Concubines and ‘biblical families’: Literalism, inerrancy, slavery and a great deal of money

So the Rev. Billy Ray, a third-tier televangelist, gets caught up in scandal when it’s revealed that the “tithes and offerings” he collected from his viewers went to support a lavish, decadent lifestyle.

The most damning feature of the scandal is Billy Ray’s “sex house” — a separate mansion from the one he shared with Mrs. Billy Ray. The sex house, it turns out, was where three of Billy Ray’s long-term mistresses lived. He provided them all with room and board and a generous “stipend” from his ministry. And he went there, regularly, almost daily, to have sex with one or more of these women.

Just to be clear, the Rev. Billy Ray is fictional — any similarity between him and any actual televangelist is purely coincidental (and, sadly, inevitable). But such a scandal is not difficult to imagine. Nor is it difficult to imagine the universal condemnation that Billy Ray would be subject to due to the audacious sinfulness of his “sex house” arrangement.

But this is a perfectly biblical arrangement. It is, in the pages of scripture, a common and a holy arrangement — one that Billy Ray has in common with some of the most righteous and revered figures of the Bible.

“Concubines.” Look it up. Get out a concordance and do a good old-fashioned evangelical word study.

The Bible is teeming with concubines. The Bible is filled with men who kept them, and whose keeping of them is presented as evidence of their prosperity and of divine blessing and reward for their righteousness.

“Concubine” is an archaic word and it describes an archaic arrangement. The idea seems so alien to our culture, our mores and values, that it’s hard for us now, in the 21st century, to read all those many tales of good men and their blessed concubines and fully absorb what we’re reading in those ancient stories.

A concubine wasn’t quite a wife and she wasn’t quite a slave. Wives and slaves were both considered “property,” and so were concubines, but they were a slightly different kind of “property” than either wives or slaves.

“Mistress,” I suppose, gets close to the idea. Yet we tend to think of mistresses as illicit and hidden and morally suspect, and concubines were none of those things. The arrangement was so unlike anything we’re accustomed to today that it’s hard to know even what sort of verbs to use to describe the arranging of such an arrangement. Did these men “have” concubines, or did they “take” them? Or maybe “take up with” them? The practice was formal, established, legally condoned and religiously sanctioned, but it was so different from anything we can imagine nowadays that we have difficulty discussing it.

And yet this practice, it turns out, is not all that distant from us historically. There do not seem to be any concubines or any system of concubinage in the New Testament, yet centuries later than that, here in America, the system was revived and it thrived for generations, once again enjoying legal and religious sanction just as it did in the time of Abraham and the time of David.

That’s an inconvenient bit of history. Concubinage is one of those things, like animal sacrifice or dietary laws, that modern Christians would prefer to dismiss with an inter-testamental hand-wave, mumbling something about “ceremonial law.” After all, Jesus and Paul and the other apostles never said anything to reaffirm the scriptural practice of keeping concubines. But American Christians did. And they did so as recently as the Buchanan Administration.

It gets worse, because this is not some obscure historical footnote, some mere tangent to American theology or American Christianity. This is the heart of the matter, the core of every ongoing discussion of Christianity here in the U.S. The explicitly biblical defense of concubinage — and of American slavery more generally — shaped the way we American Christians approach the Bible to this very day.

Turn again to Mark Noll’s important The Civil War as a Theological Crisis and you will find the roots of contemporary white evangelical hermeneutics — a prooftexting appeal to the authority of a “literal” reading of an “inerrant” Bible.

The key fact here is not that the approach to the Bible used by the defenders of American slavery was the same as the approach to the Bible used by contemporary white evangelicals. The key fact is that this biblical defense of slavery was the origin of the approach to the Bible used by contemporary white evangelicals.

Noll characterizes this face-value, “literalist” hermeneutic as one influenced by “common-sense” philosophy and by the anti-intellectual, pietistic, and anti-traditionalist strains he describes so well in his other book on The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. And certainly those were all factors in the appeal that this approach to the Bible had for the defenders of slavery.

But they were not the only factors, nor the largest factor. The largest factor, I think, is what historian David Blight describes:

By 1860, there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States. In the same year, the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.

