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Q & A, Mind Farts, & Brain Vomit: Solutions

I managed to catch the final lecture of William Lane Craig’s “Reasons for Hope” tour of Ireland. The venue was Assembly Buildings in Belfast city centre, home of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. The event was managed by Christian Unions Ireland and attracted several hundred people. It wasn’t a debate or a hard-headed philosophical lecture. It was a popular level apologetics talk, pitched to interested lay-people. Still, Craig was engaging and easy to listen to. He’s undoubtedly a fantastic communicator, whatever you think of his philosophy. Sadly he only spoke for around 45 minutes of the event, the rest of the 1.25 hours being dedicated to Q & A. What a disaster.

Seriously. It was a train wreck. It was so bad that I confess I left half-way through and went home. Every Q & A cliché was on display. The guy who has a rambling speech to deliver. The guy who can’t quite turn his incoherent thoughts into a question. The guy who asks his simple question in such a convoluted way that no-one – not even Craig with two doctorates – can understand it. It’s maddening. Here we were with one of the most influential Christian philosophers at our disposal but instead we were having to listen to Joe Bullplop rambling about cosmic nihilism, or Jimmy Whattheheck trying to make some point about humans being pleasure seeking animals (or perhaps, as another attendee suggested, it was “pattern seeking,” I have no idea. The point is – it was about a clear as dirty dishwater).

I assume these people have come to this event because they have at least some interest in philosophy. Why, then, can they not ask a simple question? Why do they even struggle to form a coherent sentence? Don’t they know I’m not interested in their brain vomit? Is it stupidity? Arrogance? What inspires them to embarrass themselves with a mind fart in front of several hundred people? It’s painful to watch.

It’s utterly unnecessary too. It’s about time we clamped down on it. Far too many perfectly decent events are ruined by badly handled Q & A sessions. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Never have an “open mic.” If you do, there is no quality control at all. You’re leaving yourself open to every swivel-eyed loon who thinks he has something important to add to the debate.

2. Lots of well-meaning people can become unstuck and tongue-tied when they suddenly hear their voice magnified across an auditorium. Insist they write their question down and read it.

3. If you want to help the people above, have their question checked by an assistant before they ask it. If it doesn’t make sense to the assistant, it probably won’t make sense to others. Time to rethink and rewrite.

4. Even better – have questions written down and submitted beforehand. This way the best and most relevant questions can be picked out rather than prioritising questions based on who had the balls to get up in front of a microphone first.

5. Don’t be afraid to embarrass people publically. Yes, it might be cruel, but it’s time to stop tolerating incoherent babble. Cut people off if you have to. Tell them to take a seat to get their thoughts together and try again later. Tell them they have 10 seconds to get their question out or they lose the mic. Not only do you cut short their nonsense, you also put off others tempted to do the same.

6. Here’s a rule I recommend you announce to the audience: if you can’t ask your question in a single short sentence don’t get to your feet until you can. If your question takes a paragraph of explanation, then this Q & A isn’t for you.

7. It might be cheating, but it’s not always a bad idea to have a few audience “plants.” These are people who have been primed with questions to ask beforehand. It helps get the Q & A off to a good start and sets the tone.

8. Insist – with no exceptions – that the questions relate to the topic of the evening. If they don’t, cut the person off and move on.

9. Normally during a Q & A there is a chairperson controlling the event. This role is absolutely crucial – not only for 1-8 above, but also to save a dying Q & A session. If it’s falling flat he or she should intervene to ask a few questions in and around the topic, turning the Q & A into an interview for a brief time.

10. Don’t think the Q & A time is a time when the hard work is done and you can just sit back and relax. Q & A can make the difference between an audience member staying and praising your event or going home and writing a disgruntled blog post about it.

Stephen J Graham

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Theodicy Revisited

The wonderful folks at On Religion magazine have published ny most recent article “Theodicy Revisited,” a follow up to my earlier article, “The Drama of Evil.” They have made Issue 14 freely available, so my article can be accessed here: http://www.onreligion.co.uk/theodicy-revisited/

Have a look at the other articles also and consider subscribing. It’s an excellent magazine with a broad range of opinion.

