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(Cross-posted from Street Prophets.  This is a piece I've been chewing on for a while about what those of us who are Christians do when we butt heads against people who don't see the same things we do.  I hope my friends who have other beliefs will bear with me.)

George MacDonald was a penniless Scottish clergyman who turned to writing to support his family.  He fused his no-nonsense Scotch theology with his vivid imagianation to produce some of the most enduring fantasy works of the Victorian Era.  Neil Gaiman has cited MacDonald as an influence and C.S. Lewis regarded him as a mentor, once writing: "I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him."

I was reading The Princess and the Goblin, one of MacDonald’s fantasy works for children, to my youngest daughter recently, and came across a passage that struck me as having something to say about  Belief and what happens when Belief meets Disbelief.

Princess Irene, the heroine of the story, is an 8-year-old girl who lives in a big house near the foot of a great mountain.  Guided by an invisible thread given to her by her magical great-great-grandmother, Irene has gone into the labrynthine tunnels under the mountains and rescued Curdie, a miner boy who had been imprisoned by the Goblins.  Once safely on the surface, Irene offers to take Curdie to meet her grandmother.

Now Curdie can’t see Irene’s invisible thread.  He can’t even feel it.  And Irene’s story about a magical grandmother living in her attic sounds completely fanciful to him.  He followed Irene out of the tunnels because he didn’t know the way himself and he figured that she could do no worse than he under the circumstances.  He can’t understand how a little girl like her could find her way safely out of the goblin mines; neither can he understand why such a sweet and earnest little girl keeps insisting on such outrageous stories.  But he agrees to follow Irene up the three narrow flights of stairs to the attic tower where she claims her great-great-grandmother lives.

‘I’ve brought Curdie, grandmother.  He wouldn’t believe what I told him and so I’ve brought him.’

‘Yes -- I see him.  He is a good boy, Curdie, and a brave boy.  Aren’t you glad you’ve got him out?’

‘Yes, grandmother.  But it wasn’t very good of him not to believe me when I was telling him the truth.’

‘People must believe what they can, and those who believe msut not be hard upon those who believe less.  I doubt if you would have believed it all yourself if you hadn’t seen some of it.’

‘Ah!  Yes, grandmother, I dare say.  I’m sure you are right.  But he’ll beleive now.’

‘I don’t know that,’ replied her grandmother.

Indeed, Curdie doesn’t believe Irene’s story.  And he doesn’t see her beautiful grandmother and the fire of roses and beautiful blue bed and the shining lamp just like a little moon -- he doesn’t see her grandmother at all.  All he sees is an empty room with a stool, a tub, and a pile of straw in the corner, and he hears nothing but the cooing of pigeons in the loft adjacent to the room.  He doesn’t believe it.  He can’t believe it.  And he tells Irene so.

This really vexes Irene.  She’s used to her nurse, Lootie, not beleiving her, because, to be honest, Lootie is rather foolish; but Curdie is clever and brave and even imaginative; and he’s a good person.  Why won’t he believe her?

‘You must give him time,’ said her grandmother; ‘and you must be content not to be believed for a while.  It is very hard to bear; but I have had to bear it, and shall have to bear it many a time yet.  I will take care of what Curdie thinks of you in the end.  You must let him go now.’
After Curdie leaves, Irene and her grandmother discuss this further.
‘What does it all mean, grandmother?’ she sobbed, and burst into fresh tears.

‘It means, my love, that I did not mean to show myself.  Curdie is not yet able to believe some things.  Seeing is not believing.  It is only seeing.  You remember I told you that if Lootie were to see me, she would rub her eyes, forget the half she saw, and call the other half nonsense,’

‘Yes, but I should have thought Curdie --’

‘You are right.  Curdie is much farther on than Lootie, and you will see what will come of it  But in the meantime you must be content, I say, to be misunderstood for a while.  We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be.  But there is one thing much more necessary.’

‘What is that, grandmother?’

‘To understand other people.’

