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JESUS a new vision: Spirit, Culture, and the life of discipleship by Marcus Borg (1993-08-01)

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  • By Ansen Plopbundle on December 8, 2015

    This is my first *real* delving into Marcus Borg’s works, though I’m somewhat familiar with the rough outline and have had a few of his books on my shelf for a long time. Of this book’s theme Borg asserts, “This book attempts in a scholarly and nondogmatic way to say, ‘This is what the historical Jesus was like, this is what he taught, and this is what his mission was about’” (Preface). His purpose is twofold: To “present a synthesis of modern Jesus scholarship that is accessible to the general reader . . . [and to] make a serious scholarly case for a particular image of the historical Jesus that is considerably at variance with the dominant scholarly image” (Preface). The two foci of the book are what Borg terms Spirit and culture. Spirit comes from experience of God and Jesus wanted to transform culture. The Spirit of God was his central relationship in life and he wanted to create a “community within history whose corporate life reflected faithfulness to God” (Preface). For those big Borg readers, he says this builds on his book Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus.Borg divides Jesus’ life into two realms – pre and post Easter. He thinks what we know about the pre-Easter Jesus isn’t much. He says pictures of Jesus are obscured in two ways: 1) that which dominates popular imagination, 2) liberal (my word). He believes the popular image of his pre-Easter life is not accurate. The assumption of John’s differences are apparently too much to lump them in with the Synoptics (Jesus speaks of his divinity in John and not in the Synoptics). Contrast this with Mark’s messianic secret and scholars can’t reconcile these, he thinks. So, which image is more accurate? Many scholars said Mark was historic and thus Borg could conclude, “The image of Jesus as one who taught that he was the Son of God who was to die for the sins of the world is not historically true” (5).He first shows some of the old historical Jesus research and then turns to the new (now old – I think this was written in 1987), citing the inauthenticity of the Son of Man sayings and other research. At that time, Borg said we can be sure that he was “a charismatic who was a healer, sage, prophet, and revitalization movement founder” (15).Next, at the heart of the book, Borg begins: “Within scholarly circles, Jesus’ relationship to the world of Spirit is seldom taken seriously” (25). Wait, what? What is a spirit and what is the (capital letter) “Spirit”? He says, “By it [‘world of Spirit] I mean another dimension or layer or level of reality in addition to the visible world of our ordinary experience” (25-26). This level of reality is nonmaterial, “charged with energy and power” (26). And philosophically central to Borg’s search was that this other layer of reality “is not simply an article of belief, but an element of experience” (26). Further, these realities intersect at different places (26-27). To buttress these things he writes, “Language about ‘the other world’ is necessarily metaphorical and analogical, simply because we must use language drawn from the visible world to try to speak of another world constituted by very different realities and energies” (28). Continuing, he writes, “this other world is not literally somewhere else” (28). He misinterprets (or is confused about) the doctrine of omnipresence to include some type of physical comparison, arguing that due to omnipresence and immanence “God and the world of Spirit are all around us, including within us” (28). Of course this isn’t what the traditional doctrine of omnipresence really says. A better way would be to say that God’s knowledge and power are everywhere present rather than construing it in physical terms. How and why this applies equally to Borg’s realm of Spirit is just asserted, and not really argued for. I’m not saying that I disagree with the sentiment necessarily, but the language does need to be parsed better. Jesus was, “historically speaking” (what we would call “truth”) a “Spirit-filled” person in the charismatic stream of Judaism” (25).Chapter Three describes ways in which Jesus exists in this realm of the spirit. Borg debates various things like Jesus’ birth and baptism and their historicity. He is fairly adamant that “Son of God” can’t mean what Christians interpret it to mean, as in the sense of divinity because “. . . almost certainly Jesus did not think of himself as the Son of God’ (49). Though Borg believes Jesus did not talk about himself in divine ways, he says, “. . . the church’s exalted designations of him were not an arbitrary imposition, but had roots in the historical experience of Jesus himself’ (50).Chapter Four shows us the power of Jesus through miracles. They can’t be historically true apparently, but they can be “symbolically” true (59). This means that the language used “points beyond itself to a web of meanings or associations, and those associations enrich rather than impoverish the story” (59). But of course how could we know this or verify