About April 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Hearts & Minds Books in April 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

March 2007 is the previous archive.

May 2007 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

April 2007 Archives

April 1, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, my activist past, and a Christian vision for creation-care

One of the great literary voices of the middle and end of the 20th century, Kurt Vonnegut, died this month and we’ve had to suffer through countless obits and commentaries that all ended with his Slaughterhouse Five signature, "So it goes." Such a passing affords me the chance to tell my one, brief, Vonnegut story, which will take some very long setting up and will jump-start this month’s conversation and book list. Sit back as I tell you about hearing him in the ‘70’s.

My wife, Beth, you should know, (if only because it adds poignancy to the tale, even if it doesn’t effect the principle of the thing one wit) grew up, and as a married couple, we visited her beloved parents regularly, next to Three Mile Island. Yes, that island, with those infamous cooling towers. Quite a site out the picture window on Christmas morn. My own folks lived, as the crow flied (and as the low-level radiation blew), not far, either.

We were involved in the anti-nuclear and safe energy movement in the late 70’s, bringing Christian faith and Biblical principles of peace, justice and creation care into a largely lefty crowd in Pittsburgh, PA. Any of our activist friends who knew about spent rods and hydrogen bubbles and The Price-Anderson Act and such---former NRC staff, radiation experts, first generation environmentalists---knew that TMI was unsafe, perhaps one of the worst and most precarious in the country. To have a home next to one of the most dangerous (not to mention wasteful) places on the planet was, well, you can imagine. One very knowledgeable nuclear engineer watchdog encouraged us to counsel Beth’s folks to move, quickly.

Once, rather like Erin Brokovich, we were doing some low-grade trespassing, sleuthing for an investigative article we were doing on missing bomb-grade plutonium (out near Pittsburgh at a rural Babcox & Wilcox plant) which we believed had ties to TMI which deepened our sense of the sinister "principalities and powers" we were confronting. Some of us went to the nuclear weapons manufacturing facility near Amarillo Texas–a then secret "White Train" delivered components to a plant called Pantex, where the Hiroshima-like A-bombs, which were the firing caps to ignite the unfathomable, hydrogen explosions---where we learned more of the dark connection between unsafe power plants and the burgeoning nuclear war-fighting strategies. When the US re-aligned our nuclear missiles in a Presidential Directive for a first-strike strategy, the doom was palpable, at least for those of us who prayed and picketed about such things. The horse-riding Catholic Bishop in that part of Texas, perhaps inspired by our witness, eventually declared it unethical to work in the bomb plant and a national debate on alternative energy, the lunacy of nuclear power and the impending doom of the arms race became the national debate that lasted more than a decade.

From the cover of Time to church basements and town halls, folks fretted and fought; even after the horror of the TMI accident, and the evil cover up of the Soviets after Chernobyl, and President Reagan joking about blowing up Russian cities, many felt like the anti-nuke crowd were like Chicken Little (or worse.) Still, the conversations were everywhere. We had a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher for President quoting Genesis 1 and the doctrine of Biblical stewardship as the fundamental answer to the energy crisis. Later, in an irony that still haunts us, he was ousted with conservative Christians supporting a bellicose and trigger-happy President who didn’t go to church, the odd start of the now-famous Christian right. Reagan cut the solar power funding we had worked for, put missiles in Europe, unleashing a war in Afghanistan---another tragic irony whose implications reverberate into our dangerous decade, as Islamic fundamentalism took off (does anybody recall how little the secular media understood about Islam in Iran when the Ayatollah’s coup happened?) Even with Carter’s simple sweater and sensible call to save energy, we dug ourselves deeper with our need for Saudi oil, complex religious questions in the Middle East largely ignored, and (to put it bluntly) profits trumping the prophets, who went unheeded. Mr. Reagan’s environmental and military policies were literally unsustainable–intellectually, theologically, environmentally---and I think often of our early days trying to bring public awareness about our oil addictions, the questionable ideologies of growth, the need for wiser lifestyles, and the dangers of high-tech fixes, the worst of which were symbolized by TMI on the banks of the wonderful Susquehanna.

We formed an evangelical environmentalist group and passed out flyers and articles---at lefty peace marches and wind energy confabs and Earth Day parades---inviting eco-friendly folks to consider Christian faith as the real answer to our social alienation. (Many of those we most interacted with, actually, were Marxists or Trotskyites or old left hippies or liberal Catholics in those years.) The Bible, we insisted, and Christian philosophy, gave a vision of mature sustainability that could guide us with lasting, true principles. Before anybody we knew used the phrase "post-modernism" we were eager to critique Enlightenment rationalism and the myth of progress. Dutch parliament member Bob Goudzwaard’s brilliant (and still essential) Capitalism and Progress came out, as did E.F. Schumacher’s now-classic Small Is Beautiful. Jeremy Rifkin’s The Emerging Order and Richard Barnet’s Global Reach were best-sellers; all which were prescient and fueled our sense that a deeply religious crisis was bubbling beneath the anxieties about energy, growth, power, and war. Perhaps we were on the cusp of not only church revival but cultural reformation. Interestingly, there were very, very few books from a uniquely Christian perspective that directly spoke to the ecological issues, (a mentor insisted I read Bruggemann’s The Land, at least) let alone showing how a Christian worldview might guide us in thinking about energy policy and such. To his credit, Francis Schaeffer was light years ahead of his conservative followers in writing Pollution and the Death of Man, (released in England in 1974 I believe) which is still in print today. We discovered Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America and began to read authors like Herman Daly, but no other evangelicals spoke to this that we knew of. Ron Sider kicked off the simple living conversation, and his Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger became one of the most important books of my life. It regularly shows up as one of the most important books of the century on most lists of theological or religious books, and hinted at the relationships between environmental concerns and social justice, poverty, development and the need for a spiritual basis to an economy that rejects the myths of material progress. (In the second edition, footnotes of Goudzwaard showed up! Weee!) We read these books (as I am sure some of our readers, here, did) and we prayed and talked and cried and dreamed and worked. Among other things, we wanted, in the "Nuclear Capitol of the World" (as Pittsburgh was being touted) to offer a faith-based perspective on the debates about non-renewable energy sources and high-tech solutions like the infamous Pennsylvania power plants. We raised money in meeting with rock stars like Jackson Browne and engaged African-American leaders like John Perkins. We encouraged Campolo to write on the environment (his least selling book ever he later told me) and worked with large labor unions on questions of employment and safe energy technologies.

