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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Why is Thanksgiving an "Accepted" Religious Holiday?

Thanksgiving is a fascinating holiday in the U.S. The overt Christian underpinnings of the celebration cannot be denied (the Pilgrims, were Christians, right?), yet I don't see any complaints of "shoving religion down one's throat" or the worries about offending someone by wishing them a Happy Thanksgiving. Macy's holds its annual Thanksgiving Day parade to the enjoyment of thousands and even Google has a Thanksgiving doodle today, where they seem to be adamant about ignoring Easter.

So why is Thanksgiving considered a "safe" holiday? As I've written before:
"In the very concept of thanksgiving, there's a tacit recognition of giver and receiver. In other words, if you are thankful for your present advantages, you must be thankful to someone. It makes no sense to say that you are thankful, but that thanks is attributed to the laws of nature. Imagine being thankful to gravity for holding you to the earth.  Similarly, it makes no sense to be thankful to luck, for luck is simply a word we use to talk about an arbitrary outcome.  There's no motivation behind luck; it is by definition purposeless and blind. To be thankful for purposelessness is silly."
Don't think the above statement is me stamping my foot and saying "If you're not going to acknowledge God, you can't celebrate Thanksgiving!" On the contrary, I'm glad that Thanksgiving has as far a reach as it does! I'm happy to know that the American culture still embraces this important holiday. Sure, from a consistency point of view I think that when many people express some kind of general thanks today they are fudging a bit on what they are saying, but I am very happy that they do say it at all.

You see, I think the far-reaching acceptance of Thanksgiving acknowledges our inherent understanding that we are not the most important thing in this world—that there is something bigger than us and that on our own we really are small creatures on a speck of dust floating through a vast universe. There is in each one of us at least a tacit recognition of God, even if it is as amorphous as "being thankful." Such recognition is important. By expressing an attitude of thanks it "demonstrates that God's law was written in their hearts"(Romans 2:15)and that He can still reach people.

Being thankful at Thanksgiving means that one is not out of reach of God's salvation, that one is still able to recognize his or her need for Him, even if it isn't identified as such. And for that God, who would build into us such a precious gift even when we didn't believe, I am truly thankful.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Debunking 'Bible Secrets' Television Shows

Every year before Christmas and Easter, the media turns to stories about religion to try and boost their audiences. Like clockwork, the History Channel has just begun a series titled "Bible Secrets Discovered". This is the latest in a genre (including "The Bible's Buried Secrets," "Jesus Family Tomb" and others) that seeks to publicize some novel scriptural understanding that undermines the Bible's credibility. Are their charges true?

Below is a four-part audio series plus a two page downloadable PDF outline where I show how these 'Bible Secrets' shows engage ins a bit of misdirection to achieve their goals. More P.T. Barnum than true scholarship, when examining the facts thoughtfully, one can quickly see why these shows present an emperor who has no clothes.

Monday, November 11, 2013

What to Think About the Atheist Church Movement?

The intriguing headline read "Atheist 'Mega-Churches' Take Root across Us, World." Following was an AP story describing how the Sunday Assembly, a weekly congregation of atheists that began in the UK, has just launched new congregations in several major cities across the United States. Their vision, according to their web site is to give the godless person a communal experience, allowing them to "celebrate life" and to "be a force for good" with the mutual support of other atheists. Their motto proclaimed clearly on their web site is to "live better, help often, wonder more."

The story attracted a lot of attention online; social media and the blogosphere were immediately inundated with links to variations of the story from the Huffington Post, CBS News, or other outlets. Of course, some of it was more hype than help. For example using the term 'mega-church' in both the lede and the story copy was terribly misleading. A mega-church is defined by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research as a protestant congregation of 2000 or more persons in attendance at weekly worship ." The kickoff Sunday Assembly meeting in Los Angeles attracted "several hundred" attendees according to the story. Given that Sunday Assembly founder Sanderson Jones was the special guest, it remains to be seen what the actual average weekly attendance will prove to be, but they were far from mega-church numbers.

