Southern Baptists hit the highways — again

dbc buses lineThe year was 1979, the place was the Astrodome in Houston and, for legions of Southern Baptists on the left side of the nation’s largest non-Catholic flock, what took place there forever changed how they looked at church buses.

Church buses? You know, those slow-moving vans and school buses that you pass on highways during the summer-choir-tour and youth-camp season that have church names hand-painted on their sides.

The old ruling elite of the Southern Baptist Convention was in firm control until church buses started rolling into the Astrodome parking lots packed with “messengers” — the convention does not have “delegates” — from churches that wanted to see their national boards and seminaries take a strong turn to the right. It was a landmark event in the history of American evangelicalism and the rise of what would soon be called the Religious Right. The buses were crucial, because they allowed thousands of Southern Baptists who had never played a role in convention politics to roll into the city on the day of the vote and swing the election. How many Baptists live within a six-hour drive of Houston? You don’t want to know.

I bring this up for a simple reasons. It appears that waves of church buses played a major role in the surprise election of the Rev. Frank S. Page of Taylors, S.C., as the new leader of the nation’s 16 million or so Southern Baptists during the current meetings in Greensboro, N.C. How many Southern Baptists are there in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia? You don’t want to know. It also pays to know that these states contain a high percentage of Southern Baptists who are conservative, but not as wedded to the new ruling elite that traces its reign to the events of 1979.

The New York Times sent reporter John DeSantis to cover the convention and, in a short report, he captured some of what went down. He also did a good job of avoiding the usual labels used in this kind of coverage — “moderate” and “fundamentalist.” Truth is, it appears that this election turned on factors other than the usual wars over the Bible and social issues. Here is the key section of that story:

… Page and his supporters said his election, on the first ballot on the first full day of the annual meeting of convention, did not mean that the nation’s largest Protestant denomination would change its views on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion that the three candidates generally opposed. “I do not want anyone to think I am out to undo a conservative movement,” Dr. Page told reporters after his election. …

Page said although his election did not mean that the church was moderating, it certainly meant that change was in the wind. “I believe in the Word of God,” he said. “I am just not mad about it. Too long Baptists have been known for what we are against. Please let us tell you what we are for.”

The Times report also noted that Page drew stronger than suspected support — think church buses again — from people who have previously been on the fringes of the convention’s life.

bus mirrorThis is one of those cases where the nation’s newspaper of record simply could not offer the kind of nuanced reporting that readers would find in niche media. This is especially true for Southern Baptists, since this giant body is actually served by two wire services — Baptist Press (click here for a Page Q&A), representing the establishment, and Associated Baptist Press, which is operated by the progressives, “moderates” or, in some cases, true liberals who have been pushed to the margins since 1979.

The ABP report by veteran Greg Warner includes some fascinating details. The losing candidates, for example, had strong endorsements from the aging leaders of the 1979 movement. Is there division there now?

It is also crucial that only 11,346 messengers were registered at the time of the vote to elect the new president. This meant that voters in the region — driving in from nearby churches to vote for a South Carolinian — were in a position to swing the election.

And Warner also caught this crucial detail about the role of cyberspace:

Page agreed the bloggers, a new phenomenon in SBC politics, made a difference. While the bloggers are few in number, he said, “I think there are a large number of leaders who do read those blogs. I think they played a role beyond their number — perhaps an inordinant amount of influence given their number — but they are a growing phenomenon in Southern Baptist life.”

So two kinds of highways were crucial — concrete and digital. Outsiders have more clout when they have their own printing presses (so to speak).

This election was a blend of the past and the future. Stay tuned.

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Preachers and pornographers unite

remoteKudos to The Washington Post for picking up this Religion News Service article by Piet Levy on the problems religious broadcasters see with à la carte cable plans. The subject has been around for awhile. It has received heavy coverage in publications such as National Journal‘s Technology Daily and a segment on NPR’s On the Media, but mainstream press coverage has been scant.