Cheers!

Stephen J. Graham

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The Drama of Evil

My most recent article in On Religion has been made freely available on their website:

http://www.onreligion.co.uk/the-drama-of-evil/

The argument looks at the so-called problem of gratuitous evil and in arguing that this argument is unsuccessful I discuss how atheists and Christians have very different approaches to the problem.

The article is written for a popular audience, not an academic one.

Stephen J. Graham

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Books in 2016

I have made a rather modest challenge to myself of reading 30 books in 2016. I thought I’d keep a list here of all my books, more for myself than anything else, but some folks might be interested in what literary offerings float my boat. I’m not recording essays (unless I read an entire book of them) or articles here, just books and perhaps a note as to whether they were worth reading. I’ll add to this list as the year goes on and I finish each book.

FINISHED:

1. History of Ancient Greece – Nathaniel Harris.

A fantastic introduction to the life, literature, philosophy, culture and art of ancient Greece – one of the few books I’ve read with pictures!

2. Tricks of the Mind – Derren Brown

Recommended reading for anyone who wants an insight into how various psychic/supernatural charlatans operate and the tricks they use.

3. The Plague – Albert Camus

I don’t read a lot of novels these days, this one is – not surprisingly – excellent. My love for Camus continues.

4. Religions of Ancient China – HA Giles

Published in 1905 this is a charming little book, but doesn’t read terribly well. But it helped fill a small gap in my knowledge of religions.

5. Is The Atheist My Neighbor? – Randal Rauser

Rauser does an excellent job of squeezing so much worthwhile content into such a short book, challenging a very common Christian assumption that atheists really deep down know there’s a God.

6. In Search of the Trojan War – Michael Wood

Although a little bit dated it’s a great read for anyone in love with Homer’s the Iliad who wants to discover the link between the myth and the real world.

7. Discourse on Method & The Meditations – Rene Descartes

Not the first time I’ve read this philosophical classic, and probably not the last time either. This is a must read for any budding philosopher.

8. The War of The Worlds – HG Wells

Short book, short chapters – perfect holiday reading! Of course it’s a classic so well worth reading if you haven’t whether you’re on holiday or not. Martians attack the earth, what more can you ask for?

9. Four Tragedies & Octavia – Seneca, translated by EF Watling

Seneca is one of those classical authors I have managed to avoid all these years. This volume contains his versions of several Greek classics: Thyestes, Phaedra, The Trojan Women, and Oedipus. Seneca is no Sophocles, but if you love the stories of ancient Greece it’s a good read nevertheless.

10. The Greeks, Kenneth Dover

In the author’s words: “This book is a handful of pebbles picked up from a long, bright beach and arranged in a sequence of my own choose.” The book was a but haphazard to me and I would have chosen different pebbles and arranged them differently. Still, it’s not a bad overview of certain aspects of “The Greeks.”

11. Church in Hard Places, Mez McConnell & Mike NcKinley

I read very little popular Christian books, but this one was worth reading and has some interesting, and counter-intuitive, things to say about how churches can best help those in “hard places.”

12. A History of Philosophy – Volume 2 Part 2 – Frederick Copleston (SJ)

This is only one volume of a massive multi-volume work. In this volume Copleston considers the philosophy of several medieval philosophers, giving most of his attention to Aquinas and Scotus. Reading Copleston on Aquinas is a delight, and the book is worth it for those chapters alone. My only beef is that Copleston constantly throws out Latin phrases when he doesn’t need to, and with no translation. It got a bit tiresome, particularly during the treatment of Scotus. That said this book was excellent, and I wouldn’t mind collecting the remaining volumes.

13. The Philosophers: Introducing Great Western Thinkers, Ted Honderich et al

Pretty much what the title suggests. Each essay is written by a different author and gives a very brief overview of the life and work of one particular philosopher. There are some philosophers I wouldn’t have included, and some missing I would have. Generally the essays do the job well, but a few are poorly written, leaving the novice no more wiser than when he began.

14. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis

I rarely read devotional books and had this one lying around for a few years. I didn’t read it “devotionally” but it’s structured perfectly for that, and is rightly considered a classic. At times Kempis is just a tad too anti-intellectual for my tastes, but that’s a very minor criticism of an overall very enjoyable and thought-provoking text.

15. Greece and Rome: Myths and Legends, HA Guerber

This was a brilliant collection (and retelling) of the myths of Greece and Rome, with the added bonus of a final chapter that gives an interesting (though not to me persuasive) account of the origin of the myths from an analysis of linguistics. The stories told in the book are interspersed with small sections of poetry from a massive array of poets through the ages, showing just how influential these myths have been. Well worth reading.

16. Moral Philosophy, DD Raphael

This is a relatively short and very readable guide to moral philosophy. It’s recommended for those new to moral philosophy – students or the legendary general reader. It has particularly useful chapters on utilitarianism, justice, and liberty.

17. The Three Musketeers, Alexander Dumas

I’d read a kids version of this classic when I was about 10, but never Dumas’ original. I loved it from start to finish. I haven’t enjoyed a novel this much in years. It ended too quickly!

18. The Will to Believe & Other Essays, William James

As with any collection of essays this contains a few duds that didn’t particularly interest me. But, there are gems here, not least of all the title essay which is one my favourite pieces of philosophy. James is one of the most influential philosophers on my own approach. If nothing else you must admire any man who, in an effort to refute Hegel, gets himself intoxicated with nitrous oxide!

19. The 39 Steps, John Buchan

A short and enjoyable thriller. It was a bit loose in parts but was a decent yarn worth a read.

20. Miracles and Idolatry, Voltaire

This is basically a collection of short essays – enlightenment blog posts, if you will. The book is very readable, and I particularly enjoyed his rather surprising discussion of atheism and his sarcasm soaked lampooning of church councils. Voltaire’s message is always simple: learn to think well, and then think for yourself.

21. Augustine, Henry Chadwick

This short book is part of OUP’s “Past Masters” series, which is excellent as an introduction to many historical thinkers. During my university days modules in church history were my least favourite, and Chadwick almost single-handedly got me through them. This book is a good introduction to Augustine, with my only minor criticism being that the structure of the book isn’t in any particular logical or historical order (that I could discern), but I unhesitatingly recommend OUP’s entire series.

22. The Religious Experience of Mankind, Ninian Smart

I read parts of this as a student but never start to finish, and what a rollicking romp across time and space it is as Smart documents the ideas and growth of religious traditions, ideas and experiences all over the world over thousands of years. A must-read for theologians and philosophers of religion, or anyone else wanting to learn something about world religions.

23. Philebus, Plato.

What constitutes the good life? Pleasure? Reason? Some mix of the two? You’ll have to read it for Plato’s answer. Not my favourite of Plato’s dialogues, but still, it’s Plato and it’s a dialogue – a form of writing philosophy whose resurrection is long overdue.

24. Judge Not, Todd Friel

Friel is a staunchly conservative Christian. He’s like marmite: love him or hate him. My wife can’t stand him, I like him despite his views being closer to hers than mine. He’s snarky, sarcastic, and often funny – rare traits in conservative Christians. In this book he basically has a go at all the things that drives him a bit nuts in evangelicalism. Some chapters deserve to be torn from the book and burned, but he speaks a fair bit of sense in others, and entertains along the way.

25. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

To my shame I have never read this classic before now. It’s a weighty tome and I confess after 100 pages I was a bit concerned it was going to be a bust, but ultimately Dostevsky didn’t disappoint. Although the main plot doesn’t really begin until 400 pages in, even before this there are flashes of literally brilliance. The book maybe didn’t need to be so long, but it’s well worth the effort. Read it before you turn 38!

26. God: A Guide for the Persplexed, Keith Ward

A very readable book discussing the many approaches to who and what God is. Ward adopts a quasi-agnostic via negativa approach, which I don’t much care for, but cautioning the religious against metaphysical certainties and grand assured systems is to be welcomed.