Now, I imagine to an agnostic all this about “not yet able to believe some things” must seem awfully condescending.  It would be perhaps more palatable to say, “We must respect the religious beliefs of those who disagree with us because we might be wrong ourselves.” But in the story Irene’s magical grandmother is real.  That’s a given.  There’s no doubt that Curdie is mistaken and Irene is right.  Perhaps we could re-write the story so that she was only a figment of Irene’s imagination and that Irene’s adventures were guided solely by luck or by non-magical factors, but then it wouldn’t be the same story.  

But in any case, it is not the skeptical Curdie who needs a lesson in this chapter; it is Irene.  And that lesson is to respect people even if they don’t believe the same thing as you do -- not because they may be right in their own beliefs, but because it is the right thing to do.

Irene gets the message:

‘Yes, grandmother, I must be fair -- for if I’m not fair to other people, I’m not worth being understood myself...’
Why don’t we Christians understand that?  I suspect it’s because we have this ingrained attitude that evangelism is some kind of rhetorical arm-wrestling match, a competition to be won rather than an opportunity to share.  We get focused on winning and on seeing the other person as an opponent rather than as another person.  And I think we take too literally the admonition of the King in the parable who tells his servants to “Go into the highways and the byways and compel them to come in.”

The truth is that we don’t “bring souls to Christ,” as the saying goes.  The best we can do is bring the message of Christ to others and trust the Holy Spirit to work in their hearts.  As Luther once said, no one will be dragged into Heaven by the hair.

I’ve said before that the Witness’s job in a court of law is not to persuade the Jury; the Witness is there only to say what he knows and what he has experienced.  The job of convincing people falls to the Counsellor, which we know is another name for the Holy Spirit.

But when we get caught up in the competition, and we lose track of where our priorities should lie.  We concentrate so much on vindicating our Faith that we forget to listen to the other person

Perhaps if we concentrated less on being Right, we might find Irene’s invisible thread and let it lead us where we need to go.

Originally posted to Street Prophets on Sat May 05, 2012 at 11:16 AM PDT.

Also republished by Anglican Kossacks, Community Spotlight, and Readers and Book Lovers.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thank you. (14+ / 0-)

    Showing love, helping others, visiting the prisoner, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, working for peace, working for justice--all these and more are the things that show others our belief.

    It was Irene's faith that brought her to save Curdie, but it was her works in love that brought him out from the depths.

    Peace, Hope, Faith, Love

    by mapamp on Sat May 05, 2012 at 11:18:46 AM PDT

  •  Beautiful selection to share. (6+ / 0-)

    And full of wisdom for those who have ears to hear.  If one is for winning at all costs, there is probably no real victory or peace at the end of the struggle.  Last Sunday the church we now attend baptized 11 individuals.  We attended a couple of Southern Baptist churches during the great baptism push a few years ago and witnessed very, very few.  What was the difference?  Trying really hard to "sell" something called christianity vs. doing what flows naturally  from a personal feeling of "mission" -- such things as vibrant youth programs that seem to draw in children for all the deep and important reasons children want to be drawn.

  •  Very lovely - thanks so much. Republished to (10+ / 0-)

    Anglican Kossacks, unless you mind.

    I think it also applies to the mission of Daily Kos - we will persuade far more people to vote for Democrats if we honor where they are and what they think, than if we roundly denounce them and call them stupid. Respect for all, as Irene says, and Irene is only Greek for Peace.

    Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? . . . and respect the dignity of every human being.

    by Wee Mama on Sat May 05, 2012 at 02:48:20 PM PDT

    •  It's easier to stereotype, unfortunately... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Navy Vet Terp, Wee Mama, JKTownsend

      Supporters of Israel are called Arab-hating thugs.
      Supporters of a Palestinian state are called anti-Semites.

      Supporters of Hillary are called racists.
      Supporters of Obama are called anti-feminists.

      Gun-rights supporters? Red-neck trigger-happy nuts.
      Gun-control supporters? Anti-Constitution hippies.

      Christian believer? Bible-thumping homophobe.
      Atheist? Bible-hating Christianphobe.

