In my recent post on Interpreting Genesis, one of the commenters suggested to me the writing of Denis Lamoureux as a good example of defending a non-literal interpretation of Genesis. A quick visit to Amazon revealed that his big book on this subject, Evolutionary Creation, was over four hundred pages long and was quite expensive. Happily, last year Lamoureux, who is a professor of science and religion at the University of Alberta and holds doctoral degrees in dentistry, theology and biology, published a Cliff’s Notes version of his book called I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution. I purchased a copy and have now read it.

Short Review: I don’t think I’ll be reading the longer version. Lamoureux’s arguments are very unconvincing.

Longer review below the fold.

Lamoureux’s main argument is this: Scientific concordism, in which the text of the Bible is interpreted in a way that renders it consistent with modern science, is a failure as an exegetical strategy. The Bible absolutely does contain false statements about science. This is so because God accommodated himself to the best scientific understanding of the people at the time. His intent was to communicate timeless spiritual truths, not scientific truths.

I need to stress at this point that Lamoureux is not any kind of theological liberal. He is a hard-core evangelical Christian. If you are familiar with evangelical writing generally you will recognize many of the standard tropes. For example, he is endlessly attributing various turning points in his life to the actions of the Holy Spirit within him, and he routinely refers to his “brothers and sisters in Christ.” He believes in a literal heaven and hell. He objects to the term “theistic evolution” because the theistic part is then just an adjective that modifies evolution. He prefers “evolutionary creation” which gets the priorities right.

There is much to admire in Lamoureux’s book. He gives a nice summary of some of the evidence for an old Earth and for common descent. Nothing new, but always appreciated.

He is also very convincing in arguing that concordism fails. For example, he points out that people at the time held to a three-tier view of the universe, in which the heavens were located above the Earth (which was flat and covered with a dome), which in turn was located above the Underworld. There are many verses most naturally interpreted within this framework.

Furthermore, when the New Testament writers referred back to events in the Old Testament, they did so in ways that make it clear they viewed Genesis as literal history. They were wrong to think that, however, according to Lamoureux.

Lamoureux is also completely forthright that his approach to the Bible is quite a departure from the dominant views in the Church both today and throughout history. That is a pleasant change from those who imply that everyone used to be moderate and open-minded in their approach to the Bible, until those demented YEC’s arrived on the scene in the twentieth century. In fact, he is even gloomier than I am on this point. He routinely talks about how “most” Christians have serious problems with evolution and with the idea that Genesis is not literal history. That seems like an overstatement to me, but I think he is referring specifically to evangelical Christians when he says that.

Now for the bad news. I reject Lamoureux’s argument for two reasons. First, I think it fails on its own terms. That is, I do not find the notion of accommodation to be a plausible explanation for the manifold scientific errors of the Bible. Second, there is a simpler explanation for why the Bible contains so many statements that are indicative of a pre-scientific understanding of the universe. Do I really need to spell it out?

As I discussed in my previous post there is a difference between simplification and fabrication. I can understand God needing to simplify certain aspects of his creative process to make them comprehensible to a pre-scientific audience. But I can not understand him saying things that are utterly false.

For example, here is Mark 4:30-32:

With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; yet it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

Here is Lamoureux’s discussion:

As everyone knows, the mustard seed is not “the smallest of all seeds on the earth.” Orchid seeds are much smaller, to cite just one example. Yet perceived through the eyes of ancient people in the Lord’s day, mustard seeds were the smallest seeds. That is, from their point of view, or better, from their ancient phenomenological perspective…this was a scientific fact for them. Of course, most Christians understand that Jesus’ purpose in the parable is not to teach botany. Rather he uses the science-of-the-day in order to reveal an inerrant prophecy about the kingdom of God. In other words, the Lord descended and accommodated to the level of His ancient listeners.

The problem here is the specificity of what Jesus said. He could have described the mustard seed as among the smallest seeds in the world, or he could have described it simply as a very small seed. Would his spiritual point have been harmed in the slightest by such a phrasing? Would his ancient listeners have then missed the point, lost in the minutiae of why Jesus described the mustard seed in such cagey terms? Instead, Jesus explicitly identifies the mustard seed as the smallest seed on Earth. This is strange, since His point was easily made without such a blatantly false statement.

