7/30/2008 6:13:59 PM
As much as there is dividing Jews and Muslims, the two religions have more in common than their belief in Abraham. Writing for Tikkun, (article not available online) Zalman Schachter-Shalomi calls attention to the large body of Judeo-Arabic writings that could point the way toward greater conciliation between the two groups.
Largely unknown to both Jews and Muslims, Judeo-Arabic literature was written in an Arabic dialect with Hebrew script by Jews living in Islamic countries. The famous Jewish philosopher Maimonides, in fact, wrote in both standard Arabic and in Judeo-Arabic. The authors of the texts were undoubtedly influenced by Muslim scholars, Schachter-Shalomi writes, and influenced the Muslim scholars in turn. Schachter-Shalomi envisions a website where Muslims and Jews could read and study the texts, translating the writing for the Muslim world at large and creating a greater understanding between the two religions.
7/30/2008 2:43:16 PM
The Kashmir region between India and Pakistan is known more for religious and political strife than it is for symbols of peace, and there’s good reason for that. The Christian Science Monitor reports that the area is being threatened once again by bombings, allegedly by Islamic terrorists, that could inflame historical tensions between Pakistan and India.
Deep in that violence-plagued region , the Amarnath Cave represents both the problems and the hope for the Kashmir region, according Peter Manseau, writing for the newly founded Search magazine. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus make the arduous pilgrimage to the Amarnath Cave in southern Kashmir every year to visit an icy shrine to the Hindu deity Shiva. Legends say that the shrine was discovered by a Muslim shepherd, who showed the cave to a Hindu priest, who immediately recognized it as a holy place.
Today, the symbol of interfaith cooperation is being threatened, not only by the violence that seems endemic to the entire region, but also by climate change. With average temperatures on the rise, and throngs of people packing into the cave, Manseau reports that the ice shrine has begun to melt earlier each year. Many pilgrims haven’t been able to see the object of their journey at all, and instead have been shown crudely packed snow in its place.
For Manseau, the Amarnath Cave represents both the good and bad in the Kashmir region: The interfaith cooperation and the religious strife, the importance of symbols to human faith and the lengths people will go to protect them. “Holy ground reminds us of all we hope for,” Manseau writes, “and all that might be lost.”
7/29/2008 4:52:37 PM
Sorcerers who find themselves a little short on scratch should cast a spell or two to make some extra money, Thuri Calafia writes for Pan Gaia, an Oregon-based pagan publication (article not available online). When Calafia broke up with her boyfriend and needed money for a new place to live, she created a magical herbal concoction and was able to find the money she needed. Of course, the spells didn’t make cash materialize from thin air. Instead, most of that money came when her boss announced more available overtime, but Calafia believes that was a direct result of her magic.
Some pagans don’t like using spells to make money, but Calafia writes that money magic can be entirely ethical. After all, pagans make house payments, too.
7/28/2008 11:19:53 AM
When a politician sneezes and the religious right says, “God bless you,” Sarah Posner is there to document it on her American Prospect web-exclusive column, the FundamentaList. For almost a year now, Posner has been chronicling the religious right’s activities in this weekly roundup. Last week’s offering calls attention to a proposed new rule by the Department of Health and Human Services that opens the door for federally funded health-care providers to hire people who object to oral contraceptives and emergency contraceptives. Posner encourages Barack Obama to publicly acknowledge that this new ruling comes from the “right-wing ideologues,” knowing that John McCain’s “medieval record on women’s health issues” won’t help the problem.
7/25/2008 1:43:49 PM
Buddhism prompts its adherents to face important but uncomfortable questions about dying. “Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?” is one of Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron’s favorite inquiries. In the September issue of Shambhala Sun (article not available online), Chodron suggests that instead of focusing on death, it's more important to create “gaps” in our lives, pauses from constant worries and plans. We can’t always physically escape to a beach at sunset or a retreat center to get away from our worries, so calming our minds is essential. Taking three conscious breaths when you find yourself distracted is the foundation of Chodron’s pause practice, while “listening intently” and “put[ting] your full attention on the immediacy of your experience,” are other ways to break away, even if it means you’re listening to the sound of the copier in the next room and feeling an office chair against your back. “Find ways to create the gap frequently, often, continuously,” writes Chodron. “In that way, you allow yourself the space to connect with the sky and the ocean and the birds and the land the blessing of the sacred world.”