this? Can it be because miracles aren’t possible? But he says Jesus’ deeds are also part of the Jesus tradition, not just the early church’s (59). However, since miracles aren’t per-se possible, this leads to a further division where we can affirm that miracles are part of the history of Jesus, and part of the “story” of Jesus – where we can only guess (59-60). But Borg does say that “. . . on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist” (61). For him, though, these don’t necessarily imply historical truth (61).Chapter’s Five through Nine are the second half of the book (minus the conclusion). First, Borg notices that what distinguishes Jesus from other Jewish charismatics in his day was his concern for the sociopolitical life of his world (79). Jesus’ world was in crisis. To understand Jesus’ culture Borg suggests taking a look at the wisdom at the day, the crisis itself, and the “politics of holiness which was a response to the crisis” (80). He notes first that in Jewish wisdom, the primary importance was what he calls “sacred tradition” (81), which might be better termed the Scriptures and Oral Law (cf. 82). Second, “Jewish conventional wisdom . . . saw reality as organized on the basis of rewards and punishments. Reality was ‘built’ that way” (82). The third characteristic of Jesus’ social world was the way one’s identity was perceived and their inherent social status and the ensuing social hierarchies that develop (83).Jewish and Roman cultures clash due to their differing (what we would call today) values, or their theological presuppositions. Borg discusses the added economic taxation that the Romans required of their Jewish subjects and how governmental taxes and religious tithes were too much to bear for many farmers and thus caused them to become nonobservant. The Jewish response to Roman occupation was what he calls a “politics of holiness” (86). Holiness essentially meant separation from other people or things that might defile them or make them unclean.In Chapter Six, Borg makes the case for Jesus’ teaching as a sage. Borg avers that Jesus’ primary teaching was a way of transformation (97). Jesus’ teachings revolved around trying to get people to *see* in a new way (99). Thus, “his sagely teaching . . . revolved around three great themes: an image of reality that challenged the image created by conventional wisdom; a diagnosis of the human condition; and the proclamation of a way of transformation” (99). Borg writes that for Jesus, reality was ultimately “Spirit.” I suppose he means that God has the last word (cf. 100)? Otherwise I’m not sure what it means to pit a material and immaterial world against one another to see which is more “ultimate.” He says Jesus saw reality as “ultimately gracious and compassionate” (101). But of course this is simplistic and results from his historical methodology and beliefs about the evolution of the early church. Many gospel passages can be shown that Jesus agrees with Genesis 3 and the ensuing damage done to the world along with the simple fact that God punishes sinners. However, because many of these texts aren’t “embarrassing” or “dissimilar” to Judaism’s teachings, they are dismissed out of hand. Why a Jew would *never* say anything that agrees with the tradition he grows up in is absolutely beyond me. What is further beyond me is how one can go to great lengths to describe what Jesus was like using cultural criteria of similarity, while at the same time dismissing sayings as inauthentic by a cultural criteria of dissimilarity! How can one know what Jesus was like by looking at his religion and culture and out of the same mouth dismiss most of Jesus’ sayings by that same similarity? Beats me. Anyway, Borg says that Jesus perceived God as compassionate – indeed, this, for Jesus, was God’s primary quality or attribute (cf. 102).Some of Borg’s best work, imho, is explaining and explicating the Roman cultural milieu and the resulting theological battles that many of Jesus’ encounters involved. The primary concern in a world not ultimately governed by God is anxiety coupled with the ensuing need for security (cf. 107). He writes, “Anxious about securing their own well-being, whether through family, possessions, honor, or religion, people experience a narrowing of vision, become insensitive to others and blind to the glory of God all around us. God is not absent; rather, we do not see” (107-08). Thus, “the struggle between Jesus and the wisdom of his time was not a struggle between a new religion (Christianity) and an old religion (Judaism), but a struggle between two ways of being religious that run throughout Judaism and Christianity alike” (110). This sounds nice and I think it has some ring of truth in it but it is too simplistic. Jesus picks up on themes of Jeremiah’s new covenant, which have their theological roots all the way back in Genesis. How does the human being “see” God? It involves radical self-denial (112). I agree wholeheartedly with his “death to self” metaphor and the following description (cf. 113). And I further agree that, “There is thus a world-denying and culture-denying quality to the teaching of Jesus” (114).Borg argues in Chapter Seven that Jesus challenges the way of purity. He