The Sorrows and Joys of Teaching Evolution at an Evangelical Christian University

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August 24, 2012 Tags: Education

Today's entry was written by Dennis Venema. You can read more about what we believe here.

The Sorrows and Joys of Teaching Evolution at an Evangelical Christian University

As I settle into the lecture, only I really know what is coming a mere few PowerPoint slides hence. The class is an upper-level course in genetics, and the topic is changes in chromosome structure. Starting with fruit flies as an example, I sketch out comparisons between closely related species for which complete genome sequences are available. Students learn about the evidence for chromosome fusions and fissions, the reordering of genes along chromosomes in different lineages over time (an issue of synteny which we have discussed before), and how these lines of evidence support the hypothesis that the various fruit fly species we observe in the modern day derive from common ancestral species in the past. Perhaps my using of the genuine estimates for speciation dates raises a few eyebrows, since “millions of years” is something of a byword for some antievolutionary groups, and fruit flies have been separating into new species for tens of millions of years. Still, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t really rocking anyone’s world: they’re all just fruit flies, after all, and I like to talk about them, since they’re the organism I do my research on.

After the “information dump” using the fruit fly examples, it’s time for a class discussion/application before the students drift off too much. Ok, here’s a slide that shows the chromosome structure of a group of organisms that other lines of evidence suggest are part of a group of related species. What do you observe? Do you think these species are related? If so, what explains the differences you observe?

What the students don’t know is that the slide shows human chromosomes, and those of our closest living relative, the chimpanzee. Oblivious to this knowledge, they easily arrive at the correct answer: yes, the evidence is strong that these are quite recently diverged species, and that a chromosome fusion or fission event explains the differences in chromosome structure between them. When I tell them that every other species in this grouping has the higher chromosome number/structure, they correctly deduce that the species with the lower chromosome number should show evidence of a fusion event in the form of “telomere” sequences at the fusion point and an inactive “centromere” at the location suggested by comparison to the other, related genome.

Easy.

As I look around the room, I see the students are satisfied. I cover some difficult material in this course, and the students are obviously pleased that this topic is so easy to handle. The lines of evidence are easy to follow, and it’s easy to predict and test one’s hypotheses. Then, only after they’ve seen the evidence at least once without the baggage that will inevitably come, I ask them if they know what two species they’ve just compared.

As a biology professor at a primarily undergraduate, evangelical, liberal arts and sciences university, I have the profound privilege of teaching the principles of evolutionary biology to a variety of students, both biology majors and non-majors. As one might expect, teaching this subject matter at times engenders controversy, crises of faith, anger and fear in students (and others). These types of sorrows are relatively well known and have been discussed here on BioLogos by several authors. Yet there are also great joys associated with teaching evolutionary biology in a Christian setting, and in this post I reflect primarily on these as a counter-balance to the more frequent stories of conflict and struggle.

The sorrows …

Lest anyone think that this post is an attempt to present an overly-optimistic or whitewashed view of teaching evolution in an evangelical setting, let me acknowledge and affirm that the pain that many (yes, most) evangelical students go through as they learn about evolution is substantial and real. I have had too many long conversations with students caught between their faith communities and the science to deny this reality. I have seen students struggle with their faith, close their minds to the scientific evidence, and even resolutely declare that no amount of evidence would ever be enough to convince them that evolution is real. I have seen anger, hurt and fear. I have seen students willing to discard the nearly the entirety of modern science in order to maintain a particular anti-evolutionary view.

For me personally, the most difficult circumstances to watch are students who feel torn between the evidence and their faith. In some cases these are extremely bright students, who easily see the strength of the evidence, but feel the need to remain unengaged and uncommitted because they fear a backlash from their churches, or (especially) their parents. While an evangelical university can be a wonderful, safe environment for students to explore these issues, that environment doesn’t follow them home. These struggles are painful to watch, and I’ve spent more than a few hours in prayer for students facing them.

