Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Myths of Jesus

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Two religions, Christianity and Islam, have a particular focus on the life, supposed teachings, and significance of a preacher who (may have) lived in the Roman province of Judea during the early Roman Empire. Because both of those religions are based on myths that take the form of history, and that many of their followers believe to actually be history, the myths of Jesus get bound together with historical questions about his life and its effects, and it becomes difficult to extract the one from the other. For that reason, before plunging into a discussion of the myths of Jesus themselves, I’m going to take a paragraph to say something about the history of Jesus.

We don’t know for certain whether Jesus even existed. We don’t know how much of the Gospel accounts accurately describe his career. We know some things are inherently very unlikely (the miraculous darkness, earthquake, and tearing of the Temple veil when he died, for example) because there should be independent evidence of them if they happened, and there isn’t. Other things seem historically unlikely, such as the use of nails at his crucifixion, because that isn’t how it was usually done. (Crucifixion victims were normally roped to the cross, not nailed, as they lived and suffered longer that way.) Some of the miracles attributed to him seem plausible to me, knowing what I do of magic, while others seem ridiculously over the top (but of course I have no direct evidence against their occurrence, and my knowledge of magic is not absolute and infallible.) The historical Jesus is a big question mark. Most of the questions about him are simply unanswerable, including the question of whether there ever was such a person.

However, none of that matters for purposes of spirituality or religion, or anyway none of it should. Religion isn’t founded on history, but on myth. Jesus is an image of the divine impacting the world through a man. Connected with him are other images speaking of human potential, redemption, the universality of God, and the illusory nature of death. It is these images that matter, not any connection they may or may not have to history.

Having said that, I want now to explore the Christian and Muslim myths of Jesus (these are similar, but not identical) and then some cross-observations from the Gospels and from my own quirky understanding. For the remainder of this article, I’ll be speaking only of the myths of Jesus, and completely ignoring any historical questions for the irrelevance that they are.

The Christian Myths of Jesus

In Christian belief, the ancient Jewish prophecies of the Messiah to come foretold a time when God would be incarnate in human form, and would offer himself in sacrifice to himself to pay for humanity’s burden of sin. Jesus was the fulfillment of that prophecy. He was both God incarnate and the “son of God.” The latter, which seems to contradict the former at first glance, is resolved by a philosophical understanding of “the Son” as an aspect of the one God, as He is manifest in the world (where the Father is God in His transcendent aspect, and the Holy Spirit is God as He is manifest in the human heart). When he was crucified, the demand of the Law for blood sacrifice in atonement for sins was met and fulfilled for all time, rendering that demand null and void; he was both the working-out and the overcoming of the Fall of Man. When he rose from the dead, that was a sign that the power of death to destroy us is broken, and we are heirs to life eternal.

The Muslim Myths of Jesus

In Islam, as in Christianity, the Jewish prophecies of the Messiah foretold the coming of Jesus, but for Muslims the significance is different and a little less cosmic. The prophecies foretold a time when God would expand His covenant with the Children of Israel by entering into a new covenant with all of mankind. Jesus was God’s Messenger who brought the word of that new, expanded covenant. He brought the Word of God initially to the Jews, but the Jewish religious authorities rejected his message, as had been foretold, and by turning against God’s Messenger lost their special status as the chosen people of God. They arrested Jesus and condemned him to death, but God in His compassion and justice took the Prophet into Paradise and the traitor  Apostle, Judas Iscariot, was crucified in his place. Thereafter, Jesus’ disciples spread his message and the truth of the One God throughout all the world, but in time that message became corrupted with false ideas and the influence of power-hungry institutions, requiring that God send the Prophet Muhammad with a correction.

The Gospel Accounts

The three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) present a picture of a very holy and powerful man, but they also present some problems for the standard Christian view of Jesus (although perhaps not insuperable ones). They might also present some difficulties for the Muslim myths of Jesus except that Muslims don’t have the same reverence for the Gospels that Christians do and simply consider the accounts flawed and only partly true.