Image by Hans-Peter, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/25/2008 10:31:57 AM
The Bible has many parts that ring sexist to modern ears. People are constantly trying to make prayers less sexist by saying, “Mother-Father,” when referring to God, instead of just “Father,” or substituting “reign” for the more gendered “kingdom.” Inevitably, there are those who buck against such efforts. Writing for Theoblog, the blog of the Christian Century magazine, Jason Byassee writes that it’s a mistake “to think Christian language can ever be scrubbed into safety.” Instead of changing the words of the prayer, Byassee writes that the faithful should change the way they live, because, “[w]ords themselves don’t abuse… people abuse with words.”
7/24/2008 4:09:04 PM
Taking a page from the evangelical mega-churches that have popped up around the country, Muslims have begun setting up multi-site “mosque chains” to accommodate increasingly large religious services, Mallika Rao reports for the Religion News Service. Often branded as more progressive than other mosques, some of the organizations have begun offering gymnasiums, adult education classes, and even mixed-gender prayer areas. The strategy seems to be paying off, both financially and organizationally. Abeer Abdulla, a media specialist for the Islamic Society of Central Florida in Orlando, told Rao, "because of how streamlined we are, you can get off the highway from anywhere and find a mosque that is well-maintained, well-structured and that will always be open."
(Thanks, Pew Forum.)
7/21/2008 5:01:38 PM
Reaching out to young, single adults is quickly becoming a necessity for religious leaders. In the July/August issue of the Futurist, Aaron M. Cohen addresses the lack of programs in organized religion for singles between 20 and 45 years old. With most spiritual activities geared toward elderly folks and married couples with children, it’s no wonder that singletons aren’t finding the welcoming support they need. Adding programs that interest young and single people could help quell the national participation decline in organized religion.
One evangelical church in Concord, North Carolina, has already adapted services for today’s individualistic, tech-savvy generation. The Concord First Assembly has a community for young single adults called the “Underground,” which “offers espresso, pool tables, satellite TV, and free wi-fi” to participants. Rather than set an alarm for Sunday morning worship, members can attend the 7 p.m. “Underground” service. The group also has a profile on MySpace and Facebook, an approach that may help congregations connect with younger members.
Cohen says that, “while the internet will likely become the medium that people turn to most often when seeking religious information, it is unlikely that the virtual church, synagogue, or mosque will replace its real-world counterpart anytime soon.” It seems that the physicality of worship is one tradition that won’t lose to the era of increasingly impersonal communication.
, licensed under
7/17/2008 5:23:53 PM
When King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia calls for interfaith cooperation, the world takes notice. At an interfaith summit in Spain yesterday, the king said, “the world’s religions should not fight, but unite to face common problems,” including crime, drug abuse, racism, and terrorism.
The idea may be laudable, but according to NPR’s Morning Edition, critics are saying that the entire conference is “only meant to make Saudi Arabia look good in the West.” While many are hailing the speech as a step toward religious harmony, some believe that the conference should have been held in Saudi Arabia to address the country’s climate of religious oppression.
“The Saudi Royal family… has a great interest in downplaying the divide between Muslim and Western societies,” Geneive Abdo writes for Foreign Policy (subscription required). Abdo once worked for the Alliance of Civilizations, a United Nations project designed to address religious extremism and the “so-called clash of civilizations.” Shortly after the effort began, Abdo became disillusioned with the UN project and its unwillingness to tackle difficult cultural rifts between Islam and the West, choosing instead to emphasize common ground.
“Interfaith discussion distracts from uncomfortable but necessary questions,” according to Abdo, “and should be considered a hindrance to concrete and effective foreign-policy approaches to counter extremism.” King Abdullah’s speech calling for international cooperation makes people feel good, but it could be a dangerous distraction to the real problems at hand.