… and the joys

Yet for all these issues, I thoroughly enjoy teaching evolution at an evangelical university. Of course I do not enjoy the anguish it can produce for some of my students – far from it! Fortunately, conflict and emotional turmoil are not the whole story, and many evangelical students report that learning about evolution was a valuable, enriching experience, regardless of their views after the fact.

One of the things I enjoy most is that teaching evolution is never dull in an evangelical setting. My students might snooze through a class on cellular respiration, or be tempted to surf Facebook when they should be applying their reasoning skills to problems in genetics, but whenever evolution is the topic I have everyone’s full attention. Whatever else, evolution matters. That intensity of student engagement is invigorating, and the students feel it too. Regardless of where students ultimately decide to “land” on the issue, many report that they enjoyed the process – the exchange of ideas, the discussions and debates, and the new understandings gained.

In addition to the electrifying interest the topic holds for evangelical students, learning about evolution is also by nature a multidisciplinary enterprise and opportunity for personal growth. Students are not merely gaining a larger perspective in biology, but fitting that new understanding into their knowledge of Scripture, church history, and their own faith journey. Often in class students will contribute what they have learned in other courses to the discussion: courses dealing with the setting and context of Genesis, courses on church history, and courses on hermeneutics and exegesis frequently are drawn upon. It is for this reason that I feel learning about evolution in a Christian liberal arts university is one of the very best places to do so, providing the institution treats the topics fairly. In this setting, resources are available for all of the questions that evolution engenders for Christians, not merely the scientific ones. Moreover, faculty are generally able to assist students with resources that address these extra-scientific issues, and provide a safe and non-judgmental environment for students to learn. The ability to learn what can be faith-shaking material in a setting surrounded by professors committed to the academic and spiritual growth of their students can make all the difference. To be sure, this environment can be one of personal turmoil for students, but with that turmoil comes a rare opportunity for intellectual and spiritual growth in a way that other areas of biology simply cannot provide.

Many of my students, regardless of whether they ultimately accept or reject the evidence for evolution, report that they have grown spiritually through their learning process. Contrary to popular opinion, in my experience most who do come to accept the evidence for evolution also report this growth. They feel closer to God, not further from Him. They feel that they have a deeper appreciation for, and understanding of, His creation. They feel that their faith is now more their own, rather than merely that of their parents. Most importantly, they feel free: that they need no longer be afraid of evolution, but celebrate it as the mechanism by which God has populated His world with “endless forms, most beautiful.”

Seeing students experience that freedom is something that one cannot test on an exam, nor encapsulate as a teaching outcome – but it is a deep joy of my teaching career.


Dennis Venema is professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He holds a B.Sc. (with Honors) from the University of British Columbia (1996), and received his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2003. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling using the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. Dennis is a gifted thinker and writer on matters of science and faith, but also an award-winning biology teacher—he won the 2008 College Biology Teaching Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. He and his family enjoy numerous outdoor activities that the Canadian Pacific coast region has to offer. Dennis writes regularly for the BioLogos Forum about the biological evidence for evolution.


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Merv - #72238

August 28th 2012

....  and how those avenues serve as corrective tensions for each other when we start to go off the deep end in our understandings of just one of them.

-Merv


Joriss - #72250

August 28th 2012

Roger,
You are right Hebrews is not talking about creation but is a theological concept about Sabbaths Rest; I fully agree. But Hebrews 4:3 refers to the work of creation as finished. To work out that theological concept, Hebrews uses the example of the entering of the Israelites into the promised land, which was impossible for many of them, because of their unbelief. And that is a warning for us not to follow that example of unbelief, but enter into the Rest God has prepared for us.
Just as the Israelites could enter the (earthly) promised land, because God had prepared everything for them - it was finished from the foundation of the earth - we can enter into the (heavenly) rest, because God has prepared everything for us. So although creation is not the theme of Hebrews, it is indirectly mentioned as a finished work, to serve for an example.
As far as I can see, the bible is talking about creation  as a finished work, in several texts. It is explicitly mentioned in Gen. 1, but also indirectly in
Hebrews 1
Jesus is the Son of God, through whom he created the world and now upholds the universe by the word of his power.
Colossians 1:16
By Jesus all things were created
2 Peter 3
The apostle is talking about the coming to an end of this world by fire and the creation of a new earth and new heavens. He doesn’t talk about a continuing of this creation, but about a new creation. If God is creating at this moment, may be he is preparing our new home?