      When we stereotype, it eliminates the need to engage the other person or position and excludes the possibility of discussion and consensus.

    •  Interesting (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Wee Mama, JKTownsend, mapamp, cotterperson

      I didn't know that about the meaning of the name Irene.  Thanks  By all means, share the diary with whomever you like.

      "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

      by quarkstomper on Sat May 05, 2012 at 08:29:36 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  It's about Becoming for me more than anything else (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mapamp, linkage, quarkstomper, R2P2, JKTownsend

    I wish I could reframe the "belief vs. nonbelief" thing every time it rears its ugly head, but people tend to have such knee-jerk reactions in these religious debates that it is hard to move them from their rigid perspectives (and I include both sides in that observation).

    •  Both sides, eh? (3+ / 0-)

      In every religious debate I wind up in, eventually all of my questions boil down to just one: But is it true?

      But I guess that makes my perspective "rigid" and "knee-jerk."

      •  NOT "rigid" or "knee-jerk," (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        quarkstomper, mapamp

        but perfectly logical and sane. "Is it true?" you ask. The answer: "We don't know."

        Some have "faith," though. It's a personal choice made with free will. There are physical records of an "historic Jesus," who was a minor troublemaker, so we know that person existed. The Bible has been heavily edited over time, and choices of what writings to include and exclude were made early on. Certainly not all of it is literally true! Jesus often taught with parables, fercryinoutloud!

        Being raised in a mild-mannered Methodist church in the '50s and '60s, I was taught what faith is and that I needn't take the Bible literally. In my teens, though, I became a devotee of ... Ayn Rand!! OMG. The absolute polar opposite of what I'd learned in church. After a while, I did feel the need to make a choice between two unprovable opposites.

        I asked myself which would make me happier. It was no contest. I chose to have faith. It's a personal choice, and I seldom discuss it for that reason. But over time, I've pieced it together from what I've learned about a number of faiths.

        Sorry to go on so, but we wouldn't be having this discussion if the GOP hadn't turned the religious right into a political machine. Adam Curtis (BBC documentarian) has a  fine blog post about how they did it (and an interview with one of them) -- Who Would God Vote For?.

        If you read this far, all the best to you ;)

        "Let each unique song be sung and the spell of differentiation be broken" - Winter Rabbit

        by cotterperson on Sun May 06, 2012 at 03:48:06 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  The "invisible thread" is (12+ / 0-)

    "love", or "God's love".

    Personally i don't think that i need to be a theist to regard Corinthians 13 to be the truest thing ever written, but some do.

    To me, its more empowering to regard my fellow man as a piece of God rather than a creation of God, if you follow.

    Love isn't the "point", because "point" signifies an apex or break. Love is the process.

    •  In God's image... (7+ / 0-)

      In a discussion with a friend of conservative convictions he said something about man being created in God's image and I asked, "So, what does God see when he looks in the mirror?"  He got a little irritated.

      But I waste much pondering on such things sometimes, and one day thought about holographic images as opposed to regular photographs. If you cut a hologram in half you don't get two half images, as I understand it you get two smaller, but complete versions of the original 3D image.  Keep cutting the hologram up and the image stays whole but the resolution degrades as the pieces get smaller.

      Pondering away, I could see man as a living holographic fragment of a multidimensional God rather than mere reflection; a little tiny chunk of divine. Infinitesimal and accordingly humble, but a part of something greater that we might as well call God while trying to comprehend the Universe we find ourselves lost in. Such a holographic god could be omniscient and omnipresent, being everywhere that we are and knowing everything that we know, so that kind of fits the job description too.

      Brain hurts now...

      •  Holy ghost, (4+ / 0-)

        meet internet.

        Hopefully. Eventually.


      •  Another Interpretation (7+ / 0-)

        An interesting thought.  Or perhaps man is like a 3-dimensional cross-section of the multi-dimensional deity.