notes that Jesus “spiritualized” much of the Scriptures. For example, “. . . Jesus denied that purity was primarily a matter of externals, concerning pots or pans or hands, or whether one ate food that was untithed” (14). I agree with this to an extent, but there are clear strands within the Jewish Bible that actually agree with Jesus’ assessment. And Borg’s contention in the previous chapter that Jesus did not overturn kosher laws because of his assumption that he would be challenged on it AND that it would be written down is speculation. I think it’s an educated guess, to be sure – but there’s no reason to think that he didn’t. Perhaps it wasn’t recorded in any systematic way, but by the time of Acts, there’s clear evidence that food won’t make you unclean before God.Next, Borg says Jesus was like one of the “classical” prophets of Israel (150). Like Jesus, the prophets’ two foci were “Spirit and culture, God and their social world” (155). This combination, with his “politics of compassion” led to his prophetic critique of the first century Jewish world.Chapter Nine details that Jesus’ death wasn’t the purpose of his journey (of course this all comes back to presuppositions; cf. 172). He covers Jesus’ death, the events leading up to it, who was ultimately responsible, etc. Of course he believes the Gospel narratives (though early) are infused with “later tradition.”I have an enormous amount to say in terms of a critique. First, I think it’s rather funny seeing Borg using logical criteria when defending Jesus’ historicity. For example, in comparing and contrasting John and the Synoptics he says, “When once this fundamental contrast between John and Mark was seen, a great historical ‘either/or’ presented itself to scholars” (5). So, John’s gospel becomes about “. . . the risen living Christ of Christian experience” (6). It is the “church’s memory transfigured” (6). Well, why would Mark’s be “more” true than John’s if all we have are two stories in front of us?! Well, of course, presuppositions of one’s worldview answers that. Which is more likely to be seen as authentic by professors in humanities departments – a made up story about Jesus claiming his divinity or a story about him not wanting that stuff going around? The answer is clear - clear logical division of the initial question, and then it just devolves into speculation about the evolution of the early church. You see, John HAS to be that. There’s no other option. But of course, there’s simply nothing logical about presupposing that a later writing to be unhistorical. Of course this delves into when the gospels were written and how far they are removed from oral culture. Borg presupposes these writings to be what I would call very late, but he never says why. Well, my initial guess is that certain scholars have to put some of the gospels late due to certain predictions of what happened in 70 AD. Because there’s no such thing as predictive prophecy, these must be seen as inherently impossible. Thus, they must be post-70. To note – I’m not saying that later writings must have equal weight in this debate. For example, we wouldn’t conclude the Koran’s assessment of Jesus as having equal validity to the history of Jesus, but both Mark and John are within a reasonable time frame and have connections with oral tradition and Christian communities.My second critique concerns conventional wisdom and subversive wisdom that Borg speaks so often about. I think it’s ultimately simplistic to say there’s conventional wisdom and subversive and that Proverbs is conventional and Ecclesiastes, Job, etc. subversive because it either contradicts or goes against conventional wisdom. However, I do see why he believes in this division. They do have different emphases. And the idea that Jesus simply approved of subversive wisdom is too simplistic and leads to a mistake: simplifying the Jewish wisdom tradition to draw a sharp division between conventional wisdom and subversive wisdom. Clearly, Jesus emphasizes much conventional wisdom (back to the debate about sources again), and I think there’s no reason to see that one ruins the truth of the other as if they are opposed. How can he see such simplistic differences as irreconcilable and yet try to reconcile the extreme differences of the world’s religions as really just the same type of thing (he is a religious pluralist)? It baffles me. However, he does note that Jesus’ challenge to “conventional” wisdom wasn’t a complete overthrowing, rather it was a challenge to what Borg calls “enculturated religion” (114). But the idea that Jesus “stood” in one tradition rather than another is overly simplistic and is based off of his faulty presuppositions (115). I do agree that Jesus took Proverbs (as an example) in the way they were fully meant – i.e. – as general truths that often happen if left alone, which some in the Jewish world had strongly emphasized as monolithic. But this doesn’t mean Jesus rejects conventional wisdom or that he necessarily stands in the tradition of subversive wisdom as a whole.The theology of Proverbs is based on God’s creation of the world and being aligned with that. Proverbs is also consistent with the retribution themes in Deuteronomy. That’s the reward/retribution