Of course, we passed out our Christian environmentalist flyers to Christian festivals, too, at evangelical churches and at college Bible studies. What a mission, even today, to get eco-activists to consider the gospel, and to get evangelicals to care for the creation! (We had similar fun, by the way, passing out peace stuff at pro-life events, and right-to-life stuff at peacenik gatherings, being forcibly removed from more than one venue. Interestingly, the ways in which low-level radiation effected the unborn became a conversion point for several on both sides of that issue; a few pro-lifers joined the anti-nuke crusade and a couple of anti-war peace folk came out of the closet on the abortion issue. But I digress.)

Younger readers may not realize that the few days in 1979 when TMI was on the verge of a disastrous meltdown, was, for many who watched from around the world, around-the-clock on pins and needles, and for everyone in Central Pennsylvania, our own "Cuban Missile Crisis" scenario. We held our breath and prayed as loved ones evacuated. Government duplicity, still under-investigated, played out in the aftermath when pages of documents of the rise in infant mortality rates in Harrisburg hospitals were "lost" by the CDC, and the nation’s leading scholar of low-level radiation, from the University of Pittsburgh, was vindicated by the data, but mocked by the establishment. Anti-nuclear activists were spied upon, and Karen Silkwood’s murder, for those that knew, again, reminded us of the evil powers described as principalities in the Bible. The cover-ups rivaled Watergate and Contra-gate and the government tomfoolery was worse than during Katrina’s fiasco. We read Martin Luther King and trained in nonviolent direct action, hoping to get Christians to stand up and sit in.

And so, as activists do, we networked, called in famous people, raised money, tried to get our message to the media, went to endless meetings, promoted movies like The China Syndrome or Silkwood and made linkages with other outspoken Christian prophets who named our corporate greed and faith in technology and weapons as the idols they were---from Desmond Tutu to Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day to Cesar Chavez, even Billy Graham. We made the connections, calling on people of faith to think deeply about the most important stuff of our lives. And we got people to go to big ol’ protest marches.

Vonnegut---yes, Kurt Vonnegut–spoke at one of the large gatherings in Harrisburg, after the near meltdown, I believe. We had heard union workers and scientists and national clergy leaders and native people whose land was used for uranium mining and rock singers and politicos. I love the speechifying and rabble rousing, but I couldn’t wait to hear a true literary genius; Vonnegut had witnessed the bombing of Dresden in his military days and had written passionately about power run amok and war’s ravage of civilians. It was, I was sure, going to be a great speech.

As he strode to the microphone in front of a crowd of tens of thousands he spoke three short sentences, in a speech that lasted not much more than five seconds.

The men who run nuclear power plants are like monkeys. They stink. I hate them.

Well, it was a disappointment in any number of ways, not the least of which was the ugly h word. So it goes, indeed, I thought. As the crowd cheered, I knew this was a momentous moment with a literary icon, yes, a moment that revealed the near uselessness of bohemian cynicism. We needed the gospel, and if the full message of God’s saving care for his needy planet isn’t proclaimed with orthodoxy and power and relevance, the game is up. Our feeble efforts to offer a Christian witness in areas of creation-care and Earth-keeping, in public policy and peacemaking in the not so cold war, well, it raised important questions. And, somehow, in God’s faithfulness, His hand remained on some evangelicals who are, now, clearly on the side of the trees who clap their hands. From the National Association of Evangelicals statement on global warming to the newly revamped and fabulous Creation Care journal, from feisty organizations like Restoring Eden or Florista or The National Religious Partnership for the Environment, it is clear that evangelicals are, as in AIDS work and global development issues, on the very front lines. It is, interestingly, a very well kept secret.

In the late 70’s the definitive book, besides Schaeffer’s green manifesto, Pollution and the Death of Man, the most studious and thoughtful book on the subject from the perspective of an orthodox Christian thinker was Earth-Keeping in the 80’s, later re-issued as Earth-Keeping in the 90’s edited by Regent College professor Loren Wilkenson (it was first published by Eerdmans with a shot of looming cooling towers on the front; Wipf & Stock re-published it at the end of the 90’s and it is still very, very much worth reading.) That this was a Earth-friendly theologian who hung out with J. I. Packer and Eugene Peterson, solid and not the least bit new age or Pantheist, who knew that one need not jettison the orthodox tradition like Matthew Fox, say, to become a Christian eco-activist, made my heart sing! And, he was a scholar who, with great prayerfulness, had the courage of his convictions to be involved in non-violent civil disobedience in his beloved part of the Pacific Northwest, well; this is a guy for me. What a blessing that such books existed for us, and others through-out the country, who wanted to weave together a whole cloth of evangelical faith, reliable Bible study, a Christian critique of the worldview of Enlightenment modernity and a spiritually-helpful guide to faithful living on the Earth. Neither simplistic nor imbalanced, Wilkinson’s multi-disciplinary text was a lifeline, a gift, a testimony. We commend it still.

Another professor Wilkinson, a Methodist from England named David, has written, recently, a helpful compendium of what the Bible says about creation, organized in helpful chapters, looking at various aspects of creation theology, with a great study guide in the back in the Inter-Varsity Press "Bible Speaks Today" series. Simply called The Message of Creation: Encountering the Lord of the Universe it would make a very serviceable resource, a good study for groups or personal devotional reading.

Another early hero in the field of evangelical creation care has been perhaps the most widely known scholar and mentor and activist, Calvin DeWitt, from the highly regarded Au Sable Institute. He helped with the previously noted Earth-Keeping book and has gone on to write scholarly stuff, journal articles, and popular pieces. One we still sell today, in fact, perhaps the best little Bible study guide, perfect for small group use, is Earth-Wise: A Biblical Response to Environmental Issues. This small book packs a wallop, makes very important points, in a way that is reader-friendly and very accessible. It is published by the CRC publisher Faith Alive. We heard DeWitt at the CCO’s Jubilee conference in Pittsburgh decades ago, and his lifetime of work in the sciences from a uniquely Christian framework is of nearly epic proportions. Thanks be to God. May we suggest, this Earth-day month, this season of the debate about global warming, that you consider working through a book like this with your small group? You don’t have to start a protest movement or book the ghost of Vonnegut; just gather some folks over fair-trade tea and open up this gentle Bible study.

