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Pastor John's 2021 Reading Challenge — Year in Review

Pastor John's 2021 Reading Challenge — Year in Review

For the second year in a row, I was unable to keep up with reviewing every book on the church blog (though I have published many more reviews on Goodreads, and will be posting several more there this week). Going forward I will try to be more strategic in which reviews make their way here!

It was another good year of reading, though, and I was able to surpass my goal of reading 80 books, ending up with 83 so far, and a couple more I may finish before the New Year. Of these, a little more than half were audiobooks, which I read on the road to and from work each day, as well as during my nightly walks with Elliot the Australian Shepherd.

Before I get into some further reflections and my top ten list, here are some statistics from this year’s reading:

By the Numbers

  • Total Books Read: 84
  • Works of Fiction: 33
  • Works of Non-Fiction: 51
  • Books That Were Seminary Assignments: 11
  • Books That Were Re-Reads: 8
  • Books Read With My Wife and/or Kids: 13
  • Books Over 100 Years Old: 3
  • Books Published in 2020-2021: 25 (plus 5 from 2019)

Reflections and 2022 Goals

One of my goals set this time last year was “to focus much of my reading on topics of ‘social justice’ and biblical responses to the progressive narrative surrounding them.” In particular I read a LOT of books related to race/ethnicity and critical theory, as well as several books on matters of gender and sexuality (more on these in a bit).

A related goal was to read more books by female and BIPOC authors, not just to gain from their perspective on these issues, but also to broaden my horizons in the realm of storytelling. Storytelling is one of the greatest ways we shape our culture, and are shaped by it, and so I wanted to read a lot of fiction & biographies written by people who don’t look like me. Of this year’s reading list, 23 (27%) were written by female authors, with 17 (20%) coming from BIPOC authors. There’s definitely room for increased diversity in my reading list for next year, but I have undoubtedly benefited from making this a priority in 2021.

Having goals to focus more on some current events led to a strong “recency bias” in my reading, with more than a third having been written within the last three years, and the vast majority coming within the last decade. That makes sense, but I may try to balance things out with a few more old books next year (C.S. Lewis encouraged reading at least one old book for every new book.

As I reflect on my reading as a whole this year, I’m drawn most to how my reading in the realm of social justice issues has impacted me. Given the supreme importance that issues of race, gender, and sexuality are given in our culture, our politics, and our social media feeds, I can’t overstate the value I found in spending time seriously interacting with various viewpoints; yes, through reading books, but even more so through conversations with friends and neighbors with whom I don’t agree, hearing their stories and trying to view the world through their eyes. It has been a humbling but fruitful journey that has helped me think more biblically, which in turn has (I hope) made me more gracious and effective in gospel ministry toward people from all walks of life.

Since this is the #1 area in which church members ask me for recommendations or comment, here are some short summaries of what I read in these areas. Fuller reviews for most are (or will be soon) posted on Goodreads. Listed alphabetically by title:

On Issues of Social Justice

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

by Isabel Wilkerson

Currently one of the most influential books on race relations, Caste argues that America’s ethnic tension exhibits many similarities to the Indian caste system. While I was not persuaded by Wilkerson’s central thesis, I found the book as a whole to be very effective in its stated goal to move readers toward “racial empathy,” and greatly appreciated her care in telling the story of the history of race in America. It’s a dark tale, to be sure, and provides needed perspective on the problems we face today. (Full review)

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Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity — And Why This Harms Everybody

by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay

Probably the single most helpful book I read in this area came from a very unexpected source. Two self-described “liberal progressives” investigate the origins of Critical Theory (of which Critical Race Theory is a subset), demonstrating how what began as ideas on the fringe of academia became the dominant philosophical and cultural force that it is today. Pluckrose and Lindsay find Theory to be an intellectually bankrupt and ultimately self-destructive philosophy… which, of course, it is. This is bad news for liberal progressives, as they see it driving the general population to the right politically and socially, but as someone who shares neither their worldview nor their social/political goals, I found their analysis to be immensely useful in understanding the core issues underlying much of what dominates today’s headlines. (Full review pending)

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Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism's Looming Catastrophe

by Voddie T. Baucham Jr.