That’s $3.5 billion out of a total GDP of about $4.3 billion. We’re not just talking about a huge amount of money, but about most of it.

Am I suggesting that the protection and preservation of wealth shaped what was to become the dominant hermeneutic of white evangelicals?

Yes. Yes, I am suggesting exactly that. If it seems crass, simplistic or reductionist to suggest that money could influence the way Christians read the Bible, I would simply point out again that we’re talking about a staggeringly large amount of money.

But anyway, let’s get back to poor Billy Ray. The man is being vigorously condemned for a living arrangement that is identical to the arrangement the Bible offers as evidence that Abraham and David were blessed by God.

Is that fair? Is it fair to call Billy Ray immoral for something the Bible itself never condemns?

Well, our friend Owen Stachan says that would be unfair. Strachan says:

All that God teaches us in Scripture is right. Christ and his apostles do not indicate at any point that the Old Testament is immoral, and in fact say the opposite. To say otherwise is to indicate that God is not absolutely right, and his word is not trustable.

The Bible condones concubinage, so therefore declaring concubinage immoral is an attack on the Bible itself. That’s the logic of Strachan’s argument (although he’s not talking about concubines specifically there, but about genocide, actually).

Yet I’m not sure Strachan would stick to that argument if he were actually confronted with something like the Rev. Billy Ray and his sex-house filled with concubines. My guess is that logical consistency wouldn’t prevent him from joining in the chorus of disapproval over Billy Ray’s extramarital sexcapades. Billy Ray might be able to mount a strong “biblical” defense of his 21st-century concubines by appealing to the same hermeneutic that Strachan claims to uphold, but I don’t think even the most literal-minded inerrantists would be inclined to let him get away with that.

These days, unlike 160 years ago, there’s not a vast amount of money at stake in such a biblical defense of concubinage.

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  • Carstonio

    My first thought was historical and economic rather than theological. What if Congress put slaveowners on trial after the Civil War for crimes against humanity? (Logistically the trials might have focused on the ones who owned the most slaves.) And then broke up the plantations and gave the land outright to the freed slaves, instead of allowing the former owners to set up sharecropping?

  • Eric the Red

    Nothing wrong with a consensual harem. God wired most women to be happier sharing an alpha male than committing to an effete gender apologist.

  • AnonaMiss

    > Slavery
    > Consensual


  • EllieMurasaki

    Anything you say. *patpat* Run along and play somewhere else, now. The adults are talking.

  • Morilore

    Nothing wrong with a consensual harem. God wired most women to be happier sharing an alpha male than committing to an effete gender apologist.

    oh dear that website

    “alphas” “betas” “dating market value” 

    oh dear

  • Zavire Shiran

    And of course those are the only two options. Either an alpha manly man, or a man who apologizes for their gender (which I have only very rarely seen). Yeah, keep peddling that MRA/PUA crap.

  • JustoneK


    Do you like being the alpha male surrounded by your lovely white women?

  • You are confusing stocks and flows with your comparison of GDP and the value of slaves. GDP is the value of all final sales and services. It measures the flow of wealth through the economy. Slaves only contribute to GDP when they are sold.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I have in fact seen men apologize for their gender.

    It’s invariably along the lines of “I am so sorry I share a Y chromosome with that sexist piece of shit.”

  • MaryKaye

    What Ryan said.  It was a staggering amount of value, but it’s not money any more than factories or trains are money.  You need to compare like with like.

    This doesn’t challenge the main point–that slaveholding was big business and very lucrative.


  • Nothing wrong with a consensual harem. God wired most women to be happier sharing an alpha male than committing to an effete gender apologist.

    And right on time, Eric the Red shows up to tell us what an important Alpha Male he is by telling us what a different man had to say on the subject.  I do believe our young Eric gets his pleasure out of being beaten about the head intellectually and fantasizing about measuring up to this Heartiste fellow…

  • Carstonio

    Couldn’t Billy Ray have just claimed that his “sex house” was a ministry for fallen women?

  • See also people who pooh-pooh the idea that that slaveowners would use slaves for sex.  Yes, they did.  And not just to get more slaves to sell.  

  • Yeah, our GDP’s something like 10-15% of our wealth. Still, apparently our 2011 GDP was $15.09 trillion, so that makes this the equivalent of $12.28 trillion nowadays.