In the early 90’s, I think, Bill McKibben flew into the literary world with his riveting book, The End of Nature (I do not think it was a marketing ploy to suggest it paralleled The Fate of the Earth which was also serialized in a prestigious New York literary journal, a decade previous, and became a book known for its mystical sense of the horrors of our times which help galvanize a social change movement, Schell’s around the nuclear arms crisis, McKibben, the crisis of the environment.) He wrote clearly and passionately on various topics----The Age of Missing Information was a favorite, and his newest is on hiking in his beloved Adirondacks.) Soon thereafter, Len Sweet, who has been greener than most, longer than most, invited him to do a series of lectures at United Theological Seminary in Dayton (McKibben, sort of a Yankee Wendell Berry, attends a rural United Methodist church) which became the sumptuous reflections The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job and the Scale of Creation released in those years by Eerdmans. The new, thin edition has a great new cover, just re-released by the Cowley Brothers. What other book gets blurbs from Kirkpatrick Sale and Philip Yancey? How many others know that is remarkable? Praise God in heaven.

Another sign of hope within evangelical circles in the 90Õs was the Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation endorsed by several hundred church leaders through-out the world since its release in 1994. A book which published this document was released a few years back with an excellent array of Biblical scholars, theologians and writers of note, an excellent theological primer to the topic. The Care of Creation: Focusing Concern and Action edited by R.J. Berry (IVP) includes a great line-up of authors: Richard Bauckham, Calvin DeWitt, Susan Drake, Alister McGrath, Jurgen Moltmann, Oliver O’Donovan, Ron Sider, Loren Wilkinson and others. What a grand collection of serious essays. With a forward by John Stott, this is a major book of great significance, a document and book which helped propel the evangelical creation-care movement into action at the end of the millenium. The editor R.J. Berry (past President of the British Ecological Society) it is a book that is insightful, careful, passionate, and important.

Also in the mid-90’s an IVP released a book on Christian views of the ecological crisis that has a more scientific flavor. Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship was a collaboration by four evangelical biologists, each renowned in their sub-fields, or teaching roles. With good discussion questions (and a thoughtful forward by the always thoughtful James Sire) this brings the light of God’s Word to bear on important questions of population, rain forests, animal habitats, and, yes, more than a decade ago, the depletion of the ozone layer and the concerns about carbon emissions and global warming. A clarion call to a Biblically informed and factual approach to our individual and corporate response to the creation in crisis. Very, very well done and a good primer on the theological and scientific issues.

For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care by Steven Bouma-Prediger (Baker) is, I am happy to report, now, the best book on the market on this topic. With splendid prose, extraordinary insight (drawing on his evangelical and Reformed tradition in dialogue with the best mainline thinkers---Steven did his Master’s work on Lutheran scholar, Joseph Sittler) and a fine mix of science, Bible, theology, spirituality and a passionate call to both enjoy and protect GodÕs creation, this is the book to work up to. It is mature and thoughtful, generous and compelling, and well worth the time spent with it. We cannot commend it enough, and, having talked with Steven and heard recordings of his talks, know him to be a wonderful communicator and deeply integrated scholar. The benchmark in the field; kudos all around.

Perhaps these books didn’t sell well, and others that came out didn’t sell well at all. We’ve stocked ‘em and promoted ‘em. (One sales rep observed to me that we were able to stock them because we had an environmental studies section in the store and most Christian bookstores, even theologically serious stores, do not.) I don’t know about that, but I do know that, a category or no, we don’t sell many, beautiful and thoughtful and urgent as they may be. But in recent years, there has been a lull in evangelical publishers addressing this topic, with not much new, even now, as it heats up literally and figuratively. If there was ever a need for a reliable and passionate and clear and faithful Christian perspective, it is now.

Thank goodness for now for a great release by Zondervan, who took a self-published hardback (we stocked it, by gum) and just released it in a nifty, smallish paperback, with blurbs from hipster Shane Claiborne, who endorses it in a truly beautiful line or two on the back. J. Matthew Sleeth is a family doctor who has got a fire in his belly about Christian action, and has called his manifesto Serve God Save the Planet (Zondervan) Brian McLaren writes on the front that this is "the best single book I’ve found to help people of faith learn practical ways to fulfill our call to be stewards and caretakers of God’s beautiful creation." The single best? If you know anything about Brian, you know his love of turtles, his care for his Chesapeake wetlands region, and his passion for inviting wonder at the goodness of God’s natural world. I concur: this is the best starter book these days, new, fresh, covering the Biblical basis for concern, a bit about the nature of the crisis, some overarching principles and tons of good stuff to think about and do. He combines lovely storytelling–think James Herriot---and incisive insight into environmental health into a book we should buy, discuss, get into book clubs, church libraries and anywhere else folks are talking about this stuff. Or places where they aren’t. Sleeth works full time in this sort of ministry, now, in Wilmore, Kentucky.

Speaking of turtles---have you seen Timothy, or, Notes of an Abject Reptile by Verlyn Klinkenborg (Knopf)? One of the more interesting books in our nature writing section, this is a droll and wise work, McKibben says, "of the highest imagination---and one of the best meditations on slowness, patience, and endurance I’ve ever read." Wonderful writers like Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez and Kent Haruf have endorsed it. Timothy has been called luminous and disarming and astonishing, it is a very creatively- imagined study of natural history from the point of view of a long-dead tortoise.

Which, dear reader, makes me want to write dozens of more annotations, citing our favorite nature writers (see my reflections from a few years ago as I wrote about the truly special writing of Kathleen Dean Moore.) Do you read Orion, on line, or in the fabulous hard-copy editions? Don’t you want to read more Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Barbara Kingsolver? (Whose much-anticipated, first full-length nonfiction narrative is due out next month---Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life--- and may be one of the best books of the year, garnering the kind of interest as last year’s Omnivore’s Dilemma.) God’s good earth deserves nurturing and protecting, and I am serious about promoting theologically oriented books that show an evangelical perspective on creation care. But these tangents are so seductive… I’m tempted to tell of food books, gardening books, rural life books, memoirs, and meditations. Keep an eye on the blog for more.

