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REVIEW: Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church by Scot McKnight ON SALE

If you've recently dropped in to the Hearts & Minds Facebook page, you'll know we were just in Boston selling books with the Christian Legal Society, a fascinating organization of Christians who are lawyers, judges, law profs and such.  This is a large challenge and huge privilege for us.  When we work with these kinds faith-based professional associations or hang out with activist folks, we are glad for their ministries and service, scattered in the world. That God's Kingdom is advanced in some way through their witness and work - or at least signposts are created that point the way - seems evident and reminds us that God cares about God's whole world, not just the institutional church where believers gather. God's people are still church even when they leave the worship space, where they've first processed to gather, and then been commissioned to leave in service. It is obvious that the commonwealth of God grows - like that parable of the tree flourishing so that even the birds find refuge - and that the Kingdom of God is a unifying theme of the entire covenant story of Scripture.

 But what is God's Kingdom? 

Thanks for asking. It's a million dollar question, and we've got a new book that explores it well.  Unless one is willing to settle for an undeveloped simple view, or work to wade through weighty theology tomes, this may be one of the best ways into this important conversation.

We are very excited about the new Brazos Press hardback release, Kingdomkingdom conspiracy.jpg Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church by Dr. Scot McKnight (regularly $21.95; our BookNotes sale price is $17.60) and want to commend it to you.  But first, some of my own thoughts about it, such as they are.

One the large assumptions behind the nature of our store and the diverse array of topics we offer -- books on science, art, media, education, psychology, environmental science, war and peace, politics, film, outdoor adventure, engineering, urban affairs, parenting, nutrition, literature, and so much more -- is that the redemptive work of God in the world (Jesus called it the Kingdom of God) includes all areas of life (not just church and "religion") and He has inaugurated a trajectory that promises the full and glorious restoration of all creation.  I think it is our wide selection of books in so many categories, and our hope to suggest "Kingdom perspectives" in all fields that appeals to those who invite us to serve their events, like the aforementioned CLS.  If somebody asks us why we carry books on faith and law or faith and art or faith and science, we suspect they simply don't have a very fully developed understanding of the Kingdom of God.

There are many authors who in recent years have underscored this vision of the reformation of all things (think of N.T. Wright, just for instance, or our celebration of the For the Life of the World DVDs.) Many mainline denominational churches have an implicit vision of the restoration of all things, but seem a bit embarrassed by eschatology, not wanting to get mixed up in any goofy "left behind" stuff. So their own best resources for an "all of life redeemed" whole-life discipleship lie too often undeveloped or untapped.

One of our favorite authors along these lines who does offer a wide and wholistic vision is the remarkably productive New Testament scholar Scot McKnight. His excellent Kingking jesus.gif Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Zondervan; $19.99) and the very useful, fun, One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow (Zondervan; $14.99) are both fine books. Both offer this broad Kingdom vision and are very helpful as we explore how to bear witness to the coming Kingdom "on Earth as it is in Heaven."  His book on how to read the Bible well, Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Zondervan; $14.99) offers the very story of God's faithfulness to the creation, and Christ's redemptive story to heal and restore all things, as the key to read the plot line of the Bible.  He really gets this big picture story of God's creation-restoring good news. (McKnight's very popular Jesus Creed, by the way, was just re-released in an updated and slightly edited edition; that guide helps us live out the way of Jesus in daily life, learning to love God and others - wow, what a book!)

WHAT IS THE KINGDOM?

Many of us have been wishing for McKnight to spell out more of what he means by the Kingdom, what the reign of God is and isn't, sort of a deeper follow-up to the very good King Jesus Gospel.  This brand new Brazos Press book, Kingdom Conspiracy, may be his best effort yet. Despite my own disagreement with its biggest conclusion, it is going to be very, very helpful and we are happy to help promote it.  It is a book that loyal Hearts & Minds friends, especially, should consider owning.  It is very seriously informed by wide reading of the best scholarship - how does McKnight do it, knowing so much about so many sub-categories? -- and offers learned, but clear and interesting explanations.  It is a fine, fine book.