Bigger questions than the AP's misleading hyperbole come to mind, though. One is just why those that ascribe to no higher authority could have any objective calling to "be a force for the good." Just what is "the good" when there is nothing to ground your moral understanding? What does it mean to "live better?" Does one live better by honestly acquiring wealth or by living in meager conditions so he can give more of his wealth away? Is one being a force for good if she helps advance the race by promoting the best and the brightest or by trying to give equal time to the unlearned so that all people have an equal chance to be heard? Perhaps being a force for good is following Richard Dawkins' concept that teaching children religious ideas is worse than sexual abuse. They should therefore seek to extract all children from those homes, as anyone would properly do with the children of a pedophile.

The fundamental problem with the Sunday Assembly is the fact that there is no grounding at all for such gatherings, other that the subjective feelings of the participants. Without a transcendent authority, that is without an objective God that provides meaning to life and morality, you are only left with a false shell of what church is all about. Such hollow actions may make the adherents feel good, but I think they're doomed to failure as any counterfeit would be. Los Angeles Sunday Assembly organizer Ian Dodd said it explicitly to Salon Magazine: "What we're trying to do is hold on to the bath water while throwing out the baby Jesus."

Yes, and anyone who thinks the bathwater is valuable when you've lost the baby has their priorities upside down.

Jones is not hiding the fact that he is trying to duplicate much of what he likes about the Christian church experience. In the AP article he says, "If you think about church, there's very little that's bad. It's singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people - and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of that is not to like?"  Nothing, except the glue that holds the church together and allows all those incredibly different people to be one body is Jesus Himself. Christians are called to be conformed into Jesus' image. We have an objective idea of what love and what self-sacrifice is because He modeled it for us. And we, as followers of Christ, have a reason to love our enemies and forgive one another. Without Jesus, it would all be about who likes what, but with no compelling motivation to follow the teachings that you really don't like. It's doing those hard things that provide so much more meaning to life than simply singing catchy songs or hearing an interesting speaker.

When I was a kid, I used to take a piece of spearmint gum from the pack, carefully remove the stick from the aluminum wrapper, then refold the wrapper and slip it back into the paper sleeve and back into the pack. The whole point of this deception was to offer a stick of gum to my friends and watch the hilarity of them grabbing an empty package. It was silly and it was kid stuff that we laughed at because we were childish in our outlook. Atheist churches offer a promise of real satisfaction, but I fear the only thing they can deliver is a package that holds nothing more than an aroma of what living better actually means.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

1908 Writer Describes 21st Century with Amazing Accuracy!

Phillip Yancey relays the story that when someone asked famous English theologian G.K. Chesterton what one book he would desire to have with him if stranded on a desert island, Chesterton matter-of-factly replied, "Why A Practical Guide to Shipbuilding," of course!1

That answer demonstrated well how Chesterton could capture the most obvious as well as the most salient points that he wished to examine. A towering intellect in the early twentieth century, his book Orthodoxy comments on many of the distinctions between culture and faith properly understood.

One of the most often quoted passages is Chesterton's examination of the contradictory messages being fostered by modern culture. Although this passage was written over 100 years ago, it’s startling to see the topics and aspects of each he captures perfectly. Chesterton writes:
For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book (about the sex problem) in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite sceptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.2
Here Chesterton examines how the modern society corrupts the ideas of equal rights for women, sexual purity versus promiscuity, inherent value of human life, the sanctity of the marriage covenant, the worth of national pride, and evolution versus man bearing the image of God. In all, Chesterton presents a very prescient view of modern culture.

If you haven’t yet read Orthodoxy, I encourage you to do so. Best of all, you can grab the e-book for free, since the copyright has expired and the work is in the public domain.  Just grab a version from this link.