Two or three tangents, though: I can’t help myself.

Robert Benson is an author who is well loved for this sense of the sacred in his memoirs and prayer books. Brand new---and I am hooked, having read many of the short chapters in my first sitting----is his Digging In: Tending to Life in Your Own Backyard (Waterbrook.) "This is what gardening is really aboutÉnot only getting your hands dirty, but the experiences of life lessons that grow from the garden. Touching, funny, delightful." That, from Rebecca Kolls, host of Rebecca’s Garden. Benson’s good writing has been acclaimed by Luci Shaw and Fredrick Buechner, Macrina Wiederkehr and Paula D’Arcy. He is very good, and this is a lovely, wise set of reflections.

The Walk by William deBuys (Trinity University Press) was just released, a long awaited memoir by the esteemed New Mexico writer of River of Traps which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize a decade ago. Serious lovers of literary nature writing will know how significant it is with rave endorsements from the likes of Bill McKibben and David James Duncan, who says that it "finds language in land and grace in people, and forces despair to hold hands with beauty, truth and hope."

DeBuys says, "This book explores the intertwining of personal history and natural history in a familiar landscape to nurture the recovery of hope. Horses run through it as both physical and metaphorical beings. Their repeated entry into the narrative came about without planning or intention: they just galloped in." The Walk is said to be "part memoir and part natural and cultural history, yet is also a love story of sorts---the love for a place." Watch our BookNotes blog as I will surely run a brief excerpt, to give you a taste of the wonderful writing, the attention to detail that critics have said "open great vistas in the heart." All of this healing told in three interconnected essays, about love for a small town, conjured mostly by walking around. Walking in place.

There is much writing and allusion to and interest in a theology of place these days. One of the best, again, one that would make a fabulous small group study or adult class or reflection for a prayer group is You Gave Me A Wide Place: Holy Places in Our Lives by Paul E. Stroble (Upper Room.) This sweet and provocative book insists that places are important, that memories and rituals and geographies are important (as Kathleen Norris reminded us in Dakota, for instance.) Stroble weaves together marvelous stories, offers good exercises for recalling your own memories of place, and offers questions, prayers and discussion stuff for groups. "God not only gives us grace and divine presence, but actively creates "space" in our places and circumstances," he writes. This book will help you "identify those divine wide places (Psalm 18:36) in the locations sacred to us: a room, a historical site, a natural wonder, a highway, a church, or a childhood spot." Nice.

Which, if you are following, brings us rather full circle. Memories. I don’t know where you were in the 70’s and 80’s---if you were even reading, yet! And I suppose many of us have changed our views----hardening or softening, being more adamant or less---about the social and political and moral matters of the day. I shared above my disapproval of the meanness of the Vonnegut line, but, yet, it captures something of my life in those years, time spent in long, deep prayer against the principalities and powers at the Pentagon, corresponding with those who had been jailed for nonviolent protests at nuclear facilities, time spent mourning our loss of good gardening in the only childhood home that Beth ever knew, the only place where that dear family grafted me into their place. I think even now of my father in law’s organic garden, ruined by the fall-out from TMI. And his World War II greatest generation attitude that They would not lie to us about these things. But lie they did. Vonnegut was right about that. It stunk to high heaven.

* * *

I listed, above, in my meandering memoir of books that were important in those years, Capitalism and Progress the very serious overview of economic history by Bob Goudzwaard, a prestigious volume written carefully---if in broad strokes---by a dear Dutch parliament member, a leader in the Christian political party founded a century earlier by theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper. Dr. Goudzwaard encouraged us in those years. His grace and insight has been generative, as Bible scholars and activists and scholars and policy geeks have been inspired by his several books. From conservative Calvinist circles to the highest leaders of the World Council of Churches, Bob’s commitment to peace, justice, environmental stewardship, meaningful employment, and a neo-Kuyperian intuition about the flow of ideas and the formation of culture, has been a rare gift. His multi-faceted and sane vision of sustainable development has been steady and influential. I was privileged to work a bit on one page of research for his translator for a book on ideology and idolatry, a small volume, Idols of Our Time, first released by IVP. It is my absolute joy to tell you that that book has been very significantly re-worked, expanded and redone, in cooperation with two other young authors (including my own very good bud, former Pittsburgh comrade, Mark Vander Vennen.) It is being released as a fully new book, with a new title, later this month, with a remarkable array of endorsements and international support. (It isn’t every book, you know, that starts off with a wonderful forward by Desmond Tutu!)

You will hear more of this from us in the months to come. Although it isn’t precisely on the ecological struggles, its study of the interplay of so many contemporary social and moral crises makes it a perfect book with which to end this month’s column. I am very excited about it, and proud to have even the slightest hand in making in known.

Hope in Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises has just been released by Baker, and has stunning blurbs by John Perkins, James Skillen, Jim Wallis, Nic Wolterstorff, Brian McLaren, and other world leaders. When we reject the idols of our time---the animating forces since the Enlightenment, which Goudzwaard’s shows in his old Capitalism and Progress have driven both capitalism and Marxism---we can not only offer true and Godly ideas to a culture in need of radical reformation, we can be people of genuine and authentic hope. Ahhh, hope. Is this not was brother Vonnegut lacked? Is that not what drove the extremist cultural critics of our times? Is this not a core part of the gospel itself?

Here is what Brian Walsh (who cites Goudzwaard in each of his books) has written of it. Perhaps it will interest you. Most likely, by the time you are reading this, the book will be on its way to our store. When it comes I will kneel down and thank God, for authors like this, who have helped us nurture a new way of being in the world, for showing a kind of faith that attempts to make a difference, for the legacy of a worldview that is big and truthful and gracious enough to tackle even the principalities and powers of a society gone haywire, and which to the glory of Christ can offer hope for a creation that groans and groans.

