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Creationist and Fundamentalist Apologetics
Scientific creationism as a movement is practically coterminous with Protestant fundamentalism, yet creationists, seemingly, would like us to believe that this correlation is accidental. That is, while a fundamentalist must needs be a creationist, the reverse is not necessarily true: anyone may be a creationist so long as he or she approaches the data with an open mind. While many opponents of creationism have regarded such claims as simple attempts to disguise the strictly religious character of creationism (i.e., no one would espouse it whose religious beliefs did not demand it), a few have pursued the question one important step further. Might creationist polemics in fact be an apologetical, even an evangelistic, strategy aimed at the religious conversion of unbelievers? If this is so, then indeed one need not be a fundamentalist to accept creationism, but, the polemicists hope, accepting creationism will be the first step to eventually accepting fundamentalism as well.
I suspect that there is such a hidden agenda implied in creationist polemics and that a clear analogy may be traced between creationist argumentation and admitted fundamentalist apologetics. The analogy can be shown to be so close as not to be an analogy (i.e., between two separate but similar things) at all; rather it becomes clear that creationism is simply one more branch of evangelistic apologetics sharing the same goal of preparing the ground for faith and conversion.
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The Apologetical Task
Francis A. Schaeffer, surely one of the most prolific and influential writers on, the contemporary fundamentalist scene, explains the nature and purpose of apologetics: "There are two purposes of Christian apologetics. The first is defense. The second is to communicate Christianity in a way that any given generation can understand. . . . It is unreasonable to expect people of the next generation in any age to continue [to believe] in the historic Christian position, unless they are helped to see where arguments . . . brought against Christianity . . . by their generation are fallacious." (The God Who Is There, p. 139) In other words, the apologist for the faith must seek to soothe the doubts plaguing the faithful and to remove the roadblocks in the path of unbelievers who might otherwise come to faith. The apologist tries to defend the faith by showing that it is reasonable; one need not kiss one's mind goodbye in order to convert.
All fundamentalist apologists would agree thus far; yet, though the difference is seldom recognized, we soon come to a crucial parting of the ways. Some apologists would press on and carry the battle into the enemy camp. Not satisfied with demonstrating the reasonableness of Christianity, they want to prove that it is the only rational, or at least the most compelling, intellectual option. This difference in intent might seem to be merely a difference in degree but is actually a difference in kind. The nature of argumentation in each case is (or should be) very different. It is evident, at least to outsiders, that the first variety of apologetics, the attempt simply to render faith plausible, essentially amounts to harmonization. This word is not imported into discussion but is actually employed by fundamentalists when they speak of "harmonizing apparent contradictions" between various biblical texts or between biblical texts and outside data. But it seems to me that almost all apologetics partakes of the nature of harmonization. The apologist strives to make faith plausible by reconciling aspects of modem knowledge which, even the apologist admits, at least seem to conflict with the faith. To achieve such harmonization of extra-biblical "troublesome data" (Thomas E. Kuhn), the apologist must resort to interpretations of that data (or of the faith) that admittedly seem a bit forced or strained, though still possible. That is, in and of themselves, the facts would not naturally suggest such a construal as the apologist wants to give them, but if one were sure on other grounds that fundamentalist beliefs were true, then the facts could be so construed. For example, one statement of fundamentalist hermeneutics makes this admission: "A passage of Holy Scripture is to be taken as true in its natural, literal sense unless the context of the passage itself indicates otherwise, or unless an article of faith established elsewhere in Scripture requires a broader understanding of the text" (quoted in Montgomery, Faith Founded on Fact, p. 225).
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Suppose we suddenly had new and overwhelming reason to believe that the sun orbited the earth; then we would return to belief in the Ptolemaic "epicycles" to explain the retrograde motion of the planets, however implausible epicycles and geocentricity might have seemed in their own right. In the same way, the fundamentalist believes that his own experience of faith is overwhelming and independent evidence in the light of which otherwise implausible interpretations of extra-biblical data may be rendered newly plausible. Thus, as long as there is some (even barely) possible reading of the facts that would comport with faith's understanding of the world, then the reasonability of faith is vindicated. From faith's viewpoint, the new readings are the most plausible ones, precisely because conformity with faith is the new criterion for plausibility. Apologist Cornelius Van Til argues, in effect, that if Christ is the Logos, then the Christian reading of the facts is ipso facto the only logical one (The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture, pp. 10-12).