That example by itself is small, but it illustrates the main problem with Lamoureux’s argument. As another example, consider his discussion of day four of Creation Week:

The purpose of the fourth creation day is to reveal a radical theological message to the ancient world. It is a polemic (a cutting critique) against pagan astral religion. Most people at that time believed that the sun, moon and stars were gods. But the biblical author, through the Holy Spirit, strips these astronomical bodies of their divine status and makes them mere creations of the Hebrew god. Even more radically, the Scripture throws these so-called “gods” into servitude! Instead of men and women serving the heavenly bodies as demanded by astrological religions, the inspired writer states that the sun, moon and stars were created to serve humanity. In other words the Bible puts the heavenly bodies in their proper place. They have value because they are God’s good creations, but they are definitely not gods worth of worship.

That is all a good argument for why God would stress that he created the sun, moon and stars, and that he created them for human ends. But it does not explain why God said he created these celestial objects after already creating plants on day three. Nor does it tell us why he felt obliged to embed his acts of creation within a time frame that is off by many orders of magnitude.

Lamoureux’s argument becomes even more implausible when you consider the harm that God’s accommodations have done. If Lamoureux is right then countless generations of Christians have been led completely astray by reading the Bible. Many Christians have been driven away from science altogether because of their understanding of Scripture. From the other side many have been driven away from the Bible because of the numerous, obvious, errors it contains. God surely knew this would be the result of his accommodations. Am I really to believe he could not find a way to make himself understood without trodding a path that would drive countless people in terribly wrong directions? Doesn’t seem reasonable.

For that matter, if God were accommodating why does He not make it clear in the text that that is what he is doing? Where are the exhortations to study nature or to investigate the properties of his creation in an orderly way? Why not simply preface his scientific statements with something like, “Let me put this in terms you will understand…”? Again, the harm done by God’s accommodations, in the form of Christians driven away from science and non-Christians driven away from the Bible, is enormous.

Which brings me to my second objection. Lamoureux’s view of the Bible is like arguing that the reason we don’t see elephants hiding in trees is that they are very skillful at hiding. The numerous scientific errors and indications of a pre-scientific understanding of the world could all be evidence of God’s gracious condescension to our level. On the other hand, it could also be evidence that the Bible is a purely human production. I think Lamoureux, in looking for zebras, has missed some very obvious horses.

Those are my main problems with his central argument, but to make this a proper review I really need to take note of some of the large number of outright factual errors in the book. Lamoureux writes:

Another serious difficulty with dysteleological evolution is that it is a personal commitment to the belief that truth is only found through scientific investigation. This view of knowledge is known as positivism and reductionism.

But positivism and reductionism are not at all the same thing, and both are different from scientism, which is the view described in the first sentence. And “dysteleogical evolution” (by which Lamoureux means a view of evolution that does not regard human beings as inevitable) does not entail any of those three philosophical views.

Elsewhere Lamoureux writes:

Darwin’s position in 1859 is proof that the origins dichotomy is a false dichotomy. He believed in both God and evolution. In fact only a few years before his death in 1882, he openly admitted, “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God.”

Darwin, of course, was famously agnostic in his later years. And the idea that his opinion on the question of evolution and religion is in some way definitive is a level of Darwin worship that even I am not prepared to attain.

I could list many other such examples, but I would rather close with a different consideration. You see, Lamoureux is in the habit of writing things like this:

Scripture calls those who do not acknowledge the Creator fools. Twice in the Psalms it is written, “The fool says in his heart,`There is no God’” The Proverbs also state that “fools hate knowledge” and that “fools mock at making amends for sin.” Atheistic evolutionists reject the existence of God, construct a worldview without reference to Him, and dismiss sin as irrelevant. In light of God’s word, dysteleological evolution is the origins position of fools.

This comes not long after Lamoureux made a plea for respect among defenders of different views of origins. And no, I am not mollified by his footnote that says, among other things, “I make no apology for what the Bible clearly states — atheists are fools.” Lamoureux goes on to explain that the Biblical notion of being a fool does not relate to stupidity, but has to with our sinfulness making us blind to the religious realities lying behind scientific data.

