book review

Anne Colamosca 6-05-2017

THERE'S NO DOUBT that both Winston Churchill and George Orwell (two of the 20th century’s harshest critics of the Soviet Union) would be fascinated by the gaggle of money launderers, KGB men, and other Vladimir Putin supplicants dominating today’s international and domestic news.

Thomas E. Ricks, a national security adviser at the New America Foundation, has written a relatively compact dual biography of the two men, Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. It is extremely readable, but it leaves out a lot. Ricks comments: “On the surface, the two men were quite different. ... But in crucial aspects they were kindred spirits ... [who] grappled with the same great questions—Hitler and fascism, Stalin and communism.”

It’s an intriguing thesis that in the end doesn’t quite pan out. Ricks’ narrow focus on these 20th century “isms” ignores a profound difference in attitudes by Churchill and Orwell, which in the end demonstrates a deep political chasm.

Julie Polter 5-30-2017

ON A HIGH PLATFORM in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., sits a glass-topped casket. The museum’s deputy director, Kinshasha Holman Conwill, has called it “one of our most sacred objects.”

The casket once held the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, an African-American boy from Chicago who, while visiting family in Mississippi in the summer of 1955, reportedly whistled at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant at a country store. A few nights later her husband and brother-in-law kidnapped Till, beating and murdering him before fastening a heavy industrial fan to his neck with wire and throwing the body into the Tallahatchie River. The local sheriff ordered Till’s body to be buried the same day it was found. Instead, one of Till’s great uncles intervened and made sure the body was returned to his mother in Chicago.

Mamie Till-Mobley allowed photographers from Jet and Ebony magazines to take pictures of Till’s mutilated face and insisted on an open casket and public viewings. Tens of thousands filed by Till’s broken body.

Anne Colamosca 3-23-2017

ON Oct. 31, 1517, an intense 33-year-old Catholic monk with deep-set eyes and a prominent chin nailed an announcement of proposed points—95 theses—for a university discussion to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Martin Luther, a well-respected University of Wittenberg professor and administrator, was attacking the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church, in which the well-to-do “bought” their relatives out of purgatory by investing in “good works” for the church. Poorer people followed suit with a few coins.

Luther was far from the only critic of indulgences, but his action got attention. Intelligent and charismatic, he was not easily dismissed. He sparked the Protestant Reformation, marking its 500th anniversary this year, at that church door. This review touches on three Luther biographies: chiefly the new Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, by Lyndal Roper, the first woman named Regius Professor of History at Oxford University, but also Brand Luther, by Andrew Pettegree, and Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, by Scott H. Hendrix.

Luther’s fame grew after he refused to recant his criticisms of the Catholic Church at the 1521 Diet of Worms, in front of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Luther was declared a heretic and excommunicated. This incident, Roper writes, “probably did more to win people over to the Reformation and shape their hopes and expectations than did his theology.”

Abigail Carroll 3-23-2017

WHAT WOULD IT look like to extend radical hospitality to the “other,” spend less money in order to give more away, reclaim the Sabbath by practicing intentional rest, embrace simplicity by downsizing material possessions, and seek the renewal of ailing cities and neighborhoods by living in them rather than fleeing them—all while holding jobs and raising a flock of kids?

In The Year of Small Things, Sarah Arthur and Erin Wasinger set out to discover the answer. Inspired by the New Monasticism, a movement that integrates ancient Christian values into modern life, the two friends and their families embark on a year of small but intentional steps of faith and action, devoting each month to a different theme, whether prayer, sustainability, or serving the needs of the under-resourced city in which they live and worship.

David Ensign 3-23-2017

“IT HAPPEDN ON a Sunday night, even though I’d been a good girl and gone to church that morning.” From that opening, Ruth Everhart’s Ruined begs the question: If the sovereign lord of the universe wills you to suffer unspeakable pain, what choice do you have?

Find your voice, and find a better God.

Ruined is a powerful memoir of suffering, survival, and theological imagination. In the age of Donald Trump, it is also subtle yet keen political critique. With unflinching and deeply personal honesty, Everhart takes the reader through the valley of deepest shadows with eyes wide open to the horror of a home invasion and sexual assault she and four Calvin College senior housemates survived in November 1978. The assault ruined more than the author’s sense of what it meant to be a “good girl”; it also ruined her image of God.

