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The 9th installment in our “aha moments” series is by Anthony Le Donne, assistant professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH, and formerly of Lincoln Christian University. He was terminated from that position as a direct result of his popular book Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? Le Donne, a widely respected New Testament scholar, has also written The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals and blogs at The Jesus Blog.

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It would be fair to say that I’ve moved from conservative to liberal in my views about the Bible. But since my perspective on what constitutes “conservative” and “liberal” has evolved, perhaps these labels are misplaced.

I will say, however, that if my teenage self could meet who I am now, that dashing young man would call me a liberal. He would also be dismayed to learn how poorly Italians age. It’s like going from Johnny Fontane to Luca Brasi overnight.

In my Johnny Fontane years I viewed Scripture as an owner’s manual for life. I remember hearing this metaphor used at church. Life would just be better, smoother, happier if we just adhered to the owner’s manual.

The Bible cautions against drunkenness, so we avoided alcohol. Simple. The Bible tells us to resolve our conflicts before coming together in communion. Who wants to hold a grudge anyway? So simple. The Bible tells us not to murder. Less murder seemed like a positive thing to us (Luca Brasi notwithstanding).

Following these instructions seemed beneficial. Sunday school taught me this: if I did what the Bible told me to do, I’d be on the right track.

Both now and then, I see great virtue in this paradigm. The legal instructions of Israel exhort care for resident foreigners. These Scriptures command good stewardship of the earth and care for animals. Jesus tells me to feed the poor. He tells me to help folks who cannot pay me back. I’m supposed to love people considered outsiders by most.

I think that I’m a better person for following, meditating on, and wrestling with these teachings whenever I can. So what’s the problem?

Part of having a “high view” of Scripture for evangelicals is reading the Bible closely and often. I did. When I did, one of the things I found was a teaching from Jesus about lust.

Lust was a big deal when I was an adolescent. For boys of a certain age, lust is a fulltime job. I tried to think about baseball. I really did. But biology is a Super Bowl commercial. I—like most boys—was at war with myself.

I turned to the Bible often with fear and trembling. Jesus told me that if I looked upon Daisy Duke with lust in my heart, I was guilty of adultery. I kept reading. Jesus told me that if my right eye continued to sin, I should pluck it out. And here I was looking upon Linda Carter with both eyes!

I asked around. The standard evangelical advice I got was that this command wasn’t to be taken literally. The proper evangelical reading of this passage was to get the main point. What was the “didactic thrust” of Jesus’ words? Well, according to my youth pastors and mentors, Jesus was just using a bit of rhetorical flare to warn me against the dangers of lust. It would all make perfect sense if I just took it as a figurative speech.

I began to look for the didactic thrust of biblical teaching. The owner’s manual might command us to throw literal rocks at literal homosexuals, but the gist of that passage was that God hates homosexuality… but LOVES and FORGIVES all sinners (we’ve taken to shouting that last part—more for ourselves than for anyone else).

The rock-throwing part wasn’t to be taken literally, but the meaning behind the text seemed quite clear to us. Sometimes it seems that the clearest meaning of Scripture is the one that reinforces our own comfort zones.

Already as a high school student, the owner’s manual paradigm was stretched beyond usefulness. My evangelical world began to accommodate figural readings by looking for the underlying message. I think that this is where most evangelicals land.

We treat the Bible as an owner’s manual that we’re forced to interpret creatively at times. As long as we read selectively, we’re able to use the Bible to reinforce our “commonsense.”  This way we get to keep our eyeballs and hands on our persons (Matt 5:27-30) but continue to reinforce our commonsense notions of sexual purity.

But what of the “underlying message” of Ezra 9-10?

By the grace of God, both my eyes survived adolescence and I was able to keep reading the Bible as a young adult. I was in high school when I first set my eyes on Ezra 9-10. I was able to sidestep the command to divorce and abandon children without much thought to the “literal sense” of this story. Obviously such a command shouldn’t be taken literally. After all, Jesus condemns divorce.

So I looked for the gist of God’s words through Ezra. The underlying message—it occurred to me—was that interracial marriage is sinful and disastrous to the purity of bloodlines. This teaching seemed remarkably similar to my grandmother’s disapproval of my parents’ relationship because my father was dark-skinned.