To begin, the Gospels have many passages which point to limitations of Jesus’ power and knowledge. He is depicted as neither omniscient nor omnipotent. For example, in Mark Chapter Six, Jesus returns to his hometown, and finds that the people there, who know him, are reluctant to accept him as a prophet. “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.” (6:5) The people’s lack of belief in him limited his power, which was much greater in other contexts. In Mark 8:22-25, Jesus’ first attempt to heal a blind man works imperfectly (“I see people; they look like trees walking around”), and he is required to make a second attempt, which works better. Another passage of this kind is Luke 8:40-48. In this passage, Jesus is walking in a crowd of people and a woman plagued with a vaginal hemorrhage touches him, and his power heals her. Jesus knows that power has gone out of him, but doesn’t know the particulars, and asks, “Who touched me?” His knowledge, like his power, is depicted as having limits.

There are also a number of passages in which Jesus expresses opinions which he then changes as a result of others’ arguments or persuasion. For example, in Mark 7:24-30, a Greek woman asks Jesus to “drive a demon” from her daughter. Jesus’ haughty reply is that he is come to the Children of Israel, and “it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” She replies that “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps,” and Jesus changes his mind and heals her daughter.

There is also at least one passage in which Jesus implicitly denies being God. That is found in Mark 10:18 and Luke 18:19, where someone has referred to him as “good master” or “good teacher,” and Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good — except God alone.”

On the surface, these passages might seem to uphold the Muslim myth of Jesus over the Christian one, in that Muslims see Jesus as a great and holy Prophet but not God incarnate. However, there are other passages in which Jesus seems to imply that God dwells within him, and also within others, and that is not in accord with Muslim beliefs.

Again, though, questions of who or what Jesus “really was” are not the point here. We can’t answer such questions. The point, rather, should be about the power of myth to prevail even over contradictions from what is supposedly holy writ. The Gospels (particularly the synoptic Gospels) were composed a long time before the Imperial Church was formed in 325, or the Nicene Creed articulated. The most logical interpretation of these passages is simply that their authors had a different idea of Jesus than the Church later taught. They did not try to depict him as God incarnate because the idea simply hadn’t occurred to them. Yet this idea is central to the practice of Christian religion, which involves the worship of Jesus as an image of God. And so, passages in the Gospels which are troubling for the idea are simply glossed over and ignored.

Jesus as an Image of God

Devotion to Jesus as God incarnate is similar to the Hindu practice of Bakhti Yoga, in which some image of God (perhaps a mythical God such as Vishnu or Shiva, but often an Avatar of Vishnu, which bears even greater resemblance to the Christian practice) is the focus of love and prayer. This brings the devotee closer to the divine. It creates an association, and so a magical link, between the devotee and a large part of the cosmos, ultimately the cosmos as a whole, seen through a mythic lens.

The important thing here is not Jesus’ divinity but that of his worshipers. Through love and devotion to Jesus as an image of God, the Christian worshiper makes a connection with his or her own inner divinity, and allows that divinity to manifest in his or her life and heart.

This is a powerful method of spiritual magic. There is nothing wrong with it as far as it goes. The potential problem arises when the devotion to Jesus as an image of God gives rise to a factual belief that Jesus was God in any historical sense — the usual claims of standard Christian theology. When that belief is self-focused, it acts benignly, opening the worshiper’s heart to the divine and facilitating the raising of consciousness. When it becomes other-focused, however, it turns diabolical, giving rise to claims that non-Christians are worshiping false gods, and, when conjoined with political power, to witch-hunts, inquisitions, and crusades.

Can Christianity in some form survive to form a part of the spirituality of the advanced civilization we are evolving into? If so, it will be through recognizing the value of myth, and the fact that myth is precisely what Jesus is. As myth, he is a part of our spiritual heritage and should be a treasured part. The problems only arise when the myth is falsely — and irrelevantly — asserted to be history.

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More Thoughts on Contemporary Fantasy

musingsContemporary fantasy is fantasy set in our own world — or at least, it starts in our world, the world of the current year or something close to it, with history that is the same as our own history. Barack Obama is President of the United States, Apple is trying to suppress Android phones through the patent process, unrest is happening in various parts of the Middle East, the Republicans in Congress shut down the government and ended up having to cave, and so on. Characters speak in current vernacular and wear today’s clothes. They drive cars, and they have computers, tablets, smart phones; they hold jobs in retail, sales, game design, accounting; they are soldiers, police, firefighters; they are, in short, modern people.