27. The Norse Myths, retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland

I’ve read other versions of Norse myths, but this one is the best, both in terms of how the stories are told as well as the way they are arranged to tell a longer saga. As a lover of myth I thoroughly recommend this volume.

28. Descartes, Anthony Kenny

Anthony Kenny has seen many a philosophy student safely through their studies, and it’s easy to see why. In this book it’s obvious that Kenny has the utmost respect for Rene Descartes. He lays out Descartes philosophy carefully, and critiques it with fairness and clarity. Make sure you read Descartes works first, though!

29. The Oresteian Trilogy, Aeschylus

I read this one not for the first time and not for the last time. Aeschylus was a master of Greek Tragedy and this volume should appeal to lovers of literature, mythology, and philosophy. I’d love to see it performed live!

30. Mythology of the Celtic People, Charles Squire

This book discusses the two main branches of Celtic mythology: Gaelic and British. The first part – Gaelic – is better written, more coherent, and far more interesting. The second part got a bit boring. I would have rather had more stories than explanation. But, anyone interested in Gaelic mythology could do worse than Part 1.

Bonus Track – “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens

I’ve seen several movie versions but never read the original story. It was amazingly good…delightful…meaningful…and a brilliant way to finish off my 2016 book challenge.

Stephen J Graham

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Christianity: A Cold-House for Philosophers & Lesbians

This week the Christian singer-songwriter turned religious commentator Vicky Beeching has “come out.” The Independent printed a fascinating interview with her here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/vicky-beeching-star-of-the-christian-rock-scene-im-gay-god-loves-me-just-the-way-i-am-9667566.html

I’ve read the article and have been fascinated by some of the comments flying around cyberspace. From what I can gather most of the Twitterverse has rallied round, and I’m sure Beeching has been buoyed by the reception she has received. Of course, as is patently clear in her interview, Beeching knows all too well the suspicion and downright religious hatred that is often directed towards homosexuals by Christians generally and Evangelicals in particular. She was quite rightly nervous about how the news of her sexuality would be received.

Thus far, from what I can tell, she’s done well. Most of the reaction has been supportive, and many people were moved by the interview (if you haven’t read it stop reading my ramblings and read it), with some claiming to have shed tears at what she has struggled through from a very early age. I can’t claim to have shed any tears myself, but one particular episode she recounts had me almost shaking with rage (I’m from Belfast, we don’t cry, we just get mad!). At age 16 she attended a large rally, seemingly the kind of charismatic shindig where people are told that Jesus has the power to deliver you from all sorts of bondage. Being confused and guilt-ridden from feeling same-sex attraction and trying to live within a conservative faith community which condemns it, Beeching went forward for prayer only to find herself surrounded by horribly overzealous charismatics praying in tongues and trying to cast evil spirits out of her. This maddened me so much I was almost swearing in tongues.

When you read the interview you are struck by just how harmful and abusive certain forms of Christianity can be. And the question was inevitably raised in several comments: why on earth would you stay true to a church or a faith that has wounded you as much as this?

I have often pondered the same question in my own case. I’m not gay, but I’ve seen and been victim of my own fair share of ecclesiastical abuses. I spent 10 years in the horribly abusive charismatic movement, I’ve witnessed enough church abuses to last me a lifetime from manipulative, greedy preachers to the cultish behaviour of certain faithful church members. In my own case I’ve experienced rejection and alienation simply because I’m not an “easy believer.” Being a philosopher can be a difficult business when it comes to church. The kind of questioning and critical nature of the average philosopher isn’t often welcomed in churches. To a great extent I’ve lived in isolation from Christian culture, feeling I don’t fit in. I even deleted my Facebook account a few months ago largely because I was growing weary of other Christians I know. I was weary of having my faith constantly called into question because I didn’t sign up to the party-line on some given issue, or because I questioned the public comments of some fundamentalist preacher. More than that I felt many of these Christians were embarrassing themselves in front of my non-Christian friends with downright idiotic comments. In fact, one of my closer non-Christian friends remarked to me: “Do you not think you’re on the wrong side?”

And thus the question comes back: why bother with an institution or with a faith that has wounded you so much, that has caused so much grief to you?