This got me thinking about ye olde accommodationism debate again. We vocal atheist types are routinely lectured about not criticizing theistic evolutions (or evolutionary creationists). It hurts the cause, you see. They are allies in the fight against creationism, and that is what matters.

Lamoureux may be an ally in the fight against creationism, but he certainly is no friend to reason or rationality. How respectful can I be towards someone who says I am a fool, and that he knows this because an ancient book tells him that I am? How much do I really have in common with a man who walls off certain beliefs from rational consideration and describes them as nonnegotiable, as Lamoureux boasts of doing with his Christianity? Am I really expected not to scoff at the argument, offered by Lamoureux, that we can be certain that the Bible was never intended to teach us science because so much of what it says about science is false?

A world in which most people think like Lamoureux would, at best, be a very marginal improvement over a world of Young-Earth Creationists.

Comments

  1. #1 Reverend Charley
    March 4, 2010

    The whole title is wrong. How can you claim to love Jesus and at the same time slap Him in the face by demeaning His work? To be Christian is to deny evolution and believe creation. The whole Gospel message revolves around what happened in Genesis. Without the fall of man directly after creation, and without the punishment given unto men once ot live and the to die, then the gospel message is irrelevant. If is becuase of what happened in Eden that Christ came to die on the cross. Without Genesis, there is no gospel message.

  2. #2 Lee Harrison
    March 4, 2010

    “Without the fall of man directly after creation, and without the punishment given unto men once ot(sic) live and the(sic) to die, then the gospel message is irrelevant.”

    “Without Genesis, there is no gospel message.”

    Well done – now, let’s see if you can take that one extra step…

  3. #3 Valhar2000
    March 5, 2010

    Don’t stop now, Reverend! You’re almost there!

  4. #4 Dan Gilbert
    March 5, 2010

    Good review! I really appreciate the effort you put into reading and critiquing this, in no small part because it spares me the effort of having to read it. ;-)

  5. #5 Scott
    March 5, 2010

    Jason writes: “That is all a good argument for why God would stress that he created the sun, moon and stars, and that he created them for human ends. But it does not explain why God said he created these celestial objects after already creating plants on day three. Nor does it tell us why he felt obliged to embed his acts of creation within a time frame that is off by many orders of magnitude.”

    Not to mention the absolutely ridiculous notion that god created billions and billions of stars and planets and threw them billions of light years away from earth, but they were created entirely for our benefit.

  6. #6 Reverend Charley
    March 5, 2010

    “Not to mention the absolutely ridiculous notion that god created billions and billions of stars and planets and threw them billions of light years away from earth, but they were created entirely for our benefit. ”

    ————

    Not for our benefit, for God’s benefit and His glory.

  7. #7 Denis O. Lamoureux
    March 5, 2010

    Dear Jason,
    The moment I read your comment, “He [Lamoureux]has no problem consigning unbelievers to the fiery pit”, I quit reading. What shameful and incompetent reporting. May I suggest a remedial reading course at a 2 year community college, doctor?
    Regards,
    Denis

  8. #8 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 5, 2010

    Denis –

    On page 159 you wrote:

    First, the ultimate purpose of the Christian faith must be considered in this discussion. Does the gospel message not include notions that could be termed “spiritual selection,” “the survival of the spiritually fittest,” and even “spiritual extinction?” On Judgment Day, are sheep not going to be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:15)? Today, very few Christians relish the thought of eternal damnation. But it is a harsh reality ordained by the God of Love to serve His purpose in creating a body of individuals to enjoy eternity with Him. As believers come to terms with the reality that many will be lost forever, their justification for this gut-wrenching future reality can be applied to the evolutionary process, putting some divine perspective on extinction, natural selection, and the survival of the fittest.

    I await your apology.

    I am sorry you stopped reading so early in the review. I am genuinely interested to know your response to my arguments.

  9. #9 Denis O. Lamoureux
    March 6, 2010

    Jason:
    You truly have a reading problem. You wrote: “He [Lamoureux]has no problem consigning unbelievers to the fiery pit.”

    GET THIS STRAIGHT JASON: I DO NOT CONSIGN ANYONE TO ANY FIERY PIT.