concept. In Deuteronomy , though, the rewards/retribution come from God, and in Proverbs they have different causes, in a sense - the natural world. The reason why it looks ‘common’ or conventional is likely due to its long transmission from an oral, family beginning, to being put into writing. Israel’s conception of creation is important, therefore. Gen. 1:1 thus lies behind biblical wisdom literature. So, wisdom expresses not only the created order but implies humanity’s problems and answers why we kick against the goads. I think it also needs to be said that within Borg’s first source mentioned (the Scriptures), there are other emphases as well, though these aren’t likely the first things that come to mind when dealing with issues of suffering and culture. What I mean is that it is highly likely that your first assumption as a first century Jew upon seeing a blind person might be that they had sinned. That’s not to say that that’s the complete picture, however, because clearly the Jewish Scriptures aren’t that simplistic. But it may be the way the culture has developed itself, in an unbalanced way.His treatment of the necessity of all religious language to be symbolic is a failure. Of course this is self-refuting. All language about this other world can’t be symbolic – this was the fundamental error of Tillich. Later, he says that something is no less true simply because it is only symbolic truth, “. . . its truth is verified in the experience of Christians ever since, quite apart from the historical verdict . . .” (69). So, I take this to mean that (in the example he cites of Jesus’ power), one can somehow experience God’s power in a mysterious, unable-to-really-put-it-into-words-but-still-know-it’s-God-somehow-moment. Now, this person goes back to the Bible and reads the story of Jesus calming the storm and says, “A-ha! I see that this of course can’t be true, but it sure expressed what I just experienced and am surely unable to put into actual words!” Let’s take the argument at face value (that it, by definition, can’t be put into words because words come from the realm of experience and God exists outside that realm) and ask ourselves whether this person’s experience becomes invalidated as a true experience when he tries to tell you about this experience. Well, no, of course not – the experience still stands, right? So, if one can actually experience God and *know* that it is God he or she is experiencing, why do these miracle stories in the gospels have to be false? Well, you see – because of our philosophical presuppositions which determine the nature of experience of God for all people. These *must* be *only* symbolic truth because that’s just the way it is.Borg’s treatment of divinity and some of the attributes of God and Christ are puzzling. He says the living Christ “does possess the qualities of divinity; he is ‘very God of very God,’ one with the Father, and therefore everywhere-present, all-powerful, and all-knowing. But though these statements are true about the risen Christ, they are not true about the historical Jesus” (6). What? Can he please elaborate on that? And then you get this – “Clearly, Jesus as a figure of history was not ‘omnipresent,’ but was always in some particular place . . . he was not ‘omnipotent,’ . . . Neither should we suppose that he was ‘omniscient.” (7). So, let me get this straight – the hypostatic union is simply asserted to be philosophically unreasonable, and yet a human being *becoming* perfect Is reasonable?! On the same presuppositional grounds?!! Does he say how?? Well, of course not. Some stuff in here is surprising – like, “. . . the first time that any follower of Jesus in Mark called him by an exalted title, contrasts sharply with John 1:29-51, where already in John’s opening chapter both John the Baptist and several of Jesus’ disciples applied the grandest titles of Jesus” (17) – when he knows they’re not linear history (a *gasp* modern presupposition). Borg’s answer as to why Mark is more historical is, “It is easier to account for a theological development from a Jesus who did not explicitly proclaim himself (Mark) to a portrait in which his identity is explicitly proclaimed (John) that it is to account for the reverse process. If Jesus did consistently proclaim his identity, as John reports, what motive could an early Christian author such as Mark have had for saying that Jesus did not preach about who he was” (18)? This absolute, sharp division of reasoning that exists for these scholars when they’re critiquing traditional perspectives on Jesus and harmonization and then the crazy philosophical loops they end up spinning to make sense of the rest of the material is odd, to say the least. Could John, writing twenty years later, *really* not include different stories, themes, etc. than the Synoptics? What was stopping him, some kind of synoptic clubbing committee, threatening him? I mean, can Jesus not have really told the Samaritan woman and a man he had healed that he was God?The presupposition here that is crucial is the evolution of the very early church which there is very little to no empirical evidence: The church must’ve evolved this way – and the presuppositions shape this – the hypostatic