If this is how the apologist sees things, then how should he or she approach the unbeliever? The appeal, basically, is for the unbeliever to jump ship, come over to fundamentalism, and then the unbeliever will see things differently. It will not be denied or concealed that the fulcrum for this decision is an act of faith, but apologetical arguments will show that faith only goes beyond reason, not against it. It asks the unbeliever to go a step farther than reason will take him or her, but not to double back and veer off the path of reason. "The facts can be read our way, and once you accept our faith, you will agree this is the way to read them."
Now it might be doubted whether in every case such harmonizations hold up as fundamentalists claim they do. But for the sake of argument, let us suppose they do. We have said that some apologists are not content to leave it at this. They seek to convince the unbeliever not only that fundamentalist Christianity is quite possibly true so that faith ought not be dismissed out of hand, but also that the intellectually honest individual really has no other choice but to accept fundamentalism. For instance, Harold L. Fickett, Jr., remarks of Josh McDowell's compendium of apologetics, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, "I make bold to say that , no intelligent person can read this with an open mind without coming to the conclusion that Jesus Chri, st is the unique Son of God and man's only sufficient Savior" ("Foreword" to Josh McDowell's More Evidence That Demands a Verdict, p. i).
The line of argumentation here has to be rather different. This type of apologist must try to show that the fundamentalist view entails readings of the facts that are not only consistent with faith, but which even apart from faith make the most natural, comprehensive sense. (Only in this way will the proposed reading of the data seem to point to faith and not vice versa, as in the first approach.) This is quite a tall order. And, notoriously, fundamentalists seldom fill that order. How can we account for this failure? What has gone wrong? It is facile to say that the facts simply do not support fundamentalist claims. And this, I agree, is often so. But how do we account for the false confidence that sends apologists on such a quixotic quest? Basically, they confuse the two apologetical strategies I have just differentiated, and having accomplished the first, they think themselves to have accomplished the second. The harmonized readings of the data seem so plausible to fundamentalists because of their faith that, without knowing it, apologists shift the criterion of plausibility and assume these readings will seem just as compelling to those without the faith. "It seems self-evident to me! Why can't you see it?"
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The result of this subtle, but crucial, confusion is that much fundamentalist apologetics turns out to be, viewed without benefit of the eye of faith, a chain of weak links. Apologists frequently pursue a line of argument that shows at most that their reading of the facts might be the true one, and then seem to be satisfied that their position has been proven.
In the next pages I will briefly review a few standard apologetics arguments, drawing attention to the pattern of argumentation I have described. Finally I will show how the pattern and motive of evangelistic apologetics underlies creationist polemics as well.
The Reliability of the Gospels
In the ongoing fundamentalist effort to vindicate the reliability of the four gospels as historical reports of Jesus, we can see both the inner- and outer-directed apologetical purposes described by Schaeffer. Apologists wish to reassure believers that they can rely on the cherished inherited picture of their Lord. Richard Bauckham in his booklet Knowing God Incarnate (which, by the way, is not a work of apologetics in the sense being discussed here) puts his finger on the heart of the issue. "The more [the Christian] is aware that critical scholars regard many features of the Gospels as later interpretations of the history of Jesus, which must be set aside in the quest of the historical Jesus, the more he may wonder whether the Gospels are not impediments as well as aids to his knowledge of Jesus. . . ." (p. 4). In other words, a fundamentalist pietist who rejoices in a "personal relationship with Jesus" will understandably be alarmed if told that the gospels, our only substantive evidence about Jesus, may be to a greater or lesser degree, historically inaccurate. So the apologist reassures such readers that the gospels are accurate.