Contemporary fantasy starts with our own world and then adds fantasy elements: gods, devils, and superbeings; magic; quasi-humans; marvelous things. How much and what kind of these fantasy elements varies from story to story, but there’s another way to look at the variations in contemporary fantasy based on just how much disruption the fantasy elements cause in the world where we live, and whether it remains recognizable as the same world, or is changed in some way.

I tend to dislike going too far into subgenres for fantasy, and the more so into sub-sub-genres. Contemporary fantasy is itself a subgenre, and I think it works, but I find myself digging in my heels and resisting categorizing it into “urban fantasy,”  “paranormal romance,” and the like, which ends up being overly formulaic and the literary equivalent of painting by numbers.

So I’m a little reluctant to start parsing and subdividing the general category of contemporary fantasy, and yet it does seem to me that there is enough variation in the potential (and actual) stories to be told in our own world with fantasy elements added, that dealing with some of this variation is called for. So: please take the remainder of this post under advisement as broad-brush suggestions, but don’t allow yourself to be pigeonholed either as a reader or as a writer. The interaction of fantasy elements with our own world can be thought of in terms of a spectrum from least to greatest visible impact. What I describe below are two endpoints and a midpoint of this spectrum.

The fantasy elements are hidden from the public, and/or most people are in denial about them.

Fantasy elements, or at least the more extravagant ones, aren’t part of our collective view of reality. You won’t find werewolves, vampires, real live Norse gods, or sorcerers appearing in the evening news. You don’t walk down a city street at night fearing that you may be lured into an alley and drained of life essence by a succubus, or attend an antique auction hoping to find a dusty jar containing a genie who will grant three wishes. If this sort of thing happens in our world, it goes under the radar for most people. Only a few — including the protagonists of the story, obviously — are aware of the strange and wonderful and frightening things that happen in the shadows where most folks fear to gaze.

In this thrust or version of contemporary fantasy, the world as we know it goes on with nothing changed as far as the majority of people are concerned. The characters of the story encounter (or do) incredible things, but none of it gets reported in the evening news, and the fantasy elements aren’t part of normal waking consciousness for anyone but a select few. They happen underground, between the cracks, in the shadows, out of sight and out of mind.

A lot of vampire stories are like this. So are stories about secret orders of magicians, mysterious kingdoms under the sea or in hidden mountain valleys, and intrusions into our world from the Land of Faerie (or equivalent) that are known only to the initiates.

Creating a fantasy story this way has advantages and also some obvious limits. Advantages come in the form of verisimilitude, the ability to concentrate on the story itself without having to take time familiarizing the reader with the world and society in which it takes place, and the potential to tap into our own highly complex, fast-paced, and fascinating society for non-fantasy elements to incorporate into the story. The limits are that none of the fantasy elements can be visible enough to compel public acknowledgement by scientists, journalists, politicians, and the like. One technique that’s commonly employed is to have the fantasy elements or their wielders be highly motivated to keep their existence a secret from the world. Their powers and abilities themselves become employed to preserve the secrecy in that case.

My own Star Mages trilogy represents something of an extreme example of this type of contemporary fantasy, in its first two volumes anyway. The mages of the Star and Crystal wielded extraordinary powers, but the empowering talismans themselves did not permit the powers to operate while anyone outside the orders was watching.

Other examples of this kind of contemporary fantasy can be found in many published books, movies, and TV shows. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series featured powerful wizards whose existence wasn’t recognized by the public, an order of vampires that controlled virtually the entire Third World without official notice, and on-the-fringes operation by other types of vampires, werewolves, faeries, and other fantasy elements. Anne Rice’s vampire books flowed in the same vein, with the vampires known to one another and to secret societies such as the Talamasca, but hidden from public awareness. Fantasy TV series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, The Secret Circle, and many others operate in the same vein, with the main characters knowing about and having contact with elements of reality that are hidden from most people.

The world knows about the fantasy elements, and it will never be the same.