Her strict Calvinist upbringing in the Christian Reformed Church taught that nothing happens outside of the sovereign will of God. Yet the assurances of the catechism came up short in the face of the horror and violence Everhart and her friends experienced.

In the aftermath, as days stretched to months, she was left struggling to understand how her rape could be part of God’s will or if it was the punishment God brought upon her for the sin of being a fallen woman. When, against the odds, the rapists were eventually sentenced to lengthy prison terms, she was left wondering: If God was responsible for that “justice,” did that also mean that God was responsible for the crime in the first place?

Cherice Bock 2-28-2017

IF YOU'RE LIKE ME, you care about creation, but have a looming gap between your concern and knowing what to do about it. It can be paralyzing to live in an age of global climate change, environmental degradation, pollution, habitat loss, ocean acidification, lead in the drinking water of cities, and the melting of polar ice caps. Many works of ecotheology explain why caring for creation is a Christian imperative but struggle to get to the how.

Enter Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice. We can’t easily fathom a plan to care for the entire planet, but we can envision our watershed—the area in which water flows down to a common waterway such as a creek or river. (To find your watershed, enter your zip code on the EPA’s “Surf Your Watershed” site, epa.gov/surf.) Imagine caring for your watershed, along with the network of people who also live there. Ched Myers quotes Wendell Berry’s rewording of the Golden Rule to explain how this is an act of care for the entire planet: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”

In the introduction, activist theologian Myers defines the phrase “watershed discipleship” as a “triple entendre.” It reflects “ a watershed historical moment of crisis, which demands that environmental and social justice and sustainability be integral to everything we do as Christians.” It recognizes a “ a watershed context”—that we follow Jesus in a “bioregional locus.” And “it implies that we need to be disciples of our watersheds”—in other words, “learning from, following, and coming to trust ... ‘The Book of Creation.’”

Julienne Gage 2-28-2017

THE MERE MENTION of maras—gangs that formed in the U.S. and then spread throughout Central America—conjures up overcrowded prisons filled with ominous-looking, elaborately tattooed Central American youth flashing gang signs. While this reality does exist, it’s part of what German scholar Sonja Wolf calls a folkloric attempt to demonize disenfranchised sectors of society rather than invest in comprehensive social programs.

Her new academic book, Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador, offers a far deeper analysis of public policy. It’s a must-read for any aid worker or missionary hoping to build peace and prosperity in a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world—81 homicides per 100,000 people, eight times the U.N.’s marker for an epidemic. It also raises important questions about how much violence can actually be attributed to gangs when crime data is patchy and politicized.

The book, an updated version of Wolf’s 2008 doctoral dissertation in international politics, examines two decades of attempts to “pacify” El Salvador’s gangs, a subculture that diversified and expanded after El Salvador’s 1992 U.N.-sponsored peace accords. During the 12 years prior, a civil war claimed some 75,000 lives and prompted 1 million Salvadorans to seek refuge in the U.S. Some of these young refugees joined large U.S. gangs such as 18th Street or created their own, such as MS-13, then brought their gang affiliation back to El Salvador during mass deportations in the early 1990s.

Greg Williams 2-01-2017

THIS IS A PRE-TRUMP book with serious questions for our politics in the age of Trump.

A political memoir from Michael Wear, a young evangelical strategist who worked in Obama’s faith office, it tells stories from the fights of those years and offers a vision of a future faith-in-politics.

I’m a sucker for this kind of memoir: a chastened idealist tells how people worked well together. His ideals have met reality, but Wear still believes politics can help people.

More than merely telling old war stories, Reclaiming Hope makes a sustained case for public service. It argues well that Christian love should motivate us to become active within existing political institutions. Wear highlights specifically race and religious freedom as fields needing further work (a great combination, designed to irritate people all across the ideological spectrum). We need to figure out how to live together and build cultures that respect people and enable them to live without fear.