It’s an excellent look into how Washington lobbying works. You would think that religious broadcasters would be thrilled with the idea of consumers being able to choose what cable channels they receive, but this is surprisingly not the case:

The fear among Christian broadcasters is that a proposal to allow consumers to reject MTV or Comedy Central would also allow them to drop the Trinity Broadcasting Network or Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. Cutting off that access could hurt religious broadcasters.

“We do not believe that ‘a la carte’ is the cure for the disease,” said Colby May, attorney for the Faith and Family Broadcasting Coalition, which represents Trinity and CBN, in addition to other stations. “In fact, it is a cure that may very well kill the patient.”

Evangelical and family groups support the concept of “a la carte” cable legislation, which would allow cable users to subscribe only to the networks of their choice.

The article does an adequate job of explaining the two cable channels’ fears other than possibly losing viewers. Religious broadcasters are worried that they will end up “witnessing to the choir” and that channel-surfers will lose out on conversion experiences.

cable dishThis is definitely a concern, but what to do about viewers who want to receive family-friendly channels such as ESPN and CNN but want to avoid FX, Spike TV and Comedy Central? Well, here’s the answer:

“That’s why we have remote controls,” [Michael Goodman, media analyst for the Yankee Group] said. “If you don’t want to see it, turn the channel. Or if you really don’t want to see it, use the parental controls.”

But [Lanier Swann of Concerned Women for America] said because many children are more tech-savvy than their parents, it is simply not enough. Besides, she said, the main problem is that cable subscribers are required to pay for material that they find objectionable.

In an effort to appease critics, the two main cable providers, Time Warner and Comcast, announced “family tier” packages late last year that carry only what they construe to be family-appropriate stations, such as the Disney Channel, Discovery Kids, the Food Network and CNN Headline News. But the critics are still upset.

“The ‘family tier’ system is a straw man designed to fail,” Swann said. “. . . I don’t think we need the same individuals who promote, produce and air the type of programming we’re trying to avoid to be allowed to define what is family-friendly.”

I wonder whether FX and Spike TV are equally concerned. I would think they wouldn’t have the same “preaching to the choir” concerns, but are they worried about losing audiences?

As a consumer I want to control what I pay for. I don’t like paying for Lifetime and the other two dozen channels I never watch, but I also understand the concerns of the television evangelists, not only from a financial perspective, but also from a, well, evangelistic perspective.

I guess the next question is whether government policy is supposed to be directed to support religious goals. President Bush’s much heralded faith-based initiatives would seem to say that yes, government action can encourage religious activity, but I know more than a few groups that would strongly disagree with that ideology.

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Where did all the men go (again)?

church impotentThere are some news stories that simply cannot be written in 600 to 1,000 words.

Take, for example the Religion News Service report that The Washington Post ran titled “Empty Pews: Where Did All The Men Go? Gender Gap Threatens Churches’ Future.” (By the way, should that headline be “Churches’ Futures” or even “Church’s Future”?) The article was written by reporters Kristen Campbell and Adelle M. Banks, the latter of whom is a friend and has spoken many times in the journalism program that I lead at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

The gender gap in American pews is, in fact, a big story and one that has been written many times. Click here for an example in The Wall Street Journal. The RNS piece begins with the work of David Murrow, author of the book Why Men Hate Going to Church. He notes that when it comes to working with men, many American churches simply cannot seem to get the job done.

The gender gap is not a distinctly American one but it is a Christian one, according to Murrow. The theology and practices of Judaism, Buddhism and Islam offer “uniquely masculine” experiences for men, he said.

“Every Muslim man knows that he is locked in a great battle between good and evil, and although that was a prevalent teaching in Christianity until about 100 years ago, today it’s primarily about having a relationship with a man who loves you unconditionally,” Murrow said. “And if that’s the punch line of the Gospel, then you’re going to have a lot more women than men taking you up on your offer because women are interested in a personal relationship with a man who loves you unconditionally. Men, generally, are not.”

The article goes on to talk about the rise of the Promise Keepers movement and other mainstream attempts to reach out to men. What the article does not do — perhaps due to reasons of length — is ask questions about why this trend affects some churches more than others. In other words, are there cultural and even doctrinal issues hidden in this gender-gap story?

