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EPISODE 11: Cultural Engagement

 

 

For decades the Christian church has failed to engage the culture in helpful, gospel-shaped ways. Darrell Bock’s newest book Cultural Intelligence: Living for God in a Diverse Pluralistic World can help us change that.

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Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and on our podcast we seek to pursue discipleship of the heart and mind. And because of that, I'm very excited to welcome my conversation partner, Darrell Bock. Darrell, welcome to Questions That Matter.

Oh, it's great to be with you, Randy, as always.

How Do We Live for God in a Very Diverse, Pluralistic World?

Let me tell our listeners a little bit. Darrell has spoken for us at the C.S. Lewis Institute a number of times and written for us. He is a senior research professor for New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary. He's written numerous commentaries. I have benefited from his commentary on Luke and also on Acts, but he also directs or oversees the Cultural Engagement Center at Dallas Seminary and has written a book recently on cultural intelligence. The subtitle is “Living for God in a Diverse, Pluralistic World.” Boy, do we need this book. And so the question that matters for today is how do we live for God in a very diverse, pluralistic world? Darrell, start us off. How do we do this?

Well, it's a challenge. And the premise of the book is that we've spent three decades probably not doing it well and not doing it very biblically rooted. And so we need to take a look at the biblical basis for engagement, develop an ability to be better engagers and listeners, and understand the nature of the assignment properly. And in the midst of doing that, we'll be better equipped to actually serve the church in terms of its own mission. So the challenge was to think about what we mean by culture war and to root that biblically. And the key passage, probably out of all the passages that get discussed—one chapter goes through six key passages for a theology of cultural engagement—is Ephesians 6:12, which says, “Our battle is not,” not, not, not, not, that's emphatic, “against flesh and blood, but against rulers and authorities, the principalities, the powers,” the cosmocrats, okay, if you will. That's the Greek word I like to say. If you think a bureaucrat’s bad, you should meet a cosmocrat.

And so the point here is just that people are not the enemy. Actually, if you pay attention to the Great Commission, they're the goal. People outside the church are the goal of the mission of the church and the message of the church. So we don't need to be turning them into enemies, even if they're opposed to us. Jesus told us to love our enemies. But to think about a way of engagement that reflects the gospel, of which a key part is to realize that God tapped us on the shoulder when our back was turned to Him. We're supposed to model the same thing in our own engagement.

Well, I want to come back to that, about that gospel attitude or shape to everything we do, but let me just back up a little bit. And I don't want to spend a whole lot of time on here, because I don't want to spin it in the negative direction. But we do have to ask: You started by saying that, for three decades or more we haven't engaged culture well. Why is that? Why haven't we?

I think we've gotten distracted. We've gotten distracted from the fact that the gospel actually is the answer, the ultimate answer. And we have suggested that other things are the answer or that the background to our environment is so severe that the sky is falling. And I tell people anyone who teaches the sky is falling theology doesn't understand the Bible and what it means for Christians to be in the midst of the world.

And so we've ministered out of a fear and out of a frustration. And 1 Peter 3, one of the other passages that I cite, 13 to 18, actually talks about not being fearful of those who stand opposed to us, but to actually be prepared to give a defense for the hope—notice that word—that is in us and to do so with gentleness and respect. And we've lost the tone in the midst of our engagement. And by losing the tone in the midst of our engagement, we may be right in some of the things that we're saying, but we're wrong in the way we've engaged.

Well, is some of it kind of a reductionist, “Well, we don't really care about culture. We only care about saving people's souls. We're just trying to pluck people out of a burning building, and we're not trying to put the building's fire out.” Is that some of the problem?

That's part of the problem, but the problem is we're looking for that solution and the gospel really doesn't have much to do with that solution in the way we've engaged the culture. We put the solution in politics or in your vote or in something like that. And that doesn't mean that our vote doesn't matter in the environment that surrounds us. But the scripture is pretty clear that our environment isn't going to totally get fixed until Christ returns and fixes it. We're always going to be aliens in a strange land, and we need to be able to recognize that, accept that, and then we're inviting people into a sacred space that does produce what is needed for a flourishing life. And we've lost sight of that part of our message, that part of the hope that Peter was talking about.