Although Wear avoids cynicism (and criticizing his former coworkers), his time in high-level politics did chasten him. His reflections on the contentious religious issues raised during his Obama administration tenure, particularly abortion, the contraception mandate, and marriage equality, although only comprising a portion of the book, raise necessary questions for any local or national progressive coalition.

Bailey Shannon 1-31-2017

IN DOROTHY DAY: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty, author Kate Hennessy, Dorothy Day’s youngest granddaughter, gives a deeply intimate and highly credible account of her grandmother, a writer, social activist, and co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin in the 1930s. Hennessy explores themes of integrity, vocation, and community, portraying Dorothy Day honestly in her gifts and faults. But the most powerful thread is raw beauty that links together the author to her grandmother, strangers to one another, and people to God.

Day’s life was often complicated and marked by loss. Nonetheless her worldview was postured toward the words of poet Max Bodenheim: “I know not ugliness. It is a mood which has forsaken me.” Queen Anne’s Lace growing in the city, spinning wool with her grandchildren, her love for the father of her only child, standing in a breadline with seamen, or walking along the shore are all examples of the beauty that both guided and followed Dorothy Day.

Day, who was born in 1897, wasn’t yet a Catholic when she moved to New York City from Illinois in 1916 in pursuit of a writing career. She mingled with writers, artists, and radicals and was active in the social movements of the time. Hennessy notes that Day “was not always the clear-eyed visionary that we now see her as.” Day considered her life “disorderly” and moved from job to job, from one lover to another; she tried to commit suicide on two different occasions.

But even before Day knew God, she knew that God was leading her. She said, “I cannot help my religious sense, which tortures me unless I do as I believe right.”

Jasper Vaughn 12-22-2016

“A SUGGESTION: Speak much about Jesus.” Henri Nouwen’s recommendation to a friend, captured in Love, Henri—a new collection of his personal correspondence—encapsulates the priest and author’s private and public ministry. More than almost any other modern figure, Nouwen bridged Catholic/Protestant doctrinal divides with his writing to bring spiritual healing and comfort, even as he wrestled with what he termed his inner “demons.”

Edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw and released in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of Nouwen’s death, Love, Henri highlights the priest’s struggle for inner peace and his extensive web of deep friendships. While the collection does not present any shocking revelations, and contains fewer transcendent moments of raw emotion than other collections of Nouwen’s writing, it works well as a meditation on what it means to love selflessly and extend oneself over a lifetime.

In the collection, Henri is both protagonist and antagonist, healing and wounding those in his life. While Nouwen himself acknowledges “a kind of enthusiasm” in his own writing that “seems a little bit too easy,” the gift is watching him participate in these seeker/giver relationships. In early letters, he is often overly attached: “Maybe your distance simply means that I force myself upon you and there is not a mutuality that makes friendship possible.” Later, though, we see him “speak about [his] inner struggles as a source of self-understanding” and solidarity, rather than a way “to avoid difficult positions and responsibility and evoke some sympathy.”

Rosalie G. Riegle 12-22-2016

DO WE LIVE in a post-Christian era? Catholic monk Thomas Merton thought so, back in 1962, when his anti-war book Peace in the Post-Christian Era was banned by monastic censors.

He would surely come to the same conclusion today, when we hear a pulpit Christianity still identified with war and nationalism and listen in shock to a new U.S. president woefully ignorant of the peril of nuclear war. Our deeply divided nation holds scant promise for peace in our streets or in the world, despite the growing chorus of Christian peacemakers.

This new book by Jim Forest adds both deep compassion and timely advice to that chorus. The wise words of Merton, who served unofficially as “pastor to the peace movement” during the Vietnam War, are needed now more than ever. Clearly titled chapters quote from Merton’s published writing as well as his letters to Forest and other peacemakers.

In October 1961, The Catholic Worker published Merton’s essay “The Root of War is Fear,” and Merton ran afoul of monastic censors. He was eventually silenced publicly but fortunately was allowed to circulate Peace in the Post-Christian Era in mimeographed form and to continue writing letters, although for several years everything passed through the censor’s hands. One of the delights of this book by Forest is the first publication of an uncensored and scathingly sardonic letter Merton wrote under the pseudonym “Marco J. Frisbee.”