Like what kinds of issues? That is where the controversial work of author Leon J. Podles kicks in, including his controversial (yes, I used that word twice) book The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity. Click here to read an essay that states his basic thesis, taken from the ecumenical journal Touchstone.

Church attendance in the United States is about 60 percent female and 40 percent male. The more liberal the denomination, the higher the percentage of females. Fundamentalists are almost evenly divided, but the only religions that sometimes show a majority of men are Eastern Orthodoxy, Orthodox Judaism, Islam, and Eastern religions such as Buddhism. Men say they believe in God as much as women do, but the more Christian a practice or belief becomes, the fewer men will own up to it. Men go to church less than women do, they pray far less than women do, and they believe in the afterlife and heaven and hell far less than women do.

MurrowI should, at this point, stress that Podles is a traditional Roman Catholic. I say that for a simple reason: Many readers of this blog know that I am Eastern Orthodox and might assume that this bias makes me favor his work. Frankly, that is one reason I started paying attention to what he had to say. But I soon realized that he had larger fish to fry, fish linked to news stories other than the gender-gap trend.

Podles is convinced that something has gone wrong with Christianity in the West — period. Although he is a Roman Catholic, his questions about trends in his own church are, at times, brutally honest. Hang on to something as you read this:

Western Christianity has become part of the feminine world from which men feel they must distance themselves to attain masculinity. That is why men stay away from church, especially when they see that the men involved in church tend to be less masculine. The most religious denominations, those that have the most external display, have the worst reputation. Anglo-Catholics were lambasted in the Victorian press as unmanly because they devoted themselves to lace and plaster statues (in some cases, this criticism was justified). Psychological studies have detected a connection between femininity in men and interest in religion. There may even be a physical difference.

External display? So why do some churches heavy on incense, candles and liturgy attract men (Eastern Orthodoxy), while others (think high-church Anglicanism and some Roman parishes) seem to drive men away? Why are African American churches 80 percent female? What can churches do to draw men to activities on days other than Sunday? Are the factors Podles worried about linked, somehow, to the declining number of Roman Catholic priests? The questions go on and on.

Like I said: This is a big story or the hook for many big stories. Very few of them fit neatly into 1,000 words. This may be a job for The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly.

P.S. Amy Welborn and Rod Dreher are blogging on the same topic today.

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Who’s missing from the big picture?

aslan eyeLet me (during a short break in my D.C. meetings) jump up on a soapbox for a minute.

Is Entertainment Weekly a news publication? Probably not, but it is published by a news organization and it has some pages in the front of each issue called “news.” The current issue has one of those trendy annotated list/feature stories by reporter Tim Stack titled “Claw Power: The top ten franchise characters in movies — Wolverine, Madea and Jigsaw are only some of the heroes and villians that attract audiences.”

The article never clearly defines its terms, which left me to assume — a bad word in journalism — that the goal of the article was to describe the characters at the heart of current Hollywood movie franchises, movie series that have potential to roll on for some time into the future making the big bucks.

The man at the top of the list is currently ruling global theater screens:

Despite some negative prerelease buzz, mixed reviews, and a furry blue Kelsey Grammer in a leather vest, X-Men: The Last Stand demolished Memorial Day box office records with a huge $122.9 million domestic four-day gross. It’s the latest impressive haul for a franchise that just keeps getting bigger: In 2000, the first X-Men pulled in $157.7 million total, while 2003′s X2 took home $214.9 million. With The Last Stand this X trilogy has come to an end, but the film’s best-known character, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), is set to live on in a highly anticipated spin-off, which could spawn sequels of its own. That’s why the blade-bearing mutant tops our list of film’s most powerful characters.

Notice that there appear to be two key factors linked to the meaning of this “franchise” term — (1) big box office and (2) the ability to produce more sequels. In other words, EW says it wants success right now and solid potential for success in the future.

Thus, Harry Potter is No. 2 and Spider-Man is No. 3. Shrek falls to No. 4. Shrek 3 is on the way, but beyond that? What is the source material for Shrek 7?