  • BTW: If you have a New York Times subscription, their online archive goes back to 1851.  You can read about expanding the Fugitive Slave Law,  slaves being “freed” via travel in a free state, on a discussion whether a slave is “a person” under the law.

  • Hth

     And yet on the ground, it seems to me that quite few men, however Alpha they fancy themselves, have very good luck explaining to their girlfriends & wives how very much happier they’d be if they consented to being in a harem.

    Another beautiful theory ruined by ugly facts.

  • Hth

    I know that everything about that Owen Stachan quote is reprehensible, but for some reason the thing that just viscerally bugs the crap out of me most every time I read it is “trustable.”  Fking *trustable?*  There’s a word for that in English, you mouthbreather.  The word is trustworthy.

    That shouldn’t make me angrier than, you know, the horrible sentiment behind the quote, but something about it just gets under my skin.

  • AnonaMiss

    Hey, I acknowledge how much happier I’d be if I replaced my monogamous relationship with a harem!

    …a harem of dudes…

  • Hth

     Okay, hit “post” too quickly.  Disclaimer alert: trustable *is* a word.  I know that.  It’s just such a weird word.  Nobody says that!  It makes him sound like some crazy Stepford alien lecturing us about the Bible from some remote location without having the slightest idea how his words actually sound.

    Oh, look, I figured out why it annoys me.

  • P J Evans

     They were the labor force on those plantations (and also on farms and in people’s houses, thought the numbers were far fewer).

  • Baby_Raptor

    Your god Fucked me up then. I’m a Bisexual female that tends to prefer having multiple partners, and am definitely the dominant one. 

    …Oh, right. That’s because your god didn’t “wire” me, just like he didn’t “wire” anyone. 

    To echo Ellie: Run along. The adults are talking. And shove your sexism up your ass while you’re running. 

  • I should have said that the value of the slaves only enters GDP when they are sold.

  • The_L1985

    This woman isn’t wired even remotely that way, thankyouverymuch.  I’ve often joked that the right wing has it almost-right WRT my ideal marriage:  I’d like one man, one woman, and myself, please. :)

  • The_L1985

     The second sex is described as a business transaction, I tend to lose all respect for the “scholar” that wrote such an article.  There is nothing wrong with prostitution, but most women are not prostitutes.

  • The_L1985

    The explicitly biblical defense of concubinage — and of American
    slavery more generally — shaped the way we American Christians approach
    the Bible to this very day.

    But remember, folks, Strachan’s argument is different from all those old slavery-apologetic arguments!  Because reasons.

  • misanthropy_jones

    people like you are the reason people like me becoome gender apologists.
    and, although nowadays i’m built for comfort more than speed, i am almost certainly not effete (though i will admit to a certain level of decadence…).  nor, i am almost certain, would you fit anyone’s idea of an alpha male.

  • Aww, look at the cute little beta spamming links to his alpha mancrush’s blog. It’s adorable.

  • Becca Stareyes

    And, of course, some of us aren’t ‘wired’ for men at all. 

  • Fred posted a post. Look at Fred’s post. It is good. Let us talk about Fred’s post. PLEASE. I AM BEGGING HERE.

    I find the history of prostitution in its many different forms absolutely fascinating. Often it’s nothing but sexual slavery. But sometimes — more often than many people like to acknowledge — it’s the only form of sexual *liberty* a woman could have. A courtesan could be wealthy in her own right, with a stable of lovers who paid her well to give her orgasms, and over whom she had great social and political influence. She could have the best education, the best food, the best clothes, the best home, the best conversation, the most fascinating social circle, the most influence, and the best sex, of anyone in society.

    I think our society is going to be stuck in a lot of ways until we realize that providing sex can be like providing other services. It’s not selling one’s body; it’s selling one’s talent. And, as with everything sexual, so long as it’s between enthusiastically consenting adults, there’s nothing wrong with it.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Or we like men just fine, we just–*turns on the Jamie O’Neal*
    It’s a mystery
    Like the deep blue sea
    You can take it
    You can leave it
    But I still believe
    So I won’t give up
    And I won’t give in
    I know I’m gonna find him
    I just don’t know when
    A girl trying to find herself the perfect man is
    Like trying to find Atlantis

    And Eric types make the whole venture seem futile, you know? I like men, I really do, but I ever settle down, it’s probably not going to be with a heterocis man. I know there’s good ones, but if I make a point of trying to pair off with someone who’s at least one of queer, female, or possessed of a uterus, then there’s a bunch of shit I won’t be risking putting up with that I will be if I include heterocis men in my dating pool.

