false.”

“Much of the allegory will be far above the heads of very young children but should provide lots to think about for preteens through adults. Can a lie be a “good” lie? Should we ever be willing to deny the truth in order to protect others? Is it okay to question what we have always been taught? I am actually thankful for a film which presents a platform for such thought… or better yet, discussion. Even if this film may have been intended to cause viewers to doubt religious teachings, it is always good to examine why we believe what we believe.”

And with that I agree. It is always good to examine what we believe.

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https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/smallfoot-saying-faith-science/

https://christiananswers.net/spotlight/movies/2018/smallfoot2018.html

Evangelicalism and Why Fundamentalism Matters

—I’ve been struggling for a week now trying to determine how best to approach my next blog post. I have recently been interacting with quite a few very conservative evangelicals, who are more fundamentalist than evangelical. The dividing line between the two is becoming increasingly fuzzy these days. This is due in large part to shared presumptions about the Bible, the death of Jesus and the shared view of premillennialism. Part of my hesitation has been due to not wanting to write a “hit piece” on evangelicals. I know a great many of them, I was raised in that “tribe,” and for the most part, they are very decent people. It is therefore quite frustrating, when in dialoguing with them, they discard the struggle for social justice and equality as a “distraction” from the gospel, or as a number have suggested, not a part of the gospel at all. This is especially ironic as the church itself has been a perpetrator of social INJUSTICE often in the past. (See: https://weseeinamirrordarkly.com/2018/09/20/the-church-as-contributor-to-social-injustice/)

—Two years ago I started blogging on WordPress. One of my main goals was to elaborate on and to learn more about The Kingdom of God as described by Jesus. Having grown up evangelical, I have had to fight past my own preconceptions, what I had been taught from an early age: namely that Jesus’ message was a message about escaping God’s wrath against mankind, and going to heaven. This is the gospel in a nutshell for most American conservative Christians.

—Along with those preconceptions I had been taught a particular time frame of events concerning the coming Kingdom, namely dispensationalism. In that school of thought a number of unrelated passages of scripture are woven together rather imaginatively to suggest the “End Times” will include a sudden “rapture” of believers (removal of the church), a 7 year period of “tribulation” of those left behind, persecution by the antichrist and the beast followed by a great battle where Christ returns and kicks $!&. Then the “millennial reign” of Christ would begin.

—This was uncritically excepted as “Biblical teaching” in all the churches I attended before Seminary. The majority of evangelicals in America fall into agreement to some degree or another with this belief. The fact that this is a modern interpretation and has no previous antecedent in church history seemed to matter not, as most churches I attended had little or no knowledge of church history anyway.

—The historical backdrop for this particular time frame for the Kingdom of God owes its development to a number of events toward the end of the 19th century. Revivalism stoked by fears over a rapidly changing America. The industrial revolution and the diminishing of rural America. Growing social unrest over women’s rights. Violent protests against immigrant workers, Italians, Chinese and Irish, Catholicism and socialism. For Americans that had taken White male Protestant privilege for granted, these were scary times.

—Into this mix came a longing to escape. From the perspective of many white Protestant Christians, things were going down hill fast. It seemed to many that we were in the “last days,” spoken of in scripture. “Nailing down” the minutiae of scripture concerning eschatology became an unhealthy obsession. Numerous prophesy conferences were called to set all the facts in order. Fundamentalists increasingly withdrew from society and viewed themselves as set apart from a perverse generation.

—As a result, fundamentalism grew increasingly inward and tribal. Society had become so “wicked” and the Kingdom of God wouldn’t occur until AFTER Christ returned, so the goal became to “reach” as many sinners as possible before the return of Christ and the removal of the church before the “tribulation.” 

The postponement of the Kingdom of God until after the return of Christ (post millennialism), basically absolved fundamentalists from any obligation to seek social justice before Christ’s return. It dovetailed nicely with the racism and social injustices of Southern Christianity. As a result a particularly ugly pattern of Christianity flourished in the Bible Belt bolstered by post millennial eschatology and an inerrant Bible that was used to support unChristlike behaviors.

—So what does this have to do with evangelicalism? Unfortunately, American evangelicals share some “DNA” from fundamentalists. Fundamentalism “birthed” the evangelical movement. Looking back on my own history within evangelicalism I can only surmise that the evangelical narrative is purposefully designed to obfuscate the truth of its racist underpinnings as much as possible as to present itself as standing on the higher ground in opposition to a degenerate world. In a way it is scapegoating, a primitive form of blaming others for wrongs so that in comparison one can feel better about oneself. It is a form of deflection.