The rest of the list gets kind of strange (read the article for the explanations of each):

(5) Robert Langdon (with or without the hair of Tom Hanks)

(6) Jason Bourne

(7) James Bond

(8) Jigsaw

(9) Bart Simpson (fading on TV, first movie on the way)

(10) Madea

Aslan Lion Narnia MovieActually, I would have rated Perry’s “trash-talking senior citizen” higher in the list, in part because of her cost-to-box-office ratio. Clearly, there is a niche out there for African American humor that has some sense of (how to say this) faith and funky family values. I also get the impression that Perry is tapping a very deep personal well of creativity.

But I digress.

Take a look at that No. 2 slot — Mr. Harry Potter. Now, I love these books and think the movies are OK. The fourth movie was a smash and brought in $290,013,036 in domestic box office. That’s a strong total, and few doubt that the final three movies will do likewise.

But what if you had a franchise character that brought in $291,710,957 in its opening movie? What if the character was at the heart of a beloved, classic seven-book series that sold roughly 100 million copies in the second half of the 20th century?

With six books to go, could we say that this character has solid box-office potential? If the first film topped that No. 2 franchise, might not this new franchise character at least make it onto the list? Somewhere?

Who is missing from this list? Why is he — or even He — missing? Why doesn’t this pop-news article in EW play by its own rules?

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Post: Christian conservatives usually look like this

angerLibby Copeland’s 2,500-word profile of Sen. Sam Brownback thoroughly analyzes his religious views. Titled “Faith-Based Intitiative: Presidential Hopeful Sam Brownback Strives to Be Humble Enough for a Higher Power,” the piece is all religion, all the time.

And because I know very little about Brownback, I’m unsure whether he really is as folksy, non-threatening and, well, slightly weird as she makes him out to be. The piece is puffy and Copeland seems a bit taken with Brownback. She’s goes to great lengths to point out how much Brownback prays for his enemies, how he apologized to Sen. Hillary Clinton for thinking hateful thoughts about her, how he worried about his stereotyping Copeland as a liberal because she’s a reporter. For The Washington Post. (You have to admit it’s funny that he says that to her and she puts it in her story.)

But there is a paragraph in the piece that says nothing about Brownback and everything about Copeland.

Because of his emphasis on compassion, Brownback does not fit the stereotype of the angry Christian conservative. This persona was embodied sensationally by “Pitchfork Pat” Buchanan and his talk of America’s “religious war,” by Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who once imagined “rampant” lesbianism in his state’s schools, by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who said abortionists, feminists, gays and pagans helped cause the 9/11 terror attacks. (Falwell later took it back.)

Well, if the Post‘s stereotype of Christian conservatives is that they are angry and are described best by bizarre outliers and uncharitable caricatures, then I guess Brownback doesn’t fit! I wonder if there are any other Christian conservatives — other than this Brownback fellow — who deviate from the Falwell model?

I know it was in the Style section, but when do reporters there get to stop using that as an excuse?

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Attention Dr. James Dobson (and team)

arthur sulzberger 200x220Here’s another link that I thought I had lost. Don’t you just know that quotes from this blue-zip-code commencement address by Arthur Sulzberger Jr. are going to be showing up in, oh, Focus on the Family fundraising letters for weeks, months and even years ahead? Click here to see what I’m talking about.

The big quote is his Baby Boomer apology to the graduates for the state of their world and even American culture.

You just know that the critics of The New York Times and, sadly, many of the critics of journalism, period, are going to say that it is a kind of blue creed for news coverage (as opposed to content on those holy writ editorial pages):

So, well, sorry. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. You weren’t supposed to be graduating into an America fighting a misbegotten war in a foreign land.

You weren’t supposed to be graduating into a world where we are still fighting for fundamental human rights, be it the rights of immigrants to start a new life; the rights of gays to marry; or the rights of women to choose.

Parse that.

Many will say that there is absolutely nothing surprising in this statement. It is the mindset of the institution he leads, they will say. Is that true? Is that newsroom marching lockstep on moral and cultural issues? Is that good for the product and its potential in a national marketplace?