    Sorry, all you good heterocis men.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I think our society is going to be stuck in a lot of ways until we realize that providing sex can be like providing other services. It’s not selling one’s body; it’s selling one’s talent. And, as with everything sexual, so l ong as i t’s between enthusiastically consenting adults, there’s nothing wrong with it.

    Which gives me the vision of being a sex worker being as well-paid and well-regarded as being a fast-food worker. I do not like that vision. I understand it’s not where you’re going with this, and it’s better in some ways than the present reality of many sex workers, but.

  • Nick Gotts

    You only have the one MRA? Count your blessings. Over at Freethoughtblogs they come not as single spies, but in battalions!

  • The_L1985

     Yes, but that was also at a time when people were willing to spend that much money on a service.  Ever notice how as time goes by, the people with money get both cheaper and nastier toward service personnel?

  • MaryKaye

    One could call Billy Ray immoral because he took concubines after entering into a marriage in which there were strong expectations that he would not.  That’s breaking an important promise.  On the other hand, perhaps he and Mrs. Ray settled this between them and it’s not oathbreaking–hard for us outsiders to know.  (My spouse and I agreed that we would not require sexual fidelity, only 100% disclosure.  In 21 years of marriage we have never used that provision, and I don’t think we ever will; but we both felt that, since people do sometimes feel impelled to commit adultery, better to insist on truthfulness.)

    Other than that, I think it’s another confusion between what Americans have traditionally done and what the very different cultures in the Bible did; just like polygamy and animal sacrifice.  (That’s another one where Biblical characters were *commended* for doing what is now condemned.)

    For me the litmus test has always been Abraham and Isaac.  If your next-door neighbor did what Abraham did (namely, get all set up to sacrifice his son because God told him to), would it be good?  If not, was it good when Abraham did it?  If it was good for Abraham and would not be good for your neighbor, then moral laws are not immutable.

    Dan Simmons has a dynamite short story about this:  it’s part of _Hyperion_ but stands on its own, in which form I think it’s called “The Scholar’s Tale.”

  • I can very easily imagine you being at home in a harem.

  • I believe that the “original sin” of our American experiment was the assumption that the Elect have a right to seize natural resources, as well as the bodies and labor of those not part of the Elect. Unfortunately, this is an assumption that can be fully justified from Biblical examples, and that without distorting the texts in any material way. (After all, the Bible says quite explicitly that Israel was not only allowed but commanded to seize the land, bodies and labor of the people of Canaan.) As for concubinage, I’m a little surprised none of the believers in Biblical inerrency is arguing for it. Now that you’ve helpfully given them the word and pointed them toward their concordances, perhaps they will mend their ways and Craigslist will have to open a new section for “godly men” seeking concubines!

  • Makabit

    People claim that slaveowners would not use slaves for sex? On what planet has that ever NOT happened?

  • To play advocate for Strachan, once you’ve said one thing that the bible has called good is evil, what differentiates the bible as a guide than the works of Homer, Virgil, Terry Pratchett, and Matt Groening?

    Once you’ve said that the bible is in error on morality here, what is to bind one to the belief that it is correct on the goodness of Jesus, particularly when he calls a Cannanite woman a dog, admonishes people to amputate parts of them that might lead them to sin, or tells people that so much as indulging an angry thought is the moral equivilant to murder?

  • Simongren

    “My guess is that logical consistency wouldn’t prevent him from joining
    in the chorus of disapproval over Billy Ray’s extramarital sexcapades.”

    I’m sure he would join in the verbal chorus of disapproval; but one of the problems that shows up is that even though the mouth is disapproving, the brain isn’t.  We’ve all seen/heard the person that is anti-whatever spend an awful lot of time dwelling on the particulars.