The unbeliever, however, may be anything but alarmed at the suggestion of gospel inaccuracy. Indeed, the apologist imagines, he or she may rejoice at precisely that which alarms the pietist: if we cannot know about Jesus as he really was, we need consider him to have no greater claim upon us than the mythical Mithras or Dionysus. So to reassure the faithful and to challenge the faithless, the apologist seeks to rebut the conclusions of New Testament critics like David Friedrich Strauss and Rudolf Bultmann where these seem to threaten fundamentalist beliefs.
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Probably the most important argument for the accuracy of the gospels is that not enough time elapsed between the life of Jesus and the writing of the gospels for any substantial growth of legends or secondary sayings to have grown up. Josh McDowell claims that "the period of oral tradition (as defined by the critics) is not long enough to have allowed the alterations in the tradition that the radical critics have alleged" (More Evidence That Demands a Verdict, p. 205). John Warwick Montgomery echoes, "With the small time interval between Jesus' life and the Gospel records, the Church did not create a `Christ of Faith.' . . ." (History & Christianity, p. 37). The period in view is between forty and sixty years (i.e., from Jesus' death to the probable dates of Mark and John, the earliest and latest of the gospels. Apologists point out that this is not so long a time that memory would necessarily fade and distort the details of what must surely have been memorable events. Besides, they argue, we need only compare the case of the Buddhist scriptures where centuries elapsed between the Buddha's death and the first records of his words or deeds. These are points well taken.
Yet on the other hand, it is clear from studies of the careers of other prophets and religious founders closer to our own time (and about whom consequently more evidence survives) that an exuberant growth of legend and fantasy could spring up in much less time than the forty to sixty years available in the case of the gospels. In the case of the Congolese prophet Simon Kimbangu, we find the master already in his own lifetime unable to stem his followers' enthusiastic preaching that he was the "God of the Blacks." In the case of Sabbatai Sevi, the seventeenth century Messianic pretender, contemporary miracle stories abounded despite the disclaimers of his chief apostle Nathan of Gaza. Examples could be multiplied. So on the one hand, it is quite possible for the gospels to have maintained a historically pure tradition in the oral period, but on the other hand, legends and teachings spuriously attributed to Jesus could have crept in during this interval.
Apologists often appeal to the central role of eyewitnesses in making sure the early traditions of Jesus remained free of accretions. F. F. Bruce contends that "it can have been by no means easy as some writers seem to think to invent words and deeds of Jesus in those early years, when so many of his disciples were about, who could remember what had and had not happened" (The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, p. 45). Yet we have already seen that Simon Kimbangu and Nathan of Gaza did try to call a halt to such fabrications in their own analogous situations but were unsuccessful. If the disciples of Jesus had been so concerned, can we be sure they would have met with any more success?
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Some apologists point to the work of Harald Riesenfeld which tries to parallel the (hypothetical) practice of Jesus and his disciples with that of the later rabbis. The disciples of the latter carefully memorized their masters' teachings and transmitted them word for word "like a plastered cistern that loses not a drop." Jesus, too, was called a rabbi, so may not the Twelve have similarly memorized his sayings? Perhaps they did, but this does not mean the gospels must accurately preserve Jesus' teaching, since the point at issue is whether the gospels contain only genuine eyewitness material. Insofar as they do, that material may well be accurate, but it is a matter of great debate as to how much of the gospel traditions stem directly from Jesus and his disciples. Again, apologists have made their claim plausible, but they seem to think that they have proved it. Does this evidence "demand a verdict"?
The Inerrancy of the Bible
At first sight a discussion of biblical inerrancy might seem redundant, but it is not. The defense of gospel accuracy intends to safeguard knowledge of Jesus Christ, the central object of faith, but apologetics for inerrancy have to do with theological epistemology. Granted one trusts Christ for salvation, how is one to form his or her opinions on doctrinal and ethical issues? Here of course is where "biblicism" comes in: "The Bible said it—I believe it—That settles it!" This absolute trust in the Bible extends even through otherwise insignificant details, since if one cannot trust the Bible's assertions at one point, how can one be sure of it at any point? This is important, since the believer is concerned about matters (e.g., life after death, the nature of salvation) on which there can be no other, independent ground of certainty.