SKINNY JEANS AND PLEATED PANTS

Without a doubt, Mr. McKnight is sounding a bit of an alarm, and insofar as he is truly picking up concerns, I applaud his calling us to better formulations.  I don't know how many people really say this, but McKnight seems to think that some writers and leaders believe that any good effort in the world -- say, a social justice campaign or deeds of public righteousness, mercy, art, kindness, seeking the peace of the city -- necessarily builds God's Kingdom.  He claims that many younger post-evangelicals, especially (and he should know, he teaches them at Northern Seminary and is exceptionally involved in on-line writing and discussion) are not dissimilar to the older (mostly bankrupt) social gospel movement that seemed to think any decent human action could be considered a mark of the reign of God and in some way redemptive. God's Kingdom a-coming was so combined with the hopes of human progress that serious consideration of salvation, the role of the cross, and the necessity of the church was pretty much left behind. In that view, which McKnight cleverly calls the "skinny jeans" view of the Kingdom, there is such an emphasis on cultural engagement and social witness that there isn't much concern about evangelism or personal piety.  He contrasts this, perhaps with a nod to Willow Creek baby boomers, with the "pleated pants" gospel, which, as you can guess, overemphasizes personal evangelism and conventional views of constricted salvation aimed at getting people to heaven and perhaps a moralistic view of one's inner life.

(Of course there are also old school fundamentalists with a conservative, narrow faith who wear skinny jeans, and there are some pretty radical voices coming from guys in pleated pants. So, yeah, his clever set-up is only somewhat helpful, as if age or aesthetics were the determining factor as to whether one has a typically liberal view of a social gospel or a more typical evangelical view of a privatized one. These caricatures do help get the conversation started, at least, so don't let that trip you up. Skinny jeans or pleated pants.  Ha.)

In contrast to both kinds of wardrobe malfunctions (that's my little contribution to the cleverness afoot) Scot wants to say clearly that the Kingdom of God is more than personal salvation or the promise of a heavenly afterlife, but he also insists it is more than working for social justice, much more.  In The Kingdom Conspiracy, McKnight covers Biblical and theological ground that others have explored, although he brings his own urgent angle. The must-read book on this part of the story in my view is the impeccable Good News and Good Works: A Theology of the Whole Gospel by Ronald J. Sider (Baker; $20.00) which, interestingly, insists that the theme of the Kingdom of God is the central Biblical motif that brings together the personal and the public, word and deed, spiritual renewal and social action.

Still, in every age we need reminded of the epic tragedy of this terrible dilemma, this tendency for so many towards imbalance. How sad that there are still those that are all about social concern but care little for winsome evangelism, or those who ignore our cultural obligations and social witness due to their overemphasis of church planting or evangelism or spiritual formation. It seems easy to say it is "all of the above" and proclaim "the whole gospel."  Ahh, but it isn't so easy to convince everyone who follows Christ that it is "both/and" and that the gospel is multi-faceted, and the Kingdom is creation-wide.  Which brings us back to this question of what we mean by the Kingdom, the reign of God, Christ's Lordship, God's will done "on Earth... " And -- wait for it, there's more... and there is the questions of the relationship between the Kingdom and the church.  As you can tell from the subtitle of McKnight's book, this is his biggest burden.

IMcKnight - KC.pngn this very contemporary assessment, our author is convinced that both the Biblical material and the needs of the day demand that we reassert the primacy of the local church as being the crucible of the Kingdom.  Yes, yes, the Kingdom of God is the longed for creation restored, and Christ's Lordship is to be proclaimed (and lived out) in all of life, across all of culture. The weight of the argument of The Kingdom Conspiracy, though, is that this happens through the local church.

Even now, I can imagine eyes rolling as some readers say - well, duh; of course. For others, I can hear the possibilities of them buying this book slamming shut from States away. Those pleated pants and skinny jeans are acting up again, resisting McKnight's challenges, even though both camps really need to consider this book. We all do.

Again, to be clear, this isn't a new idea. It seems to me that it has resonance in one way or another with both the Roman Catholic and Episcopal traditions and with the Anabaptist views of the Brethren and Mennonites.) Consider, for instance, the exceptionally important work of Catholic Scripture scholar Gerhard Lohfink and his massive, celebrated work, Does God Need the Church? (Michael Glazier Books; $39.99) a title that McKnight surprisingly doesn't cite. Think of lovely recent books like Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (IVP; $16.00) that surely have a culturally-engaged, socially involved Kingdom vision, but put the locus of God's redemptive work within the community of faith living together in a world falling apart. (By the way, co-author of Slow Church, Christopher Smith will be here in Dallastown for a book talk on Friday night, November 7, 2014.)