    The best example off the top of my head is the police officer/sheriff’s deputy in “To Wong Foo” sitting at the bar deconstructing gay attraction while all around him people are gettin uncomfortable because he’s so into it.

  • I was thinking of therapists. You can talk to your friends about your problems, but you pay a therapist to talk about your problems for said therapist’s education and wisdom. That’s providing a service. So do auto mechanics, doctors, lawyers, people who build computers…

  • EllieMurasaki

    Okay, that makes a lot more sense.

  • MaryKaye

    There is no guarantee, however you arrange your life, that you will do good and avoid evil.  No guarantee by following external authority; no guarantee by following your own conscience; nada.  All you can do is try.

    In adulthood, I think that you are better able to develop the skills to do more good and less evil if you follow your conscience.  You are closer to the feedback loop that way–you choose to do something, you feel the results.  If you put an authority in the loop, they may be insulated from the consequences (think of the people who say “Abortion doctors are murderers” but never go to jail for shooting one) and this is likely over the long haul to lead to worse decisions.

    There’s a place for a certain amount of authority in raising children, as they don’t start out with functional consciences, just as they don’t start out with survival skills.  You stop them from doing evil just like you stop them from drinking paint, so they get a chance to learn better *without* consequences they can’t handle.  But at some point you have to stop parenting a person and let them fend for themselves.

    So if the Bible says to do something and you find yourself thinking “Wow, that’s a hard teaching, it’s inconvenient, it’s not what I want to do….” an adult should notice that those are fairly often rationalizations for avoiding something you fundamentally know you *should* do.  But if it says to do something and you find yourself thinking “Wow, that seems evil, I am morally repulsed by it….” an adult should know that such feelings deserve consideration–they are a warning sign for external evil.

    Authorities try to tell you that the outraged “I don’t want to” and the revolted “that is evil” are equally untrustworthy guides, but I think they are self-servingly wrong in this.  “That is evil” is sometimes incorrect, like all human awarenesses are.  But it’s not the same thought, and not, in my experience, nearly so likely to be wrong.

  • LL

    RE  Fred posted a post. Look at Fred’s post. It is good. Let us talk about Fred’s post. PLEASE. I AM BEGGING HERE.

    Holy shit, yes. Stop feeding the troll. If we ignore it, maybe it’ll go away, or at least find some other site to pollute while masturbating itself with its Cheeto-stained fingers. 

  • Noll characterizes this face-value, “literalist” hermeneutic as one influenced by “common-sense” philosophy and by the anti-intellectual, pietistic, and anti-traditionalist strains…

    I’ve come to greatly dislike the idea of “common sense,” especially applying it to issues of morality and ethics as this hermeneutic is so obsessed with doing. Mostly because, to borrow a phrase, common sense isn’t.

    Not the blandly cynical “‘common’ sense is actually rare” interpretation of the phrase, but rather that “sense” isn’t common in that it isn’t universally shared. Common in the sense (*ahem*) of a common water source, or a common room – common as a property of a community. I have a wildly different version of Common Sense than the RTCs and other inerrantists, and there are plenty of other people whose Common Sense differs even more from both of our’s, just because their life circumstances are so different.

    It’s a functionally meaningless term, kind of like “human nature.” And I’ve had quite enough of it.

  • pharoute

    I didn’t click the link, is it Christianmingle?

  • Morilore

    Nah it’s just some blog.

  • Joykins

    Where I think the analogy in the article falls apart is that concubinage is really not a type of secret sex slavery. It more akin to a type of marriage where the principals are not legally able to contract a marriage, is a formal arrangement, and is a publicly known and accepted arrangement.  None of which is, if open and formal and accepted, at all scandalous.  Secret kept women are not this–but  a French king’s maitresse en titre might be.

  • Hilary


    And this means . . . ?

  • LMM22

    I was thinking of therapists. You can talk to your friends about your problems, but you pay a therapist to talk about your problems for said therapist’s education and wisdom.

    I think the issue is, unless you start having very weird sets of state-sanctioned rules, prostitution isn’t going to have that kind of status. All the people you’ve listed are experts you hire to address very specific problems — e.g., a lawsuit, personal issues, or a broken car. You pay for quality because a bad mechanic is likely to make your car worse. And you pay for quality because you want someone to fix your problem.