When I teach this, I say there are three keywords in the New Testament that summarize what the gospel is all about. One is hope. Okay? So it is good news. It's called good news. It's gospel good news for a reason. It is good news. It's not bad news. And so that's hope. The second is reconciliation. That's where the gospel is designed to take us, reconcile us to God and reconcile us to one another, take us back to Genesis 1, when mankind was created to collaborate with one another, male and female, and in the variety that God creates through humanity in the garden that He has placed us before Him and to His honor. And then the third category is the word power or enablement. I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation, to the Jew first and to the Greek. That power is the enablement to live in a way that we're able to walk with God. And without the gospel, we don't have the enablement to be able to walk with God. Which is why the gospel is the key to the answer. So you've committed to the gospel not because you're waiting for some future ticket to heaven. You're committed to the gospel because the gospel leads to an authentic way of life.

Man, there's so much to go after. This is really challenging and encouraging at the same time. And I'm really sorry to keep harping on the negative. That is my default mode. I'm sorry. But I have to wrap my head around what the problem is. Isn't part of the problem also… I mean, you said we're strangers and aliens. There had been a time when we didn't really feel that much like strangers and aliens. I mean, we were, we are. But for quite a while, I think American, if I can say it, Christendom. We kind of fit in. Nobody really violently hated us and, you know, our voting blocks were kind of winning a whole bunch. Is that part of the problem? Am I messing things up more?

Yeah. No. That's part of the problem. We've come through an exceptional time, in which a Judeo-Christian net kind of wrapped itself around Western culture, including the United States. That’s been gone for a while. We're no longer the home team, and we don't realize what kind of changes that means for how we communicate in the midst of that environment. You used to be able to go out and say something is true because it's in the Bible, because the Bible was a book that was respected culturally and was embraced culturally.

Now, you have to do the reverse. You have to say it's in the Bible because it's true. You don't need the imprimatur of a book. You need to defend the quality of the ideas that God has said are the authentic ways to live. That's a harder calling in many ways, and more challenging in many ways, but it actually is a reflection of what the Bible is. The Bible isn't a magic book. The Bible is a reflection of a set of ideas about life and the world that come from God, that means that what He expresses is so. And we need to dig deep for why that is so and begin to articulate that, at least to some degree, in terms that people have a chance of understanding, rather than assuming that they carry all our theological baggage in the midst of doing that and have to accept a lot of premises on the way in order to appreciate what we're saying. Now in some cases, that will be hard. That will be resisted. But Jesus spent the second half of his entire ministry with his disciples, teaching them, “If you go My way, you're going to get push-back from the world.” So this is not a new territory that we're in. The first century church had no political power, no cultural power, no social power. It only had spiritual power. And they did pretty well.

And I think we've just downplayed or ignored all those many warnings. I mean, Jesus said we would be hated. I mean, that's a really strong term, and He said it several times and He tied it to Himself. “They hated Me, they're going to hate you.” Well, I don't know. We didn't want to have that in the initial sales pitch, but then we left it out completely.

We have not learned how to walk the way of the cross, which is a way of humility on the one hand, and yet being different and countercultural on the other. We tried to make the world like the church. It doesn't work that way. The calling is to invite people out of the world, into the church. The church is a sacred space where stuff happens, where authenticity happens, where the spirit of God is at work, etc. And so when we set up laws, we think laws will fix or politics will fix. We've been through that experiment. That was the experiment of the Old Testament. They had God giving laws, but they didn't have an internal change. And so it's a history of struggle. Without the gospel, which is the answer. That's why God works from the inside out. This is very, very important. So the core of cultural intelligence gets back to your first question, to actually understand how central the gospel is to all of this and to not stray from the central point of what it is to be culturally well-engaged biblically, and that is to make sure that Jesus is at the center of that engagement, and that nothing else replaces Jesus as the answer.