Most christians don’t celebrate the Sabbath as a day of rest, but some do. Most of us have the sunday as that day, because Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week. I don’t think this is crucial.


Francis - #72253

August 28th 2012

I might add to what Joriss said above:

“Hebrews 1  Jesus is the Son of God, through whom he created the world and now upholds the universe by the word of his power.
Colossians 1:16
By Jesus all things were created”

I not only think the Scriptures are inspired, I think the Scripture writers’ use of verb tense was inspired.


Eddie - #72258

August 28th 2012

Francis:

I’m not sure why you are talking about the details of Biblical theology when the column above is about the teaching of evolution in Christian colleges.  

Anyhow, your use of quotation marks and italics suggests that you think that the exact words you have written are found in the Biblical passages to which you refer.  But they aren’t.  Your quotations are inexact in several ways.  For one thing, neither one of the verses you cite mentions “Jesus.”

The Hebrews passage (for which you give no verse number, but which appears to be a conflation of elements from 1:10 and some earlier verses in 1) is in fact partly borrowed from the Septuagint (LXX) version of Psalm 102 (it’s Psalm 101 in the LXX), and the Creator referred to in the Psalm is the God of Israel, not Jesus; in fact, even the word “Lord” (kurios) found in the LXX version of 101 is not found in the corresponding Hebrew of 102.  So even trying to get from Jesus to God the Creator via “lord” in that verse is not easy.

The Colossians passage doesn’t mention “Jesus,” either, though it is referring (without naming him) to the Son.  But the creation language is very careful—in whom, through whom, on account of whom, for whom—it doesn’t say directly that the Son “made” the world, or that the world was made “by” him (though “in him” is often loosely translated that way).

This is no mere fine point.  It is not *as Jesus* that the Son makes the world.  It is as the Son, the Logos, the second person of the Trinity.  *As Jesus* the second person of the Trinity does not make the world, but dies, a Nazarene carpenter, teacher, healer, prophet, and messiah, on the cross.

You also might want to consider whether “ages” (aionas) in Hebrews 1 is best translated as “world” rather than “ages,” and what that distinction might mean.

If you are going to claim that we have to be very sticky about the exact usage of the writers of the Scriptures, right down to “verb tense,” you had better model that stickiness by not offering paraphrases as translations, and by not rewriting the inspired Greek sentences in accord with your theological views.

But best of all would be if your contributions focused on the argument made in the opinion column, rather than used the opinion column as an excuse to lobby for a particular Christian theology.  There are plenty of websites where you can argue about Biblical theology if you like.  This one is for the purpose of discussing theology and science questions.  Let’s respect that and keep on topic. 


Merv - #72255

August 28th 2012

Francis wrote:

I not only think the Scriptures are inspired, I think the Scripture writers’ use of verb tense was inspired.

Inspired when it confirms your thesis on the creation origins issue, anyway.  I guess the inspiration slipped on all the other passages (already supplied in this thread) where it is spoken of in present tense.

Taking all of it as a whole it seems, imnsho, to be a weak Scriptural foundation for an anti-evolution crusade.  Looking at how verb tenses—our English translation of them anyway—are generally used in the N.T., one can see that past, present, and future all get used and are not meant to be contradictory.  Do a New Testament search on the word ‘Save’ and you will find that we *are* saved, *will be* saved, *have been* saved (as in a work already completed by Christ).  Trying to nitpick over which of these is allegedly more accurate than the others by appealing to our English translation verb tenses won’t be productive.  Once we accept that the authors weren’t so concerned about human-based chronology and have bigger fish to fry, then we can progress to studying the passionate message being delivered.  The important point is that Christ-followers don’t have to worry about our salvation.  It is/was/and will be taken care of.   God’s creative work as no doubt reached many climaxes and completions.  Doesn’t mean He’s not still on the job.  We just praise Him for it all.  The Kingdom of God in some senses is already here (was imminent as Jesus walked in Palestine fullfilling that) and in other important senses is awaiting complete fulfillment.

