Saturday, February 27, 2010

The futility of apologetics

Since finishing my debate with Rhology, and even for some time before the closing, this thought has been on my mind. I'm not completely unrealistic; by no means did I expect fireworks and a confession of Orthodox Faith out of anyone, especially not Rhology himself. But something about the entire endeavor makes it seem to me that it was all a waste of time. Everybody who was for Sola Scriptura when the debate began walked away still for it and everyone who was against at the beginning walked away against. I've tried to console myself with some vague thought about some "lurkers" who were persuaded by my less than stellar arguments, but I think we all know that isn't true. No one was convinced who wasn't leaning that way to begin with.

Things pretty much go the same way over at YouTube with my videos, which aren't intended to be excursions into apologetics but always somehow end up that way. I've had several rather lengthy exchanges with people of various backgrounds, including Calvinists, Muslims, atheists, and, believe it or not, even a self-proclaimed Ebionite, and they all seem to go the same direction. In the end, we either both walk away shaking our heads and wagging our tongues about how stupid and misled the other is or, occasionally, we part amicably with a "you haven't changed my view at all, but now at least I understand the other side a little better." I've had quite a few people who watch my videos send me messages or post comments along the lines of "I think the Orthodox Church is the greatest thing next to sliced bread -- it's got the Apostolic Faith, beautiful worship, and an amazing history -- but I'll never convert because..."

Like I said, I didn't get into apologetics expecting masses of people to come from all around with a burning desire for immediate entry into the Church, but I can't help but feel a little frustrated. I'm not sure what I expected, to tell the honest truth. I first started delving into apologetics back about this time last year, while I was still in Iraq.

What first motivated me to start doing it was watching Zeitgeist, The Movie (for those who don't know, part one of the movie attempts to prove that Christ was a pagan/gnostic deity and that Nicene orthodoxy was a political move by the Roman Empire). As I sat and watched this movie for the first time I kept thinking over and over how much I'd like to get the truth out there -- that if only people knew the facts they wouldn't buy into such horsehockey. Well, I was wrong, as it turns out. Since then I've had my share of run-ins with Zeitgeist supporters and I have yet to see one persuaded to abandon his support no matter how much historical documentation and logical argumentation is used to undermine and disprove Zeitgeist's claims. Perhaps I've been sowing the seeds of doubt in their heads? Sure -- why not ... ? I doubt it, though.

I think that even the Fathers hit the point, in their dealings with the Marcionites and Gnostics, of concluding that apologetics is ultimately futile in persuading anyone but those who already want to be persuaded. This always seemed to me to be the point of Tertullian's Prescription Against the Heretics. The prescription he offers is to say to the heretics, essentially, "here's the Church -- it was founded by the Apostles and it preserves their Faith: take it or leave it." Perhaps this is also what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote to St. Titus (3:10) to "admonish a divisive man once or twice, then have nothing more to do with him."

I think that this point is often overlooked in commentaries and essays I've read on the interactions of the early Lutherans with Patriarch Jeremias II of Constantinople. They sent to him a highly-edited Greek version of the Augsburg Confession. He then responded with a letter, in some parts lifted word-for-word from the Fathers and earlier Orthodox writers, which expounded the Orthodox Faith, following the same order as the Augsburg Confession, but never really interacting with it. They wrote back to him defending their position and he wrote again, doing basically the same thing as the first time. His response to their response essentially followed the same order as their response but expounds on the same topics from the viewpoint of the Apostolic Faith. They wrote again, trying to convince the Patriarch to accept their new theology. The Patriarch responded one last time, this time telling them to write no further unless it were in a spirit of friendship and on matters other than religion. I think he also understood the ultimate futility of apologetics. He had responded to them twice, thoroughly expositing the Orthodox Faith from both the Fathers and the Scriptures, refuting, while all throughout being careful to speak in a spirit of friendship, the ideas of the Lutherans. They twice refused to accept the Orthodox Faith. They were twice admonished and, finally, the Patriarch had to have nothing more to do with them, on that topic at least.

So, if apologetics is ultimately futile, what is the point? I don't know. Maybe someone here can provide me with the answer to that. Is it really useless to debate with heterodox and others or to try to correct their errors?