You know, I remember hearing… I heard it from a couple of different sources, and it was so very helpful for me about this idea about dealing with hatred. The world is going to hate you. And it was: If you don't have a rich, rich reservoir of realizing you're standing in the gospel, your acceptance because of what the Messiah did for you, then you're probably going to react in a returning hate for hate or returning attack for attack. But if you realize this incredible love that we are accepted into, into the very presence of God because of the sacrifice of the cross, well, people will still hate us, but it won't sting quite so much. And the illustration I heard one preacher say: “So imagine if your entire net worth was $100 and someone stole $100 from you. Well, it would be devastating. It would be horrible. Your life would be ruined. But if your entire net worth was a billion dollars and someone stole $100, well it’s the same amount of a theft, but you know, it doesn't quite hurt so much when you've got a billion dollars.” And you think of Paul's prayers for the Ephesians, that they would know just how wealthy they were spiritually. So I think that's a crucial component of discipleship that we just haven't delved into anywhere near as much as we need to.

You know, identity is at the core of this, and where is our identity placed, where does our security reside, etc. And I think of two passages: One of them you've already mentioned, the Ephesians 1 prayer, which actually extends into Ephesians 2. Most people don't realize that. And it's a prayer for three things: To understand the hope that we have, to understand the wealth of our inheritance, and to understand the power that is at work in us is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. And then the beginning of chapter 2, where the protestant creed is of course encapsulated, is the idea that that power has actually been extended to you already. You are dead in your trespasses and sins, and now you've been made co-heirs with Christ, and you've been made co-heirs with Christ through grace, and you are now God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.

And that first good work, this is where the term reconciliation comes from, is the work of reconciliation, to be a witness to it, between peoples. And so you put that all together. That's what you've been enabled to do. That's where you're supposed to go. That's where your identity is supposed to take you. Then the second passage is the end of Romans. “If God is for us, then who can be against us?” It's not going to be Christ. It's not going to be anything… I am assured that no power or principality, things present, things future, anything, can come between us and the love of God. He has us in His grip. If we have connections to God, we've got more than a billion dollars. We've got the endless reservoir of association with the Creator, on which we rely and in which we reside. And so if you're there, then that should be the security from which things come.

One final point: In any difficult conversation that you have, and the culture is full of difficult conversations today, there are three aspects to any conversation: The first is what you're talking about. Most people get locked in there. Underneath that is the lens through which you're seeing what's in front of you. To illustrate that, all I have to do is say CNN and Fox; looking at the same thing, very different stories. But the third layer, the actual driver layer in those conversations when they get tough, is your identity. What is it that you reside in? Where do you park? Where is your tribal identity self awareness? Where does it reside? It must, for people in the Church, reside in Christ and not anything else. It can't reside in politics. It can't reside in what's going on around me. In fact, the scriptures tell me that's exactly where not to place it. It has to be in the security that this identity with Christ gives me and the richness of what I feel Christ has for me. Because what He has for me far transcends where He has me right now.

How Do We Make These Difficult Conversations Better, Far Better?

I'll return to my conversation on Questions That Matter in just a second. But I would like to invite each and every one of you to prayerfully consider becoming a ministry partner with the C.S. Lewis Institute. Our ministry is about discipleship, discipleship of the heart and mind, helping people love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind. But as you might guess, a ministry of discipleship is not always the most exciting thing that people consider, but we believe that your tuning into this podcast probably indicates that you've had very positive experiences and have benefited from the institute over the years. So please click the button that says donate and become a ministry partner with us.

You have a chapter in your book, “Difficult Conversations: How to Make Them Better.” Now, you've already started on this, but give us a little more help with this. How do we make these difficult conversations better, far better?

Well, the main thing is, the baseline is, we have to become better listeners. We have to be better engagers. We're not debaters. We’re not rebutters. We are people who move towards people. When you have a difficult conversation, you have three choices personally: You can push back. You can withdraw and become passive and just, “I'm not going to go there. I don't want to have that conversation. I'm not going to do anything.” In both of those scenes, very little changes. In some cases it might get worse. Or you move towards a person. The scriptures call us to love, call us to love even our enemies. It's a call to move towards somebody. That requires listening. And then there are things that we do that sabotage conversations. It's like throwing a grenade and letting the shrapnel do the damage. Or there are things that we do that can advance conversations.