A storyteller can depart from the strictly-our-world motif in contemporary fantasy if the fantasy elements become known or have a visible impact on society. This type of fantasy is set in a world that used to be identical to our own, but the revelation of fantasy elements has changed it in some way. A good example of this is perhaps Kim Harrison’s Inderland books, where much of the human race has been killed off by a runaway virus, and in the aftermath witches, demons, werewolves, vampires, etc. have come out in the open. This is still contemporary fantasy in that it includes and incorporates elements of our own modern world (technology, politics, social institutions, and so on), but it is set in a changed world rather than our own world.

This is in some respects an easier sort of tale to tell than one in which strict secrecy is preserved, but in other ways somewhat harder. It’s easier because no artificial restraints have to be imposed on the fantasy elements to prevent people from learning of their existence. It’s harder because of the greater difficulty in making the story believable, and because there’s more world-building necessary in order to accommodate the changes to society from finding out that real sorcerers, vampires, gods, demons, or faeries exist.

One story that, so far, has seldom been told, or at least not in any recent variations, is the story of the revelation itself. Suppose that the Aztec god Tlaloc were to make an appearance in Mexico City and impose a drought, demanding human sacrifices before he would allow the rain to fall. The protagonists would undertake a quest to find some power capable of opposing Tlaloc’s blood-lust, while descendants of the original Aztec priesthood emerge from the shadows and form a new cult, seeking sacrificial victims and planning to rip their hearts out on a holy day coming in a few months’ time. Meanwhile, what happens in the wider world? Panic? Do police attempt to arrest the rain god? Do Mexican politicians campaign against him? Do priests attempt to exorcise him? What occurs as a result of these things?

A lot of good stories could be found around this idea.

The world has been changed beyond all recognition by the fantasy elements.

The other extreme comes when the fantasy elements have such an overwhelming impact that the entire character of our world is changed forever. In effect, this kind of story ceases to be contemporary fantasy and becomes an other-world fantasy that is set in what used to be our world, which departs from the norm of other-world fantasy only in that elements of our world may be recovered either as working artifacts or as history that impacts current culture.

A good example of this type of fantasy is S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire series. In this series, for reasons that are ultimately revealed as fantasy-element-related, all advanced technology ceases to function, most of mankind starves to death, and the bulk of the story concerns the survivors in their new, low-tech societies. Fantasy elements emerge almost from the beginning in the increased magical power available to the Wiccan characters and others, and become more pronounced as the series continues. The world of the story is very far from our own world, but many of the characters (all of them in the beginning) were born and raised in contemporary society and have memories, attitudes, and knowledge appropriate to that upbringing.

Post-apocalyptic fiction of any kind where fantasy elements predominate is this kind of quasi-contemporary fantasy. Any story in which the slate is wiped clean, and the world transformed by fantasy elements so much that it becomes an other-world fantasy that happens here, falls into this extreme end of the spectrum.

In general

Contemporary fantasy is about what happens when fantasy elements impact the world we live in. How much impact the fantasy elements have, from minimal and invisible at one extreme to world-transforming or world-demolishing at the other, shapes the background to the story. Anywhere along the spectrum can provide the setting for a good story.

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A Little More on Taboos — and Censorship

15574703_sI observed two events today in the world of publishing and book distribution that alarm and offend me.

First, it appears that Kobo has removed all directly self-published titles and many of the titles distributed by third parties (such as Smashwords and Draft2Digital) from its UK e-store. This was done in response to complaints about erotica being sold through that store. Apparently it’s only the UK store that’s involved here, so Kobo outlets in other countries including the U.S. are still carrying self-published titles.

Second, and a bit more disturbing because the distributor is much bigger than Kobo, Amazon appears to be engaged in its own overreaction to complaints about erotica, or certain kinds of erotica. An author of erotica I’m aware of has seen a book pulled by Amazon because it had a title that was suggestive of incest (even though that’s not the subject of the book).