1 Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. (New York: Image Books | Doubleday, 2001).From the introduction.

2 Ibid.

Friday, November 08, 2013

How Hard is It to Change a Belief?

In the blog this week, I've been talking about how one evangelizes and how evangelism means changing a person's beliefs. If you've missed the previous posts, you can find them here and here. Today, I'd like to talk about the practical implications of witnessing, especially to those who hold to different faith backgrounds.

Last night, I had an engaging conversation with two gentlemen who are Jehovah's Witnesses. I had spoken with one previously, and they were now coming to discuss more deeply whether Jesus was God. I had offered them the John 1:3 argument in our previous meeting and now continued to show how Jesus does things only God can do, has attributes and powers that only God has, and claims titles reserved to God alone.  We spoke about how Jesus Himself said that worship was reserved to God alone (Matt. 4:10) and even when John, being overwhelmed at the vision in the book of Revelation fell down at the angel's feet, the angel rebuked him and said that as a created being, he didn't deserve worship. Worship is reserved for God alone. (Rev 19:10). I then took them to Hebrews 1:5-6, which reads:
"For to which of the angels did God ever say, 'You are my Son, today I have begotten you'? Or again, 'I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son'? And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, 'Let all God's angels worship him.'"
My guests had never heard about this passage before. They quickly turned to Hebrews in their New World Translation and breathed a momentary sigh of relief because Hebrews 1:6 reads a bit differently there:  "And let all of God's angels do obeisance to him." They began to say how doing obeisance is a simple act of recognition. However, I happened to have a 1961 version of the NWT in my library. In that version, the Greek word proskyneō (προσκυνέω) is translated worship. Even the Jehovah's Witnesses' own scriptures said that God the Father commanded the worship of Jesus by the angels! I further explained that this Greek word is the same word that Jesus used in the Matthew passage and that the Revelation passage.

As the night went on, I offered other evidences, both biblically and logically. While there were many things that they had never considered before, they held fast to the theology of the Watchtower, even resorting to show that their good deeds proved the Watchtower was God's appointed organization.

But why? Why wouldn't these men, who truly were earnest in their time with me, want to change their beliefs when faced with so many arguments and even the proof of change verified by the two different approaches to Hebrews 1:6? The evidence that the Watchtower was changing the words of scripture to suit their purposes was there in black and white!  The reason is this: not all beliefs are the same and people will not give up on those beliefs that are deeply held so easily.

Think about it for a moment. If someone was raised by his family in the faith of the Watchtower, then you are telling him that not only does he believe the wrong thing, but the faith to which he dedicated his entire life is a fraud.  More than that, if he embraces the historic Christian faith, then he is acknowledging that all his family and friends are all going to hell! That's a lot to swallow in one sitting. Think about what you would have to give up if you were to renounce Christianity for, say, Islam. All your memories of childhood Christmases would be an exercise in wrong practice. Your children will not have that same experience. Your parents would be considered "infidels", committing the sin of Shirk by ascribing attributes to Jesus that are Allah's alone. You would have to give up your social time at your church and start again. 

Add to all this the spiritual war that is also raging as the Devil seeks to keep every soul out of heaven and you can soon realize that there is no "magic bullet." There is no phrase or argument that will convert people.  You can only be faithful to deliver the message as effectively as you can so God may use that faithfulness to His glory.

Sometimes I think Christians don't realize momentous an event it is when a lost soul comes to Christ. It takes a lot of work, a lot of prayer, and a true reliance on the Holy Spirit. That's why it's important to keep sharing. Continue to provide new information to that person and continue to show the contradictions that stem from their existing beliefs. Who knows what God would use to open the ears of one who is lost? We do know that God wants to use the exchange of ideas to reach the unsaved. Romans 10:14 tells us "How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?"

I know it's hard work and sometimes it's easy to feel that you're wasting your time. I've felt that way, too. But take comfort in the words that Paul shared with the Christians in Galatia, "And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up."