Another personal favorite, a wonderful book that needs mentioned here is The Community of the King by Howard Snyder (IVP; $18.00.) It remains one of my all-time favorite books, and certainly one of the best on the local church, and he argues that the church, while not the entirety of the Kingdom coming, is at the heart of it.  McKnight agrees, and his willingness to assert this clearly is a large, important gift.  It is a good book about the Kingdom of God, but he laments our recent Kingdom visions to be somehow unconnected to the work of the church.

***

McKNIGHT'S KINGDOM VS. NEO-CALVNISM & KUYPER

Some of us who have encouraged followers of Christ to have a prophetic imagination and Christian mind about all manner of things -- all spheres of life are being redeemed and we must be "kingdom people" in all we do, after all -- have drawn on the reformational worldview of what some call neo-Calvinism.

(Please note that neo-Calvinism is a theological tradition and social movement these days stemming from the feisty and wholistic cultural reforms of the Dutch theologian of the late 1800s and early 1900s, a journalist, academic, statesman, and Prime Minister, Abraham Kuyper and is not the same as the popular, strict "new Calvinism" which is how some journalists describe the recent gospel coalition of those new to older forms of Calvinism and Puritanism. Neo-Calvinists are those who make much of the wide-as-life, creation-regained vision of renewed thinking in the line of the Dutch public theologian Kuyper; neo-Calvinism is the wholistic creation-being-redeemed vision that informs important voices as diverse as Francis Schaeffer and Brian Walsh, Neal Plantinga and Richard Mouw, Nicholas Woltersdorff and Calvin Seerveld, Herman Dooyeweerd and James Skillen, Anthony Bradley and Al Wolters, Comment magazine and Jamie Smith. I name these authors to offer further hints, spots on the map, for whom these names might ring a bell.)

It is a fascinating aspect of Kingdom Conspiracy that Scot McKnight interacts with this tradition, realizing that his Anabaptist vision is at odds with this reformational heritage.  You see, if, as Kuyper explored and as most neo-Calvinists proclaim, Christ's Kingship includes all dimensions of life and all zones of cultural affairs, then non-church spheres are every bit as much as God's Kingdom as is the churchly sphere.  Bankers and teachers and dancers and engineers are as much priests as are, well, priests in the church.

McKnight seems to realize that some form of Kuyperianism is capturing the imaginations of many these days (Andy Crouch's wonderful CT review of For the Life of the World was titled "Kuyper Goes Pop") and McKnight seems to realize that a robust creation-regained worldviewish vision of the Kingdom incarnated in all of life is one excellent way out of the dilemmas posed by the inadequacies of the individualized traditional gospel of the pleated pants crowd and the socially engaged emerging faith of the skinny jeans tribes.  And so, he takes on this ascending perspective. 

He briefly examines Mouw's delightful little book on Kuyper (Abraham Kuyper: A Shortabraham-kuyper-short-personal-introduction-richard-j-mouw-paperback-cover-art.jpg and Personal Introduction; Eerdmans; $16.00) and ponders "Kuyperian secularism." In a footnote he applauds Steve Garber's splendid book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good (IVP; $16.00) calling it "important" but suggests it doesn't talk enough about the church, a fault he attributes to Andy Crouch's Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling (IVP; $20.00) as well.

I point this out because I know that some of our BookNotes readers will be glad for this conversation, and will want to follow the discussions prompted by McKnight's re-assessment of Kingdom theology.  It is great to see a good thinker and writer of McKnight's stature (and popularity) grappling with these themes of neo-Calvinism that have so influenced some of our favorite thinkers and writers and leaders.

Allow me a big aside, a story which might help you unpack this a bit, if you don't intuit where this is going. Or at least it might clarify my concerns with the implications of this.

I mentioned my appreciation for the great book The Community of the King by thec of the k.gif radical Wesleyan Howard J. Snyder.  I'm glad that book is still in print, and I still recommend it regularly.