I think that, perhaps, the best course of action is to let the interested come to you. For that reason, I will continue to provide information, to the best of my abilities, on the Orthodox Faith, including both what we believe and why we believe it as well as what we don't believe and why we don't believe it, praying that someone like myself five years ago will come across the information that he needs to convince him to finally come home. But I think my days of debating and arguing are over.


  1. Cheer up,
    For those who are on the fence like myself, and really (and often painfully) wrestling with these issues, the debate was very helpful to me. I've memorized parts of your responses.

  2. David, don't feel bad. I experienced a similar result of my own attempts at sharing the faith. When I first discovered Orthodoxy I was very excited and realized I had discovered something that most people didn't realize existed. I thought other people (family and friends mostly) would be interested to discover that much of what we'd grown up knowing as true was either falsehood outright or was severely truncated. I was disappointed that people were so ready to just settle and most had little to no interest to even evaluate or check out what I was saying. I wouldn't have minded so much if they had explored what I was showing them but just simply disagreed. I ended up basically coming to the conclusion that the Holy Spirit does the work but that in general "dialoguing" is pointless. It is my main gripe with our involvement with the WCC. Although it is listed as a form of outreach or evangelism to the heterodox, I would love to actually see a number of how many came to the Church from this encounter. Forgive the tangent. I enjoyed your bog and the arguments too - so don't feel bad. The Holy Spirit works through these things too and there may yet be fruit....

    - Jason

  3. David,

    First let me commend you on the completion of the debate over Sola Scriptura with Rhoblogy. You presented our side of the question quite admirably, in my opinion. You have done a good thing here. And let me just say that you had a worthy opponent. I do not know Rhoblogy, but as a friend of a friend (David Bryan), I respect him and have followed their online dialog for years. That said, I do understand your frustration. I believe there is definitely a place for apologetics. And I respect those who undertake same. Knowing my own limitations, however, I assiduously avoid anything approaching apologetics on my blog. I do not “debate” well—I am prone to become a bit too engaged in the heat of an argument.

    Frankly, I do not think that apologetics, or debating, is ever the cause of anyone’s conversion. In my pre-Orthodox days, I was a member of the Church of Christ. Back in our history, we took on anybody and everybody in formal debates, and the old true believers in our history were noted for being quick on the draw to argue over various points—usually over “once-saved-always-saved” with the Baptists. And I never knew anyone or heard of anyone who was ever “converted” by these tactics. Each side went away more convinced of their own position and of the obstinacy of the other.

    Nor have I ever known of anyone really being “reasoned” into Orthodoxy. With most all of the converts with whom I have talked, their path to Orthodoxy began not with an intellectual construct, but with an exposure, in some way, to the life and worship of the Church. I had an interesting conversation at coffee hour last Sunday. We had two visitors, an older couple who had married only in recent years. He was of the same background as I—Church of Christ. She was of Greek Orthodox background. Not knowing there to be an Orthodox Church in the area, she had been going to his church. As it turned out, the good Church of Christ folks there were trying to get her re-baptized. Lord, have mercy! Anyone, she was delighted to find us, while he was, I think, a bit alarmed. He was cordial, but wanted to engage me in polemics. He wanted to talk about priest and icons and mediators, etc. For him, church was an intellectual construct that one could present in debate or conversation with others. I responded briefly to each of his propositions--first qualifying that I was not the best one to be talking with about this, then granting that I understood how these questions would be of concern to him, and then answering best I could. All the while, I recognized the futility of what I was engaging in. I was not going to convince this man, and he probably had no idea how little chance he had of convincing me! He was not the least bit interested in Orthodoxy. At some point, our response has to be, as you noted, that of the Patriarch Jeremias II and Tertullian.

    So then, what of apologetics? As I said earlier, they have their place. For the one who heart has become softened, and is receptive, then I believe apologetics can play a large part in convincing them. I know that was certainly the case with me. After 25 years of church work, I stumbled into an Orthodox church and caught a glimpse of something I had never seen or experienced before. Whatever it was, I knew it was the real thing. And that I had to have it. Only after that did apologetics come into play. I wasn’t ready for them before then.

    So, know that the work you have put forth is not in vain. It will be read, and re-read, and copied, and linked, and forwarded and end up in places you never imagined. And no doubt, it will indeed help others along the path that we have both trod.