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

How Do You Change a Belief?

As I wrote yesterday, Christians are called to evangelize, and to be faithful in that calling the Christian must engage in the medium of ideas. We must, as the Apostle Paul wrote, "destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God" (2 Cor. 10:5). These arguments and opinions that non-believers offer are based upon their beliefs of how the world works. In order to destroy their arguments, we must ultimately change their beliefs, but this is much more easily said than done.

Just how does one go about changing a belief, anyway? Realize that a belief is an idea a person takes to be true. In other words, if someone holds to the belief that Jesus was created by the Father, then that person thinks the statement "Jesus is a created being" is true. No person can be said to believe something that he consciously acknowledges is not true. If he knows it isn't true, then he doesn't believe it, even if he may continue to act as though the belief is true. The contradiction is between his belief and his action, not between the truth value he holds and the belief itself.

Two Ways to Change a Belief

There are only two ways that I can think of to change a belief. You can either provide new information that the person hasn't yet considered, or you can show how their current beliefs are contradictory and therefore cannot both be true. Because beliefs reflect the truth value of a proposition, one cannot simply decide to hold different beliefs, to change statements from false to true. Beliefs don't work that way.

I've demonstrated this many times when I've spoken to groups in the past. I've asked "How many of you believe that there is a pink elephant in the parking lot across the street from this building right now?" Consistently, my audience responds incredulously. I then modify my question. "How many of you would believe that there is a pink elephant in the parking lot across the street if I offered you a million dollars to believe it?" Of course, a few hands go up, but then I ask, "Do you really believe that's true or are you just assenting to the proposition to get the money, even though you don't believe it?" Everyone agrees that they are just acting out the agreement, but they don't really think there is a pink elephant in their vicinity.

1. Providing New Information

The first way to change a belief is to provide new information to a person, or perhaps highlight information that they may know but have neglected to consider. Going back to my pink elephant example, I usually ask my audience, "Would your beliefs change if I told you that driving in today I saw a fleet of Ringling Bros. trucks also parked across the street?" They will nod in agreement that the new fact helps open them to the possibility of an elephant nearby. I follow with something like "What if I also told you that albino elephants will appear pink when wet; would that increase your ability to believe the statement?" Now, they have two new facts and the ability for them to believe the statement is increased.  I can then continue to build my argument, but I've eliminated some of their resistance to the idea already. You can clearly see that additional information helps people believe things they may not have held before.

2. Showing a Contradiction

The second way one can change a belief is to demonstrate that the person's current belief isn't valid. Let's use "Jesus is a created being" as an example. Whenever I talk with Jehovah's Witnesses about the nature of Jesus, they always tell me they believe that the Bible is true and the Bible teaches that Jesus is a created being. I then ask, "What if I can show you where the Bible explicitly denies this idea? Would you still believe it?" Usually the reply is, "Well, it doesn't." But as I press, they usually relent, mostly because they think I will be quoting from John 1:1 or something like that.

I preface my remarks by asking if they agree that everything we know can be categorized into two compartments, that is placed in one of only two "buckets" if you will: there are things that began to exist and there are things that never began to exist. Everything you can think of falls into one of those two categories. There simply is no third choice. To this I've had no one disagree.

I then take them to the book of John, chapter one verse three. (I skip John 1:1 altogether). In the NWT the verse reads, "All things came into existence through him, and apart from him not even one thing came into existence." I ask, "Is the 'him' in verse three referring to Jesus?" to which they answer "Yes." I then explain, "Here, in John, it says that every single thing that came into existence, it came into existence through Jesus. Jesus made every single thing that had a beginning. The NWT explicitly says, "apart from Jesus not even one thing came into existence." If that's true, then Jesus must exist before the very first thing that began to exist.  Jesus put everything into the "came into existence" bucket. But that means that Jesus must be in that other bucket. Jesus must have existed eternally. He cannot be a created being because John 1:3 doesn't allow that option."