This inability or unwillingness to “own it” when it comes to accepting responsibility for injustices is hurting evangelicalism badly. To be unaware or in denial of the past almost guarantees a repeat of past mistakes. And we are seeing that play out in real time. Of course, this is not true of ALL evangelicals, but there is enough unification of belief to talk about a monolithic white culture of privilege that pervades much of it. In retrospect, understanding how much race played a part in the narrative of fundamentalism, it should come as no surprise that the majority of white evangelicals simply do not see bigotry as something they need be concerned about.

—There are some encouraging signs that some evangelicals are concerned that the movement has steered too far to the right, but their warnings have largely been ignored by those in power. When these brave souls dare question the pervading evangelical juggernaut all hell breaks loose, literally! Books are removed from Christian book stores, speaking engagements cancelled, teachers fired, death threats are made. They are told they are being “too political,” (immensely ironic considering the pack of evangelical “advisors” bowing and scraping at Trump’s feet). The price of being a prophet has never been cheap.

—Unfortunately, the evangelical identification with the Republican Party has never been higher than it is now. This is not to say that the Democratic Party has God’s ear and the Republican does not. But it is to say that evangelicals have increasingly aligned themselves with a political machine that since the 1960’s, has sought to marginalize others based on ethnicity, sex and sexual identity. Unfortunately for the Republican Party, the 60’s,70’s and 80’s saw a mass defection of Southern fundamentalist Christians to the Republican Party as a result of their former Party pushing social reforms benefiting blacks. The move was entirely racially motivated.

—Not satisfied with changing the face of the Republican Party for the worse, fundamentalists are at work trying to change the face of evangelicalism as well. This is underlying reason for the recent attack on social justice by John MacArthur, and why so many pastors signed on to it. The objections of moderates like Russell Moore have largely been drowned out. It does not bode well for evangelicals.

Further reading:

Mark A. Noll, “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.”

Daniel K. Williams, “God’s Own Party, The Making of the Christian Right.”

Matthew Avery Sutton, “American Apocalypse, A History of Modern Evangelicalism.”

Stephen Prothero, “Why Liberals Win The Culture Wars (Even When they Lose Elections).”

The real origins of the religious right: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133

 

 

 

Trump Laughs Uproariously: Mocking Victims of Sexual Assault

Has the world gone mad? I just watched the news where Donald Trump ridicules two female reporters, telling one she “never thinks,” (1) then a day later mocking sexual assault survivor Christine Blasey Ford regarding her testimony in The Kavanaugh hearing. (2) If that was not disturbing enough, when asked by a reporter later if he had any words for American men regarding sexual assault, he made excuses for men by stating “it’s a very scary time for men in America.” (3)

When asked what Dr. Ford found she remembered most clearly about her assault she replied, “the uproarious laughter, between two men having a good time at her expense.” The parallels between Trump’s ridicule of the female reporters, the Trump “pussy grabbing” tape, his mocking Dr. Ford’s account of sexual assault and his fears for men being held responsible for sexual aggressions, all amounts to his uproarious laughter at women who are sexually assaulted.

Then I hear Paige Patterson, who was forced out of his position as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary due to mishandling of sexual assault and subsequent cover up, is slated to teach a class on “Christian Ethics” at a non SBC related school. (4) My head is spinning!

What is most disturbing about all this? These men? No. There will always be men in positions of authority and power who use that power to exploit women sexually. What disturbs me most are the “little people” who enable them. And, unfortunately, there are a lot of them. The Trump faithful. The myriads of people who monolithically laugh along with him at the expense of rape victims, the disabled, news reporters, refugees, Muslims, Gays, women who seek equality and anyone who is non-White.

It is chilling to see the faithful behind Trump at his rallies, cheering, laughing, shaking their heads in agreement, shouting his slogans. I came of age during the tumultuous 60’s. I thought the bigotry, sexism, racism and hate was largely behind us. I was naive. What we are seeing is the worst in humanity, emboldened by a master manipulator, feeding on the fears of White male misogamists and racists. There is a tangible aura of fear, stoked by White privilege that hangs over America. It is not new. We have sensed it before. When we forget the past, or are lulled into complacency, it returns. It is a cancer that returns after a few decades of remission.

Thoughts and prayers are not enough to combat the hate that spills forth from Washington. The original Republican Party died and was replaced with a doppelgänger in the 1970’s. Thousands of White, racist Southerners left the Democratic Party and flocked to the Republican Party when desegregation was forced on them by a Democratic controlled administration. People, the gospel and social justice is, by nature, political as well as spiritual. VOTE!