Our culture is in the end stages of a transition from one paradigm of sexual morality to a new one. It’s not difficult to confuse that conflict between the old and new paradigms with the much older and in some ways more basic conflict between any set of sexual taboos (old or new) and freedom of speech and expression. Advocates of the new sexual morality are just as prone, it would seem, to excessive zeal and to imposing unacceptable restraints on freedom of speech as advocates of the old one ever were. To a creative person, to someone who values artistic liberty, this is not made any more tolerable by the fact that I agree with their views on sexual morality as such. These people may not be objecting to the expression of sexuality itself; they may not have the idea that women should be virgins until marriage or that sex in itself is obscene; they may not attempt to ban all expression of homosexuality. Their objections — as applied to actual sexual behavior — to treating women (or men) as objects, to exploitation of teenage children, to the abuses of the sex trade, to incest, and in general to abuses of power in connection with sex, may in my opinion be well-taken. I may agree with them completely as far as actual sexual behavior is concerned.

But that doesn’t change the fact that they make themselves enemies of art, of creativity, of the imagination, and of freedom itself, by attempting to restrain creative expression according to the same rules that apply to actual behavior.

Censorship was not abhorrent in the past merely because the standards applied to censor books, movies, and other creative expression were outdated and inappropriate to today’s world. It was also abhorrent because censorship is always abhorrent. It is not less abhorrent when applied to creative works that describe things which are forbidden by our modern, up-to-date taboos.

After all, we have plenty of ideas about wrongful behavior that have nothing to do with sex. Crime. War. Murder. Corporate greed. Religious intolerance. Would it be appropriate to censor books containing descriptions of that sort of wrongful behavior? Should we ban all detective fiction because it includes nasty behavior on the part of criminals? Should no war novel ever again be published?

But when it comes to sex, some people seem to see nothing wrong with using whatever tools they can to silence talk, to ban books, to put the creative imagination in shackles. No artist should tolerate this, not in the past, not now, not ever.

We are protected by the First Amendment in the United States, and by parallel laws in most other advanced nations, from fear that the government will impose censorship. But nothing in the law protects us against censorship by corporations engaged in the publication or distribution of art, in response to demands by the neo-Puritans among us. Unless we protect ourselves, by demanding that freedom of speech and expression be held as more precious to us than sexual purity, even according to modern standards incorporating feminism and gay rights.

We are in many ways living in a golden age of art. The Internet, electronic communication, self-publishing not only of the written word but of the visual arts and music as well, these free artists from the control of those who want to exploit them. But this freedom is not invulnerable. It must be protected.

Next week: More on contemporary fantasy, as I originally intended to write this week before I became sidetracked (or sideswiped) by outrage.

Image credit: subbotina / 123RF Stock Photo

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Reality, Taboos, and Denial

The Flirtation

There’s a myth that when Parliament passed a law criminalizing homosexuality during the reign of Queen Victoria, she refused to sign the bill until references to lesbianism had been removed from it, stating “women wouldn’t do such things.”

The story is untrue about the queen (for one thing, by Victoria’s time the monarch’s power to veto acts of Parliament was already an on-paper power that was never, never used), but it’s true that the Labouchere Amendment of 1885 outlawed only male homosexuality. Exactly why that is so is unknown, but it seems that the idea of outlawing lesbianism never crossed Labouchere’s mind. Some speculate that Parliament kept silence on female gay sex to avoid drawing women’s attention to the possibility.

Be that as it may — whether in Victorian times or modern times, we have taboos surrounding sexual behavior. They aren’t the same taboos in all cases or in all times, but they certainly exist. In mainstream society we no longer condemn homosexuality, male or female, and so we’re no longer in denial about its existence. We still condemn rape and we still condemn infidelity in a committed relationship. We condemn adults having sex with teenagers, whether consensual or otherwise. We condemn sexual harassment and sexual discrimination. (These are new taboos.) Sex being a powerful and potentially dangerous activity, it’s necessary to have boundaries and regulations around it, and so all cultures have some taboos or other in connection with sex.

It’s one thing, though, to recognize this need and to place boundaries and restrictions, enforced by social convention and in extreme cases by law, around sex. It’s another thing entirely to pretend that the behavior we condemn doesn’t exist, or that the impulse to engage in it is a propensity only of a few scumbags and most of us are innocent of such inclinations.