    It is very clear that I don’t like the idea of a hell. But if there is a hell, there is not a helluva lot we can do about it. You can bitch, whine, and complain all you want, that’s not going to change it if it exists.

    And I await your apology for your shameful misrepresentation of my views. I don’t care what you believe, but at least get the facts straight on what I have written.

    Denis

  10. #10 H.H.
    March 6, 2010

    Denis O. Lamoureux, it was clear to me as a reader that Jason meant only that you accept a literal hell and believe that people are sent their for the simple “crime” of not believing in god. I don’t think anyone would think that he was literally accusing you of being the person in charge of deciding the fate of individual souls. So, with undo clarification, you don’t personally consign nonbelievers to hell, you just worship a god who does. Fine. But you do realize that this doesn’t make you look any better, right?

  11. #11 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 6, 2010

    Well, Denis, you are a charming one aren’t you. If you seriously think my point in that sentence was that you personally are deciding who does and does not go to hell, or that I was discussing your emotional attitude towards the idea of eternal damnation, then I can only suggest that you should not be passing judgment on who does and does not have a reading problem.

    My point in that paragraph was that you are not a liberal theologian. Since you use the phrase “Conservative Christianity” to describe your views (on page 41, for example) I think I am on solid ground in thinking that. One thing that characterizes more liberal approaches to Christianity is the lack of belief in a literal heaven and hell. So I was simply pointing out that you, in fact, do believe in a literal hell, as part of a list of things that I think make clear your general attitudes about Christianity.

    I will rephrase that sentence to make my intention clearer, but you really need to calm down. I was serious in my previous comment when I said I was interested to know your response to my arguments. I am sorry you have decided to be so nasty about this, when a more mature approach would have been to explain clearly what you objected to.

  12. #12 H.H.
    March 6, 2010

    By the way, I’d like to point out the inherent humor in seeing Denis O. Lamoureux state that he stopped reading Jason’s review after the first “error” he encountered–a sentence which only becomes misleading if a hyper-literal reading is imposed upon it. Lamoureux, if you held the bible to the same standard, you wouldn’t have made it past the first page!

  13. #13 Robert O'Brien
    March 6, 2010

    Dr. Lamoureux,

    Have you given any thought to the idea that Hell consists solely of poena damni (i.e., pain of loss), instead of poena damni + poena sensus (i.e., pain of sense)?

    Despite my fondness for Dante, I find myself agreeing with Origen when he wrote:

    …it seems to be indicated that every sinner kindles for himself the flame of his own fire…Of this fire the fuel and food are our sins, which are called by the Apostle Paul “wood, and hay, and stubble.

    …when the soul shall be found to be beyond the order, and connection, and harmony in which it was created by God for the purposes of good and useful action and observation, and not to harmonize with itself in the connection of its rational movements, it must be deemed to bear the chastisement and torture of its own dissension, and to feel the punishments of its own disordered condition.

  14. #14 386sx
    March 6, 2010

    I can feel the love of Jesus in Mr. Lamoureux’s comments.

  15. #15 386sx
    March 6, 2010

    I don’t care what you believe,

    Oh great. Mr. Lamoureux doesn’t care what happens “On Judgment Day”. Wonderful…

    God of love…

    yahhh…

  16. #16 386sx
    March 6, 2010

    Darwin’s position in 1859 is proof that the origins dichotomy is a false dichotomy.

    Darwin’s position in 1859… is an epistemological proof. Brilliant…

    He believed in both God and evolution. In fact only a few years before his death in 1882, he openly admitted, “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God.”

    Brilliant…

  17. #17 Caliban
    March 7, 2010

    @H.H.: LOL! Very funny observation.

  18. #18 Tommykey
    March 8, 2010

    Not for our benefit, for God’s benefit and His glory.

    Really? So how exactly does God “benefit” from the Sombrero Galaxy?

  19. #19 Wowbagger
    March 8, 2010

    Not for our benefit, for God’s benefit and His glory.

    Why does a perfect god require glory anyway? Being glorified is something weak humans need to feel better about themselves; if there’s a god you’d think he’d be aware of how wonderful he was without needing anyone – or anything – to remind him.

  20. #20 FastLane
    March 10, 2010

    So, after coming here all morally outraged, when shown the error of his ways, the ‘good’ Dr. (of what?) doesn’t return, or apologize.