You may want to know that it was the second book I ever reviewed in a real magazine, a brief review appearing in Sojourners back in the 70s.  I suggested, however, after glowing remarks, that to insist that the Kingdom is mostly found in the supportive relationships within the local fellowship, the church, is to not only to fail to enunciate the wide-as-creation scope of Christ's Kingdom, but to fail church members by not adequately honoring the complexity of their callings to work in the world, outside the proverbial walls of the sanctuary.  I took Snyder to task, as I recall, for telling the story of his friend and parishioner Archie, a good man and fine grocer, with nary a word of his Kingdom obligations as a grocer. From where does he buy his food, how does he work with vendors that mistreat their migrant workers, what is his role in the global food industry of cash cropping? How does Archie educate consumers about chemical additives and such? What does it look like to be a Christian grocer, not just a grocer who happens to be a good churchman? One person replied to me in a letter, those decades ago, suggesting I was nuts.  Another thought I was needlessly hard on old Archie.

Well, perhaps God has caused the stones to rise up, like Jesus predicted, since we now have a major culture movement about these very things, concerns about GMOs and healthy food and fresher produce and fair trade, most of which have been raised by folk not known for their Christian religiosity.  If the Kingdom is conflated with the church, you see, and the church therefore minimizes member's work in the world as holy vocations, we end up with a disconnect between Sunday and Monday, and guys like Archie, good church members that they may be, fail to create wholesome grocery stores, fail to fight for innovations in the supply chain, for more sustainable policies, for fair treatment of migrants, etc. etc.  Whole Foods has done that, of course, and the Biblical God of the renewed creation is pleased, I'm sure, although Christ should have gotten the glory.  This critique of over-emphasizing the communal/relational/liturgical aspects of the local church, a (minor) frustration with Community of the King remains my concern with the present McKnight volume.  He may criticize Crouch, Garber, Mouw, or Kuyper, but what does he say to Archie the Grocer?  He is right to poke the paucity of the skinny jeans kingdom and the old social gospel. But can his favored sources -- Yoder, say, or Hauerwas, even -- provide an account of Christian discipleship in the world that allows folks to make sense of their workplaces, their citizenship, their engagement with the arts, with entertainment and leisure, with the structures of media and technology that surround them? Without a full-orbed Kingdom vision, will a churchy faith enable us to make noble sacrifices promoting a prophetic imagination in these late modern capitalist times? Or does a vision of the Kingdom tied so closely to the church necessarily call us and our interests out of the institutions of life, and unwittingly promote an escapist pseudo-gospel?  I know McKnight does not intend for his church-based Kingdom approach to have this effect.  I cannot see how it would not.

Scot McKnight-Image.pngOf course, McKnight mostly expounds the Scriptures, and this is mostly rich, good stuff. I was thrilled reading much of this, and learned quite a lot by looking at his sources, his good footnotes and the two fabulous appendices. Along the way he reflects helpfully on the strengths and weaknesses of the old evangelical left and the Christian right, he explores the work of Tom Wright, Jurgen Moltmann, Rauschenbusch and the social gospel, James K.A. Smith, Brian Blount, and many more who have offered hints at the nature of the Kingdom and the relationship between the Kingdom and the local church. We always need reminded of "the Constantinian temptation" and in this, McKnight's project isn't unrelated to the much-discussed To Change the World by James Davison Hunter (Oxford University Press; $27.95.)  Again, I like that he tweaks both the "skinny jeans gospel" of recent missional hipsters, and the "pleated pants gospel" of the mega-church baby boomers - fully aware (I think, anyway) that these are playful caricatures and goofy foils for his case. But with that, he leads us to a more full-orbed and Biblically-solid explanation of the Kingdom and the centrality of the church gathered.

So, his case, again, is two-fold: In contrast to the inadequate formulations of the exclusively personalistic or social gospels, he offers a robust, multi-dimensional, incarnational, wholistic Kingdom that is Christ-centered and promissory about the renewal of the cosmos. But he further insists, then, that this Kingdom of God a-coming is, in fact, seen most clearly in the moral community called the local church. "Kingdom mission creates communities of the redeemed" he insists.  So, if you aren't a church planter, well, I guess your work isn't related to the Kingdom of God. You know that lovely and provocative For the Life of the World we have been promoting?  Forgetaboutit.