  4. I know how you feel David. I've been debating and arguing since highschool, and sometimes you can get burnt out. But the one thing I've learned is patience. It took me 10 years to finaly convert to EO.

    And you know what? I feel that if I came into the church back in 1997, I probably wouldn't of stayed very long. For I wasn't really emotionally, psychologicaly, and socially ready back then.

    The reason why I still do this is because there really is alot of error/falsehood out there, and I really want people to know what the Truth is. At the end of the day, it is all on God's timing.

    Arguments are only one aspect/dimension of the battle. Another aspect/dimension is prayer, fasting....ect.

    Prayer combined with apologetics goes a long way. For we don't know what goes on inside a person.

    What finally caused me to convert was not only certain arguments, but also the downfall of the movements and protestant peoples I was leaning on.

    I believed in the Sacraments/Mysteries back a protestant, and my need for the Sacraments/Mysteries, along with the downfall of a few protestant movements, groups and peoples is what helped me overcome some of the arguments I had against Icons, war/violence, amillinialism, the ghetto culture mentality, and our blessed Mother.

    Like I said took me 10 years, and so I can't really get mad at some for taking a long time to convert. For I took a long time myself.

    I learned a few things from my own past debates, and they were:

    1.) Letting the hearers/readers of the one in whom I am debating see the evidence for themselves.

    2.) Self improvement, for you tend to learn more from the process. You gain experience, the ability to know where to refine your argument, as well as when to hold back or go for the kill. It's an art as well as a science.

    3.) Allowing people to have a chance to know what the truth is.

    4.) To help others to not just accept everything that falls from the sky against the faith.....but to check it, test it......etc. There are alot of people that won't even try. They will just give in.

    5.) I think Origen said it best when he said:
    ""Today, under the pretext of knowledge (gnosis -
    he is talking about Gnosticism), heretics rise
    against the Church of Christ. They pile on their
    books of commentaries. They claim to interpret the
    gospel and apostolic texts. If we are silent and do
    not oppose them with true teaching, famished souls
    will be fed with their abominations.""
    Commentary on John 5:8

    But yeah, just remember that there are alot of things going on behind the scenes, and behind ones arguments. Alot of times, people don't care about how much we know until they know how much we care.....and so a portion of it is way more than the actual argument itself......there are alot of different factors involved.

    Christ is in our midst! Also, take care and God bless!


  5. David,

    Proclaiming the faith and debating the faith are two different things, me thinks. Keep posting on your blog as you have been - it has been very informative and helpful for me. I could go back and list all of the entries that have helped clarify issues with which I'd been wrestling, and some that just further expounded upon the Orthodox faith that were real eye-openers for me. Believe me, it is no small number. So again, please keep posting on your blog as you have been. I have no doubt that others are reading and benefitting from your entries.

    OTOH, I didn't follow your SS debate with Rhology at all. That was because I'd read a substantial amount of material on the issue already. However, even if I hadn't, I doubt I would have taken the time to read the entries btwn the two of you. The reason for me is quite simple - the personal remarks made regarding an opponent's salvation/spiritual state were unnecessary, and frankly at times, came off as immature. If one is going to debate, then do it without making personal comments regarding that other person's character., i.e., insults, ridiculing, implicating/assigning motives toward one's opponent, etc. All of that sort of nonsense clutters the real issues and works against the goals of debating in the first place - to persuade others of your POV. Furthermore, Jesus would have us conduct ourselves irenically toward those with whom we disagree. Our speech should be gracious and seasoned with salt, as the Scripture says.

    BTW, I direct these comments to both you and Rhology. Some of the tone in which you both communicated I attribute to your youth. Young men tend toward being aggressive and at times, driven by their ego. There are situations in which this is most advantageous - for instance, young men are designed to do quite well in physical combat. :) However, I don't think you'd ever want to punch out your opponent while debating Scripture. David, I recognize that you are still young and so I can give you some slack. Age will mellow you out - in a good way.

    As Christians, we should never take delight in mocking, insulting, belittling, denegrating and casting aspersions on others' characters/motives. Too often this enters into the field of apologetics, and it is quite fruitless. It is when someone who calls themselves a Christian, and takes delight in such behavior with triumphalistic condescension, that I become most concerned. I can recognize such behavior quite readily, for regrettably, I, along with my husband and many others I know, once acted in such a fashion. However, David, I don't think you fall into this category. I say this because on various occasions you are willing to admit when you have erred.