Probably the most widely-read book on Critical Race Theory among folks at FBC and within our circles, Baucham’s incisive analysis of CRT (and the wider Social Justice Movement) from a Christian perspective contains much that is excellent. However, it also contains some glaring weaknesses, most notably in its application to personal ministry (how are we to relate to those who don’t agree with us?) and to theological understanding (is CRT a gospel issue, dividing belief from unbelief?). While I do believe many Christians should read this book, I think it likely to do more harm than good if this is the only book you read on this topic. More in my full review.

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I Am Restored: How I Lost My Religion but Found My Faith

by Lecrae Moore

With all the “deconstruction” and “exvangelical” stories circulating lately from folks who have walked away from the Church—often due to political and social convictions—it was refreshing to read Lecrae’s latest book, in which he recounts the story of how biblical counseling helped restore him to a vibrant Christian faith.
(Full review)

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The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country

by Amanda Gorman

This wasn’t so much a book or a collection of poetry (as I’d been hoping when I checked it out from the library) as just a nice printing of the titular poem recited by Gorman at President Biden’s inauguration. I thought then, as I do now, that the poem and her recitation of it were excellent, regardless of how one might feel about the politics surrounding the event. Oprah’s foreword (pretty much the only thing added for this printing) was pretty terrible, so I’m glad it didn’t cost anything.

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Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents

by Rod Dreher

Dreher is far too pessimistic for my taste, but his thoughts on Christian political resistance to the secularization of our society are well worth reading. In particular I enjoyed his interviews with Christians who lived through Communist totalitarianism in the Soviet bloc, and his call for believers to be willing to suffer for the sake of our convictions is both sobering and needed.
(Full review)

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The New Reformation: Finding Hope in the Fight for Ethnic Unity

by Shai Linne

I greatly appreciate Shai Linne’s use of the biblical word “ethnicity” (from the Greek ethnos) rather than the more common but less accurate “race” in his book on how the Gospel applies to the pursuit of unity. Both practical and pastoral, his challenge to avoid the polarizing tendencies of idolatry (making “race” a primary issue) and apathy (pretending we don’t have a “race” problem in our country or in the Church) is outstanding. (Full review pending)

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Not So Black & White: An Invitation to Honest Conversations About Race & Faith

by Reggie Dabbs & John Driver

As you may have guessed from the cover, this book is a response to Fault Lines, though Baucham’s name and book are not mentioned in this book. But while it does not interact with Fault Lines, or really even with Critical Race Theory, this book does address the biggest weakness of Baucham’s book. Written by two pastors (one black and one white), this book’s strength is in its constant reminders that the people on the “other side” of this issue are just that… people. If we want to effect change in the world around us, we need to be kind and open to changing ourselves. The authors begin from a different theological bent than I do, and so arrive at some conclusions I don’t share, I found it helpful as a whole, though the second half is much better than the first. (Full review pending)

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People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue

by Preston Sprinkle

Another needed book reminding us that, as believers, our primary concern should be with winning souls, not winning arguments. That said, it’s likely to be something that challenges readers on both the affirming (belief that monogamous homosexual marriages are sanctioned by God) and non-affirming (belief that only heterosexual marriage is sanctioned by God) sides of the Christian spectrum. Sprinkle gives a very thorough and fair-minded approach to each of the six Scripture passages which specifically mention homosexuality, landing firmly (and rightly) on the non-affirming view, before interacting with some of the more prominent arguments from the affirming camp (which is growing rapidly and may soon represent a majority of professing believers). He also (rightly) chastises most non-affirming believers for an atrocious track record of loving gay people and approaching them with the compassion of Christ and the hope of the gospel. I don’t share all of Sprinkle’s assumptions and could take issue with some of his terminology, but as a whole I really enjoyed this one. (Full review pending)

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Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope

by Esau McCaulley

I'm actually still working my way through this one, so can't say too much just yet. But seeing as McCaulley's book has been referenced in about half of the other books on this list I thought I should check it out for myself.