-Merv


Francis - #72257

August 28th 2012

Merv,

“The important point is that Christ-followers don’t have to worry about our salvation.”

Amen.

The only thing about which we should worry (if that’s the right word) is whether we will continue to be Christ-followers until the end.

 

“ but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” [1 Corinthians 9:27]

 

“But he who endures to the end will be saved.” [Matthew 10:22]

“But he who endures to the end will be saved.”[Matthew 24:13]

“But he who endures to the end will be saved.” [Mark 13:13].

 

The end.


wesseldawn - #72319

August 31st 2012

Francis,

I hope you don’t mind me adding to your thought but you seem the only one that’s aware of the repetitive nature of God’s writings (I use the KJV as I have found it to be the best translation although the Old English is tedious).

Continuing from your example “will/shall (KJV) be saved”:

He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. (Mark 16:6)

I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. (John 10:9)

see also Acts 2:21, 11:14, 15:11, Romans 5:9 & 10, 9:27, 10:13, 11:26

Whoso walketh uprightly shall be saved: but he that is perverse in his ways shall fall at once. (Prov. 28:18)

A man shall be commended according to his wisdom: but he that is of a perverse heart shall be despised. (Prov. 12:8)

A wholesome tongue is a tree of life: but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit. (Prov. 15:4)

If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness (1 Tim. 6:3)

A wholesome tongue is a tree of life: but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit. (Prov. 15:4)

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God. (Rev. 2:27, 22:14)

One point leads into the next and in the process the meaning is explained.


Joriss - #72259

August 29th 2012

Merv, Eddy,

Francis had copied my quote of Hebrew 1. I didn’t mean it to be an exact quote, because I thought it is very clear that Hebrew 1 tells us that the Son, who is the Logos, the Word of God, is the One through/ by/ in/ whom God has created everything. Also it’s very clear that the Word has become flesh, a man, Jesus, our Lord. So although, strictly spoken, Jesus did not create or co-create the universe in his human state, He did so in his state of the Logos, the Divine Word of God.
But my point was that here is spoken of creation as something that has been done and in the present time needs upholding by the word of His (the Son’s? the Father’s? I don’t know) power.
Psalm 102 mentions the name of Yahweh, the God of Israel, who is, in the opinion of many christians the same as  He, who became flesh in Jesus Christ. In verse 24 of this psalm the author adresses Him as Elohim, God.
From psalm 45, the verses7 and 8 are quoted in Hebrews 1: 8 and 9 and from the psalm it is clear that spoken is of God, Elohim.
Psalm 102: 25-27 adresses the Creator of heaven and earth, who is called Jahweh as well as Elohim.
So Hebrews 1 is speaking of the Son, who is adressed in psalms 45 and 102 both as Elohim and Yahweh, who is - at least - co-creator of the universe.

This is all said to show how far the Son is above the angels
But it’s pretty off-topic I admit.


Francis - #72266

August 29th 2012

Eddie,

I thought our correspondence had ended.

“I’m not sure why you are talking about the details of Biblical theology when the column above is about the teaching of evolution in Christian colleges.”

Why? Because the column’s author says “In addition to the electrifying interest the topic holds for evangelical students, learning about evolution is also by nature a multidisciplinary enterprise and opportunity for personal growth. Students are not merely gaining a larger perspective in biology, but fitting that new understanding into their knowledge of Scripture, church history, and their own faith journey.”

 

“Anyhow, your use of quotation marks and italics suggests that you think that the exact words you have written are found in the Biblical passages to which you refer. But they aren’t. Your quotations are inexact in several ways. For one thing, neither one of the verses you cite mentions “Jesus.”