    Again, I encourage you to keep posting on your blog as you have been. However, I do think it wise that you refrain from debating at this time. Perhaps when you become a seasoned, old man you can take it up again. Of course, you might not have the energy! :) As George Bernard Shaw once said, "Why is youth wasted on the young?"

    May Christ our God blessy you, your wife, and little one this day.

  6. David, I'm sorry you've been feeling down. I know how you feel. There have been times in my discussions with Muslims that I felt like no matter what I did or said they wouldn't budge. There have been times when I just wanted to be like St. Paul in the synagogues of Corinth saying, "Your blood be on your own heads!" and walking out.

    I think you shouldn't forget that even if nothing on the surface changes, that doesn't mean some good didn't take place. Some people are converted instantly. Some are won over the course of a few years. I know in my Muslim days I entered a brief debate with a Baptist gentleman who corrected me on a few misconceptions about Christ and His actions. Even though I left him still a Muslim, it planted the seed in me that led to my beginning to research Christianity in earnest and finally coming to a full knowledge of God in Christ.

    Even Justin Martyr, in recounting his conversion to the Jew Trypho, tells the story of meeting a nameless man who planted the seed of faith in Justin's mind, and - although Justin never met the man again and as far as the man knew Justin remained a pagan - it was that seed that led Justin to Christ.

    What I'm getting at here is don't fall into the trap of thinking apologetics is about superficial conversions like a kind of apologetic alter call. You spoke the truth. You spoke it earnestly and with no thought of glory for yourself. If people presented with truth still reject it, that is a fault on their part and not yours. God sees all.

  7. David, I'll have to agree with Darlene. There's a huge difference between debating and apologetics. In debates, people spend more time trying to make holes in each other's arguments than actually listening. People listening generally try to "route for their side" and find ways in their own minds to discount "points" the other side has made. "Pass the popcorn, please".

    Apologetics is something different. Most protestants read Peter's call to apologetics (1 Peter 3:15) without reading the rest of 1 Peter 3, which clearly states that the best apologetics is a life lived in Christ. I'm sure Mother Teresa resulted in more converts to Catholicism than than the Jesuits.

    But there is another aspect of apologetics, that of questioning. Not just random questioning but personal questioning. Francis Schaeffer used to say that if he was given 1 hour with a person, he'd spend 55 minutes listening to them and 5 minutes asking sincere questions. For some people, the simple question "What happened after Acts 28?" is enough to properly frame the Fathers and get people interested. For others, the question "How can sincere educated Christians like Bonhoeffer, Schaeffer, and Wesley read the same line of scripture and come up with such different interpretations?" is enough to question "Sola Scriptura". For others, asking "Why does Hebrews 11:17-19 say 'By faith all these great people did works' if faith alone is enough?" is enough to question Sola Fide. For others, "Why must Genesis be taken literally but Jesus's repeated statement that 'we must eat his flesh and drink his blood' is taken metaphorically" is enough to question the low view of the Eucharist.

    Questions plant a seed. Even when
    the question is dismissed or given a fake answer, the seed is still there waiting for the time God will nourish it.

  8. David,

    2 years ago, after I debated Jason Engwer of Triablog over the issue of eschatology, I started to change direction in my blogging. From one of sharing my thoughts about the fathers, to one of storage of information.

    I first saw a need of storing massive data after my myspace debates/arguments with various types of atheists back in 2005 to about 2007. Everytime I would say something that was either new or different from what they were use to, they would always ask for my sources.

    Well after a while. I just got tired of re-typing everything over and over and over and over again. Or trying to find the same link, or book over and over and over and over again.

    And I saw something similae when I would argue with other christians. People would either ask me the same questions, or would give me the same arguments.

    And after a while, I just grew tired of answering the same thing over and over and over and over again.

    And so, 2 years ago. I started to store massive amounts of info/data on my blog.

    I did that for 3 reasons:

    1.) After my debate with Jason Engwer I knew that I had to get better/improve, and so I started to store massive amounts of info on my that I could use them for debates later in time.

    2.) I was tired of searching through my books to type the samething over and over and over again. And so I wanted an easier way to access my stuff.

    3.) The next time someone asked for my sources, I could give them immediately.