"Without an in-depth struggle with the realities that render us paralyzed, numbed out, and fated, hope is mere sentimentality–a cheap wishfulness. Hope in Troubled Times grasps the nature of our troubles and the complex interrelatedness of the issues with a stunning and sometimes devastating clarity… In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, Goudzwaard, Vander Vennen, and Van Heemst deconstruct the ideologically loaded idolatries that plague us. And then, in a move of breathtaking audacity, they propose that paths of justice, love, and truth can be unshackled from their idolatrous chains and embraced as principles and directives embedded in nothing less than the very landscape of reality itself."

April 3, 2007

Understanding the Hard Texts of the Bible

I realize it is April and I never announced to you that the March monthly website article over at the Hearts & Minds website is available to read. It is a long one, a review essay where I list bunches of books and important authors about how to read the Bible. Actually, it is a bit more complicated than that, and I trust you will check it out. Please click here.

A month ago, a college student was chastised by a professor who appeared to be hostile to his traditional Christian convictions about the reliability and authority of the Bible. Whether this well-intended prof would challenge a Muslim or Jewish student I cannot say, but this young fellow felt a bit unsure how to respond, and he wrote to me. I was a bit frustrated---reading more into the situation than perhaps was warranted---that so many secular-minded professors feel at liberty to critique the Old or New Testament documents even if they may not have done serious study into the trustworthiness of these documents themselves. Further, it is commonplace that folks that are otherwise smart and nuanced blast away in the most simplistic way against the wars in the Bible or the mistreatment of women, as if no one has ever struggled with those questions within the church and as if there are simply no compelling arguments in favor of the traditional answers to these perplexing questions. So this student's questions got me thinking about all the books we have about hermeneutics and the ones that try to reply to the very legitimate questions about "the texts of terror" and the harder passages.

I wrote a long, long letter to this young man, and offer an edited version in the column. I hope you find it of interest, and, if you think it is balanced and thoughtful, offering some helpful titles and resources that sound interesting, pass it on to those who might enjoy it. I of course want folks to read this stuff, and hope a few even order books from us. But just knowing these books are out there, and reading my perky annotations, may be encouragement enough for some.

Here's a warning, though: those with a static view either way----the Bible is God's Word ( end of story), OR, the Bible is a man-made collection of biased writings that are violent and we've progressed beyond them---will be disappointed. I hope, though, that many will consider these kinds of titles, the approaches I recommend, and feel inspired to read a couple of books about the most important book in Western history. We owe it to ourselves, and to the Story itself, to learn as much as we can about it. I hope this helps.

April 6, 2007

The resolution of the symphony of history: the death and resurrection of Jesus

I know there are various ways to think about the atonement, and this ugly Friday reminds us of many. And I am aware that there is something troubling about only ever emphasizing one particular model of justification, since the Bible offers several, from adoption and reconciliation to victory over death. But underneath them all, there is this strong Biblical theme of what is at the heart of the Cross, what theologians call "substitionary atonement."

Here, then, from a breath-taking chapter on Christ's sacrifice, from John Piper's The Pleasures of God.

Something troubling has emerged in these chapters.

We have seen that God has pleasure in His Son: he delights in the glory of his own perfections reflected back to him in the countenance of Christ. We have seen that God delights in his sovereign freedom: the Lord is in heaven and does all that he pleases. We have seen that he rejoices over the work of his hands: day by day they declare his glory. We have seen that God has pleasure in his fame: he aims to make a name for himself in all the world and win a reputation for the glory of his grace from every people and tribe and language and nation. And we have seen that, as a means to that end, God has had pleasure in election from before creation: he delights to reveal the glory of his Son to babes and to call out for himself an unlikely people who will make their boast only in the Lord.

Clearly God has a great passion to promote his glory. But the troubling thing that emerges is that God has chosen sinners. He is honoring and blessing and exalting a people who are sinners. And the essence of sin is the belittling of God's glory. Something is askew here. A god infinitely committed to promote the worth of his name and the greatness of his glory is engaging all his powers to bring the enemies of his name into everlasting joy and honor!

Make no mistake, sin is diametrically opposed to the glory of God....(in Romans 3:23) Paul means that sinners have fallen short of prizing the glory of God. We have exchanged the glory of God for something else: for images of glory, like a new home or car or VCR or vacation days or impressive resumes or whatever makes our ticker tick more than the wonder of God's glory...

...The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the resolution of the symphony of history. In the death of Jesus the two themes of God's love for his glory and his love for sinners are resolved. As in all good symphonies there had been hints and suggestions of the final resolution. That is what we have in Isaiah 53 seven hundred years before Jesus came...

John Piper
"The Pleasure of God in Bruising the Son"
The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God's Delight in Being God

April 9, 2007

Eugene Peterson on resurrection life

One year ago, shortly after Easter, I noted this book, then new, about the daily newness brought by Christ's victory and the ways to refresh our understandings of discipleship by looking at the post-resurrection stories in the gospels.

I thought I'd run that post again. I'll tell ya'll about his spectacular brand new one, The Jesus Way, soon, but thought this wonderful one is truly worth re-launching. Happy Eastertide!

(Eugene) Peterson's Field Guide to the Resurrection

I couldn't resist the cheap pun, that I've used too many times for other of his rich books; Petersen's Field Guides to Pastoral Ministry or Petersen's Field Guide to the Psalms. I know, it makes you smile, maybe, but only once. Many know the original Peterson field guides---birds, bugs, rocks, flowers. Every family should have a couple, and Reverend Peterson, himself a hiker and birder, would say so too.

Living the Resurrection: The Risen Christ in Everyday Life
isn't exactly a field guide. It isn't quick facts and figures, stats and pictures. But it does give the lay of the land, offering glimpses into a life lived with God, explained by a seasoned and discerning guide. I am teaching a Sunday school class on the book and find that nearly every single page is underlined, dog-earred; it looks shabby with coffee-stained and hand-torn napkin bookmarks and a couple post-it notes peaking out. So much of this is great stuff. It is rich, solid, provocative, elequant--in Peterson's rather slow, down-to-Earth, no-nonsense manner. Like The Message he uses common phrases, not at all purple. This is, as said the other day, sturdy. Just like the resurrection he describes.

I can't tell you how I've enjoyed this book---I've listened to the taped lectures from which the book was drawn several times and read the book twice, at least. Now, after Easter, would be an excellent time to use it in your devotional reading or in a small group.