    Particularly funny in light of H.H.’s astute observation, but very typical of religious hypocrits.

  21. #21 DataJack
    March 10, 2010

    Wowbagger @19 Don’t forget, he really likes the smell of roasting flesh to perk him up, too. It will (sometimes) even calm him out of a homicidal rage. Sacrificial lambs (or children) ftw!

  22. #22 Remi
    March 12, 2010

    It just like saying jumbo shrimp. It dosen’t work. You can’t say you love Jesus and slap him in the face and telling him he is a liar. There is no mistake about anything in the bible. The Holy spirit wrote it and if you deny it, you are a unsave persone. Jesus, was not a liar or any of his profets that wrote the bible!

    God bless :)

  23. #23 Tony61
    March 12, 2010

    I don’t see Jason’s original statement about “consignment to a fiery pit.” Was it removed? Or is my Firefox Word Find not working?

    Great discussion, especially HH observation about the double standard on literality.

  24. #24 Modusoperandi
    March 12, 2010

    Remi “It just like saying jumbo shrimp. It dosen’t work.”
    “Jumbo shrimp” works just fine. They’re “jumbo” in comparison to other shrimp.

    “You can’t say you love Jesus and slap him in the face and telling him he is a liar.”
    Yes you can. My girlfriend does it to me all the time. I’ve got a wandering eye, apparently.

    “There is no mistake about anything in the bible.”
    You’re adorable. I think I love you.

    The Holy spirit wrote it and if you deny it, you are a unsave persone. Jesus, was not a liar or any of his profets that wrote the bible!” (emphasis mine)
    No. Hold on! I do love you!

  25. #25 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 13, 2010

    Tony61 –

    As I mentioned in comment 11, I revised the sentence at issue.

  26. #26 Mark McEwan
    September 24, 2011

    Dr. Rosenhouse:

    With respect, I think you misread this book. (I should say here that I haven’t read the book, but that I did use the larger version, Creationary Evolution, in some of my research, and that I have both attended a lecture by Lamoureux on this topic and have corresponded with him, discussing my own research, which is in the field of Christian Apologetics at the master’s level). It is on my reading list, but I wanted to post these thoughts despite the fact that I didn’t read the book yet. So I say these things tentatively, as one who thinks he might have something good to say, but it open to being corrected.

    I don’t believe this book was primarily written to convince an atheist who already accepts evolution to also accept Christianity (as I understand it), so much as it was written to Christians who think that the reality of human evolution presents deal-breaker for their faith. (Am I right in assuming that?)

    Your handling of the Scriptures seems to indicate that you aren’t familiar with Biblical scholarship beyond the common (often fundamentalist-leaning) understanding the Bible. (I specifically refer to your discussion on the mustard seed, here). I don’t wish to be disrespectful, and it does seem to me pretty unlikely–given your level of education–that you aren’t familiar with more liberal or middle-of-the-road theologically-conservative evangelical scholarship (which is where I’d place myself; literally physical resurrection, but symbolic creation account).

    You say that Jesus unnecessarily “explicitly identifies the mustard seed as the smallest seed on Earth”–and scientifically speaking, yes, this is an error (if you prefer that term) although I prefer the term inaccuracy. The word “error” implies that Jesus tried to get something right and failed. The word “inaccuracy” allows that he may have been doing something else (illustrating a spiritual truth) and didn’t really care to be scientifically accurate. (In fact, I would imagine that if God had tried to be scientifically accurate, the description would be so tedious and complex–well beyond our 21st century understanding–that the theological points would be buried in the footnotes…not to mention that the book itself would be obsolete in the 22nd century, if not well before.)

    I wonder if you’ve read a hermeneutics textbook before? (If you have, my apologies, as this is not meant to come across as arrogant or condescending). If not, a very good and accessible one is Reading the Good Book Well: A Guide to Biblical Interpretation by Jerry Camery-Hoggatt. I found that it avoided the pitfalls of fundamentalism quite well. There are, of course, much more comprehensive textbooks available.