And so I go through five things that we do that damage conversations and five things that we do that can advance conversations. And most of the things that damage conversations you can watch 24/7 on television, by watching any news channel of your choice. It's an equal opportunity employer and nondiscriminatory in the application of the five things that damage good conversations.

So things like what I call the great confession. The great confession is someone brings up something where you are partially responsible for the dysfunction that's going on and you go, “Yes, but….” So you confess briefly, don't do much penance, and then you move on. It's what some people call “what aboutism.” So you pivot, is what PR people call it. The trouble is, what matters to the person who's raised the issue with you is everything that's said before the “but.” And what matters to you is everything said after the “but.” And you've just had a huge disconnect, and you haven't gone anywhere in your conversation. That's the first one.

The second one is what I call the exorcism. The first two are the big two. It's also an equal opportunity employer. It's when you label someone as a way of dismissing getting into the substance of a conversation by simply labeling them. We see it in our political ads all the time. It's delivered in 30 seconds or less. There are no commercial breaks. And so what you get is L for liberal or C for conservative or M for Marxist or F for fundamentalist. Like I say, it's an equal opportunity employer. And what you're doing is this: You’re playing Taps over the person, in identifying them, and you're avoiding getting into the substance of any meaningful conversation in what you do.

There are others, but here's the big picture: The big picture is that most of our public discourse has binarized our issues in a fallen world. And by making us be all in, all in one side or the other and making tribal choices, we actually avoid the conversations we need to have. Which are that usually there are values, important human values, that are colliding because we live in a fallen world, and we need to wrestle with how to balance those values in relationship to each other, rather than choosing one or choosing the other.

Oh, man, this is so desperately needed. You know, I keep thinking the kinds of listening, caring, loving conversations that we need to have with people are the exact opposite of what occurs on television. And those kind of really good, meaningful conversations would make for lousy television. It wouldn't be good television. So the television, it has be has to be short, it has to be sound bites, it has to be loud, it has to be boom. Now, we go to a commercial. Lots of sarcasm. And if that’s how we're discipled about how to talk about these things. It's very, very difficult to just listen carefully and follow up with a question or things like, “Let me see if I'm understanding you,” “When you said this, am I correct that you were meaning this?” Those are hard questions to ask, because we want to jump in and assume we know what they're saying. And like I said, it makes for lousy television, but it makes for great in-depth friendships and understanding and caring.

Exactly. And so there's a great way to tell whether you're a good listener or not. And that is when you hear something you disagree with. Are you forming a rebuttal? Or are you forming a response that says, “Let me see if I understood what you said to me in such a way that you can see I'm trying to hear what you're saying.” And then you ask for that back. I tell people that, when you're in a difficult conversation, your first responsibility is to get a spiritual GPS reading on where that person is coming from. That means you're not going to be making statements. You're going to be asking questions. You're going to be asking questions about what motivates them, where's that coming from, and you're not going to ask cynical questions. You're not going to doubt the motives of what is motivating a person to go in this direction. You’re going to be asking questions about what values that they see that are of value, that drive them to ask questions and see things the way they do. And usually there is something to connect to in that response that can build the basis for a more positive conversation than a negative conversation, even though there may be elements in it that are problematic.

I tell Christians, “You need to put your doctrinal meter on mute.” You don't turn it off. It’s not going away. You're going to have it. You're going to react. But put it on mute and just wait and work through where the person is coming from. Get a reading on where they're coming from, because the more you understand about their background and what motivates them. You're actually in a better position to have a conversation with them about the topic that you're on, because of this identity factor that is driving the way they are seeing what is in front of them, that may be different than what you're seeing what is in front of you. And knowing what those features are puts you in a better place to have a better conversation and usually a more sensitive, a more empathetic conversation.

That doesn't mean also that you don't challenge. There will be times when you challenge. But if you send a signal, “I'm really working to listen and hear you,” you've created an environment for a different kind of conversation than if the first signal you send is, “I'm here to disagree with you.”

Yeah. I have a friend who loves to use this expression: He said, “We need to listen for the purpose of hearing, not listening for the purpose of responding.”

That's right.