Richard K. Taylor 11-30-2016

Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got it Right — And How We Can, Too, by George Lakey. Melville House. 

Elizabeth McAlister 11-30-2016

IN 1967, I TRAVELED with activist friends from New York to Baltimore to support four people there who poured blood on the 1A files that compelled young men into the military and the massacre in Vietnam. The “Baltimore 4,” as they became known, committed the first of some 100 actions focused on draft boards, the source of cannon fodder in the ever-escalating wars in Indochina. It was during one of these trips that I met Willa Bickham and her husband, Brendan Walsh. Our friendship has been rich, varied, invaluable.

In The Long Loneliness in Baltimore, Walsh and Bickham tell of their nearing 50 years serving the people of Baltimore as the Viva House Catholic Worker. It is a story that needs telling, especially now in this country that is profoundly ruptured by economic and racial conflict.

Try as the politicians and the press might, it is impossible to disengage economics from race. Bickham and Walsh know this intimately, living in the midst of an impoverished black neighborhood. They have experienced drugs, murders, robberies, and destruction right outside their front doors. The alley that runs beside their home, thanks to their creativity, is marked with memorials to men and boys shot and killed there. Repeatedly, after almost every major killing, Walsh has told the press what has become crystal clear to him: that in Baltimore City (as in too many cities), selling drugs is the only job that exists for all-too-many people of color.

In the garden outside Viva House is the Hope Stone. In Bickham’s script, it quotes Martin Luther King Jr.: “We will hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” That is the invitation to all who come to Viva House for whatever reason, to meet whatever need. Each is sure to receive respectful and caring human interaction, food, fellowship, help with bills, a place to escape the cold or heat or rain, a place of justice and peace.

Andrew Wilkes 11-30-2016

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. did not initiate black prophetic preaching; he was, rather, initiated into it. Rev. Kenyatta Gilbert’s A Pursued Justice: Black Preaching from the Great Migration to Civil Rights is a theological origin story about the distinctive rhetorical tradition that is black prophetic preaching.

The text begins by naming the social crisis of the Great Migration—shorthand for a massive demographic shift of 1.5 million African Americans from the South to the North between 1916 to 1940—as an essential context for understanding black prophetic preaching. This tradition of Christian proclamation—which Gilbert calls “exodus preaching”—is framed in the context of black pastors seeking to respond theologically to the pressures of injustice, prejudice, and segregation that black migrant workers navigated in Northern urban communities in the inter-war period. Of special note, Gilbert surfaces the social gospel tradition of African-American clerics who, unlike white social gospel leaders Walter Rauschenbusch, Josiah Strong, Washington Gladden, and others, demonstrated a desire to not only build institutional churches that confronted industrial evils but also to address systemic issues of lynching, police brutality, and so on.

While the entire book makes an important contribution to the study and practice of preaching, the third chapter, in particular, sparkles with insight. Within it, Gilbert marshals a solid cast of intellectuals—including Paulo Freire and Zora Neale Hurston—to land on a four-part definition of prophetic preaching. He contends that prophetic preaching unmasks systemic evil, remains hopeful in difficult situations, aids listeners in naming their own reality, and displays a will to adorn. The criterion of adornment—with patient attention to aesthetic categories of beauty, vision, and desire—is some of the most creative theological writing, in any genre, that you are likely to read. On a practical level, the definition provides a yardstick against which working preachers and homiletics faculty can assess the strength of contemporary pulpit work.

Rich Villodas 10-27-2016

YOU HAVE MADE us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

These oft-quoted words, delivered from pulpits, books, and classrooms through the centuries, came from the theological giant St. Augustine. Augustine is widely noted as one of the most important theologians in Western Christianity. His acclaimed works, most notably Confessions and City of God, have shaped the thinking and spirituality of pastors, scholars, and regular church-going folk.

However, even with all the pages written about Augustine, there’s been a missing element that hasn’t been significantly excavated, namely, Augustine’s mestizo makeup. This is why historical theology scholar Justo González’s new book, The Mestizo Augustine: A Theologian Between Two Cultures, is a welcome and much-needed contribution to Augustinian theology.