Living the Resurrection makes a bold claim about how attentiveness to the bodily resurrection forms us in ways that help us live, really live---"before God in the land of the living" as the death-conscious, troubled Psalm 116 puts it. It is all about the spirituality of the ordinary, and how astonishment and amazement form the foundation for being open to the presence of God. There are three long chapters:

Resurrection Wonder
Resurrection Meals
Resurrection Friends

I do not criticize when I say that this book feels somewhat like a large and important parenthesis to Peterson's majesterial Christ Plays in 10,000 Places, a book we were happy to name an H&M Book of the Year last year. It is arranged somewhat similiarly, with good theological anyalsis, guidance for spirituality in ways that are not overly flamboyant or manuevered (let alone manufactured), and important attention to the cultural practices that erode or deconstruct Christian spirituality. Resurrection wonder, meals and friendship must be reclaimed from an inhospitable culture that, in its speed and mastery, slides us away from an awareness of good creation and Christ-bought redemption. It is a wise and helpful approach.

Take a good look at the cover, too. Nice touch, eh?

Living The Resurrection: The Risen Christ in Everyday Life Eugene H. Peterson (NavPress) $16.99

April 15, 2007

New Tolkien on Tuesday!

A stunning book annoucement was made quite a few months back, word that many of us had heard rumors about for years: faithful third son of J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher, had finished collating a manuscript of his fathers, creating, essentially, the first new Tolkien novel in thirty years. As he did with the very important, and by most accounts wonderful, Silmarillion, the junior Tolkein was faithful to the intent, story, Middle Earth worldview and prose of the story-in-progress. This, I would guess, will be the last real story from the pen of J.R.R. we shall see.

It hits stores this week, and we have it now. If you want us to send it, we can do so, asap. It is called, as those who care most likely know, The Children of Hurin. It is published, of course, by Houghton Mifflin, and sells, in hardback, for $26.00. It includes full color art by famed Middle-earth artist, Alan Lee.

If you say you saw it annouced here, we will give you 25% off, this week only. BLOG SPECIAL read@heartsandmindsbooks.com 717.246.3333

from the dust jacket:

Children of Hurin reminds us that there are tales of Middle-earth from times long before The Lord of the Rings, and the story told in this book is set in the great country that lay beyond the Grey Havens in the West: lands where Treebeard once walked, but that were drowned in the great cataclysm that ended the First Age of the World.

In that remote time Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, dwelt in the vast fortress of Angband, the Hells of Iron, in the North; and the tragedy of Turin and his sister Nienor unfolded within the shadow of the fear of Angband and the war waged by Morgoth against the lands and secret cities of the Elves.

Christopher Tolkien notes that, "The earliest versions of this story go back to the end of the First World War and the years that followed; but long afterward, when The Lord of the Rings was finished, he wrote it anew and greatly enlarged it in complexities of motive and character: it became the dominant story in his later work on Middle-earth. But he could not bring it to a final and finished form. In this book I have endeavored to construct, after long study of the manuscripts, a coherent narrative without any editorial invention."

Here is a site that has some good background information about the new book. Here is another important one, noting the dark nature of some of the story. And for all things Tolkien, visit The Tolkien Library.

And, while you're at it, listen to "All That Is Gold", a wonderful, wonderful folk song by Brooks Williams (from his Back To Mercy CD.) It is inspired by the poems sung by the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings.

April 17, 2007

Trying to Stand in a Fallen World

In light of the sad, sad news of the latest school shootings, and the concerns, generally, about helping students relate faith and life, living meaningfully in the face of the hard stuff of our damaged culture, I thought of this beloved song, a song I've played in collegiate workshops and faith-in-the-real-world kind of talks, especially with students. I think of my younger friends---like those at the Ocean City Beach Project, say, or the younger staff of the CCO, or my old confirmation class kids, most of whom are now away at school---and I just nearly cry. It is good to hear, not just in the news, but, here, "the bloody moon is on the rise" and yet "I swear you're not alone."

Have you ever felt this way? Longing for the light of day?

Pierce Pettis ©1993 Piercepettisongs (ASCAP)

Won't you take this down for me
Down to the highway and set it free
Where you can hear that rain slick sigh
Of the semis blowin' by

Do you ever feel this way
Like there is no escape
And you're out there all alone
In a place that's not your home

Trying to stand in a fallen world

Do you recall when we were released
Clutching diplomas and degrees
Bursting out like diver's breath
That hasn't hit the surface yet

Do you ever feel this way
Like somehow we have been betrayed

And you wanna' rail against the crowd
Conspicuous and loud

Trying to stand in a fallen world

A bloody moon is on the rise
Like a Jolly Roger in the sky
A silent witness with its light
To another night of crime

Do you ever feel this way
Longing for the light of day
Then I send to you my song
And I swear you're not alone

Trying to stand in a fallen world

I've been told that Pierce wrote this song for the
memorial service of songwriter and friend, Mark Heard.

Click here for the Pierce Pettis website.

April 18, 2007

Rallying the Really Human Things

A few days ago we celebrated the long-awaited release of the first new Tolkien novel in thirty years, The Children of Hurin. I considered offering a reflection, a day or so later, on the campus shootings and how this epic adventure---with its power, violence, the ring, evil, redemption---might help us process the tragedy at Virginia Tech. As you know, I offered instead another piece of redemptive art, the lyric of a favorite Pierce Pettis song.

Still, I come back to the urgency of great literature, of reading, of stories and truths told in books. So I will offer just a few random suggestions, starting with a few about Tolkien's imaginary world, moving to some others more generally about the role of literature in our lives; nothing exhaustive, of course. Books about books are among our favorites, and there are plenty.

The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-Earth Ralph Wood (Westminister/John Knox) $14.95 Many know Dr. Wood as a thoughtful Christian scholar (he teaches at Baylor), an engaging professor, and a passionate Middle Earth buff. Here, he offers his insights in a very readable, yet thoughtful book. It is the perfect, smart starter book in this whole area of pondering the theological vision of Tolkien and how we can see God's truth in these grand stories.

Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in The Lord of the Rings Matthew Dickerson (Brazos) $14.95 This serious book is very well-informed by the author's knowledge not only of the Tolkein tale, but other epic traditions and stories; Dickerson makes a good case for this views, and shows how knowing these classic tales can enhance our enjoyment of the literature and gain deep insights about morality and truth. Again, this Middlebury professor is beloved on campus and an active Christian thinker and leader.

The Battle for Middle-Earth: Tolkein's Divine Design in The Lord of the Rings Flemin Rutledge (Eerdmans) $22.00 One of the best Episcopal preachers around, an author who has published sermons preached in her New York city parish, Rutledge is greatly respected as a thoughtful theologian. Here, in Ralph Wood's words, she "writes about the moral and theological life of The Lord of the Rings with immense verve and insight." What grace!

Lord of the Elves & Eldils Richard Purtill (Ignatius) $15.95 The subtitle says it all: Fantasy and Philosophy in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. An important Catholic author, Purtill is well-respected and gives us a very useful account.

From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy Matthew Dickerson & David O'Hara (Brazos) $19.99 The excellent author of Following Gandalf here gives us the best overview of the significance of myth and fantasy and fairy stories that I know of. Excellent examples, with chapters on everything from Beowulf to Back of the North Wind; from Authurian legends to the "dark matieral" of Philip Pullman. Fabulous.

Rallying the Really Human Things: The Moral Imagination in Politics, Literature and Everyday Life Vegen Guroian (ISI) $15.00 This thick paperback is weighty with ideas, thoughtful, richly wise, well-written by a writer and scholar of great renown. Do you know this Loyola Orthodox professor? He shows up, as most of the best of our day do, on Ken Meyer's Mars Hill Audio Journal from time to time, reflecting on all kinds of things (we love his little books on gardening!) Here, he uses great writers to illuminate important issues of our time. One critic calls him "a scholar of the Real." I think the title is from Chesterton.

There Before Us: Religion, Literature, and Culture from Emerson to Wendell Berry Edited by Roger Lundin (Eerdmans) $18.00 Again, this is a collection edited by a famed evangelical spokesperson for the life of the mind, a renowned public intellectual and respected scholar. Lundin edits, here, a host of writers--many whom I do not know--writing about various aspects of the history of the interplay between faith and culture in American literature. Mark Noll writes, "From the Puritans to the era of Updike, Morrison, and Walker Percy, American literature has always been obsessed with religion. But expert criticism on that obsession, while never entirely absent, has lagged far behind. This outstanding collection..." As Dale Brown (whose named appeared here a few weeks back as I was promoting his spectacular new book on Buechner) observes, "this has reminded me of the centricity of faith issues in the lives and works of iconic American authors like Thoreau, Twain, Dickinson, and Melville..." Heavy, good, stuff.

The Language of Grace: Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and Iris Murdoch Peter S. Hawkins (Seabury) $13.00 Thank goodness the old Seabury imprint is back in business; Hawkins is the co-editor of the wonderful Augsburg-Fortress series of books Listening for God: Contemporary Literature and the Life of Faith. He he turns his good eye to these three twentieth century novelists.

The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age Sven Birkerts (Fawcett) $14.00 I used to say this was one of my favorite memoirs, ever, as this good author tells of his falling in love with books, his interest in the promotion of literature (he worked at a bookstore!) and his humane concerns about the impact of the role of computers and cyberspace upon our habits of reading and writing. I love this guy, and so enjoyed this elegiac story about why reading matters.

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books Maureen Corrigan (Vintage) $13.95 Now out in paperback, this is a book-lover's treasure; as Bobbie Ann Mason says, "If you ever wonder about the secret life of a bookworm, this is the book that will open up the rich rewards of going around with your nose stuck n a book." More, this reflective memoir not only helps you understand her love for books and the act of reading---and how it shapes who we are---but you learn a whole lot about a whole lot of authors, titles, books and writers.

April 21, 2007

Wilberforce & the Reformation of Manners

My column appeared last week in the York Sunday News and I wasn't going to post about it here.

It isn't exactly about books----well, I do mentioned three, in passing---and I've already done several posts on the Amazing Grace film and the great batch of newly published Wilberforce books. But recent events made me want to share this essay with our broader Hearts & Minds circle of friends.

My new piece in the local paper used Wilberforce's second great goal (after the suppression of the slave trade) as a way into the conversation about manners and morals, culture and policy, popular entertainment and the arts, heart change and social change. I need not remind most BookNotes friends that my previous piece in that paper most likely appealed to human rights activists and liberal politicos while this new one might appeal more to those with more traditionally conservative cultural leanings. Please read it here at the York Sunday News website; not sure how long it will be up, so do check it out soon. Why not post your feedback---what do you think about the coursening of our public discourse, the obvious lack of modesty, the ways in which pop culture has become so vulgar?

I wrote this, by the way, before the Imus flap, and the recent debates about X-rated rap, before the horror at Virginia Tech, and the renewned discussions about violent computer games and the gunman's sexual violence. That I used Wilberforce is no cheap trick, as he indeed had a variety of concerns, saw deep relationships between the arts and politics, between the deepest matters of faith and the most arcane details of global economic justice. He was an advocate for Bible distribution and early spokesman for animal rights, was apparently kind and honest and good.

The original Dubya was a lover of books, a great singer, a man of deep faith and solid theology and a lovely host at the many good parties he threw. Walden Media did him right in their marvelous film and I'm glad for the recent biographies, such as the splendid one by Eric Metaxas which I celebrated a month ago (browse back to 2-4-09.) If only we all could, in our own places, nurture this kind of thoughtful, engaged, principled, prayerful activism.

April 25, 2007

Best Things in Life, The Brothers K and Christian poetry

A group of high school students meets here every week and over cookies and exotic teas we talk philosphy. A diverse range of worldviews and philosophical opinion are represented, and it isn't a group designed for Christians. Several of the students have taken an introduction to philosophy class at the local high school, and we get together to keep at it. It is informal and fun. We have been reading----sometimes out loud for effect---the great little book by Peter Kreeft, The Best Things in Life where a Socrates character comes to a modern college and asks good questions of Peter Pragmo and Felcia Flake. We don't know that much about Plato, and I get my digs at dualism in when I can, but, mostly, we've been impressed with Socrates willingness to ask everybody the question of why they do what they do, why they believe as they do, and what reality or truthfulness they base their views upon, and what "ends" they most hope for.