    As stands, it seems to me that you’ve done the same thing that many misguided Christians do; just as they come to the science classroom expecting it to illustrate theological truths (something it is neither aimed at nor able to accomplish) you’ve come to both Lamoureux’s book and the Scripture expecting them to do something they weren’t intended to do. You expect Lamoureux to be speaking to a different audience, and while (I would imagine that) you deplore Christian Fundamentalism, yet your use of Scripture here reads just like a Fundamentalist.

    Am I reading you wrongly?

  27. #27 Dennis
    February 22, 2012

    I realize that I am late to this post, however, I have to question who wrote the posts attributed to Denis. I personally know Denis and these are not the responses that he would use. He is far more respectful that this. In looking at how to make comments on the blog, I notice that anyone could post a name and URL.
    As for the critic itself, you have misunderstood one fundamental aspect. Your reference to the sun, moon, and stars being created on the fourth day while plants were on the third. You seem to think that Denis has a literal understanding of these events, at least from the blog. However, he clearly spells out that these are poetic using a nothing (Tohu) and empty (Bohu) framework. Thereby making your point moot.
    More comments are needed in response to your critique, some of your points seem misinformed while others require more thought to form an appropriate response. I do not want you to misunderstand when terms like “fools” seem to be so offensive. If the urge strikes, I may have to write more
    Dennis

  28. #28 Wow
    February 23, 2012

    Is that you, Dennis Thatcher?

    Oh, no? OK, is that you, Dennis Healy? Still no? How about Dennis Taylor?

    Damn.

    There are other people with the name “Dennis” in the world. Who’d have thought…

    PS: Do you have a split personality: “I personally know Denis…I may have to write more
    Dennis ”

    Or is it that you think it common enough for people not to know who they are that you need to make special note of your self-awareness?

  29. #29 Dennis
    April 8, 2012

    WOW,

    Actually, I am none of the above and yes there are many people named Dennis in the world, I am merely one more.

    Mark, you make some interesting comments. But I think that Dr. Rosenhouse makes an even more fundamental error that you suggest in his critique of the mustard seed. There are three gospels that mention this parable. Matthew (13:31-32), Mark (4:31)and Luke (13:18-19). The only mention of size comes in the first two. Jesus calls it, “the smallest seed that you plant.” in both. This then is not an error, but rather a reference to the farmers to understand how their faith starts out very small and then grows into a great tree when it is cared for and nurtured. So Denis’ point holds. While I was referencing the NIV specifically here, it is also in the KJV and ASV. I haven’t referenced the Greek, but my Spanish edition says the same. The Lord knew what He was talking about.

  30. #30 Charles
    April 9, 2012

    Did you ever,compared the similarity between Jesus’ extiction on the cross,and His resurrection into a new specie,with the origin of species theory??

    Is it possible that Jesus’ Spirit Himself in the process of creation was all the time right from the very first day of creation,the first ever specie of every different creature in the evolution system??

    Is it possible that once He created the first specie other spiecies through this particular specie emerged??

    Isn’t it also similar to, Adam and Eve, if we had to consider them as species,therefore through them emerged all humanity??

    I have only a vague awareness of the evolution system,but I beleive in its theory,but in terms of a creationist

  31. #31 NJ
    April 9, 2012

    Charles @ 30:

    His resurrection into a new specie

    Given the modern story of TV preachers getting rich on the donations of the near-destitute, your typo above is ironically delicious…

  32. #32 Wow
    April 12, 2012

    “Actually, I am none of the above and yes there are many people named Dennis in the world, I am merely one more.”

    However, when YOU, Dennis, talk about how YOU know “Dennis”, you do really rather need to be more specific.

    Because it looks like you got your socks mixed up there. When posting under false colours, you have to do some extra work to ensure you’re wearing the right hat…

  33. #33 Dennis
    August 3, 2012

    Haven’t checked this site for a while now. I was in Taiwan for two months. So I missed your last comment Wow. There is nothing to get mixed up and I enjoy the hat that I wear now. I have had it a long time. I signed my name at the end of the post that you are referencing so my use of the last Dennis was intentional.
    Denis is Denis and I am Dennis. I know that because Oklahoma and now Missouri are a lot hotter than Canada. So I still stand by my responses.
    Dennis

  34. #34 Wow
    August 4, 2012

    So you are intentionally talking bollocks to confuse.

    In internet terms, this is a form of trolling.

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