Okay, sorry -- I'm being a little facetious. You'll have to read it yourself to see if I'm being fair. He deserves a fair reading, as he is a good author and important writer and this is his most significant work in years.

I will admit that I love reading nearly anything on the gospel and anything that helps us understand and love and promote the gospel is good. And McKight has always been a very reliable guide for me. (He has a book on Mary, a book on fasting, a book on the Sermon on the Mount, and more.) 

McKnight  inspires us with missional energy and visionary hopes and big dreams - note the word "radical" in the subtitle - even if he constricts the scope of the Kingdom and seems therefore to minimize the significance of so much of what ordinary lay people do in their day to day (non-church) life. Yet, I trust McKnight on this because, in his aforementioned books, he elevates the "one life" we live, in Christ, relating faith to our work, politics, recreation, sexuality and more. I don't know if his view of the Kingdom which is so thoroughly offered here will erode the importance of his books on whole-life discipleship like One.Life but it seems like it might. (If the church is really where it's at, the locus of the Kingdom, then, really, why must we fuss so much about public theology and aesthetics and justice and living faithfully across the many zones of life?)

This is a question I've hosted since the late-1970s when I studied both Richard Mouw (a Dutch Kuyperian) and the late John Howard Yoder (a Mennonite, who has influenced McKnight) as they engaged in Reformed/Anabaptist discussions about the role of creation and creation's order in our views of redemption and the vocation of being "in but not of" the world of the fallen powers.  I've heard Mouw tell how the distinctions between he and Yoder were once summarized when Yoder said, "Mouw, you always want to say reality is created, but fallen, but I want to say it is fallen but created." Ponder that!

The relationship of faith and real life, church and world, Kingdom and creation, Christ and culture, remains a burning question for me, and I think they are a constellation of questions that are some of the most burning for the church of our era, at least in the West. (McKnight certainly agrees that these matters are urgent, and he has followed the debate and contributed to it, as well as most. In The Kingdom Conspiracy he mentions many public theologians who grapple with these matters, influential thinkers as diverse as Miroslov Volf and Os Guinness, Walter Wink and Nicholas Woltersdorff; he discusses books such as the recently-re-issued Resident Aliens by William Willimon & Stanley Hauerwas.)  This is a living conversation that gets to the heart of what the Bible teaches, what Jesus said and meant, and what we mean by being Christians "for the life of the world" as the recent, popular DVD by that name asks.  McKnight's view of the Kingdom, it may seem, would resonate with the last episode of FLOW, which reminds us that the weekly gathered community worshiping together is a rehearsal of the wide-as-creation restoration that is promised. Church is, finally, eschatological.  Or at least I think that is what he'd say...

So, a few big thumbs up to the always-interesting Doc McKnight. Kudos for this good work, the inspiring reminder that the local church has a huge role to play in the "radical mission" of the Kingdom of God.

Still, as I've already suggested, I think he gets it wrong, here, or at least he overstates his case, but geesh, in these days, inviting people to church certainly isn't that bad of a fault (as long as it doesn't devolve into a fetish about churchy stuff and fail to equip the laity to serve in their homes, neighborhoods, workplaces and such.) Despite Kingdom Conspiracy being so very important, so very insightful in so many ways, so very interesting to read, I still want to insist that the local church need not be over-emphasized and our view of the Kingdom should be as wide as the Bible says it is - "the Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof!"  McKnight is a careful and generous scholar, and his serious, exciting book deserves to be studied carefully (and reviewed seriously, more seriously than I am able to do here.)

The blurbs on the back are notable and serious --- Soong Chan Rah reminds us that

the misappropriation of faddish terms can be an unfortunate reality for American Christians. The casual manner in which we toss around phrases like "kingdom theology" and "missional churches" can have an adverse effect on our efforts to form a robust ecclesiology... With prescient analysis and pastoral insight, Scot McKnight succeeds in providing a scriptural and theological text for those who have heard the word so often but failed to think through its meaning.