I’m not claiming that my 16-year-old exegesis was all that sophisticated. But any way you slice it, Ezra 9-10 is deeply troubling—especially so to folks with an owner’s manual view of the Bible.

My salvation during this crisis came from a fellow evangelical who pointed me to Jeremiah 29. In this passage, the Lord seems to command intermarriage as the Israelites find themselves in Babylon.

An owner’s manual view of the Bible might see this as a contradiction. But I found Jeremiah’s exhortations to be comforting. The prophet commands Israel to be culturally integrated within a milieu of religious and ethnic pluralism.

This wasn’t my only “aha” moment, but it was a significant realization in my life. The Bible—it occurred to me then—was much more than an owner’s manual.

In my adulthood, the Bible has become a multi-vocal conversation spanning centuries.

Voices are set against voices for good reason. Job is juxtaposed with Proverbs. Paul is juxtaposed with James. Mark is juxtaposed with Matthew (indeed, four Gospels are set together—as opposed to one official narrative).

Sometimes I heard my own voice set against an ancient one as I read. But my voice wasn’t alone. Sometimes there was a chorus of faithful voices on my side. Viewed as a multi-vocal conversation, I found room for me within the paradigm—me, including my right eye and right hand.

I also found Proverbs 26:4-5 to be a needed corrective to my view of the Bible as an owner’s manual:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,

or you yourself will be just like him.

Answer a fool according to his folly,

or he will be wise in his own eyes.

In my Johnny Fontane years, I might have heard this passage as a contradiction. What am I supposed to do? Answer the fool or not? But when I hear these sayings as two voices collected within a multi-vocal collection, I am invited into a conversation.

More importantly, these divergent views are set side-by-side. Somewhere along the way, a faithful collector of tradition decided that these two sayings should be set into direct relationship. Once put together, these sayings were passed from generation to generation in a relationship of tension. There is something beautiful here that cannot be captured by the owner’s manual paradigm.

I no longer expect biblical voices to harmonize or to provide some sort of absolute Truth. As I encounter God through the many voices of the Bible (even when they debate or sound like my grandmother), I throw myself into a living and evolving relational Mystery.

I enter into the worship of God as I study the Bible. I don’t need the Bible to be infallible because it is just the entry point, not the ultimate destination.

For me the Bible isn’t something that demands my ultimate affirmation of commands and prohibitions. A high view of Scripture—for me at least—is one that views the Bible as much more than an owner’s manual.

But I will admit that I continue to struggle with my roots. I may not look like an evangelical to my younger self, but I find myself in evangelical default mode at times. Just when I think I’m out… they pull me back in!

This is why I rarely trust my own readings. I live within a community of honest academics (some Christian; some not) who have permission to correct me and better me. As such, the multi-vocal tradition continues. Because as much as I’d like to be Johnny Fontane, I’m not much of a soloist.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

55 Comments

  • Thank you for this story. I wonder what would you say to any current “Johnny Fontane” soloists out there who react with suspicion to anyone who suggests true biblical fidelity may mean giving up their unilateral vision of scripture? I’ve found that among many evangelicals, it’s hard to get past that first hurdle – any acknowledgement of multiple voices in Scripture disrupts their imposed unity, muddles clarity, and damages authority. They see this as a temptation of intellectual pride which Satan uses to snare those who set themselves above the Bible. I believe the Bible is inspired though not infallible, but it’s difficult for my more conservative friends/colleagues to believe that I’m living in good faith – I simply cannot view the Bible the way I once did. And anyway, my current view has opened up the Bible in ways that were inaccessible before. It’s hard to explain that to someone while not making them feel that their way of reading Scripture is inferior and invalidated.

    • Brian P. says:

      Great points.

      I love these topics that get to the interpersonal in these matters–how to engage with friends and family and especially lay leaders and clergy.

      One of the best questions you ask Justin is how to engage people who use Rhetorical Ultimate Spiritual Authority Attacks.

      There are certain kinds of attacks that are indefensible.