UPDATE: Instead of interfaith dialogue, there may be a more effective means of social change: money. An article on the front page of today’s Washington Post reports:
Saudi officials said they are working on easing the lifestyle and visa restrictions that have kept foreigners from investing and living in the kingdom. One side effect of that will probably be an easing of rules that ban men and women from mingling in public unless they are close relatives.
"We're not anymore an isolated island. We realize the challenge today in order for us to be more competitive means more transparency and more gender equality," said Abdullah Hameedadin, head of the Economic Cities Agency at the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, the government body overseeing the projects.
(Thanks, FP Passport.)
7/17/2008 10:48:58 AM
Hollywood has been bombarding moviegoers with apocalyptic visions, from 2007’s No Country for Old Men to The Happening to the current Disney/Pixar darling, Wall-E. Faced with their bleak depictions of the future (Wall-E lightens it up for the kids, of course), religion is sometimes offered as a countervailing, hopeful force against such dark visions.
Examining No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road as emblematic of our bleak cultural outlook, the wellness magazine Lilipoh (article not available online) finds hope through pastor and author Brian McLaren’s vision of "emergent Christianity" to fight the “sense of impending doom [that] fills all three works.” Rather than despairing over the ineffably evil of characters like No Country’s mass-murdering Anton Chigurh, Lilipoh suggests turning to Jesus’ original message of helping others to find hope:
Radical forgiveness, service to the poor and sick, a slow and steady aligning of our will with God’s...stripped of the nauseating rhetoric and distorted lens that the Christian church has all too often applied—this message offers a revolutionary and unlikely promise.
Film critics offer a different way to lessen the depressing effects of hopeless movies: deny their credibility. David Denby's therapeutically harsh appraisal of No Country for Old Men from the New Yorker, for example, credits the film for its skillful opening twenty minutes of “the physical and psychological realization of dread,” but the final judgment is dismissive. “In the end," Denby writes, "the movie’s despair is unearned.”
Image by Anthony Easton, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/16/2008 1:02:27 PM
If you’ve ever found yourself struggling to be open-minded about someone's spiritual beliefs, Emily DePrang can empathize. In “Cult Following,” a Nerve essay subtitled, “How I learned to embrace my girlfriend’s ridiculous religion,” DePrang describes the bumpy spiritual path that lead to her girlfriend Sam, a follower of Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, known in the West as Amma, the “hugging saint.” The use of the word "ridiculous" in the piece's subtitle is appropriate, since spiritually transcendent moments aren't always elegant or otherworldly, and might seem absurd at first blush.
Finding spirituality in the seemingly ridiculous is also the focus of a piece by Rabbi Naomi Levy in Moment Magazine. Levy describes an epiphany she had involving a spectral figure wrapped in what appeared to be toilet paper. She sheepishly told her boyfriend about her vision, afraid of appearing insane, but he pointed out that “if God can could come to Moses in a burning bush, who's to say that God can't come to you in a roll of Charmin?”
Both stories explore the confluence of the absurd and sublime, a point well-taken by a cynic like me. The experience for me isn't always spiritual, but the act of finding beauty and common ground with others is almost always revelatory. For Emily and Sam, the story culminates in a pilgrimage to a desert ashram where they receive hugs from Amma herself, and Emily’s cynicism dissolves. DePrang's writing is well-suited for the subject: sharp and sardonic but also kind. She’s an assured writer who can still articulate her doubts. The piece—just as much a love story as it is a story about religion—considers the ways compassion can chip away at skepticism, both in our spirituality and our relationships with others.
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7/16/2008 11:17:08 AM
As gas prices continue to skyrocket, members of the Pray at the Pump movement are looking towards the heavens for salvation. The British newspaper Telegraph reports that members of the First Church of Seventh-day Adventists are organizing prayer vigils at gas stations around the US, asking for divine salvation from the high oil prices. The movement’s founder, Rocky Twyman, claims that after one particularly large vigil in Ohio, the price of oil dropped in Toledo by 30 cents. The article did not, however, report on any plans for services surrounding John McCain’s proposed “gas tax holiday.”