        Dorothy L. Sayers had a different take on what "in God's Image" means.  Obviously it doesn't mean that man looks like God, because in traditional Christian mythology, God doesn't have a physical form, (except when he's being painted by Michelangelo).  Sayers took the phrase to mean that humans have some of the same qualities that God has, and to Sayers, a writer, the most important such quality was the ability to create things.

        J.R.R. Tolkien had similar views, although he refered to human acts of invention and artistic creation as "sub-creation" to differentiate between what we do and what God does ex nihilo.

        "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

        by quarkstomper on Sat May 05, 2012 at 09:37:23 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Ah well, certainly (4+ / 0-)

          acts of creation are "God-Like" and I would agree with Lewis that most human endeavors are "sub-creations".

          However, my robo-communist spiritualism drives me to think that humans are headed towards truly divine creations.

          Favourite author is J.M Coetzee by the way. You should check him out, but be warned that he constantly violates the comfortable parable model of story telling set out by Lewis et all.

          Reading Coetzee is harder, but far more spiritually rewarding in my view. I think of his writing as "post-existentialism", kind of "Living With Godot" if you catch my drift...Humanism at its finest.

  •  Thank You - N/T (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mapamp, quarkstomper, SteelerGrrl

    "Upward, not Northward" - Flatland, by EA Abbott

    by linkage on Sat May 05, 2012 at 04:51:29 PM PDT

  •  I loved this! (4+ / 0-)

    -1.63/ -1.49 "Speaking truth to power" (with snark of course)!

    by dopper0189 on Sat May 05, 2012 at 08:15:41 PM PDT

  •  I'm sorry (7+ / 0-)

    but by the time an evangelical is done rubbing my face in  favorite passages from John, I'm ready to throw a banana cream pie. Talk other evangelicals into  reading George MacDonald. For that matter, throw Neil Gaiman at them, get out your smart phone & photograph the stupified reaction, Neil who?

    "There ain't no sanity clause." Chico Marx

    by DJ Rix on Sat May 05, 2012 at 08:26:33 PM PDT

  •  This was really lovely. Hopefully people (6+ / 0-)

    of all beliefs here will read this.  I'm not certain what I believe myself right now, (nor am I interested in "help" with this uncertainty) but I found this very heartwarming.  It would be nice if everyone could understand and practice this lesson.  Thank you.

    "Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought." - John F. Kennedy

    by helpImdrowning on Sat May 05, 2012 at 08:27:12 PM PDT

    •  I don't find it heartwarming (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I keep thinking about all the other prisoners of the Goblins, the ones who aren't lucky enough to be friends with the magical old lady's grandchild.

      I think its interesting that we could both read the same passage, and yet come away with such wildly different reactions.

      •  Actually... (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        mapamp, Wee Mama, blue muon

        ...there weren't any other captives.  The Goblins weren't in the habit of capturing the miners.  Curdie was a special case; he had stumbled across a plot the Goblins were concocting against the "sun-dwellers" and had been spying on them to learn more, and it was in the process of doing this that he was discovered.  Curdie retreated into a cul-de-sac which the Goblins walled up.

        Wait, strike that; I'm wrong.  We do learn that long ago, the present Goblin King had once abducted a woman from the surface world and taken her as a wife.  The woman died giving birth to the present Goblin Prince.  So why didn't Irene's grandmother rescue her as well?  We're not told.

        But now I wonder... Irene's father the King knows about the Grandmother, but does not speak of her.  Perhaps she gave him the opportunity to resuce the abducted women when he was younger, but he muffed it somehow.  And that might account for the hint of sadness the King always seems to have.

        Or maybe not.  As I say, the author tells us very little about it, other than that the Goblins found the surface girl revolting because of her toes.

        Another thing to consider is that although Lewis imitated MacDonald in many ways, MacDonald was not Lewis.  If he were, then Irene's Grandmother would be God under a different name.  Although the grandmother shares many qualities with God, MacDonald never calls her that and she really functions more in the story like a Fairy Godmother.

        "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

        by quarkstomper on Sun May 06, 2012 at 05:51:23 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks, Everyone, for the Recommendations (8+ / 0-)

    I've been gone all day at a craft event and only just now got back online.  I'm glad that people have found my diary worthwhile.  Thanks again.