      For instance, attacks on motivation are indefensible: “You believe [___] so you can do [___].” What goes in the second fill-in-the-blank is some sort of sin, with the egregiousness being a tell-tale indicator of how great the other desires to admonish/correct/shame/shun you. In the milder garden variety form of this attack, one (still a “brother,” a “sister”) is merely being “tempted.”

      Another kind of attack is an attack on influence: “You believe [___] because you’re under the influence of [___].” One common response to the second fill-in-the-blank might be “liberals.” Penultimate Christian-language attack of this nature postulates “Satan” as the other’s influence.

      There are differences in attribution of primary agency between the motivation attack and the influence attack. In the motivation attack, it centers on you, that your motivations are flawed. Prooftexting examples can include tickling of ears, being lukewarm, shipwrecking faith, etc.

      The influence attack centers the agency on someone other than you. Here you can be under two types of influences–either supernatural beings or man. When the attack indicates that you are under the influence of man-as-group (liberals, progressives, Catholics, non-believers, atheists, …) this is an indicator that the attacker is not or beginning to not see you in his trusted in-group. He’s seeing you as one of “them,” in a who’s in and who’s out divide. (If the person holds a soteriologically defined faith, the out groups are clearly the damned, of pure evil.) If the attribution of influence is not an outsider group but a specific person (Rob Bell, Richard Dawkins, even the likes of a say Pelagius in his historical times, whatever) this is an indicator that the attack reveals that the referenced person is also an outsider and, in their mind, you are bearing similarities to that outsider. That ad hominem attacks have been known since antiquity hasn’t really diminished their use or effectiveness, at least in hurtfulness.

      If not of persons in the form of group or individual, the attack of influence comes in the form supernatural beings. It looks like this: “You are under the influence of evil spirits.” Or, “you are under the influence of demons.” Or, “you are demon possessed.” Or, in a greater yet more patronizing form, “you are letting yourself be influenced by Satan.” These are as completely indefensible as having to stand to a Grand Inquisitor or local Salem witch trial.

      Attacks of motivation and influence can range from the gentlest, most heartfelt admonitions to a brother or sister in the Lord based upon what they believe the Holy Spirit is saying to the doing the needful for dealing with an apostate or heretic in our midsts. Certain, more cultic, denominational styles seem to leave behind a trail of those who have been separated from their families for being too honest about their beliefs, others’ beliefs, or even about mainstream scholarship across countless fields.

      These attacks rely on authority. In cults, the authority is proximally obvious, it is the person, named. In more common contexts, the authority isn’t man, but is something ontologically offset, something Sacred. It its most perverse forms it is a sock puppet, where nearly anything can be claimed about what the Holy Spirit is saying in not too different of ways from the Monster on the island in the Lord of the Flies.

      This kind of Great Authority can either be a supernatural being (God or the Holy Spirit typically) or a supernatural thing (the Bible and this is what makes this a “high view” of the Bible as Anthony describes as it is not any sort of height of respect of the authors’ varied metaphysical and theological perspectives).

      Authority claiming statements fit in a pattern like this:

      “I am right, because [___] says so.”

      Or:

      “I agree with [___].”

      Or:

      “I follow [___] not [either the antithesis or asserted false authority of the influence attack].”

      Adjectives can be inserted. These adjectives assert the sacredness, the unassailability, the ultimate nature of the authority.

      It’s so patterned that a simple computer program could be written to generate such authority claiming statements:

      “I follow the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God, not the traditions of man.”

      Or simply, “Well, I believe God.”

      Between motivation attacks (“you just want to sin”), influence attacks (“you’re deceived by Satan”), and authority claims (“I believe what the Bible clearly says”), there’s little to be said in response. In fact, the these patterns of attack and authority claim can work for any (at least any non-kenotic) set of metaphysical, theological, exegetical, or doctrinal claims.

      Now back to the Bible and the multi-voiced nature of the Bible…

      The reason the contextual voices of the authors can’t be heard is this: The Bible must be a uniform authority to support these (mostly internal, within-the-mind, in trench-warfare mode) attacks and authority claims. Without, people can’t keep their inner fears at bay. It is a state of spiritual nuclear detente within the soul. I know. I’ve sadly been there before.