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Recovering from Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose

by Aimee Byrd

Based on the title, this is a book I thought I’d disagree with more than I actually do. In fact, I think the title is terribly misleading, as the bulk of Byrd’s arguments are not as concerned with the contents of the book Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood nor with the Council on BM&W (both of which have been influential in my own theology and ministry) as they are with how complementarian teachings have been poorly implemented in many local church contexts. It’s sadly true that many women have been hurt by churches, parachurch organizations, and individual Christians through domineering attitudes and actions exercised in the name of complementarity, and so I actually empathize quite a bit with many of Byrd’s grievances. I also agree that churches such as ours with a Reformed & Evangelical bent (Byrd is from the theologically conservative Orthodox Presbyterian Church) can be prone to under-utilizing the giftings of women. That said, I found her conclusions to be a mixed bag, and was unable to fully process all of her arguments in an audiobook format (which was narrated with excellence by my good friend Charity Spencer!). I intend to go back through the print version of the book in order to better engage with her sources through the footnotes, as much of what she does say about the CBMW (and John Piper & Wayne Grudem in particular) doesn’t jive with my own recollection of reading their book and other materials. I’ll review it more fully after that second reading.

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Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference

Ed. by Timothy Keller & John Inazu

The premise of this book is much better than its execution. No one on the evangelical landscape today is better than Tim Keller at getting people with different viewpoints together for a civil, respectful conversation around difficult topics. This collection of essays provides a good example of the kind of discourse we need in an increasingly fractured society, but the disparity in writing quality combined with the lack of a single unifying theme made this book a bit of a disappointment.

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Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice

by Eric Mason

This was one of the very first books written by a prominent evangelical author on the issue of “wokeness,” and I can’t help but wonder if, were he writing this book today, Dr. Mason would choose a different title. For the most part I found this book very helpful, but he spends an awful lot of time trying to define the word “woke” differently than how pretty much anyone else uses it. In the current climate, I think the title (and his insistence on redeeming and using the word “woke”) is unhelpful, and ultimately distracts from his otherwise worthwhile arguments.
(Full review)

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There are obviously many more books out there on these subjects, so my study is far from finished. I strongly encourage you to read widely on these subjects, and also welcome your recommendations of books I should add to my library!

And now, without further ado, here is my overall Top Ten list from 2021, again in alphabetical order:

The 2021 Top Ten

The Advent of the Lamb of God

by Russ Ramsey

My favorite Advent devotional, though I hadn’t read it in a decade (I have it under the original title, Behold the Lamb of God, written to complement to Andrew Peterson’s album of the same name). I love Ramsey’s storytelling style as he unpacks Scripture’s foreshadowing and fulfillment of the promises concerning the Messiah, and was super excited to see it published under this new title in conjunction with two additional books (which I’ve purchased and will review in 2022).

Get it here

Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians

by Brandon Sanderson

Having become such a fan of Brandon Sanderson’s writing in the last couple years, I decided to see how his YA series was. It’s excellent! Our family is just wrapping up the fifth & final book of the series (which has gotten better with each installment) this week, and we’ve loved listening to them together. The audiobooks narrated by Ramon De Ocampo are highly recommended!

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The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

by Daniel James Brown

Absolutely loved this "local" story about a group of Washington boys who came together to challenge the greatest rowers in the world, overcoming all odds (including blatant cheating designed to display the dominance and superiority of the Third Reich) to win gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Some nice material in there about living in Spokane and northern Idaho in the early 20th century, too!

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The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock 'n' Roll

by Ian S. Port

I loved this fascinating dual biography of Leo Fender and Les Paul, which was really more of a history of Rock 'n' Roll and the innovation, entrepreneurship, and marketing of the sound that has shaped generations of American music. Super fun!