    "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

    by quarkstomper on Sat May 05, 2012 at 08:27:38 PM PDT

  •  A colleague keeps trying to evangelize me; (6+ / 0-)

    He's frequently dropping off religious books (C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity was a recent 'gift') and trying to admonish me to repent and see the error of my heathen ways. Apparently this is because he was born again about 20 years ago, and he wants me to be 'saved' too. The thing is, despite being a physician, he's a classic intolerant fundamentalist. God gave men dominion over their wives as head of the household, homosexuality is evil, invading Iraq & attacking Islam is a holy war and on and on. Candidly, I can't imagine why anyone would sign on with a God who pushes that kind of stuff.

    It's difficult to convey how aggravating this is for a skeptic like myself. The universe is a physical reality indifferent to human existence, and the notion of God or any other supreme deity a comforting fairy tale to help us deal with that existential terror. To me this is so obvious it barely merits mention. But I don't force my view of existential reality on others. It would be impolite. I could return the favor to my partner by handing him my favorite books (Sam Harris's angry Letter to a Christian Nation comes to mind), but that would be more than a little childish.

    I just want him to knock it off!

    •  This worked for me with my dad (7+ / 0-)

      I read a few of his books.

      Then I gave him a copy of "Atheism: The Case Against God," by George Smith. I told him that it was only fair that we share, and I wasn't going to read any more of his books until he read just one of mine.

      After that, every time he tries to give you a book or discuss the issue, you ask him if he's done with your one book yet.

      Since he will never, ever actually read that book to the end, you're off the hook forever!

  •  The analogy is flawed (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    quarkstomper, Scott Campbell

    Go back and read your story, and imagine the boy saying to Grandmother, "There were twenty other boys kidnapped with me. If you can save people from the Goblins, why didn't you save them?"

    And suppose Grandma says, "Even though it would be the most trivial thing in the world for me to do so, I didn't, because those boys weren't following my granddaughter."

    Now what do you think of her?

    That's pretty much what I would think of your Christian god, if I thought one existed.

    •  Exending the Flawed Analogy (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Hammerhand, mapamp, Wee Mama, blue muon

      Well, as I said replying to your comment above, there werent' twenty other kidnapped boys, but then your hypothesis has nothing to do with the story and more with your perception of Christianity, and to be honest, how Christians themselves often portray it.

      I don't know if I have a good answer for that.  All I can do is say what I believe based on my own understanding of my Faith.  Perhaps you'll say that I'm not a "real Christian" because of it.  And I don't expect you to find it convincing.  It's just the way I see things.

      Put as simply as I can, without wings and haloes, I believe that God desires all people to be saved, and to that end sent his Son to earn our salvation.  Because of this, all men ARE saved.  Even Hitler.  Even Geo. W. Bush.  Even Bill Maher.  Even me.  Their ticket to Heaven is paid for.  The invisible thread, if we go back to the book, is there for the grasping.

      But, perhaps you might say, if all men are saved, why is there a Hell?  Christians put preconditions on Heaven.  People have to believe in Christ, right?

      The Bible does say that, and the Church does teach it.  But I have to think that God sets an awfully low bar on how he defines that "belief."  Because he really does want people to come to him.  And here I think a lot of my fellow believers will look at me askance, because I think we Christians obsess too much about who is entitled to recieve Salvation.  Which, I'm thinking, is part of your point.

      But.  And you knew there'd be a but.  God does not condemn anybody to "everlasting redemption", as Dogberry put it.  He doesn't force Heaven on anybody.  If those hypothetical 20 boys trapped in the Goblin caves didn't want to follow Irene, nobody was going to force them to.

      This is another point where a lot of Christians get it wrong.  We think that forcing others to think the same way as we do is an obligation, rather than being actually counter-productive.

      Perhaps it is cruel of God not to simply zap people to Heaven whether they want it or not.  I don't see it that way.