      And most of this wrestling that I describe, for me, was not against flesh and blood but within me. The religion that I had being taught and had caught had created a horrific inner war.

      As such, sometimes I wonder that when the other person now makes these motivation and influence attacks bundled with authority claims at a now very different kind of (perhaps heretical) me, is he merely leaking out what is greater inner pains and struggle.

      Alas, be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

      And steer clear of any clergy or lay person who in flatness of exegesis innocuously says:

      “The Bible says […].”

      For he too may be fighting that hard battle.

      • JL Schafer says:

        Sad, but often true. One more: “You believe […] because you want to seem more reasonable to nonbelievers so that you can be more popular in the world.”

        • Brian P. says:

          Yes, that’s a wording in the attack form. In contrast, is the word “favor.”

          “Lord, [just] give us ‘favor’ so we can reach those who don’t know You.”

          Obviously the other does what the other does for ignoble motivations. “We,” on the other hand, have the noblest of all motivations and callings. (Oh, the irony for those who use arrogance version of the attack… Oh Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?)

          The phrases of self-justifying and other-demeaning polemical rhetoric are quite old. But grass withers and flowers fall.

        • I was essentially told this at one point. I could only respond that I am often at loggerheads with our culture, in its misogyny, its violence, its injustice. In its banality and satisfaction with mindless materialism. I also don’t approve of the weird voyeurism of popular media which worship the lives and lifestyles of celebrities, many who should not be emulated.

          All of us support “the world” in some ways and stand against it when our integrity compels us. Sometimes we are right and sometimes the culture is right. The issue is, what principles are we bringing to bear when we conflict with culture? All I know is, we better search ourselves, and when conflicts arise we should exhibit grace. Should I stand proudly like Jonah on the side of the hill, hating Ninevah in my heart while forgetting the grace God shows me? I admit I feel that way sometimes. But my desire is to be in the world yet not of it. . . to act as a prophetic witness against oppression and injustice, despite my own foibles.

      • Interesting points Brian. Sometimes influence and motivation can be negative, so I can see why evangelicals tend to this. They don’t trust you because you become a physical avatar of their own doubts and fears. I used to try to be as clinical and academic as possible in such discussions with conservative evangelicals. But now I realize that evidence is really irrelevant if you are talking about underlying passions and spiritual forces. All that can be done is to live out your faith and show that you are the same person as before, and if anything, possessed of a faith more firmly rooted in the deeper things of God. People will see in your life if you are motivated by the truth and inspired by people who seek after the truth. For me, the collapse of inerrancy came at precisely the point where I noticed that the people I respected were answering my questions about the Bible in slippery ways. And the people who were treating the Bible truthfully and respectfully were precisely the scholars and theologians that my conservative teachers had warned against. In attempting to make the Bible our own infallible source of guidance, we can end up creating quite an idol which bears no resemblence to the messiness and beauty actually found in Scripture.

        • Brian P. says:

          I think the foundational asymmetric stasis my pastor would like is this:

          He: Preaches.

          I: Give money.

          Preferred of the latter is with affirming “Amens” and thoughtless hands-busy contributions in support of his calling and ministry. Otherwise, silence is an acceptable option.

          I struggle in knowing how to respect such week over week. I don’t think the Rise of the Nones and Spiritual, Not Religious is just about church methods and programs. I think, for instance, that there are elements that cause folks to get their BS detectors triggered.

          • I think alot of pastors are in a bind. Many of them know that it isn’t as simple as what they are presenting – but preaching-as-performance makes it necessary to treat topics in this way. Many of the megachurches have so many people to deal with, they can only speak in these vague general pronouncements about what the Bible says. They have neither time nor tolerance for nuance. Many of them remind me of the therapeutic style of Oprah, with the same sort of pat answers and disproportionate, overly-cheerful confidence. It’s bizarre to watch a powerpoint bullet list of what God wants on any given topic from money to dieting, pulled haphazardly from verses across the Bible.

            But in the end, I’ve found it’s much better to have unresolved questions than to have weak, unconvincing answers.

    • Mike H says:

      Nailed it. Same thing for me.