This subject came up in a discussion in social media about a secondary character in my soon-to-be-published novel Refuge Volume One: The Order Master. The character is Emily Russell, a 13-year-old girl with a troubled past who becomes a fierce magical prodigy. (You can be introduced to Emily in Chapter Four of the book, which you can read here.) In one scene, Mike Cambridge, the main protagonist, is troubled by the fact that he finds himself sexually attracted to Emily despite the fact that she’s a child barely into her teens, and more troubled by the fact that she is also attracted to him and tries to seduce him. Needless to say — or maybe not — he doesn’t act on the attraction, but he does feel it. I had one beta reader comment that she found it hard to believe a grown man could find himself physically attracted to a 13-year-old girl.

I always take such objections seriously. I know that there are quite a few girls that age that look older, look like young women, and could very easily incite sexual desire, but if this is not universally known I needed to tweak the story a bit so that Emily’s early blooming is acknowledged. I made a post to a writer’s discussion group on social media asking for comments and suggestions. The problem itself was easily enough dealt with, but in the course of discussion other things came up, essentially denying that adults could be attracted to young teenagers (ever!), and that young teenagers could never attempt to seduce adults (even more ever!), and saying that a writer who included such elements in a story would find himself confined to the adult-fiction limbo.

And this prompted the current post.

I remember also a discussion I had once on a different forum regarding sexual fidelity in marriage. I’m not particularly a believer in monogamy myself, but I recognize that many people (probably most) are, and that’s fine. But the discussion and disagreement was with a woman who insisted, not only that her husband had never cheated on her (believable) but that he had never even felt any inclination to do so or any physical attraction to another woman (absurd). Her husband himself came into the discussion to deny that he had ever felt any desire for any other woman, and was quite rude about it. (Gotta love the Internet.) (My suspicion is that he was adamant about this because his wife would feel betrayed to know that he had ever felt any such attraction — as if it was avoidable.)

I’m a firm believer in realism in fiction, aside from genre conventions that deliberately warp reality. I write fantasy, so of course I include those warped elements. The Order Master includes reincarnated aliens, for example, and some remarkable feats of magic. But in every area that isn’t shifted by such fantasy elements, I feel an obligation to depict reality as accurately as possible. This is particularly the case when a story is set, as The Order Master is, in our own modern world.

So let’s be clear on a few things in refutation of denial.

Sexual attraction of adults for children younger than puberty is a perverse aberration, but sexual attraction of adults for teenagers — people who are sexually capable even though we don’t consider them emotionally mature or legally adult — is universal, or nearly so, and those two attractions should not be confused with each other just because of legal conventions or cultural taboos. A girl in her teens is capable of bearing, and a boy in his teens of siring, children, and we are programmed by thousands of generations of natural selection to find this state of affairs attractive. What’s more, teenagers who have reached puberty are a boiling mass of hormones, and they are certainly going to find adults sexually attractive, as much as (or more than) they do one another. (There’s a reason why pre-modern societies often got people married in their teens, girls especially.)

Today’s sexual morality is based on respect and mutual consent, and we as a culture have decided that young teenagers are incapable of giving responsible consent to sex. There is something to be said for this position as a way to protect children from exploitation by unscrupulous and uncaring adults. However, that does not change the reality of sexual attraction. We have rules like this not because we don’t want to break them, but because we do, and need the restriction to prevent us from doing so. As adults, we should not act on any attraction we feel for teenagers. But it’s absurd to suggest that we shouldn’t feel that attraction, and even more absurd to insist that we don’t.

Similarly, a committed monogamous relationship does not stop its participants from feeling sexual desire for people other than their respective partners. If they are responsible and disciplined, they will not act on any extraneous attraction they feel. But it doesn’t help matters one bit to deny that the attraction exists from time to time.

And so as a writer I resist calls to make Emily a few years older, or to remove references to her attraction to Mike or his attraction to her. It would have been equally unrealistic to make Mike act on the attraction (he’s a bit of a stiff prude, actually, so that would have been completely out of character for him), and would also have introduced a plot complication I didn’t want. But while having the desire go unconsummated was perfectly plausible, having it not exist, given Emily’s situation and the physical description of both characters, was not. To depict this mutual attraction in a realistic manner is in no sense to endorse adults getting it on with 13-year-olds. It’s simply presenting emotional reality as it exists in the real world, instead of modern-Puritanical make-believe.

If that costs me a few readers here and there, so be it.

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