The central thrust of The Mestizo Augustine is the exploration of the “mestizo” nature of Augustine and his theological journey. The word “mestizo” (which flows out of Latino/a theology) is a Spanish word that captures what it means to be of mixed heritage. Being mestizo is a recognition of hybridity or, as González notes, “to belong to two realities and at the same time not to belong to either of them.” This mestizaje lens is needed to better understand Augustine.

González unpacks the African/Roman hybridity of Augustine. This hybridity manifested in language, philosophical frameworks, and traditions. For example, being mestizo, Augustine lived in two worlds as it pertained to understanding the concept and practice of authority. González notes that in African culture, authority rested in the holiness, wisdom, and charisma of a leader. In Roman culture, authority did not rest on individual character but “in the function to which that person had been assigned.” Being mestizo meant Augustine needed to wrestle with the implications of these two worlds.

Anne Colamosca 10-27-2016

IN THE EARLY 1940s, Raoul Wallenberg was a slight, balding young man living modestly in Stockholm. He worked for a trading company that imported Hungarian poultry to Sweden. Wallenberg’s colleagues were mainly Hungarian Jews.

He had trained in the U.S. to be an architect. But on his return to Sweden, Wallenberg discovered that he didn’t have the engineering courses required to be hired in his homeland. His other career alternative, banking, also eluded him. The extended Wallenberg family owned one of Sweden’s most prosperous banks, Stockholms Enskilda Bank. But they found Wallenberg to be overly talkative, too artistically inclined, and having a penchant for drama that did not signal, for them, the makings of a top-drawer Swedish banker. So Wallenberg fell into depression, feeling that he was a failure, now known to his family disparagingly as “the grocer.”

Yet this unfulfilled young man would become, virtually overnight, one of the great heroes of World War II.

Veteran Swedish journalist Ingrid Carlberg has written a remarkable, nuanced, 600-page biography featuring extensive original research and new material: Raoul Wallenberg: The Heroic Life and Mysterious Disappearance of the Man Who Saved Thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust. The English translation of this award-winning work was released earlier this year.

When the Germans sent 500 Norwegians to Auschwitz in late 1942, the outraged Swedish government, which had remained neutral, declared that Sweden would accept any Jew who could make it to the Swedish border. They also decided to set up a special humanitarian aid mission in Budapest to help Hungarian Jews being annihilated by Hitler’s troops. A colleague at the trading company immediately recommended Wallenberg to the Swedish Foreign Mission to head the new mission.

Jill Crainshaw 9-29-2016
Nancy Bauer / Shutterstock

Nancy Bauer / Shutterstock

SHE: ROBED AND WORDLESS, by Sister Lou Ella Hickman, is a word-feast of poetry about often-overlooked women in the Bible.

Hickman creates a beautiful narrative and poetic arc as she explores biblical terrain. I celebrate how the book gives voice and imagery to our foremothers. Each poem is well-crafted, and the book has been organized to guide readers into the question editor Tom Lombardo asks in his introduction to the book: “After Eve, who is the next woman named in the Bible?”

Hickman, a Catholic sister, is an oft-published poet who in this book weaves together with striking lyrical threads scriptural narratives and her own substantive imaginings about the hopes, dreams, and fears of women about whom we know very little. Many women in the Bible are unnamed and have no voice, but Hickman tunes our ears to listen for these ancient unheard ones. In doing so she invites us to see and hear the countless but wisdom-filled “robed and wordless” women in our communities today.

Eric Mayle 9-29-2016
The Secret Chord

The Secret Chord

Now I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord,
But you don’t really care for music, do you?

It is said that Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” has been covered more than 300 times by various artists since its 1984 release. Perhaps one of the reasons it has endured is because of the stories it tells about tragic biblical figures such as King David, who was simultaneously murderer and a “man after God’s own heart.”