  1. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/10/trump-tells-female-reporter-shes-never-thinking.html
  2. https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/02/politics/trump-mocks-christine-blasey-ford-kavanaugh-supreme-court/index.html
  3. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/10/02/donald-trump-says-very-scary-time-young-men-america/1498770002/
  4. https://relevantmagazine.com/god/paige-patterson-who-was-fired-for-covering-up-student-rape-allegations-will-now-teach-a-christian-ethics-course/

Iron Age Evangelicalism: How Veneration of the Bible has Hurt the Church

Well, it’s been one of those weeks. I sprained my back badly a month ago, so I’ve been dealing with nagging pain, making it hard to concentrate on a number of things and get any work done. In addition, my attempts to address the church’s responsibility towards social justice online have been met with contempt, anger and accusations of heresy from evangelicals that have read my comments. It can be downright discouraging.

I’ve addressed some of what I believe are the underlying reasons for evangelical hostility to social justice in a couple of previous posts. I’d like to discuss an issue that has broader implications for evangelical theology and social interaction: that of their views on the ontology of scripture itself. The underlying principal for the Protestant critique and eventual separation from Catholicism was a renewed emphasis on the canonical scripture: the Bible.

As a result “sola scriptura” became the Protestant battle cry. Unfortunately, that has led to some stagnation in the Protestant church. It would seem ironic, that a renewed enthusiasm for scripture would actually impede the church from growing spiritually, but I believe it has. Over and over last week I heard the complaint that “social justice” wasn’t in the Bible, or that it wasn’t biblical. That it was the “spirit of this age,” that the government has no right to force us to subsidize the poor, etc.. Of course, this was similar to Christian complaints against abolition preceding the American Civil War.

I think the reason for this vehement denial lies in the way evangelicals, especially those that are closet fundamentalists, venerate scripture. Scripture is the final word, literally. There is no need to improve, how could one possibly improve upon God’s very own words? In a word, evangelicals tend to get stuck in the Iron Age, or even the Bronze Age. The sociological mores, ethical and moral situations and solutions of 2-3 thousand years ago, become, de facto, God’s solutions. This has caused all sorts of problems when it comes to social justice, from slavery, to women’s equality, Gay rights and the death penalty.

The veneration of scripture has, in some reformed traditions, especially among Calvinists, effectively replaced the work of the Holy Spirit. Cessationists like John MacArthur, believe much of the prophetic work of the Holy Spirit ended after the Apostolic Age. The prophetic function of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers and the subsequent corrections for the church are viewed with suspicion and criticized as too subjective. Additionally, the Bible has, in evangelical parlance, replaced, or is given much greater attention as the “Word of God,” than Jesus himself as the Word of God.

When the church views scripture in this fashion, ethics get “frozen in time.” Women are forever subordinate to men, Gays are always an “abomination,” war becomes “just,” the death penalty becomes justifiable, killing one’s enemies becomes a part of the Kingdom narrative and God’s “final solution” involves violence. As a result, the church becomes unable to respond in a relevant way to changing social events. This is what the “culture wars” are about: the church’s inadequacy to deal with change.

Following the Bible is vastly different than following Jesus. The Bible is not a repository of “facts” about God, nor is it a definitive guide to “Christian living and ethics.” It points to something much greater than itself. In our churches we should have more “Jesus study” than “Bible study.” This would involve grappling with an ever changing social and political environment and asking how would the Holy Spirit have us respond in a way that does justice and shows love and mercy. It would be WWJD on steroids. Jesus becomes the touchstone for us rather than the Bible itself.

Unfortunately, the inability of much of the church to think further than the Iron Age, or the 16th century reformers reinterpretation of the Bible has made the gospel message largely irrelevant. Reformed theologians can’t seem to move past the shadow of John Calvin, regurgitating the same thoughts over and over again. This is not how the church should move forward in the 21st century. This is not how the church should meet new challenges. We need to be looking forward, not backward. If not, evangelicalism a century from now will be viewed as a short-lived stumbling block to the Kingdom of God and not a major contributor to its furtherance. 

Why Abortion Opponents Should Oppose Brett Kavanaugh…and all Other Republicans

Excellent analysis here.

Thinking Pacifism

Ted Grimsrud—9/29/18

I am acquainted with several people (and know of many, many more) who were troubled by Donald Trump’s lousy character and shady business dealings yet still voted for him. The basic rationale seems to have been: “Sure, Trump is awful. Clinton’s awful too. The difference is that Trump will appoint Supreme Court justices who appose abortion.” The vote in the 2016 election was close enough to imagine that these people may have tipped the balance.

And now Trump is rewarding such choices. First, he got the rigid right-winger Neil Gorsuch on the Court to replace rigid right-winger Antonin Scalia (some analysts have suggested that Gorsuch is even more extreme than Scalia in his embrace of a corporatist agenda, hard as that may be to imagine). Now, we are likely just days away from Brett Kavanaugh (a long time Republican Party operative) joining four other rigid right-wingers to form…

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