OK, I highlighted the obvious quotation. Readers — on left and right — what do you see and how will the usual suspects spin it?

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666 ridiculousness

666The idea of doing a post on the fact that today is June 6, 2006, and that somehow has religious significance made my head hurt due to its absolute silliness, and my colleagues suggested that I list six reasons why this is the case. Feel free to contribute your own reasons for agreeing or disagreeing.

But first, a quick rundown of the news articles: here is a BBC article on what I guess is a legitimate news event and another on that wonderful little Michigan town dubbed “Hell” and its celebrations. And Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch took a look at a wide range of issues.

With that, here are the reasons 666 stories hurt my head:

  1. 666 is just a number. It is the sum of the squares of the first seven prime numbers, if you were interested.
  2. People commonly associate 666 with the “Number of the Beast” mentioned in Revelation 13:17-18. The text does not mention June 6, 2006. The current calendar was not used when Revelation was written. I also doubt they abbreviated their dates the way we do.
  3. Some people believe the “Number of the Beast” is actually 616. Nevertheless, there is still no significance to 6/6/06.
  4. If you are going to do articles on people doing things to make 6/6/06 significant, please do articles on why people are visiting the slots on 7/7/07. Wait, that’s dumb, don’t do that. While I’m at it, reporters writing on this should do an article on my favorite day of the year, November 11, and talk about how I enjoy watching my digital clock show all ones at 11:11 a.m.
  5. In Unix a file permission of 666 grants all users read and write permissions on the file. Apple’s first computer, the Apple I, was priced at $666.66. I think Apple computers are great. So are iPods.
  6. In Chinese, 666 sounds similar to the word meaning “Things going smoothly.” People pay extra in China to get 666 in their cell-phone digits.

All reporters writing about the significance of 6/6/06 must include and ask questions relating to these six reasons for me to do a follow-up post. They must also get serious answers from those making the news because there are more important things to write about in this world. But if questions like that are asked, reporters will realize the silliness of 6/6/06 stories and my head will stop hurting.

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Joy and sorrow unfolding online

angel05It has been hard to know what to write about the news coverage of the mysterious and tragic case of the switched identities of Taylor University students Whitney Cerak and Laura VanRyn.

On one level, the story was simply too close and too overwhelming. Please understand that my temporary office here at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities is, literally, next door to our organization’s media team. Taylor University is a very active member of this global network of schools, and almost everyone who works here has friends and colleagues at that grief-stricken institution. So we were closely watching all the events that followed the original crash. Then came the revelation of the mistaken identities.

On one level, it is understandable that so many newspapers and networks downplayed the religious element of this story, other than mentioning that Taylor is an evangelical Protestant school. The story was so complex and confusing that it was hard to cover the basic facts and keep them straight and, of course, many questions remain unanswered. I guess the USA Today banner story is as good an example as any of the basic story template. It covered the details of what happened, then ended this way:

The Ceraks’ joy was mixed with sympathy for the VanRyns. … “Our families are supporting each other in prayer, and we thank our families, friends and communities for their prayers,” the families’ statement said.

In the cemetery where Laura’s body was buried five weeks ago, the temporary nameplate that had marked the future spot of Whitney’s headstone was removed Wednesday. It was unclear when Laura’s casket would be exhumed and taken 175 miles south for burial near Grand Rapids.

On their blog Thursday, Laura’s family cited Psalms 18: “In my distress I call to the Lord; I cry to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice. … He reached down from on high and took hold of me.”

The family added: “This is our prayer this morning. God’s Word is sufficient, no matter what your circumstance.”

That article included input from the Detroit Free Press and, as several GetReligion readers noted in private emails, it was that newspaper’s religion columnist who actually attempted to wade into this whirlpool of joy and grief. Columnist David Crumm recognized that this story was, in a very real sense, unfolding on the Internet and he went there to find what people were saying and feeling.

The starting point — the place where the mistaken identity story first broke — was at the website dedicated to Laura VanRyn and to her recovery. When the family discovered what had actually happened, the site told the emerging story of Whitney’s recovery and the VanRyn family’s efforts to cope with their confusion and grief.