Image adapted from photos by Infrogmation and Gabriel Ullmann, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/15/2008 5:16:01 PM
When the 73-year-old Dalai Lama dies, his successor as Buddhism’s leading voice is likely to be the Karmapa Lama, a 23-year-old with a fondness for X-Men comic books. PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly profiled the Karmapa Lama, who holds the unique position of being “the only high lama to have been officially recognized by both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government.” At the age of 14, he escaped from the Chinese Government, over the Himalayas, to join the Dalai Lama in India, and the two have studied and meditated together since.
In the profile, the Karmapa Lama shows an understanding of the huge responsibility being placed upon him, and an awareness of the effect that technology is having on the Buddhist faith. He said:
Because of the Internet, we live in an age in which information can travel very rapidly to different places. Before, it used to be the case that just having a karmapa alive was good enough for everyone. People didn't need a lot of information about who the karmapa was or what the karmapa was doing.
Judging by the official blog from his recent U.S. visit, this Karmapa Lama is taking every opportunity to use the new technology to make his voice heard.
Image by PrinceRoy, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/15/2008 11:13:34 AM
The website Garfield Minus Garfield made a splash in the blogosphere by taking the famous cartoon cat out of his eponymous comic strip. According to the blog’s creator, when owner Jon Arbuckle is bereft of his beloved pet, the strip is about, “schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and the empty desperation of modern life.” Rabbi Micah Kelber writes for Jewcy that the comic strip could also be about “seeking a relationship with God.”
The boredom, frustrations, and simple pleasures in Arbuckle’s life reveal the highs and lows of a religious life. The problem is that by reading the strip this way, Kelber manages to kill most of the humor from the joke.
Image courtesy of Garfield Minus Garfield.
7/9/2008 8:59:30 AM
To some people, the word “Christians” brings to mind conservative, anti-everything culture warriors. Others think of peace-and-justice activism or the Civil Rights movement. In fact, the U.S. church has long been divided along theological, cultural, and political lines—and the different groups have tended to keep their distance.
A two-year-old group called Christian Churches Together in the USA (CCT) is working to bridge this divide. CCT—an ecumenical group, or one focused on Christian unity across traditions—has brought together an unusually broad group of church denominations to build relationships and to speak with one voice on consensus subjects.
The Reverend Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, convened the group and serves as one of its five presidents. Utne.com spoke with Granberg-Michaelson about CCT’s plans to meet with the president-elect about poverty, as well as about his earlier work as the main Vietnam-era legislative assistant to Sen. Mark Hatfield and as a writer on ecotheology.
CCT has released a pretty concrete
policy statement on poverty. Among other things, it calls for a specific target and timeline for reducing child poverty—just the kind of thing that serious anti-poverty advocates are promoting. What did it take for such a broad group to produce this statement?
Conversation. Building trust. But the proposal that we turn to the issue of poverty actually came from the evangelical/Pentecostal family of the church. The old stereotype was that evangelicals care [only] about personal conversion and doctrinal integrity. Now, Christians have come together and asked, “What can we all agree on?” Poverty is one thing.
What are the statement’s implications? Are the denominations expected to promote its goals in their policy shops or to organize their members around it?
Well, CCT doesn’t operate such that this is the central thing that everyone [has to] embrace. But we’re sharing our resources, approaches, and understanding. And we plan to pursue a meeting with the country’s eventual president-elect, to present the statement and talk about how its goals could be achieved. Such a meeting is likely to happen, given the breadth of leadership at CCT.
Because the White House can’t write it off as simply a partisan thing coming from one side or the other.
That’s been exactly the problem before. Christians have divided ideologically and politically, reducing their overall effectiveness.
Can we expect to see similar statements in the future? Maybe on global warming or human rights?
It’s likely we’ll keep considering what we can reach consensus on, but we don’t have a list.
How is interfaith work like and unlike ecumenical work?
Both are extremely important. But they’re different, and sometimes there’s a tendency to blur that distinction. Ecumenical work is about Christian unity. In interfaith relations, Christians sometimes try to find the easiest common denominator—joining hands with those of other faiths to address issues in the world. And this is important.
But in my experience, what dialogue partners from other faiths really desire and expect is an earnest witness of each to the other. Muslims want to hear how Christian faith is understood and articulated, and I want to hear the same about theirfaith. That’s what makes interfaith discussion really rich.