    Prostitution? You may be paying for prostitution to get experience — I guess that’s analogous to hiring an auto mechanic. But you might be paying for it to get off (and by “you” I mean “men,” because services which cater to women are incredibly rare), in which case you aren’t going to care as much about quality as much as quantity.

    And that’s basically analogous to the food industry, not to therapists or lawyers or the like. So you wind up with an industry with a few high-quality professionals, which people go to sometimes to splurge or because they can afford it. You have the idealized locally-owned business. And then you have the fast food joints — chain places which don’t offer quality but are there when you need it.

    … And, honestly, I’m not sure this is talking about Fred’s post either, because a concubine is not a courtesan — and a courtesan is not a career that’s likely to easily fit into modern society either. (Fun fact: The sexual revolution happened with the flappers, not the Boomers. And the instant the sexual revolution started, the number of people visiting prostitutes started to drop — because when it’s possible to have sex with your girlfriend, you stop needing to pay someone else. Basically, if you’re wealthy enough to hire a courtesan, you’re probably wealthy enough to find a trophy wife.)

  • nuance

    literalist hermenutic which you think allowed people to proof text
    slavery and is the origin of the contemporary white evangelical
    hermenutic seems to me to be very closely related to the hermanutic
    that says “because there are concubines, broken families, and
    slaves in the Bible it is therefore not a reliable moral authority
    and the only way to reckon with those parts of the Bible is to get
    out from under it’s authority and stop pretending like the WHOLE
    Bible is innerant and admit that we need to allow our current
    enlightened morality needs to override the obviously wrong parts.”
    You can’t just take everything you perceive as hateful and override
    it because you think God wants us to love any more than you can
    justify hating someone just because you see people hating each other
    in the Bible.

    why I couldn’t stand to read your incessant “Chick
    Fil’a Biblical Family of the Day.” Yes, there are
    concubines in the Bible. Yes, there are wildly broken families in
    the Bible. Yes there is slavery in the Bible, but it just seems like
    you believe their presence in the Bible to be “what scripture
    teaches.” The presence of these things in the Bible doesn’t make
    the Bible immoral, brutal, unenlightened, and an errant man made
    book – it makes the Bible a brutally honest and
    realistic about what happens in life. 

    you made me answer these as shortly as I could without doing a lot of
    work I would first remind us that the Bible is also a historical
    document that tells a story made up of many stories (thus, it’s not
    logical to say that because Solomon had concubines we therefore must
    also have concubines). We need to ask “where are we in the story?”
    God told Noah to build an ark – but that means neither that I
    should build an ark nor that I should ignore the story as irrelevant
    or lacking authority over me.

    I would appeal to Jesus (Matthew 19:7-9 ESV): 

    said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate
    of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of
    your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but
    from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces
    his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits

    just because God doesn’t strike a man in the Old Testament dead for
    having concubines or send a prophet to condemn him for it (and
    therefore God maybe didn’t completely condemn concubinage for that
    man at that point in the story?) it more likely means that God is
    being realistic about that man’s heart than it means that God is
    condoning the action.

    I would point out the the rhetorical function the stories
    of Solomon’s concubines – they lead him towards idolatry, away
    from God, and towards ruin – reading the stories makes a reader ask
    “wouldn’t there be a better way?” “Wouldn’t Solomon had
    been a better King if he was faithful, loving, and respectful to only
    one wife?” That isn’t your 21st Century enlightened brain being
    more moral than the text making you ask that question – that is the
    intended purpose of the text! If we have an understanding of what God
    intended “from the beginning” and where the story is going (the
    NT is clear that leaders of the church are to be a “one woman man”)
    only then can we begin to arrive at “What God teaches us in
    scriptures” and I would argue that all of that is “right.”

    because the Bible does not condemn concubinage in some historical
    instances that does not mean that God condones it (even in the
    historical instances and definitely not as a rule). You and I
    wouldn’t trust a man who says “In every instance God has always
    overtly condemned concubinage” but why would I trust you when you
    say that “The Bible condones concubinage” ? Isn’t that claim
    clearly also a result of the “contemporary white evangelical”
    hermeneutic that you seem to hate?