Any of Kreeft's books are well worth reading, and several are ideal for smart, young folks, so we commend them---The Journey is a walk through history where the seeker meets a variety of thinkers, each who offer him yet another piece of the puzzle of forming a coherent worldview. Between Heaven and Hell is a mythical, afterlife dialogue between three fellas that all died on the same day (yes, this part is true, as most BookNote readers will know): John F. Kennedy, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis. In Kreeft's fun, fair hands, the three---an American humanist, a new agey Pantheist, and a classical Christian--wonder, first off, where the, uh, heck, they are.

Last night, though, we had some special guests. A local philosophy prof and a well-loved English teacher from the high school came to help us through "The Grand Inquisitor" (here for Wikipedia) that intense chapter, a prose-poem, from Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamozov. We had a long and wide-ranging discussion, with many of us wishing we were better read, in philosophy, literature, and, yes, poetry. Although there was not a consensus on that, despite the passionate cheerleading for poetry voiced by the lit teacher.

And so, today, in my in-box (and I hope in some of yours) came the weekly Trinity Forum on-line e-zine, Implications. There was a marvelous, marvelous piece by T.M. Moore on why the followers of Jesus should care about the "second sight" we can nurture by being poetry-lovers. He makes a theological and practical case for reading poetry, and offers three lovely meditations on three good ones (by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Denise Levertov, and Wendell Berry.) Please click here to read this wonderful essay "The World in a Ray of Sun: Poetry as Spiritual Discipline" by T. M. Moore. The most recent book of his that I have read, by the way, published by Presbyterian & Reformed, is a great study of creation, Consider the Lilies: A Plea for Creational Theology.

Moore recommends a great, thick, paperback, Sacrifice of Praise: An Anthology of Christian Poetry from Caedmon to the Mid-Twentieth Century edited by James Trott (with a forward by Larry Woidode.) Published by Cumberland House; $26.95 Of course, we stock it. Here is a good review of it, published at Ransom Fellowship's website.

BLOG SPECIAL Place an order in verse, writing a poem to tell us what you want and get 25% off any book mentioned in this post Do it here by posting a comment for all to see, if you'd like, or email me at read@heartsandmindsbooks.

April 28, 2007

Good Monsters

We've been out on the road selling books at events so much lately that the boxes we bring back have piled up in the garage and the store's stock room and even our dining and living room. We have stuff scattered here and there, too much of a lot, and yet we're missing things; general chaos rules around here, usually, and we're in a hard season. Beth has been sick with vertigo and hearing loss (thanks for praying, you faithful friends) and it has been tricky, with no small amount of anxiety from yours truly.

Now, I've got to pick, pull, pack, and lug boxes and boxes of books from these crazy overstock storage places, and the store itself, for an upcoming gig...been working, finally, for hours and hours at it.

And so, my old love for music comes back, cranking up the CD while in the stockroom. I listen to music less than I used to, although my favorites still mean a lot to me----VOL and Bill Mallonee, Bruce Cockburn, Brooks Williams, Nanci Griffith, Mark Heard, U2 (we carried 'em when we opened in 82!) The Band (order the new tribute album from us, for sheer fun and some very moving renditions) and, always, Jackson Browne (do you know the project he did, Some Bridges, with a very funky black gospel choir, Fred Martin and the Levite Camp? Wow!) I listen to mostly classical when I can. In the store we play baroque and Bach and Handel and Windham Hill and tons of Irish fiddle tunes, and solo acoustic guitar discs.

But the last few days, for my hours of work in the book cellar--that is supposed to sound like wine cellar, or maybe bookseller---I put the player on repeat, and listened to the same wonderful album over and over. It was acclaimed as extraordinary and historic by CCM magazine when it came out, but, to be honest, I'm a bit jaded about that whole scene, so not sure what that meant. I listened to it a few times this fall, liked it, but didn't get hooked, at first. I was still enjoying their fine acoustic hymns album, Redemption Songs and the last few by Patty Griffith. And Indeliable Grace.

Anyway, I respect, really, really respect, these guys for several important reasons----their thoughtful approach to culture, their humilty, their living into their social obligations, their artistry, their reading habits (and because they thank two of my best buds on the planet, Ken Heffner and Steve Garber, in the liner notes.) But there are artists I respect, but don't listen to much. I've enjoyed these fellas' work from the very first day the first album came out, and have promoted them in the store and have listened to all their stuff, often. For whatever reason, I'm just slow on the take on this one.

But, I have finally realized, Good Monsters, by Dove and Grammy award winners, Jars of Clay, is stunning. I can't stop listening to it, over and over. Every song is musically rich, grabbing me, now that I've allowed myself to pay attention. There is a progression to the songs, they move towards some kind of climax. The upbeat, driving reminder that I am dead, needing to be a new man, gets me every time; I repeated that song a dozen times. (Yes, I've been book unpacking, packing and repacking a lot.) And "Oh My God" ends up in a passionate and devestating crescendo.

The song "Light Makes Heat" with the African Children's Choir doing some moody background work is amazing; lyrically allusive, but surely emerging from Jars' important African blood:water mission work. What a song!

I am exhausted, from the book work, the choosing and studying and praying and thinking about the past book shows and the upcoming trips and set-ups---my own little bit of preformance art, but also from the carthatic experience of allowing this music to wash over me and shape me and move me. Thanks, Jar guys.

Here is an excellent piece, well written and insightful, about the band, written by Mark Joseph a few years back, at NRO. One of the great reviews of Good Monsters which says it is their best album yet, and which plumbs the universal themes of struggling with depravity and good intentions and the need for redemption which it musically presents, can be found here, written by Tony Shore at HM. Read the posted reply, too, by "Ryan" which has a clear understanding of the themes of the record. And, for a very intelligent review, from an outpost that doesn't suffer fools, or treat faith-filled albums with kid gloves, read here.

I offer these links because at this late hour, even after listening and enjoying and even crying through this remarkable pop album, I don't quite know how to say it any better than these good reviewers. Check 'em out. Or mess around the Jars website----the creative videos are pretty amazing, and the one for Work just won a prominent award last night.


Jars of Clay
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regularly $17.98
now $12.98
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