Has U.S. foreign policy posed any challenges for international ecumenical work?
There used to be 1.3 million Christians in Iraq. Now, about half have been forced out and are living in Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and so forth. But U.S. policy has made things really difficult for Christians in those countries. It’s had the consequence of equating Christianity, in the minds of many, with a very aggressive stance in the region.
As legislative assistant to Republican Senator Mark Hatfield from 1968 to 1976, you worked on the Hatfield-McGovern amendment to end the war in Vietnam. Any insights for our current situation?
The Hatfield-McGovern legislation was genuinely bipartisan. Hatfield was a Republican, joined by others. And those who most strongly resisted the proposal included prominent Democrats, such as John Stennis, chair of the Armed Services committee. So the debate at that time within Congress was healthier—it wasn’t locked into the severe partisanship that we see today. The same with the country at large.
You mean, specifically, party lines—not political polarization broadly, which was as severe as ever in 1970.
Absolutely. It wasn’t polarized around parties, so it was possible to have a debate about the real merits. Hatfield argued around constitutional issues of war-making powers, the interests of the United States, the nature of the conflict in Vietnam itself. These arguments could be made in ways in which one’s party affiliation didn’t just close off the discussion.
That’s not to say that party didn’t matter. Nixon tried to use all kinds of influence on Republicans, as Johnson did before him with Democrats. But party loyalty did not immediately determine one’s stance on the war. This is different from what it’s mostly been like today.
Of course, Hatfield-McGovern didn’t pass. In today’s more partisan climate, is there any hope of meaningful congressional action?
It didn’t pass, though a modified version did get 49 votes in the Senate. Congressional action against the war is far more unlikely now. Nothing will happen before the presidential election, in any event.
In the 1980s, you did some work on ecotheology. Arguing that a theology of “stewardship” of the earth is inadequate—because it conceives of people as separate from and above nature—you called instead for a theology of “interrelationship.” Recently, many evangelicals have signed on to a pro-environment agenda framed in terms of stewardship. Do you feel any tension between the ideas you developed then and the ecumenical work you do now?
No. Back then, I felt that the language of “stewardship” could too easily be misused. Secretary of the Interior James Watt and others would throw the word around as a justification to use creation, to do with it what we want.
We still see that. Religious right leader James Dobson talks positively about stewardship, but he doesn’t mean it.
It’s a word that you can pour a variety of meanings into, so I thought other terms and approaches might be more helpful. Today, I mainly marvel at the way this has come onto the church’s agenda. It was barely on the radar, and now a majority of Christians acknowledge a responsibility to relate to creation as a gift.
When I went to work for the World Council of Churches in 1988, we started working on global warming. Many of my colleagues initially said, “What does this have to do with the burning questions of economic justice?” Since then, the church’s work has helped reveal the interconnection between those questions. Now, when you look at the coverage of global warming, people are making the connections to the effect on the poor and vulnerable. This wasn’t understood even 15 years ago.
Still, there is a fundamental difference between stewardship and interconnectedness. Maybe what it comes down to is that now that we’re seeing this idea of stewardship actually lived out by evangelicals, the end result isn’t a difference that matters much.
From where I sit now, that’s about what I’d say. Those questions still matter; they go back to fundamental things: How do you understand humanity’s role in creation? But what finally makes a difference is that 17- and 18-year-olds in evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox churches are more likely to take for granted that global warming is something that Christians need to be concerned about.
Do you worry that the current focus on global warming might lead us to neglect other environmental issues?
It could. But with the global food crisis in the headlines, it’s interesting to note the connections to energy and other issues. The more you get into any environmental question, the more you see its interconnectedness with other questions. Because it’s simply the way it is.
Image courtesy of Reformed Church in America.
7/8/2008 12:33:07 PM
Chronic disability raises difficult questions in religion. Helping the chronically ill participate in society may be a matter of education and legislation, but spiritual inclusion is less straightforward, as Tamara Green writes in the summer 2008 issue of Reform Judaism (article not available online):
I face what everyone with a disability or chronic illness faces: living with limitation. But committed as I am to living a meaningful Jewish life, I have found myself asking “Jewish questions” about my limitations as I shlep
around on my crutches: What does it mean to be created b’tselmo, in Adonai’s image? What does it mean to one who is disabled?