My quotation marks were around Joriss’ words. And Joriss’ words are exact enough. True the verses don’t contain the name “Jesus”. But they contain Jesus: “but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.” [Heb 1:2-3]

 

“But the creation language is very careful—in whom, through whom, on account of whom, for whom—it doesn’t say directly that the Son “made” the world, or that the world was made “by” him (though “in him” is often loosely translated that way).”

Then allow the Nicene Creed to clarify:

“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.”

Your fastidiousness is fascinating.

 

“But best of all would be if your contributions focused on the argument made in the opinion column, rather than used the opinion column as an excuse to lobby for a particular Christian theology. There are plenty of websites where you can argue about Biblical theology if you like. This one is for the purpose of discussing theology and science questions. Let’s respect that and keep on topic.”

This makes no sense to me.

Probably close to half the comments on this website are lobbying a particular Christian theology or interpretation. Some say their viewpoint comports with evangelical Christianity or with conservative Christianity, although no official definition is given for either. Some, even BL authors/contributors, admit their views are unorthodox, not consonant with traditional Christian understandings (e.g. Kevin J. Corcoran). And how can you meet your stated purpose of “discussing theology and science questions” if you don’t have a Biblical theology, or if the commenters (besides me) disagree on Biblical theology?


Francis - #72267

August 29th 2012

I should have added that you can meet your stated purpose of “discussing theology and science questions”, if discussion is all you’re interested in.

I’m not. I’m interested in purposeful discussion, with the purpose being getting to the truth.


Eddie - #72282

August 29th 2012

Francis:

Right—according to the Creed, the Father does the making.  And Jesus is not the Father.

And the making is done “through” (not “by”) the Son—who only *later* becomes the five-odd-foot Galilean carpenter’s son named Jesus.  To say that “Jesus” was involved in the making creates a misleading impression.

In any case, on your principle, it was an “inspired” choice of words not to employ “Jesus” in either of the two verses, so it would be more respectful of the text not to inject the name of Jesus into one’s rendering of the verses.

We now seem to agree on the substance, so I’ll say no more on this topic.


Francis - #72286

August 29th 2012

Eddie,

No, we do not agree on the substance.

I started this off, in #72178, by directing our attention to Genesis 2:1-2’s noting of the completion of creation. Joriss joined me by providing other verses speaking to the finished work of creation.

The point was that GOD FINISHED HIS CREATIVE WORK, a long time ago.

Is Jesus God? Yes. Your parsing of Jesus not making creation but instead creation being made through him splits theological hairs unnecessarily I think, but more importantly, misses the point Joriss and I were trying to make.

 

Would you now like to educate us on Genesis 1:26? [“Then God said, “Let US MAKE man in our image, after our likeness …”]


Eddie - #72290

August 29th 2012

Francis:

When I said we agreed on the substance, I was referring to our interpretation of the Nicene Creed, with its respective distinctions of the roles of Father and Son. 

I made no comment on the question whether creation was finished once and for all, or should be thought of as continuous, so you have no way of determining whether or not we would disagree on that.

I could probably educate you in many ways on Genesis 1:26, as it was a central part of my Ph.D. research, and as I have taught Genesis 1-11 many times, in both English and Hebrew, and have published on the subject.  But I don’t appreciate your scrappy tone any more now than I did before, so I would not be able to sustain a constructive conversation with you.  Thus, I’ll make my exit from this thread.


Francis - #72292

August 29th 2012

Folks,

You’re free to read lengthy, opaque doctoral dissertations on whether God created anything and if He did whether it was God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit who got His hands dirty.

However, if you don’t have a lot of time, and are concerned you don’t have graduate-level brains, here’s a nice, short, Reader’s Digest dump on the truth:

“Then God said, “Let US make man in our image, after our likeness …” [Gen 1:26]


Roger A. Sawtelle - #72306

August 30th 2012

It seems clear to me that God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, never stop creating.

(Psa 139:13-15 NIV)  For You created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb.