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Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, & Identity—And Why This Harms Everybody

by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay

See above for my thoughts on this one.

Get it here

Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament

by Mark Vroegop

If I had to pick a #1 book to recommend for the year, it would probably be this one. Vroegop’s book on glorifying God in the midst of grief through lament is truly excellent and desperately needed. Lament is a huge part of Scripture, and yet rarely practiced in corporate or individual worship. This will likely become an annual read for me for at least the next few years.
(Full review)

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Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts

by W. David O. Taylor

There are surprisingly few books focusing on the role of the arts in worship, so this book was a delightful read despite its somewhat academic tone. It focuses on the "formative power" of the arts and their uses in the worship of the Church. This study of what the arts can uniquely teach us that we can’t get from anything else was very encouraging. (Full review)

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The New Reformation: Finding Hope in the Fight for Ethnic Unity

by Shai Linne

See above for further thoughts. Probably my highest recommendation of the books on that list.

Get it here

On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books

by Karen Swallow Prior

I've read quite a few books about reading, but this one has to go pretty close to the top of the list as far as most helpful books in the genre. Prior rightly insists that literature conveys meaning, and that, when good books are read well, this meaning is not just informative but formative. This is a book as much about virtuous living and character formation as it is about literary criticism or all the reasons most people don't read well. As such, it is a book that would be helpful for every Christian to read. (Full review)

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You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit

by James K.A. Smith

This is maybe the best book I've read on worship service planning (and I've read a ton of them). Smith argues convincingly that the patterns and practices of corporate worship are deeply formative in the lives of those Christians who attend them. Another book I’ll re-read soon, hopefully with several other members of our team. (Full review)

Get it here

Books by Category and Recommendation Rating

Here are all the books I completed in 2021, along with the reading categories from Challies' list. Note that my recommendation rating is not an indication so much of writing quality as it is the extent to which I would recommend the book to most folks who may be looking for recommendations on the church's resource page.