You can see the problem the Witnesses have here. If they hold to their belief that Jesus is a created being, then their own Bible, the thing that informs them about who Jesus is, is wrong. If they want to hold that the Bible is true, then they have to give up their belief that Jesus is created. They know they cannot believe a contradiction, but they don't know what to do at this point.

Tomorrow I will end my short series on beliefs by talking about how these techniques play out in the real world. In short, there is no magic bullet that is going to make someone believe But realize that these tools are necessary when we are engaging others in the battle of ideas. Let's not go into battle unarmed.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Retiring the Cliche "If You Can Talk Someone into Heaven, Then You Can Talk Them Out"

Yesterday, I read two different articles on the upswing of apologetics in Christian ministry. The fact that apologetics is getting any press at all is both exciting and telling as our culture continues its decline into a more secular worldview. What struck me, however, was that in both someone cautioned the use of apologetics in witnessing by quoting the old trope, "If you can talk someone into heaven, then you can talk them out of it." Like most clichés, at first blush this sounds like a truism we need to take to heart, but I'd like to examine it further because I think there's something fundamentally wrong with the idea.

The basis of a belief

The command to evangelize in Matthew 28:19 is well known. The call to evangelism is essential for those within Christendom that define themselves as evangelicals. But what exactly does evangelism entail? Evangelism at its core is changing a belief. It requires an individual to move from a state of non-belief in Jesus as savior and Lord to a state of belief. That is no small thing, since embracing that belief affects one's understanding of things like the nature of God, the nature of man, the nature of sin, and the nature of one's own eternity.

Now, I know of no reasonable person, whether believer or non-believer, who does not have at least some sense of belief on each of those issues. Some feel that people have souls that will live on after their bodies die. Others hold that people are just a physical byproduct of evolutionary processes and once the machine stops, so will they. Some hold to a fuzzy concept of God while others dismiss the idea of God altogether. The point is that beliefs at their core are ideas that one takes to be true, and everyone holds certain ideas as true, whether or not they have good reason for so doing.

Evangelism works in the medium of ideas

So if the evangelist is engaging with a nonbeliever, he or she must take into account their current beliefs. Asking someone if they want to avoid an eternity in hell will not be very effective if that person believes he will cease to exist at death! The sensitive evangelist will look for ways to interact with the nonbeliever in order to remove wrong beliefs he may hold about the world. He or she should strive to show why the ideas the non-believer has about the world are faulty. This means the evangelist is in the idea business. As a building inspector uses his knowledge of weight loads, safety requirements, and material specifications to ensure a new structure is safe to occupy, the evangelist uses evidence, arguments, and reason to correct faulty beliefs. Even one's testimony of how coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus transformed our lives is a type of argument. The evangelist is using a known sample (his or her own life experience) to tell the non-believer that he too can have a similar experience.

All of this shows the problem with the "If you can talk someone into heaven, then you can talk them out of it" retort. Christianity isn't like selling a used car. The evangelist or apologist should be offering reasons that are not merely convincing, but true! Apologetics is not and should never be Christian hucksterism. It isn't some kind of verbal ju-jitsu. The apologist simply sets out to deal with the fuzzy and illegitimate ideas that non-believers have so they can properly receive the Gospel message. We don't offer arguments instead of reasons; we offer arguments based on reasons, hopefully good reasons. If the non-believer changes one or two of the beliefs that he holds, then that's progress.

The ideas that matter in evangelism are either true or they're not. The Christian that rejects apologetics because "if you can talk someone into heaven, then you can talk them out of it" is really rejecting the concept of objective truth. That person doesn't mark the difference between good reasons for believing something and bad reasons for so doing. But Christianity depends on truth being objective. Paul made this clear when he said that if the belief in the resurrection of Christ is only a belief, if it isn't rooted in an objective fact of history, then it's a worthless one, even if it helps us feel better now. Indeed "we are of all people most to be pitied."(1 Cor. 15:12-19).