    I know I shouldn't only store information/data on my blog. I need to get back to sharing my own thoughts again. Maybe in time, I will feel more comfortable in having a balance. But the debate I had with Jason changed my direction.

    I only said this just to let you know that it's normal to be affected by a debate. They will influence us in many ways.

    Each debate will have it's toll and influence David.


  9. Along this line of debating and proclaiming the faith...there are many different methods that can be implemented, but the motive should always be love, of which our brother Paul spoke. One of the most irenic blogs out there (that I have discovered), is Father Stephen Freeman's "Glory to God For All Things." He is not one to be contentious with others, and yet he is quite able to defend the faith. He does it, however, in such a way that his love for Christ and for those for whom Christ has died is very evident. It is that love and concern, his genuine Christian sincerity, that makes for peaceful exchange and conversation. There are very few Christian blogs out there that are like this, sad to say.

    If the non-Christian world were to judge the Christian faith by blogs alone, they would conclude that we are a people waiting for a fight, just so we can prove that we are right. And we will do it at all costs, even if it means humiliating the other person by name-calling and defamation of character.

  10. David, something that might help renew your spirits is to listen to conversion stories of Ancient Faith Radio (Illumined Heart), (Journeys to Orthodoxy), Catholic Forum (Conversion Stories), or ETWN (Journey Home). Orthodox or Catholic, they're both very eye opening and interesting.

    From listening, I've noticed a common thread. The key reasons for conversion seem to be:
    * Being forced out of their denominations (doctrinal issue, etc)
    * Stumbling on the Liturgy
    * Stumbling on the Church Fathers
    * The search for authority.
    * Meeting a model Orthodox or Catholic
    * Discovering that one or more of the 5 Protestant Distinctives is fundamentally flawed.
    * Being at the end of your rope (looking for some way out)
    * Marriage
    * Returning to the faith of one of your parents

    In no cases do I ever recall a debate being the cause of a conversion, but I do remember several referring to blogs and Ancient Faith or ETWN as playing a part in the conversion, especially while they were in the "no man's land" of not being any Protestant denomination but still not convinced about the Orthodox or Catholic faith.

    So your writings are important. Sure you didn't win Rhobology over (at least it doesn't appear that you have), but the rest of your writings (and even some of your articles that resulted from the debate where you focus on trying to explain why you trust Orthodoxy) are helpful.

  11. Hi David,

    It looks like we are on the same page with this issue. The debates are indeed futile. Some people actually just enjoy arguing, even if it is in a "pleasant" manor. But, often a spirit of charity vanishes from the air as one or both parties blood pressure rises.

    I think I will go with St. Paul and Patriarch Jeremias II's approach. Give it to them 2 times in a gentle and loving manor, and if it is not received... let it go.

    It is not our job to convince people of our position, however it is part of our calling to give an answer when the question is asked.
    Once it is answered to the best of our ability, we can just leave the issue rest.

    And yet, there are some people (like myself) who ask questions to really learn, and there is where the proclamation is needed and fruitful.

    Keep up the good work here my friend, and may the Holy Spirit guide you in all you do to the glory of Christ Jesus.


  12. Lucian the LoserMarch 1, 2010 at 3:27 AM

    Well, ... I hate to be an "I-told-you-so", but ... I told you so!. :-)

    Don't sweat it so hard, kid: some are even worse loosers than you... (not only can they not win others for the faith, but they can't win their loved ones' heart either, or even convince themselves to practice their faith in their own lives!...) :-)

    As some Canadian-born Jew bearing the same initials as myself, whose birthday falls just two days after mine once said: "I never got the girl. I never got rich. Follow me".

  13. ... I guess Rho just wasn't predestined to be among those elect, who were chosen completely unconditionally from all eternity by God's sovereign grace to be reckoned amongst the sheep the Father entrudsted into Christ's hands (John 10:26-29)... -- What do You think? :-\

  14. Lucian,

    You shouldn't give up on your loved one. That's like a believing mother giving up on their unbelieving child by no longer praying for them.

    Just because you don't see fruit right away doesn't mean a seed isn't planted.

    We may sow and water the seed, but it is God that makes it grow!


  15. John,

    Thanks for the kind words.