Now we do need to respond eventually, but at first it's, “Let me hear. Let me really understand.” And there's more to that hearing and listening process than just the content. There's also the emotion. Sometimes I listen to someone and what I say is, “Boy, this is really a big deal to you, isn't it? This is really upsetting.” I'm not even talking about the content. I'm just looking at I mean, “Boy, this topic, this is really a crucial thing for you, isn't it?” And sometimes that's just helpful to sort of identify not what they believe but how important this belief is to them.

Yeah. And often in asking a question like that, it's a great question. What you get is the why, what it is deep down inside that causes this person to be so passionately attached to the view that they have. And what's interesting is that sometimes that's a value that you also value. You just may not value it in the area or the way in which they are applying it. And so that can produce a basis for a kind of conversation that can differentiate between why you may share that value and apply it here, but you're hesitant to apply it there, that kind of thing, which creates a connection.

So what you're trying to do in difficult conversations is to tap that lowest layer that's actually driving that conversation and to get in touch with that and not let the surface layer be the thing. It's like the thing that's often said in marriage counseling: Usually couples are fighting, and they're not fighting about what they're fighting about. They're fighting about something else, something else more fundamental that's going on, of which that's a symptom.

God's Grace

So let me do a little commercial for your book because there are quite a few books now, I think, about cultural engagement or whatever. But what you bring to the discussion that is so desperately needed and lacking, I think, in some others, is you're primarily a theologian, you're a biblical scholar. And so you say early on that your book is a primer for this kind of cultural engagement. And you said that you're trying to weave together wisdom and skill concerning what scripture has to say about engagement. So the great strength or the unique angle of your book is you're constantly bringing it back to, “What do the scriptures teach about our identity, about culture, about engagement, about how to show love to other people?” And that's the piece that I think gets perhaps just assumed by Christians. But we need to dwell on a little bit of… not a little bit. “Okay, I was a rebel. I was lost. I was running a million miles away from God, and He extended his loving grace to me. So, okay, if he's that kind of a God Who can extend that kind of saving grace to me, then I can extend some tiny little reflection of that to people around me,” right? I mean, that's what we want to keep driving it back to.

Exactly. And the other thing that I'm trying to do is most books on cultural engagement talk about the content of issues. I'm talking about the content of the heart. This is an inside-out solution to an inside-out problem that needs an inside-out perspective. All that is important in how we go about this. And so the book makes the point: We may be right about the point that we're making, but if we do it with the wrong tone, we're still wrong.

Ouch.

Perhaps you've heard the story of Rosaria Butterfield, a tenured English professor at Syracuse University and a lesbian who became a Christian through the long, patient witness of Ken Smith of a Reformed Presbyterian church. Maybe you've read Rosaria Butterfield's book, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. Well, we have the great privilege, through the C.S. Lewis Institute, to hear from both of them, Rosaria Butterfield and Ken Smith, on a livestream event coming on Friday, March 27, at 8:00 p.m. It'll be a great time to hear some of the behind-the-scenes stories and just to hear both of their voices of how this connection was first made, what they first thought of each other, and what we, as followers of Jesus Christ, can learn about interacting with people who may seem very, very different from us. So please go to our website, cslewisinstitute.org/friendship, and register for the event. It's free, but we do need for you to register. Again, that's Friday night, March 27, at 8:00 p.m.

Well, I want to ask you: You have a question in one of your chapter titles that I don't know if I've ever seen this articulated. The title of the chapter is, “What is the Purpose of Salvation? And the Biblical Imperative of Love.” What is the purpose of salvation? Now, something tells me, since you've written a whole chapter on it, that it's more than to go to heaven. If that's all it is, then you spend about ten pages on it, and I think there's got to be more to it.

Yeah. There’s a song that I used to sing as a Young Life leader. It goes, “Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace. I want to see my Savior’s face. Heaven is a wonderful place. I want to go there.” That's the way some people view salvation. It's this ticket to eternal life. But you've got to ask what eternal life is. Eternal life is knowing the Father and knowing the Son. That's what John 17:3 says. And so eternal life is not something that awaits heaven. Eternal life is something that begins in a relationship with Him. And if we ask what the purpose of salvation is, I tell people the mistake that we've made in the church is that our Gospel message begins in Genesis 3 and not in Genesis 1. We start with sin and work with the problem, but in fact, the whole purpose of salvation is restorative. It's to take us back to why God made us in His image to begin with. And if you ask that question, from Genesis 1, the purpose of life, seen in the creation mandate is to collaborate together, man and woman.