As is well known, fundamentalists must harmonize here as nowhere else, and some of the resultant contrivances are particularly incredible. For instance, all four gospels report that Peter denied knowing Jesus three times, but beyond this the accounts fail to agree. Mark has Jesus predict that Peter will deny him thrice before the cock crows twice. Other gospels mention only one crowing, implying that all three denials must proceed uninterrupted and be terminated by a cock-crow. Then again, the four accounts do not agree precisely to whom Peter denied Jesus. For generations fundamentalists have puzzled over this problem and ever so often one of them will harmonize all the evidence so as to conclude that Peter denied Jesus six or eight times, just to get all the details in! While we might imagine the cowardly Peter thus denying a blue streak, no one of the gospels hints at such an occurrence. Indeed such a desperate expedient backfires in unwittingly implying that the gospels are badly mistaken on this point since none of them report more than three denials! This whole business is implausible (to say the least), but it is possible, just barely, on the face of it. But fundamentalists who adopt this approach (e.g., Harold Lindsell in The Battle for the Bible) find it quite plausible, because the criterion of plausibility is conformity with the prior belief in biblical inerrancy! Yet how can Lindsell expect anyone else to be persuaded?
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Less ludicrous, but illustrative of the same point, is the apologists' treatment of the census of Quirinius in the Gospel of Luke. Luke records this decree as the occasion for Mary and Joseph being in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. The trouble is that extra-biblical evidence indicates that Quirinius was governor of Syria only about ten years later! Apologists suggest that perhaps earlier in his career Quirinius had a previous tenure, officially or unofficially, as governor. Even if there were any real evidence for this, it still would not remove all the difficulties, but let us grant that this hypothetical earlier tenure for Quirinius might make Luke's version possibly accurate. It would do so by means of a less than probable reading of the facts—less probable, that is, from the historian's standpoint. From the standpoint of the believer in inerrancy, there is no embarrassment at all, since the mere fact that this historical reconstruction comports with inerrancy makes it plausible.
Now while any one or two of these harmonizations might turn out to be "strange-but-true" if we had all the facts, it is important to realize that the belief in inerrancy depends upon a whole zoo-full of such monsters, a fact the reader may confirm by examining any of several fundamentalist books on "Bible difficulties." Why is the apologist not daunted by what would seem so vast a flock of albatross? Because they are all possible readings of the facts which become compelling by their conformity to faith. And to the fundamentalist this palace of cards seems so awesome in its ingenious grandeur that he or she cannot imagine why the outsider is not impressed. Then the accusations of intellectual dishonesty begin to fly.
At last we turn to creationism. I believe it will require no extensive demonstration to show how similar in logic and procedure many creationist arguments are to those outlined above. In creationist literature it is common to find otherwise tenuous theories being preferred simply because they conform most closely to "the creation model." Creationists champion Moon and Spencer's theory that the red shift has been seriously miscalculated, and so light need not have traveled through space longer than creationism says stars have existed. But if this proves unworkable, then we may posit that God created the starlight already in transit. Any reading of the facts will do, as long as it seems to support creationism. (There is no point in belaboring this, since most readers are by now familiar with creationist arguments.)
What is worth pointing out, however, is that we need not merely try to infer that the creationists are moved to their harmonizing tactics by the same apologetic zeal that impels proponents of gospel accuracy and biblical inerrancy. Creationists themselves are candid about the matter.
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John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris announce at the outset that the purpose of their work The Genesis Flood
We could ask for no more explicit statements of the apologetical intent to harmonize the data with the criterion of biblicist faith. Our preceding discussion makes it clear just why Gish, Morris, and other creationists remain so convinced in the face of repeated refutations by scientific critics. They are so impressed with their own harmonizations that they do not see that harmonization can never convince one who does not already accept the independent belief with which the facts have been harmonized.