Beeching has stated that she wants to be an agent for change in the church, and that she remains a passionate Christian believer. And that’s exactly the right answer, I think. In my own case I remain a Christian because I believe the central tenets of Christianity are true. It’s not about how it makes you feel, or about how the behaviour of other adherents affects you. At rock bottom the best (only?) reason to hold to any belief is if you are convinced of its truth. Some of the adherents of Christianity can be rotten, blinkered, petty-minded, bigoted, intolerant and about as much fun to be around as a grizzly bear with a migraine. In fairness, there are many also who are kind-hearted, compassionate, hard-working, helpful, fair-minded and self-sacrificing. But we’re not Christians because some Christians are nice. Nor should we abandon faith because others are nasty. Christianity – like any worldview or faith system – stands or falls on the grounds of truth. Insofar as Beeching is convinced of the truth of her faith she is quite right not to abandon it despite the horrendous suffering she has endured at the hands of those who really should have done better.

Stephen J. Graham

Stephen J. Graham

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Theodicy & The Book of Job

With its belief in the omnipotence and perfect goodness of God the problem of evil is particularly acute for Christian theism, and it therefore makes sense to inquire what resources might be found within that tradition for dealing with this problem. In this article I want to look at the Bible, and specifically at the book of Job. The book of Job is the sort of book that must be read in its entirety. Proof-text from Job at your peril!

The first thing to notice is that Job is not a work of analytic philosophy. It’s a story. It doesn’t give us 5 point deductive argument defending the existence of God in the face of evil and suffering. Instead Job is a narrative, cleverly woven together to give us a lens through which to view the evils and sufferings we face.

The story is of a righteous man who suffers, and, in his own eyes, suffers unjustly. The main portion of the book is taken up by cycles of debate between Job and his three friends – Eliphaz, Zophur, and Bildad (and later on Elihu). The theological background of the book is vital. Israelites believed that God was almighty and perfectly just; and no one was wholly innocent in His eyes. The prevailing theodicy was simple: our suffering is a measure of our guilt before God. If you were righteous you enjoyed God’s blessing. If you were not, you didn’t; you suffered to some extent in accordance with your unrighteousness. This theology undergirds numerous utterances of the various characters. Thus, for example, we find Eliphas saying, “Should not your piety be your confidence and your blameless ways your hope? Who being innocent has ever perished?”[Job 4:6].

But the book of Job throws up a problem: Job was righteous (though not without sin) and yet suffered greatly. The orthodox theology has broken down. For Job’s friends the theology holds true, and they therefore conclude that Job’s sin before God must be great. Job, who also adheres to this theology, believes he is righteous and therefore holds out for God to vindicate him. Theology has collided with human experience, and God has become an enigma in the eyes on the suffering righteous.

Some theologians believe that one of the purposes of Job is to refute this theology, but that is inaccurate. The purpose is to show that while it may be true that God often rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked (see the cycles of sin-punishment-repentance-deliverance in the book of Judges for an illustration of this theology at work), this isn’t always or necessarily the case. Of course, it could be the case – and could even generally be the case – that this is how God operates, but the theology is not universal: sometimes the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. The world is not such that you always reap what you sow.

Elihu, who is introduced later in the book, has a slightly different take on things. While he holds to the traditional theology he takes it in a slightly different direction. Job is a sinner, like everyone else. However, rather than his suffering being a punishment for wrong Elihu seems to see the suffering as a warning of future judgment. Suffering, for Elihu, becomes God’s way to attract Job’s attention towards the sin in his life that needs to be dealt with in order to save his soul. Thus conceived the suffering of Job is actually a part of God’s love and redemptive plan. Christian theism certainly contains a theme to this effect, a theme which was highlighted by CS Lewis when he referred to pain as “[God’s] megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” But, as with the aforementioned theology, we know that while this may well be true on many occasions, it isn’t the case with Job’s situation here.