      Sorry for rambling so long, but you asked a question, and I wanted to address it honestly.  I hope I did at least that; and I've tried not to fall into the same argumentative trap I criticized in my diary.

      "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

      by quarkstomper on Sun May 06, 2012 at 09:40:28 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  enjoyed (5+ / 0-)

    I really enjoyed this diary.  Post more like it anytime!

  •  As an atheist, the strangest thing is that (5+ / 0-)

    people of faith don't believe me!
    They actually don't believe this about me.
    It's like they won't have 'faith' that this could be true.
    I don't begrudge them for it, and it's interesting how the 'spiritual' aspects of my personality are used as examples of how this can't be true, and it's somewhat endearing to me that folks feel this way, not insulting or condescending.

    "But Brandine, you're supposed to be in Iraq stopping 911!"

    by leftyguitarist on Sun May 06, 2012 at 06:28:19 AM PDT

  •  Magic grandmother? Good analogy. /nt (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mapamp, quarkstomper
  •  i was raised to be a roman catholic (4+ / 0-)

    in other words, my parents had me baptized, took me to church every sunday, and even sent me to catechism classes after school- (yeah public school)
    yeah, i had a first communion, and several other catholic rituals.
    if someone needs to believe in something..
    to get by, or to give them a reason to do the right thing, or even if it makes them feel better about themselves..
    i think that is wonderful..

    no i AM NOT a catholic, or even remotely religious

    my problem is when you tell me I HAVE TO BELIEVE AS YOU, OR I AM GOING TO HELL...

    and yeah... that's the bottom line for me...
    and, personally, my issue with religion....
    if your beliefs help you lead a better life
    i believe that is good...
    just don't tell me what to believe..
    and don't tell me that ANYONE  is going to hell (or whatever eternal torment your  "religion" espouses..)
    for not believing as you do..
    (i'm not saying your personal version of religion does..
    but let's face it.. the major religions, and most forms of christianity.. do exactly that..)

    i personally think the beatitudes are beautiful,
    and while i'm not perfect, i try to -
    "do unto others as you would have them do unto you"
    i hope this helps you understand my point of view..
    and i hope your beliefs help you in your search for meaning in life...
    and i, i hope you respect my belief, that belief is a personal experience, and as such, should not be forced upon anyone..
    and that the journey to understanding, and gleaning meaning in life, does not end..
    peace be with you

  •  Wonderful D - thanks Much. This part says it all (5+ / 0-)

    to me;

    ‘Yes, grandmother, I must be fair -- for if I’m not fair to other people, I’m not worth being understood myself...’
    It is intelligent to understand that there is more to life than just human beings.

    It is also intelligent, to not yield to vanity and believe we humans are THE gift to the universe (G-d forbid it should be that bad off).

    If you believe in G-d, then you already believe in something more than us.

    On the other hand, if you don't believe in G-d, Buddha etc;
    then it would not be intelligent to think WE humans are the only intelligent life in the Universe.

    Even the Bible is quoted as stating that another argues with him/ her on the character of Job, Jesus etc.

    arguing here then - is G-d like.

    PLEASE Stop Mitt (the Pitts) Romney from stealing the Presidential Election!

    by laserhaas on Sun May 06, 2012 at 10:28:39 AM PDT

  •  I like the idea of the thread. (4+ / 0-)

    I visualize the creator as linking to us via a slipstream that we grab on to, but a thread would do as well.

    "If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, 'thank you,' that would suffice." Eckhart von Hochheim O.P. (c. 1260 – c. 1327)

    by rosabw on Sun May 06, 2012 at 01:35:35 PM PDT

    •  In other parts of the Qur'an... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mapamp, rosabw, Hammerhand

      ...a rope is used as an allegory instead of a thread.  Regardless, the requirements for the most trustworthy handhold are enunciated simply enough:

      Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in God hath grasped the most trustworthy handhold that never breaks. And God heareth and knoweth all things. (2:256)

      Muslims and tigers and bears, oh my!

      by JDsg on Sun May 06, 2012 at 06:54:24 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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