Inspired by her son, who played an arrangement of “Hallelujah” on the harp for his bar mitzvah, Geraldine Brooks explores the profoundly paradoxical character of David in her novel The Secret Chord (paperback edition out this fall). Brooks’ unwillingness to resolve this paradox invites readers into the story to wrestle with the categories of good and evil and the nature of repentance. After the dust settles, however, readers will find that it is not the depth of David’s repentance but the abuse of power that defines his kingship.

The timeline in Brooks’ novel roughly spans David’s early ascent to power through his death and Shlomo’s coronation (Brooks uses the transliteration of the Hebrew to spell names, for example Shlomo instead of Solomon). Drawing upon the tradition that the histories of 1 and 2 Chronicles were written by the prophet Natan, David’s story is told from the perspective of the prophet. During the first battle that David is not on the battlefield with his men, the frustrated, middle-aged king commissions Natan to write his biography, so that David’s descendants may know “what manner of man” he was. David gives Natan a curious list of people to interview, including individuals that David knows will be severely critical of him, such as his estranged wives and brother. This narrative detail—like many others in the novel—serves as an explanation for scripture’s curiously flawed portrait of Israel’s most powerful king.

Greg Williams 9-28-2016
assimilate_or_go_home.jpg

A FRIEND JUST told me something wise: Be skeptical but never cynical. In Assimilate or Go Home, a series of essays about her ministry and faith experience, D.L. Mayfield tells an even rarer story—of her movement from idealism through cynicism into a deeper faith. She manages to avoid sinking into an easy “wisdom” that simply excuses apathy.

Mayfield’s journey into an unperfected ministry starts when she is an idealistic high schooler, wanting to serve immigrants and refugees in her community. She discovers that this isn’t easy, as she works with and sometimes lives among Somali Bantu refugees, first in Bible college and then through her 20s. Even her best efforts aren’t what the community wants or needs. Instead, she finds her intentions thwarted and her ideals coming up short as she teaches English, mentors teens, and helps friends struggle through obstinate bureaucracies. All of this activity stalls in the face of a dramatically different culture and people who don’t want to be “saved.” This sense of frustration is mirrored in the structure of the book: We are never given much sense of the timeline of Mayfield’s life, just that the same challenges persist.

Mayfield describes baking a cake for the wedding of a girl she had mentored from a Somali Bantu family. This girl was only a junior in high school when she married and moved across the country with her new husband. Mayfield finds herself wondering if all the “countless conversations about colleges and careers ... harping on equitable marriages, on waiting to have children, on finishing high school” might have made things worse.

Rosalie G. Riegle 7-29-2016
Illustration by Jeffrey Smith

Illustration by Jeffrey Smith

DAN ZAK WAS FIRST struck by the absurdity of it all. As a reporter for The Washington Post, he was fascinated to learn that Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli, and Greg Boertje-Obed had crossed forested hills in the middle of the night in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and reached the center of a government complex where possibly the most dangerous material in the world is enriched and stored.

Then Zak was captured by what was behind their action—the dramatic secrecy in the development of the first atomic bomb, the tragedy of its testing on U.S. soldiers and on the unsuspecting inhabitants of the Marshall Islands, the bungling bureaucracy surrounding the entire nuclear industry, and finally the hope and resilience of the resisters who work to eliminate these perilous weapons. His book Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age (Blue Rider Press) is the result.

Rice, Walli, and Boertje-Obed called their action the Transform Now Plowshares, following a tradition of serious faith-inspired nonviolent actions dating back to 1980, actions often successful in reaching their nuclear targets and resulting in prison terms.

In July 2012, the trio cut through several fences—aided by malfunctioning motion sensors—at times moving through bright floodlight and past signs warning, “Deadly force authorized.” They hung a banner on one fence that proclaimed the words that were the source of their action, the injunction from Isaiah to “hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (2:4).

They arrived at Y-12, a building that stores 800,000 pounds of weapons-grade uranium, the material that undergoes fusion when a nuclear bomb is detonated. Using traditional Plowshares action symbols, they streaked the white walls with the blood of activists, spurted from baby bottles they carried in their backpacks. They painted the building with the phrases “Woe to the empire of blood” and “The fruit of justice is peace.” They chipped away at the concrete walls with small hammers, and they waited.

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