union doesn’t make sense, so he has to be human pre-Easter. But the resurrection and its facts are so well attested that to make sense of this a community continually “experiencing” Jesus (not physically though) has to be invented to make sense of anything in the text that doesn’t fit with the evolution of the early church. So, the tales of Jesus kind of “grow” if you will – into more fancifulness – and yet, somehow they are still true, as he asserts – though not true according to the actual literature that we have – they’re true in what sense? Corresponding to reality? I’m not sure. Right – it may be “theologically true—that is, statements which appropriately describe what Jesus had become in the life of the post-Easter church—but they may not be taken as historically accurate statements of what was said during the ministry itself” (10). In other words, humans determine their own truth, and the post-Easter community determined that somehow they were experiencing Jesus in a new way after he was dead. The corpse was probably still there, but somehow he was alive, next to God, and only *then* has the qualities of God! So, I guess it’s up to the reader to decide which is more likely – that the biblical witness is likely an accurate picture or to suppose that the God of the Jewish Bible can’t communicate with humans. If, as Borg asserts, the divine qualities of God are omniscience and omnipotence, then what stops God from actually communicating to human beings in a way that manifests itself in writing? For Borg, it’s virtually impossible for philosophical reasons. His philosophy ultimately controls the text, albeit in a clever way.Further, he writes, “Being a Christian does not require having accurate historical information” (13). Good for him, no? I think this is rather absurd and denies the historicity of the Jewish roots that Christianity grew out of. But he is right that, “Christianity does not consist primarily of having correct beliefs about the historical Jesus, but consists of having a relationship with the living Christ” (13). Now, he’s more right there, but how do you have a relationship with someone you don’t know or have any accurate information about? Well, that’s no problem for Borg, because God is some type of numinous being whom one can only “experience” – and of which that experience includes no actual revelatory knowledge. Amen. How you can have a relationship with a being you don’t know and can only experience in a weird way, I’m not sure. Perhaps if you read William James or Paul Tillich they may tell you, which is the route Borg has seemed to take.In talking about how distance isn’t a factor when Jesus heals, he says, “To attempt to explain how these [healings] happened is beyond our purpose, and probably impossible” (66). He further notes that the text *says* it was Jesus’ (or God’s) power. But of course *that* can’t be true. I mean, what would you need to heal from a distance – power? Nah. Let’s just close the case on that and say it’s impossible to explain. But it’s not impossible. It requires power. It’s a simple explanation, really. Didn’t he say God was all-powerful earlier? He then writes concerning Jesus’ miracles, “. . . the historical verdict about whether or not such events really happened will depend in part upon whether we think even a charismatic can do things like this” (67).His idea that Jesus didn’t physically rise from the dead belies much of the claim of the disciples and seems an unimaginable stretch to invent considering there were no similar ideas in Judaism at the same time (cf. 185). But, he says that we just can’t know what happened to Jesus’ corpse (185). His logic of “symbolic truth” is applied to the resurrection, therefore, and he writes, “. . . the truth of the resurrection is not dependent upon an empty tomb or a vanished corpse Rather, the truth of the resurrection is grounded in the experience of Christ as a living reality beyond his death” (189). One wonders whether he’s actually living or just symbolically living.Borg explains in Chapter Ten how Jesus was the ultimate revelation of God. How God can accomplish an amazing revelation in the person of Jesus and not influence His Spirit (which Borg believes in) to work with the human authors of the Bible is literally baffling to me. It seems he’s willing to accept the more difficult and reject the simpler. While Borg keeps emphasizing “modernity” I’m wondering if he’s turned his gaze upon himself. We can believe in an all-powerful, omniscient God, His Spirit, and its influence in the life of millions of people across the world and across contradictory notions of the God-world relationship in other religions, and yet God is completely baffled when it comes to actually writing down his revelation?! I just don’t think that’s even remotely a cogent argument to make, but what do I know?Summing up, this is a good liberal introduction to Jesus. Obviously, I disagree with his presuppositions and conclusions, but I wouldn’t argue that you should avoid this book. I would recommend that if you have a working knowledge of Jesus and the Bible, this might be a good place to look for some different emphases to get a broader picture than that you usually find in most commentaries.