    You are right that both DavidW and I have gone overboard in our bad tone over the course of our interactions. I do think, however, that in the formal debate itself both he and I did a really good job of staying professional and more objective. You've several times asked us to reexamine the way we communicate; I hope I am not alone in thinking that the formal debate represents a much better example of interaction between disputants.


  16. Rhology,

    I understand that when one is passionate about their beliefs, that passion and zeal can manifest itself in a caustic manner. I look back on my own behavior and wonder how many people I burnt off due to my obnoxious and aggressive delivery, which clouded the message. Honestly, I did take delight in humiliating others, all the while thinking I was "destroying arguments and taking every thought captive to obey Christ." Oddly enough, I wasn't taking MY OWN thoughts captive to obey Christ.

    I recognize that youth has a grating characteristic to it. Having been a high school teacher, I witnessed the way in which young people, (esp. young men) treated each other. It was quite shocking. They had no idea as to the meaning of being tact or kind -bluntness and being uncouth was their M.O and the rule of the day. So, while you and David W. are no longer teenagers, you still haven't lost your boorishness.

    It's been my observation (and many others), that it takes men QUITE SOME TIME to mature. We women have got an edge on you in this regard. :) But when you finally do mature, you are worth your weight in gold!

    May Christ our God grant you His protection and manifest His love toward you and yours this day and always.

  17. And BTW, Rhology, while I may have many disagreements with James White, I do respect the manner in which he conducts himself while debating with Muslims. That is very admirable.

  18. As far as debates go, this one was rather tame. Most internet debates are slaughterfests (cf

    And as to Christians hanging around on the internet waiting to fight (and thus giving a bad image to atheists), I don't think that is true. And if true, the language/rhetoric is no different from the Fathers, who used phrases like "the wicked calumnies" and said, for example, that Nestorious was "Slain with anathema."

  19. Well then, Jacob, all I can say is, "Draw your swords, men!" :)

  20. Seriously though, I do repent of my arrogance in this debate. I was proud of "how many books I read." Partly because of that and partly because of other reasons, I try not to do as much internet debating right now (that's why I recently gave up facebook).

  21. Everyone:

    Thanks a lot for the concern and the great advice. I've done a lot of thinking about apologetics and evangelism and their place in the Faith and means by which they can be properly conducted by Orthodox Christians today. And I've still got a lot more thinking to do, but all of your comments here have helped a lot. Thank you all very much.

  22. (not the same John as above...)

    Well, I listened to these kinds of debates for many years before I decided to make a move. A debate is not going to make anyone move, but it may set up the groundwork for someone to move. And it may not be the one you think who moves. Rhology may not admit it, but I could have easily been him 10 years ago.

  23. John,

    I was definitely a Rhology at one time. In my case, I pushed quite a few people away from me. I don't think they heard the message because of my caustic delivery.

    Lord Jesus, forgive me. Thanks for your mercy toward me.

    And now I can hear that chorus from long ago, "Jesus I just want to thank You, thank You for being so good."

  24. Apologetics is useful for understanding why you believe what you believe. But you're right -- other than that it isn't that useful unless someone is already receptive.

    I was excited when I found the Orthodox Church but no one I've told has had more than a passing interest in it. The most receptive person was my sister-in-law, but even though she had no problems with the doctrines and practices of the church she saw no real need to convert.

  25. ! Peter 3:15 says "But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense (Grk: apologia) to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear"

    One thing ive learned is David nothing you say is ever in vain. Every word we use can have a positive or a negative effect on those who hear us. If Paul believed apologetics was futile than most of the canon of the NT would not exist nor the ltters of the Fathers afterward. Ive only been converted for 12 years out from the Jehovah's Witnesses. Ive had many online debates and discussions and really didnt think i was having an effect on anyone. Than one day I got an email and another time I got a call and then here and there i got emails and calls. God has given us a voice to serve as witnesses of Him lest he make the stones cry forth but he chose us not rocks. Our words are like seeds Jesus said that some are cast on rocky soil, some thorny and some fine soil. We cast our seeds wide knowing that some will not be received and others choked out but those which fall on the hearts of fine soil will with a little sunshine and rain with a little of God's Spirit to appriase it will grow!

    Your young David just wait till you see some of the seeds you cast sprout and you will thank God for the opportunity he has given you to be salt in the earth and light in a darkened world.


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