Towards the end of the book Yahweh finally makes an appearance. We might at this point expect an explanation from God but He never actually gives one. Yahweh appeals simply to his omniscience, suggesting that Job’s complaints are made from a position of ignorance: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?. . . Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!”[Job 38: 2, 4-6]. And on and on Yahweh peppers Job with such questions. Yahweh’s speeches imply that Job should trust God to do the right thing. In other words, if Job knows God is almighty, just and omniscient then Job should accept that God knows what he is doing and is doing the right thing, even though Job has no idea what is going on. Job comes to accept this divine chastening: “I know you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”[Job 42:2-3]

Notice that Yahweh never actually tells Job what the reader knows. In this instance God has been challenged by “the satan” – “the accuser” – and this challenge has massive ramifications for the God-man relationship, a relationship which the satan seeks to destroy. God delights in Job and boasts of Job’s righteousness. In response the satan makes his challenge: Job’s righteousness is in fact evil and purely self-serving; he is righteous and loyal only because he enjoys the blessings of God. God takes delight in Job’s righteousness but the satan challenges that Job’s righteousness is really devoid of all integrity, and that if God would let him break the link between righteousness and blessing then Job will be exposed as the sinner he is and God will be shown as a fool for delighting in Job. There is a lot at stake: if the satan is right then he will have succeeded in driving a wedge between God and man Elmer Smick writes, “It is the adversary’s ultimate challenge. For if the godliness of the righteous man in whom God delights can be shown to be the worst of all sins, then a chasm of alienation stands between them that cannot be bridged.”

God then steps up to the challenge so as He and Job may be vindicated and the satan silenced. The lesson seems to be that the righteousness of man is of such importance that God values it above all else, and thus suffering in this case has deep meaning and value. Job has to endure because God is interested in freely given love and loyalty and to prove that people would still love and be loyal no matter what happened to them. God perhaps desires to prove that He is worthy of love and loyalty in Himself and not because of the positive rewards He gives.

But God never explains any of this to Job, and we could only speculate as to why that is. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Job remained righteous and loyal and, in the end, needed no explanation. As a righteous man God’s presence was all Job needed – not a theological or philosophical answer. Or perhaps the point is that God is not under some obligation to explain his dealings with us. But whatever the answer is there is a more general point to make, since the reason for Job’s suffering is not intended to be an explanation for why everyone suffers.

The more general point of the book is to show that from our perspective as we live our lives – like Job and his friends – we have a severely limited view of reality. Job and his friends have simply a man’s eye view of things. But the reader of the book is given a God’s eye view from the start. Job and his friends are “inside” the story; the reader is “outside,” and privy to information that is hidden from the main characters in the dispute. We get to see a glimpse of a person struggling to understand their suffering, while also knowing the reason why they are suffering. With a God’s eye view we know that there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than any character realizes. From a man’s eye view God is an enigma and it’s easy to feel injustice, or sense a lack of purpose behind our suffering, or even offer crass explanations why such and such happens. But, with a God’s eye view there is a clear purpose and reason that often isn’t clear.

The book of Job is written primarily for the people of God who are suffering. It’s a reminder that suffering isn’t necessarily tied to sin (thus suffering need not be compounded by guilt). Further, it’s a reminder that for those who believe in the greatness and goodness of God there is no suffering over which God is not in control. Most crucially it’s a reminder that we only see a small piece of reality and thus it’s difficult to draw conclusions such as “some evil in the world is gratuitous,” or “there is no reason for much pain and suffering that occurs,” or “an omnipotent and perfectly good God would not allow such suffering to happen.” To confidently draw these conclusions we need precisely what we do not have: A God’s eye view. How do we know – indeed, how could we know – that some level of suffering is the threshold beyond which a perfectly good God would step in? How does our lack of knowledge about the purposes of some instance of suffering justify a leap to the conclusion that it has no purpose?

And, indeed, those who trust that God is perfectly good and all powerful have grounds to hold that whilst we may not see any good purpose there must ultimately be one if an omnipotent and perfectly good God exists. That, it seems to me, is the underlying message of the Book of Job.

Stephen J. Graham

*****
This is an article that I had originally intended to send for publication, but I just don’t like it enough yet! Any comments or suggestions for improvements will be welcomed!
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