      I’d suggest finding 1 or 2 people that you can talk to face to face (not to imply that you aren’t already doing this). Blog conversations aren’t enough, at least for me.

      • Brian P. says:

        Agreed, agreed, but where? How? Who?

        Most of the leaders at my Evangelical megachurch are either ignorant or unconcerned by all this or continue their personal silent contributions to this and other third-rail problems.

        Last week, my daughter went to a big production event that was all about getting “this generation” “on fire.” Seemed completely isolated from the historic church as well as the present pluralistic realities. I can imagine how the Bible was and wasn’t taught.

        I have no idea what kind of faith my kids are going to end up keeping, ejecting, or transforming.

        Why are these conversations “1 or 2 people” in an offline context?

        Where is the from-the-rooftop boldness of Evangelicalism’s zeal?

        • I hope to see in my lifetime a revitalization of mainline denominations. I think disaffected ex-evangelicals of my generation who never left their faith will start showing up at their doorsteps in their 30s and 40s. I think the Calvinists and charismatics will also continue to grow. But the days of the non-denominational conservative evangelical megachurches are numbered. To borrow an analogy from Frank Underwood, the megachurches are the McMansions that start falling apart after ten years. . . the mainline churches are the old stone buildings that stand for centuries.

          I’ve been going to an Episcopal church for a while now and feel that I’m able to serve and worship in a community that doesn’t require me to commit intellectual suicide. (It also doesn’t hurt that we hold theological conversations in locations with spirited libations close at hand.)

          • Brian P. says:

            I can’t remember the last time I passed through my megachurch’s entry, shook hands with a greeter, and received a bulletin without silently thinking to myself:

            Holy smokes, they actually believe this stuff!

            Honestly, I’d rather dip my fingers in a bit of holy water, cross myself, and genuflect upon passage from narthex to nave and find a space to quietly kneel to then think to myself:

            [nothing]

          • J. Inglis says:

            Ouch, that’s a bit too cynical and also stereotyping and dismissive–and inconsistent with an attitude of love for those who differ (which not only includes enemies but also hypocritical or unthinking christians). Mega-churches are big enough that they are also places that have within them dedicated, loving, thinking disciples of Jesus.

          • Brian P. says:

            I thought the same thing again this last Sunday too.

            Maybe this next Sunday I’ll say to the greeter, “Umm, I don’t really believe this stuff. Is there anyone who’d like to hang out with me and chat at the coffee shop across the street for the next hour and some?”

          • Tim says:

            LOL. So, the saying IS true about Episcopalians: “Wherever four Episcopalians are gathered, there’s bound to be a fifth.”

          • Well. It is Kentucky, so I’m also a “bourbon-again” whiskeypalian.

          • Ah, if my teenage self could see me now, he’d be furious. Then again, he is here and has seen what I’ve seen, knows what I know. His intentions were and are sincere. He’s learning. As for the many voices of the Bible, I agree to a point. Many traditions, myths, folktales, and political and religious agendas came together to form the Hebrew Scriptures in particular, but the editors were apparently fewer in number.

        • Mike H says:

          I hear you – it’s not easy. I don’t go to a megachurch but I can appreciate how the cultural ethos can kind of take over and make it hard. Sounds like an evangelical megachurch is not the right place for you. Regardless of the church, many just aren’t interested in talking thru this kind of stuff. It’s hard, it’s uncomfortable. I don’t mean to suggest that online conversations aren’t helpful – completely the opposite. I just mean that there’s no substitute for sitting down face to face with an actual person at a coffee shop or in someone’s kitchen and have them look you in the eyes and really listen when working thru this kind of stuff. Speaking from experience here.

          Finding these relationships isn’t easy though – also know that from experience. And there’s no avoiding the fact that it’s risky. The interpersonal side of this is hard – that’s the reality. For me, the desperation was so much that I had to act – it outweighed the risk.