Here is one posting from the site, as published in the Free Press:

Your testimony of Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is the greatest honor you could bestow on Laura’s life. Thank you for living the life, despite circumstances. Laura is looking down from heaven right now and is so proud of you all as is our Savior. You have inspired us all to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Thank you for representing our Lord Jesus Christ and bringing glory to Him through this circumstance.

– Anonymous

Crumm also noted that Taylor had opened an online forum to allow people to voice their prayers online — leading directly to a column on that topic.

This tale of mistaken identities is a mystery, a medical thriller, a family drama — but, at the heart of it for the families of Whitney Cerak and Laura VanRyn, it’s a spiritual story of communities reaching around the globe to support them.

Prayer usually is invisible, but not in this case, thanks to a forum at an Internet site — — hosted by Taylor University, the evangelical Christian college in Indiana attended by the young women. Since the crash on April 26, more than 1,000 prayers have been posted.

vanryn cerakPeople from around the world have posted prayers at the site, including notes from Taylor alumni who have spread out in a network of ministry and work.

Crumm noted that people were clearly struggling to find some way to respond that recognized both the joy in one family and the sorrow in another. Counselors admitted that they did not know how they would handle this combination of emotions and the spiritual questions that would follow in their wake.

Milford funeral director and author Thomas Lynch said any spiritual counselor would find it difficult to help families sort out such a situation. “It’s so perplexing,” Lynch said. “One would be tempted to say there’s a miracle that a lost daughter is alive, but does the other family then turn to the book of Job to learn about how bad suffering can get? This is very difficult all around.”

Beth Miller, also an author and a United Methodist youth counselor in Ann Arbor, said, “What a confusing tragedy. It’s like something by Shakespeare. “There’s no simple theological answer to this one, except, I think, to say that this is a strong reminder of how powerfully our lives are all connected in a global community.”

The story is not over, of course.

Newspapers in the Midwest are sure to follow Cerak’s recovery and major networks will, I imagine, jockey to land the first interview with the girl who lived. There are a number of dramatic scenes in the lives of both families that will, like it or not, draw close media attention. What happens to insurance claims? The wrongful death lawsuits from the original crash?

And this past weekend, the family and friends of VanRyn gathered for a memorial service. The young woman’s boyfriend stated what many were thinking:

At an emotional memorial service Sunday for VanRyn, 22, of Caledonia, her boyfriend, Aryn Linenger, poured his heart out again to 2,000 mourners. He said the bizarre identity switch that allowed those closest to VanRyn to believe they were tending to her in the hospital has made them feel they have been fooled by God.

“There’s been many times in these past couple days where I’ve been mad at God, and I questioned how he could allow this to happen to me,” said Linenger, 25, of Brighton. “Like it was the biggest trick he’s ever played on me in my life.”

I am sure that the weblog at Christianity Today will continue to follow this story. Please alert let us know if you see MSM articles that focus on the faith elements in the events that are ahead.

UPDATED: Sure enough, the CT weblog has posted a new collection of links for coverage of the Cerak-VanRyn story.

HCG0255 mnAlso, Phil de Haan — the excellent media coordinator for Calvin College — sent me the link to a Sunday column in the Grand Rapids Press by feature writer Charles Honey. Click here to read “Faith helps two families through times of mourning, rejoicing.” Here is how that feature opens:

They are mere words on a page, but they touch like a soft hand on a parent’s grieving shoulders.

“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,’ says the Lord.”

It is the prophet Isaiah speaking to Jerusalem 2,700 years ago, and to Laura VanRyn’s family today. The Bible passage was placed by VanRyn’s family on her Web log May 6, a day they believed she was making great progress in recovering from an April 26 car accident. The blog reported VanRyn yawned and swallowed in a cute way, and wore pigtails.

Of course, hopeful progress was being made that day — by Whitney Cerak.

While Whitney’s family grieved her apparent death in that same accident, VanRyn’s family surrounded Whitney with love and the word of God, unaware VanRyn already had died.

God’s thoughts were not those of the VanRyn or Cerak families that day. But they believed God was with them. They still do …

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