You know, God wasn't totally satisfied with the creation until He brought the woman alongside the man, and they together were to manage the garden collaboratively and to manage it well as the setup for, “Be fruitful and multiply,” which means there were going to be many other people like them who also were going to have to collaborate in the management of the world. That's the calling of God, to manage the world well in collaboration with one another. Now, sin messed that up. But if you don't know where your starting point is and what your endpoint is supposed to be in taking you back there, you will think sin is the only problem. But it's not. It's the restoration back to living out the image of God the way God made us. It is where the gospel is supposed to take us. So Ephesians 2:10 says, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, for good works,” read that collaboration that makes life and the creation, “which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” And then you get a whole series of walks in the second half of Ephesians. Walk in love, walk in unity, walk don't like the Gentiles do, etc., that articulate what this lifestyle is like at its base. And it's fundamentally collaborative and inviting that reflects the reconciliation that is at its core, which the Church is supposed to be the witness to. And when I look at the Church's message to the world today, I ask myself, “How much reconciliation do I hear in the way we talk to the culture?”

Oh, man. Boy, I feel like I just want to underline a whole bunch of things you just said there, that our gospel message begins in Genesis 1, not Genesis 3. Very, very important. That beautiful statement by Jesus in John 17:3, “that this is eternal life, that they may know thee, and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent.” That's what salvation is. We get to know and enjoy God forever. But it begins immediately, it begins now, and it's an enjoyment that we want to invite people into.

And that leads to fruitfulness and refreshment and authentic life and flourishing. That's why it's called flowing living water. The Spirit comes into our life, and we become this refreshed, this washed, this cleansed presence in the world. That's what the Church is supposed to be, and that's what it’s supposed to witness to.

Well, I really hope our listeners dig into your book and pursue, not just what you're talking about in the book there, but really a really rich, theological, biblical basis for all of this, so that, yes, we'll still have these very practical discussions of, “Well, how do I talk to my neighbor?” “How do I answer this question?” “How should I think about this political issue?” Because we need to. We must. That's part of living in this world but not being of it. It's part of loving our neighbor, but it has to start and flow out of a rich, rich, deep, biblical theology of all of Scripture. And you've helped us tremendously, digging into these key passages, which I would hope would then shape and train us for reading all of scripture.

That's right. And if you don't have this foundation, then when the flood comes, the house gets washed away.

I heard that somewhere. That's good. Boy, there's a lot to that. Anyway, well, this has really been helpful. I want to give you the last word. Well, no, I'm actually going to wrap this up, but is there anything else about this that you really wanted to say that we didn't get to? The C.S. Lewis Institute is all about discipleship, and we want to help people think deeply about issues and then live out those issues in ways that really help them flourish, and the people around them come to know this flourishing.

Exactly right. And so, you know, the last chapter in the book talks about a whole way of teaching that we've tended to underestimate that we need to develop, which is what I call from life back to the Bible. And what I mean by that is you take life situations, you sort through the canonical teaching of the whole of Bible, which assumes you know the Bible pretty well, and you apply that to the situation that you find yourself in. Most teaching goes from the Bible to life, and not from life to the Bible. But most people reading their Bibles are reading their Bibles to go from life back to the Bible. We need to teach our leaders how to teach the Bible that way. And I think there's a lot of work here that needs to be done by seminaries and by training leaders that needs to be done that way. And I have some suggestions about how to think about going that way.

Well, Darrell Bock, we're just going to have to have you back, because we need a part two and a part three. And we will do that, Lord willing. But for now, I think we'll encourage our listeners to consider these things deeply and reflect on them biblically. Get a hold of Darrell’s book to help you dig in this way. And like all of our resources at the C.S. Lewis Institute, we hope this podcast and all the things that we offer on our website, cslewisinstitute.org, will help you love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind.

And your neighbor as yourself.

Oh, well said. Thanks.

Brought to you by the C.S. Lewis Institute and the Questions That Matter Podcast with Randy Newman.

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