  1. A book published in 2020 or 2021 The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins 3/5
  2. A memoir or autobiography I Am Restored: How I Lost My Religion but Found My Faith by Lecrae Moore 3/5
  3. A book by or about a pastor or pastor's spouse Katharina and Martin Luther by Michelle DeRusha 5/5
  4. A book published by Zondervan Finally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of Grace by Heath Lambert 5/5
  5. A book for children or teens Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson 4/5 Top Ten Pick
  6. A book about Christian living A Guide to Worship Ministry: The Worship Minister's Life and Work by Gregory Brewton 3/5
  7. A book based on a true story The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown 5/5 Top Ten Pick
  8. A book of your choice Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins 3/5
  9. A book written by a Puritan The Bruised Reed by Lois Lowry 5/5
  10. A book recommended by a family member Beauty: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton 3/5
  11. A book about social justice Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism's Looming Catastrophe by Voddie T. Baucham, Jr. 3/5
  12. A book with two or more authors Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Differences ed. by Timothy Keller & John Inazu 2/5
  13. A book with at least 400 pages The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson 4/5
  14. A book by C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien 5/5
  15. A book on the New York Times bestseller list Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline 2/5
  16. A book about prayer Every Moment Holy, Vol. 2 by Douglas McKelvie 5/5
  17. A book of your choice Thrawn by Timothy Zahn 4/5
  18. A book by someone whose ethnicity is different from your own Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice by Daniel J. Estes 3/5
  19. A book that won an award Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross 4/5
  20. A book of your choice The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien 3/5
  21. A book about leadership Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence for Every Believer by J. Oswald Sanders 5/5
  22. A book with a person on the cover Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar by Oliver Craske 3/5
  23. A book of poetry The Stranger: Poems by Ben Palpant 5/5
  24. A book about Christian living Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts by W. David O. Taylor 5/5 Top Ten Pick
  25. A book of your choice The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien 5/5
  26. A book with an illustration on the cover Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn 3/5
  27. A hardcover book Art + Faith: A Theology of Making by Makoto Fujimura 5/5
  28. A book of 100 pages or fewer The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman 2/5
  29. A book with a one-word Gathering: A Spirituality and Theology of Worship in Free Church Tradition Christopher J. Ellis 2/5
  30. A book about psychology or philosophy You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith 5/5 Top Ten Pick
  31. A novel set in a country that is not your own Siddhartha by Herman Hesse 2/5
  32. A book about music Teaching Singing to Children and Young Adults by Jenevora Williams 2/5
  33. A book of your choice The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller 2/5
  34. A book about suffering Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament by Mark Vroegop 5/5 Top Ten Pick
  35. A book by a female Christian author Singing the Congregation: How Contemporary Worship Music Forms Evangelical Community by Monique M. Ingalls 3/5
  36. A book by an author 30 or younger Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years by David Litt 4/5
  37. A book set during WWII The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson 5/5
  38. A book about theology The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts by Daniel J. Treier 4/5
  39. A book of history The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral—And How it Changed the American West by Jeff Guinn 5/5
  40. A book of your choice The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien 5/5
  41. A book about productivity The Practice: Shipping Creative Work by Seth Godin 3/5
  42. A book about food On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu 4/5
  43. A book about sports A Guy Like Me: Fighting to Make the Cut by John Scott 3/5
  44. A book about business The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock 'n' Roll by Ian S. Port 5/5 Top Ten Pick
  45. A book of your choice Mistborn: The Wax & Wayne Series by Brandon Sanderson 4/5
  46. A book about relationships Tying the Knot: A Premarital Guide to a Strong and Lasting Marriage by Rob Green 4/5
  47. A dystopian novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins 4/5
  48. A book with magic The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson 4/5
  49. A book about marriage I Still Do: Growing Closer and Stronger Through Life's Defining Moments by Dave Harvey 3/5
  50. A book about the Bible The Advent of the Lamb of God by Russ Ramsey 5/5 Top Ten Pick
  51. A book about atheism Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller 4/5
  52. A book of your choice Outlander by Diana Gabaldon 3/5
  53. A book you don't want to read but think you should 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke 4/5
  54. A book about worldview Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher 4/5
  55. A book that challenges your thinking on a divisive topic Recovering From Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose by Aimee Byrd 3/5
  56. A book by your favorite author The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson 4/5
  57. A book written by a European author Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay 5/5 Top Ten Pick
  58. A book you have read before Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins 4/5
  59. A book about a controversial subject The New Reformation: Finding Hope in the Fight for Ethnic Unity by Shai Linne 5/5 Top Ten Pick
  60. A book about homosexuality People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue by Preston Sprinkle 5/5
  61. A Christian novel The White Rose Resists: A Novel of the German Students Who Defied Hitler by Amanda Barratt 4/5
  62. A book about one of the seven heavenly virtues On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior 5/5 Top Ten Pick
  63. A book about theology All That God Cares About: Common Grace and Divine Delight by Richard J. Mouw 3/5
  64. An author's debut book Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi 1/5
  65. A book about a world leader You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coe 3/5
  66. A book of your choice Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn 3/5
  67. A book about a country or city Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 by Mitchell Zuckoff 5/5
  68. A book set in the Middle East The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker 3/5
  69. A book from the MENSA reading list for grades 7-8 The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien 5/5
  70. A book your pastor recommends The Worship Pastor: A Call to Ministry for Worship Leaders and Teams by Zac Hicks 5/5
  71. A book written by an African author Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala 3/5
  72. A book about theology Bitesize Theology: An ABC of the Christian Faith by Peter Jeffery 3/5
  73. A book about race and Christianity Not So Black & White: An Invitation to Honest Conversations about Race and Faith by Reggie Dabbs and John Driver 4/5
  74. A book about America or set in America American Gods by Neil Gaiman 2/5
  75. A book written in the 21st Century Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley 4/5
  76. A biography, memoir, or autobiography Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover 4/5
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