          As far as making it happen and finding people, I think the first thing to do is to pay attention to the people who are already around you –even at a megachurch where it’s hard to really know anybody. Listen to what people say, to their stories, to how their faith has changed and grown, pay attention to what they disclose about their struggles. I think that most people don’t advertise this stuff because it’s also risky for them, but there will be moments. Watch how they treat people. Pay attention to whether they listen or just wait for their turn to talk. I needed to find people who could appreciate the challenges that I was facing (particularly with the Bible & science, but also with other faith stuff) and to some degree agree, be willing to explore some hard issues and deal with some cognitive dissonance, but I didn’t really need them to agree with me about everything. It’s good to be challenged too. This is absolutely 100% how I chose the people that I was going to intentionally reach out to and I haven’t regretted it. Not going to solve everything, but it’s been a better way for me to follow Jesus and work thru some tough faith stuff.

          • Brian P. says:

            It’s as if you have to find what’s openly promoted as the center by cautiously navigating your own way around the silent fringe.

  • ajl says:

    I really like the owners manual concept. An owners manual is very constricting – don’t try to adjust the timing belt of a 2008 Lexus using the owners manual for a 1978 Beetle).

    A much better option is the “Basic Car Care” book my Dad got me when I was young. It lays down general principles on how the parts of a car get fixed, but requires me to use some independent common sense within my current paradigm.

    • Brian P. says:

      Another metaphor would be the junk yard.

      When things are broken, you can get a lot of still good, usable stuff for same as nothing. I think I’m on like my third driver’s side mirror on my Toyota pickup.

      IMO, what’s most broken, spiritually about the car repair manual metaphor is that who the conceived-of repairman is.

      Who shall be doing this preventive maintenance, who shall be making the repairs? What does the repair manual metaphor imply? Who is the reader of the manual who needs to do the maintenances and make the repairs?

      Some of the catechisms and confessions over the years have suggested that there is nothing that I can do, on my own, to make myself right before God. Metaphorically, perhaps I (me and all of me and not just a dualistically separated from me “soul” that I might “have”) am the worn-down car.

      Perhaps a more orthodox faith is centering that Jesus is the healer, that continuing with the car repair analogy that he is the repairman making all things new. I can not heal my own soul any more than I can address the totality of a universe’s worth of creation groaning.

      Perhaps the Bible is merely the story (or even better, anthology of stories as after all what does “Bible” mean?) of past breakdowns and repairs along the road.

      In my opinion, that would have been a better road metaphor than the theologically dumbed-down 20th century American Bibliocentric Roman Road metaphor I was taught.

      I wish I would have been taught the road, I wish I would have been taught the way.

      I wish my youth group leader would have once prayed something like this:

      “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
      I do not see the road ahead of me.
      I cannot know for certain where it will end.
      Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that
      I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am
      actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You
      does in fact please you.
      And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
      I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
      And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road,
      though I may know nothing about it.
      Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost
      and in the shadow of death.
      I will not fear, for You are ever with me,
      and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

      (Thomas Merton)

  • What is this word “figural”? Do you just make up words as you go along?

  • Just Sayin' says:

    More books like Wife of Jesus, please!

  • Name says:

    I can relate to this discussion. I grew up in a dispensationalist church, went to Christian college, and have attended church regularly as an adult. After trying to learn more about Scripture, all the of the issues that are being discussed here became apparent to me.

    At some point, I realize that I spend almost my whole social life around people who loathe people who think like me. Not good.

    Because what really stinks about evangelical thought is the idea (ingrained so much that even good people don’t realize they are expressing it) that what separates good people from bad is their theology. If you believe x,y and z you are a good human, and if you don’t then you have some pathology.

    Pete, congrats on the World Cup win! US had a nice run, but they aren’t at Germany’s level yet. I don’t root for Germany but was happy to see them win because I do love attacking soccer, and would hate to have seen Argentina rewarded for bunkering.

    • Brian P. says:

      I believe the red letters in one of the non-canonical Gospels have this:

      “At some point, I realize that I spend almost my whole social life around people who loathe people who think like me.”

      Then he takes up drinking and dining with sinners and tax collectors.

  • James says:

    To me the bible is much more than a manual, it is polyphonic story. And it is much more than an entry point, it speaks (sometimes sings) of ultimate destination. Yes, it should be read and discussed communally for full effect–bravo!

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