Green finds comfort in the Jewish tradition of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, “the way of embracing everyone within the community, a way of acknowledging the suffering of others.”
Her conviction that Judaism values the disabled is deepened by two images from Jewish teachings. First, after Moses shattered the original set of commandments from Mt. Sinai in his anger at the people’s idolatry, the broken tablets were included in the Ark of the Covenant along with the second, unbroken pair. “There must have been at Sinai some children of Israel who, like me, were physically broken, and saw themselves as I did, in those fragments of the tablets, and… were relieved to find themselves included in the Covenant,” writes Green.
The second image comes from the 16th-century Jewish mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria, who explained that vessels, once containing the emanations of the spiritual world, were broken when Adonai created the material world, scattering “divine sparks.” The redemption of the world is possible, Luria taught, through “bring[ing] home the fallen sparks” in acts of chesed, or loving kindness. “I may not be able to do much about the broken vessel that is my body,” Green writes, “but certainly I can help to gather up the scattered light everywhere that I can.”
7/8/2008 12:31:47 PM
Christian leaders in Korea are up-in-arms over a new television documentary depicting Jesus as a good person, a political leader, but not as God. The Korean Times reports that the TV show called “Shineui Gil, Inganeui Gil” (The Road of God, the Road of Man), “was intended to seek harmony among religions involving Jehovah, God, and Jesus.” Christian leaders, however, have tried to stop the program from airing, claiming the directors are “trying to tarnish the honor of Jesus.”
Considering the offence they took over the TV show, Korean Christian leaders should probably stay away from the Wittenberg Door’s recent list of 10 of the worst movies about Jesus ever made. Writer Danny Gallagher selected a number of standouts from Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (seen below) to Jesus, the Miniseries. A few of these films walk that fine line between satire and a truly horrible movie. The list also includes the Tom Hanks bomb, The DaVinci Code, but mystifyingly neglects The Passion of the Christ.
7/8/2008 12:25:38 PM
A battle has erupted over religious freedom in South Carolina. Earlier this year, the state’s general assembly voted unanimously to begin producing license plates bearing the phrase “I Believe” and decorated with an image of a yellow cross superimposed over a stained-glass window. Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer even offered to pay for the plates’ production out of his own pocket.
Last month, Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit alleging that the plate constituted a governmental endorsement of one religion over all others, and a clear violation of the First Amendment.
While many church-and-state cases draw a distinction between secular and religious people, this case is particularly compelling because much of the license-plate criticism has come from inside the religious community. Plaintiffs against the plates include a rabbi, the American Hindu Foundation, and three ministers, among them the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones, who penned a guest editorial in the State arguing that while “America is a nation of Christians, we are not a Christian nation.” Despite the barrage of hostile email received by Americans United—accusing the organization’s members of being nonbeilevers and condemning them to hell (among other nasty epithets)—religious people, in this case, are some of the loudest voices championing the separation between church and state.
7/3/2008 12:19:45 PM
Financial difficulties plagued Jonathan and Lauren Holtzclaw, until they started giving money to Pat Robertson’s talk show, the 700 Club, according to the Pat Robertson-founded Christian Broadcasting Network. Once they starting donating money to their church, and $480 per year to the 700 Club, the financial difficulties of the Holtzclaws disappeared.
This kind of “prosperity gospel” provides the cornerstone to Pat Robertson’s financial empire, investigative reporter Bill Sizemore writes for the Virginia Quarterly Review. Sizemore’s exhaustive history of Robertson, the Christian Broadcasting Network, and the 700 Club, provides a frightening picture of apocalyptic theology mixing with political ambitions and mountains of cash.
7/3/2008 10:58:51 AM
Searching for peace while living with her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, Jan Shoemaker writes for the Sun (excerpt available online) that she developed a creed: “Things fall apart. Move on.” The frank essay focuses on the surprising wisdom her mother doles out, amid her struggles to perform simple tasks. From the perspective of the inevitability of decline, Shoemaker comes to the conclusion: “My mother, in fact, is moving in the right direction; it just feels wrong as hell.”
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