Ideas matter. The truth matters. Tomorrow, I will talk about how one may go about trying to change a belief, but know this for now: talking about beliefs is how God intends for us to go out and make disciples.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

The One Question Mormons Hope You Don't Ask

Talking with Mormon missionaries can feel daunting. They seem to know their scriptures and have all the answers. Do the LDS really worship the same God we do? Are they Christians? Here is a very special four part podcast series where I offer a key question that Mormons cannot answer. Listen to all four parts here:
Photo courtesy Saaby and licensed by the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic License.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

How Heresies Tried to Change Scripture

Were books left out of the Bible? What are heresies against scripture? How did the early church determine which writings should be recognized as scripture and which shouldn't? In this one hour lecture, Lenny reviews the heretical movements that plagued the early church in regards to Scripture. The teaching is part of the Deepening Your Faith series put on at Harvest Christian Fellowship. For more information on that class, visit

Friday, November 01, 2013

Don't Avoid the JWs, or You May Lose a Christian!

Two Jehovah's Witnessed came to my door yesterday. We talked for some time and during our conversation I asked the more experienced gentleman, whose name was Albert, to tell me why he decided to follow the teachings of the Watchtower. This is his response:
"I was raised Baptist. However, one day when two men came up to my door, they told me a lot of things that I had never heard before. They told me the truth. For example, they told me the truth about holidays. Today is Halloween and many of the different churches will celebrate this holiday that has its roots in paganism. It was a pagan holiday, started by pagans but Christians don't seem to mind. Even Christmas.  People will say 'Oh, on Christmas we celebrate Jesus,' but Jesus wasn't born on December 25! We know that he wasn't because snow would have been on the ground in December, but the shepherds were out feeding their flocks."
During this point in the conversation, I began to wonder why holidays would be the thing to cause one to change belief systems. It sounded trivial to me. But then Albert got to the crux of the problem:
"They also talked about things like the Trinity and how the Trinity isn't right. They told me things that I'd never heard before in all my time at church. Afterwards, I was confused and called my pastor. I told him what they said and asked about the holidays and the points they brought up. He asked me, 'Are those Jehovah's Witnesses? You just need to stay away from those guys. They aren't good for you. And he hung up. It was after that that I began to learn from the Witnesses because they would tell me the truth."
This really saddened me. It wasn't the problems with the holidays that turned Albert away; it was his pastor's lack of response. Albert thought that his pastor either was trying to hide something from him or possibly that the pastor had no answer to his questions. But he didn't care about these issues that bothered Albert. He simply dismissed his meeting with the Witnesses and said, "Those guys are dangerous. Don't listen to them."

Albert's pastor should be ashamed of his counsel. Instead of protecting Albert from the wolves that cone in to devour the flock, the pastor's warning had the opposite effect and made Albert a Jehovah's Witness. That was in 1980, and Albert has spent the last forty years going door to door trying to pry others away from the faith.

I've heard several pastors tell their congregations not to engage with Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons.  They say don't confront atheists. They don't see any benefit of arguing with a person whose mind is made up. But, as Albert's story shows, this kind of response doesn't protect people from falling away. In fact, it may actually drive them towards a heretical belief since the Mormon or JW appear to want to engage in difficult questions about the Bible and faith.

Churches today need to become more serious in tackling the hard questions that both their congregants and their critics have. If Christianity is true, tough questions shouldn't scare us. Given the complexity of humanity and the transcendence of God, it also shouldn't surprise us that there will be some difficult issues we'll need to handle. But, we do a grave disservice to both the unbeliever and the Christian if we don't start working hard to find the best answers we can to the objections to the faith and incorporate them as part of a mature Christian life. In the Great Commission, Jesus commands his followers to "go and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19)." If we neglect the life of the mind, we are not fulfilling that call.
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