It might be suggested that creationist apologists are not unaware of their real obligation to demonstrate that their model makes better sense of the data in their own right scientifically (however poor a job they may do of it). For instance, is not this the point when they criticize the theory of evolution by invoking against it the second law of thermodynamics and the absence of transitional forms from the fossil record? I would contend that we are still dealing with harmonizations since the creationists consistently choose interpretations of the second law and of the relevant fossils that are considerably strained in the direction of creationism. The second law is always made to apply to the increasing complexification of evolving life-forms, despite the demonstrated inapplicability of the law to an open system such as earth's biosphere. Similarly Gish refuses to recognize the clearly transitional nature of the archaeopteryx, ruling instead that anything with feathers and wings has got to be a bird (Evolution: The Fossils Say No!, p. 90).
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If creationist arguments can be seen to be of a piece with fundamentalist apologetics in regard to method, the same is true when it comes to motive. Creationism is what Frances A. Schaeffer calls "pre-evangelism," apologetics as a laying of groundwork for conversion. For creationists believe that evolutionists are damned and going to hell, indeed not simply for their espousal of Darwin's doctrine, but because of what else this denotes.
It is clear, finally, that Morris sees the task of arguing for creationism as literally evangelistic. Noting with regret that not all students are blessed with "Christian schools" in which they may and should be "taught all their school subjects in the true framework of Biblical creationism," Morris declares that "We need urgently to reach the host of others [i.e., students in public schools] with literature which will in some way open their minds and hearts to the true Biblical cosmology" (Evolution and the Modern Christian, pp. 6-7). In his pamphlet Introducing Scientific Creationism into the Public Schools, Morris advises fundamentalist students on the most effective methods "to counteract the evolutionary teaching in their own classes and schools" and describes it in terms of "whatever witness they may be able to give" (p. 8).
So the evangelistic motive of most creationists ought to be clear. And this fact in turn clarifies something else. It explains why those who pose as men of science tend in public debate to rely on rhetorical techniques and emotional appeals that would seem more at home in an evangelistic meeting. Of course, Gish and company view public forums on evolution and creation precisely as evangelistic meetings! They are contending for souls and will use any appropriate strategy: "We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ" (II Cor. 10:5).
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Let us examine briefly three types of polemical arguments used commonly by fundamentalist evangelists and by scientific creationists. Each, by the way, entails the commission of a blatant fallacy of logic.
First, evangelists commonly cite authorities, sometimes out of context, in order to settle some question quickly and tidily without a complicated appeal to the facts of the matter. For instance, to convince hearers (or readers) that the Antichrist and the Tribulation are on their way and that the audience had better repent now, Hal Lindsey (The Late Great Planet Earth), John Wesley White (Re-Entry,) or Tim LaHaye (The Beginning of the End) will quote all sorts of doom-saying futurologists to the effect that the world cannot go on along its present course much longer. Of course none of the authorities quoted were discussing the biblical Armageddon, but so much the better. They are deemed relevant authorities precisely because their statements can be brought in to support the evangelists' message from without. "Surely Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner have no religious axe to grind, so if you are suspicious about Lindsey, you certainly must believe them!"
In exactly the same way, creationist debaters do not tire of appealing, e.g., to Karl Popper and his criterion of falsifiability (i.e., if we cannot even suggest a condition whereby a theory might be disproved, then the "theory" is so indefinite as to be meaningless). They ignore the fact that Popper's dictum is itself the subject of some debate, and the appeal is often simply to Popper as a recognized authority. And again, it matters not whether Popper himself would apply his criterion to the theory of evolution; he may be cited as a pro-creation witness anyway. And the creationist has likely not thought beyond the bare appeal to the "big name." It is in fact quite easy to show that evolutionary theory passes Popper's test with flying colors, but the creationist did not pursue it thus far. The proof-texting of the authoritative name would settle the argument, just as a biblical proof-text will settle a question among fundamentalists.