  • By Steven H Propp on June 21, 2013

    Marcus J. Borg (born 1942) is a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and former Professor at Oregon State University before his retirement in 2007; he has written/cowritten/edited many other books, such as Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship,JESUS AT 2000,The Meaning Of Jesus - Two Visions, etc. He wrote in the Preface to this 1987 book, "This book attempts in a scholarly and nondogmatic way to say, 'This is what the historical Jesus was like, this is what he taught, and this is what his mission was about.' ... I want to present a synthesis of modern Jesus scholarship that is accessible to the general reader... At the same time, I wish to make a serious scholarly case for a particular image of the historical Jesus that is considerably at variance with the dominant scholarly image..." (Pg. ix)He observes, "The image of Jesus as mistakenly expecting the end of the world in his own time and calling people to repent because the end was near does not lend itself well to Christian preaching and teaching. Never have I heard a preacher say in a sermon, 'The text tells us that Jesus expected the end of the world in his time; he was wrong, but let's see what we can make of the text anyway.'" (Pg. 13)He says, "Indeed, in the specific sense of the term used here, the heart of the biblical tradition is 'charismatic,' its origin lying in the experience of Spirit-endowed people who became radically open to the other world and whose gifts were extraordinary." (Pg. 32) Later, he adds, "to be in the presence of Jesus was a joyous experience. The experience of joy in the presence of a remarkable religious figure has parallels in other times and places... to be in the presence of Jesus was experienced as being in the presence of the Spirit which flowed through him." (Pg. 129)He points out, "[Women's] religious disenfrancisement extended into the social sphere... Against this background, Jesus' own behavior was extraordinary. The itinerant group of immediate followers included women, some of whom... supported the movement financially. The sight of a sexually mixed group traveling with a Jewish holy man must have been provocative... Jesus treated women and men as equally capable (and worthy) of dealing with sacred matters." (Pg. 134)Of his final journey to Jerusalem, he suggests, "though many of the texts are filled with a foreboding that the likely result of his sojourn in Jerusalam would be death, the OUTCOME was not the purpose of his journey. Rather, as the climax of his prophetic mission and call to renewal, he went there to make a final appeal to his people at the center of their national and religious life." (Pg. 172) He adds, "Jesus had warned of the fall of Jerusalem, an action which also got one in trouble in first-century Palestine... That God would judge and destroy Jerusalem... was also a direct insult and affront to [the high priest and his council] as leaders of Jerusalem, for it was their stewardship that was being indicated as blind and worthy of God's judgment." (Pg. 180-181)This is one of the most interesting recent accounts of the historical Jesus, and its interest is increased because of Borg's focus on the modern church.

  • By [email protected] on May 7, 1998

    Great, readable, accessible book. Highly recommended for anyone with any curiosity about what is know historically about the life of Jesus. Borg writes about Jesus AND about Christ, carefully pointing out that actually believing or not believing in (for example) the bodily resurrection need not define one's Christianity. Reading Borg's interpretation of Jesus' teachings (which I find highly credible), it becomes quite clear why there is such a rift between "liberal" and "conservative" Christians (call them what you will).What if Jesus didn't declare himself THE Son of God, but more A Son of God, meaning that through "imitating" Christ we too can becomes Sons of God? Borg discusses the context in which the gospels were written, gives possible explanations for their inconsistencies, and even discusses other texts (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas), which were as legitamate as M, M, L, or J, but didn't make it into the New Testament because their message didn't fit perfectly the Word the early Christian Church was attemtping to put forth.A heck of a lot of information packed into 200 pages. Will likely make you thirst for further reading on the subject. Almost a "Jesus Primer" if you will.Borg's Jesus is not one who is no longer relevant today, but instead one who is ESPECIALLY relevant today, if we decide to wade through the dogma and find out for ourselves how he lived, what he taught, and why he is still alive in so many to this day.

  • By Soulseeker2018 on November 8, 2017

    Contrasts Jesus movement with Popular Christianity / Orthodox / Fundamentalist. Excellent! I will be reading it many many times. Great reference page for further study.

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