(14)  I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

(15)  My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth. . . . .

John 5:17  “My Father is still working and I am still working.”

I do not think that Christians believe in a Deistic God, Who created the universe and retired.  Christians believe in the Father/Creator Who is still creating, the Son/Savior Who is still saving, and the Holy Spirit/Love, Who is still caring about God’s Creation and God’s People (everyone.)

 

  


Eddie - #72305

August 30th 2012

Francis:

Apparently, in addition to difficulties in interpersonal interaction, you have difficulties in reading comprehension.  I was not referring to a Ph.D. dissertation that I was *reading*; I was referring to one that I *wrote*.  

You also have a serious textual problem, in that the “us” in Genesis 1 is used *only* in relation to the creation of man, whereas your original discussion was about the creation of the entire world, not just of man.  If you are intending to produce a new theology of “Catholic literalism” you will need much more skill at interpreting passages than you have so far demonstrated.  May I be so bold as to suggest that you begin the study of Biblical languages and theology at an accredited university, and defer claims of theological knowledge until you are further along in that study?  That’s the best parting advice I can give you.


Francis - #72315

August 30th 2012

Eddie,

I thought you might be a man of your word when you wrote above:

“Thus, I’ll make my exit from this thread.”

I was thankful. Now, frankly, a bit disappointed.

 

Folks,

I’ll repeat, and embellish a little:

Feel free to read lengthy, opaque doctoral dissertations or listen to PhDs expound for hours on whether God created anything and if He did whether it was God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit who got His hands dirty.

However, if you don’t have a lot of time, and are concerned you don’t have graduate-level brains, here’s a nice, short, Reader’s Digest dump on the truth:

“Then God said, “Let US make man in our image, after our likeness …” [Gen 1:26]


Eddie - #72320

August 31st 2012

I had heard the phrase “invincible ignorance” before, but thought of it as a rhetorical exaggeration.  I never dreamed that it could actually be fully incarnated, and that I would come across a living example of it.


Francis - #72333

August 31st 2012

The mind is a terrible thing to waste.

So are mirrors.


DavidSpencer.ca - #72481

September 6th 2012

Theistic evolution contradicts what Scripture has to say about the origin of the universe, sin and death.

Unfortunately Dr. Dennis Venema and BioLogos Foundation perpetuates the false teaching of evolution.

See Ken Ham’s response to Dr. Venema’s article here: http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2012/09/06/its-an-epidemic/


Mark Glaab - #72621

September 10th 2012

Thanks. Ken Ham had a good point.


Mark Glaab - #72619

September 10th 2012

I am new to the discussions and a Canadian. I can tell you this about Canada, evolution is taught only in an atheistic framework and I know of young people who left their faith while in University. Richard Dawkins said Darwinian evolution caused him to embrace atheism because you no longer need God to explain the universe.

I’m not around many theistic evolutionists in Canada but I can tell you, as a Pastor, lots of kids loose their faith over evolution.

The Canadian view is that “the Bible is true, when you are in church” once you leave the church building “you are in the rfeal world and it is Godless, and evolutionary”. In other words, the Bible is considered true for the purposes of theology but it is not true in the sense of nature or reality.

There is no room for the belief of God in most Canadian university scioence classes, as Dennis Venema would know.

Knowing this, it is hard to see how Dennis can be surprised at a church reaction, when most of the greatest enemies of the church share the same evolutionary views that he espouses.


Ian Juby - #72973

September 21st 2012

I really appreciated Dr. Venema’s heartfelt expression of what he goes through, however, seeing as how the evidence he presented for evolution (and thus caused so much conflict in the heart of his students) is completely false, I felt I had no choice but to address his claims on my show:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4wJsD6ETks

 

I respectfully suggest that you re-evaluate both what you teach and believe.  In no way do I intend this as a personal attack, as I completely understand why one would believe in evolution - I was taught it as fact as well. However, it was when someone stepped on my toes that I started asking questions, so out of the true love of Christ for my brother, this is a gentle stepping on toes.

Ian


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