Second, an evangelist will often seek to paint a grim picture of the secular world of sin from which he seeks to win his audience. To do this he commits the circumstantial ad hominem fallacy. He cites the sinners' own spokespeople against them in piecemeal fashion and out of context to create the false impression of a consensus of despair. "If all your thinkers have lost faith in their own position, why should you stick with it? Jump ship and come over to our side." Os Guiness, in his The Dust of Death, surveys the options and false hopes facing Western culture and comes up with this dreary report: "The West today, its self-confidence sagging, its vitality ebbing, its order eroded, knows only introspection, lethargy. . . . Prone from exhaustion, a prey to its own fears, it is in danger of being overwhelmed by the anxiety, apathy, and anger of a humanity strangled within it" (p. 317). Guiness is able to "document" this bleak diagnosis only by selectively citing pessimists throughout. He picks quotes from secularists dissatisfied with each option he is considering at the moment, giving the impression that all secularists have abandoned hope on all fronts. Then he offers his faith as the glowing alternative, as if none of his quoted sources had ever contemplated (or rejected) traditional religion before!
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Creationists pursue the identical strategy when they quote various scientists of different disciplines piecemeal as they each critique some evidence in their own specialty. It is as if all these scientists were caught in a rare moment of honesty admitting that evolutionary theory really is full of holes. It does not matter that others in the same specialty would counter the critiques, that others would suggest other reasons for the problems noted, consistent with (or even demanded by) evolutionary theory. Nor does it even matter that the scientists quoted do not themselves see their criticisms as falsifying evolution as the creationists do. Again what we have is a kind of selective and out-of-context proof-texting that naturally appeals to fundamentalists because of their accustomed use of Scripture. And the debaters hope the weight of collected criticism or the evidence from each scientific discipline will appeal to the audience as well.
Third, evangelists are extremely fond of the fallacy of bifurcation, the practice of setting forth a small set of alternatives (usually, though not always, two) as mutually exclusive and exhaustive. "You must choose between these; there are no other choices, nor any shades of gray." Of course in life we do sometimes face such choices; the fallacy lies in oversimplifying what is really not so stark a choice. Evangelists insist that Jesus must have been either "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord": he could not have been simply a prophet or moral teacher. Actually the situation is much more complicated than this (see my pamphlet "'Liar, Lunatic, or Lord'—A False Trilemma"). Are the gospels accurate? The only choices, we are asked to believe, are "hoax or history." As we have already seen, scholarship shows that it is not so cut-and-dried.
This approach also accounts for the persistent fundamentalist Christian misrepresentation of all non-Christian religions as simply various schemes of "salvation by works." The potential convert is being told that the choice is clear: here is Christianity, the religion of grace alone; there is the whole sorry lot of Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism, all of which despite their secondary differences boil down to works-salvation. The purposes of evangelistic rhetoric with its demand for "decision now" would not be well served if the preacher/pamphleteer were to urge the reader to undertake a careful study of gospel historicity or of comparative religion. The choice must be black and white, the decision must be made simply and immediately.
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It is obvious that creationist debaters are no less enamored by the bifurcation fallacy. Indeed it is one of the chief weapons in their arsenal. We have already seen how Morris opposes the death-message of evolution to the life-message of the gospel. But beyond this, it can be said that the entire creationist polemic is structured according to the fallacy of bifurcation. Most of their efforts to "defend the creation model" are in fact attempts to poke holes in the evolution model. How could they see the two attempts as equivalent unless they assumed that evolutionism and biblical creationism were the only two options? Only on this (erroneous) presupposition could it seem that to disprove the one (if it could be done) would be to prove the other.
I have attempted to show, both by analogy with evangelistic apologetics and by explicit statements from creationists themselves, that the polemical enterprise of creationism is actually one more strategy of "pre-evangelism." It is intended to persuade unsaved evolutionists to discard faith in evolution and to embrace faith in the Bible, first in the matter of cosmology, then in the matter of faith in Christ to save one's soul. Accepting creationism and rejecting evolution is seen to be a necessary step preliminary to salvation, since fundamentalists do not imagine that one can believe in Jesus Christ as savior without also adhering to biblicism. Whatever the merits or demerits of such a belief theologically, it can hardly be denied that the creationist enterprise must be seen as primarily religious, not scientific, in nature and purpose.
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