Greg Boyd says,

McKnight brings much-needed clarity to what 'kingdom of God' means -and doesn't mean - and how it relates to the church and its mission. This book needs to be read by everyone - scholars and laypeople alike - who want to understand and consistently live out what it means to be a follower of King Jesus.

I am glad for any author that calls us to church: to deeper liturgy, to worship well, to intentional body life, to parish commitments, to congregational revitalization. Yes, of course! We are confident that this is an important book that is sure to deepen your understanding of the Bible and contemporary theological trends, and make you think - hopefully with others - about the purpose of our discipleship, what it means to be Kingdom people, and the joy and implications of the Lordship of Christ, in the church and, yes, in the world.

TWO MORE

Although they deserve much more time and space to review fairly, here are two other great books that came to mind as I wrote this, one quite new, one newly released in paperback:

Jjoy to the world greg forster.jpgoy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence & Can Begin Rebuilding It  Greg Forster (Crossway) $18.99  When reading McKnight and his concerns about the hipster skinny jeans gospel that emphasizes social reform to the exclusion of evangelism or sound doctrine (not to mention his concern about the cheesy pleated pants gospel of merely personal salvation with little concern about betterment of the world or social reform) This is an amazing book and despite the fun retro cover, has little to do with any romantic return to the 50s.  With a stellar, foreword by rigorous Manhattan pastor Tim Keller, this offers ruminations on the cultural mandate, the Kingdom coming in all of life, the promise of restoration and hope, all inspired by lines from that marvelous hymn by Isaac Watts. 

I love the Timothy George quote on the back of Joy to the World: "This book is against sequestration - the sequestration of Christian life into 'spiritual' enclaves and churchly ghettos. But it also wants to the church to be the church - uncompromised, vibrant, and filled with joy." Our friend Amy Sherman notes that "Forster's deft grasp of history, philosophy, and theology enables him to offer up this rigorous yet accessible book."  Forster (PhD, Yale University) is a program director at the Kern Family Foundation, a socially engaged organization, even as he affirms the central role of the church. He laments that the church has lost its culture-shaping voice and civilizational influence.  He draws on the vivid and very public language of Joy to the World, where the "Earth receives her King" and blessings flow "far as the curse is found."  What would McKnight say about this?  How is McKnight's view of the Kingdom different than Forster's?

Texplicit-gospel.pnghe Explicit Gospel  Tim Chandler (Crossway) $14.99 I will admit that I love reading nearly anything on the gospel and anything that helps us understand and love and promote the gospel is good.  Chandler is a passionate young pastor of a successful Reformed church plant in Texas, and is a person who is increasingly known and respected. (That he recovered from a dangerous brain tumor is a great blessing. His latest book, btw, is a great study of Philippians, To Live is Christ, to Die is Gain.) We should always be immersing ourselves in these conversations - just what is the gospel, why did Jesus so regularly describe the gospel as the gospel of the Kingdom and what does that mean and look like?  We should so value Christ and his beauty and his saving work that we are explicit about our commitments. Ahh, but, again: what is the gospel about which we are to be explicit.  

This wonderful book compares and contrasts and holds in tension a mostly individual gospel understood mostly through systematic theology which unpacks atonement/justification and the more wholistic gospel of cultural restoration based on the Biblical narrative of creation-fall-redemption-restoration. He wisely explains what happens when faith communities (or individuals, I suppose) dig too deeply into a personalized gospel of personal salvation without the Biblically-required vision of the Kingdom.  And, similarly, he shows how some of those who proclaim the full gospel of the Kingdom soon neglect central theological truths (about salvation, about the cross) dreaming big dreams of a renewed creation.  His point is clear: we need both vocabularies and both approaches to b speak about the Kingdom and the gospel as the Bible does. This isn't exactly the "pleated pants gospel vs. the skinny jeans gospel" of McKnight; as Chandler portrays these two ways in to the understanding of the gospel, both are strong, faithful, solid approaches (at their best.) We need to talk about Christ as simultaneously as savior and Lord; the good news includes personal salvation and cosmic hope. The Explicit Gospel would be a good book to frame why McKnight is so concerned about sloppy appropriation of Kingdom language and missional projects that are unhinged from the local church and confused about the nature of salvation, renewal, restoration and the like.   

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