What's OK about Lutherans?
Jon Pahl

Once he would gladly have given everything to be rid of this agony [of despair], but he was kept in waiting; now it is too late, now he would rather rage against everything and be the wronged victim of the whole world and of all life, and it is of particular significance to him to make sure that he has his torment on hand and that no one takes it away from him... What demonic madness—the thought that most infuriates him is that eternity could get the notion to deprive him of his misery.
 —Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

 —Jack Gilbert

Historical narratives—those stories we tell about how our ancestors have negotiated the ruthless furnace of this world, as Gilbert puts it, can become self-fulfilling prophecies. When those narratives depict decline they tend to evoke despair. This is true whether those depictions of decline are accurate or not (with accuracy of course depending on the criteria one uses to attribute success or whatever might be the opposite of decline; call it, for the sake of argument, “progress”). In any event, to reiterate—narratives of decline tend to evoke despair, which, as Kirkegaard taught us, produces reactions in the either-or forms of fight and flight. Neither reaction is authentic, that is, in keeping with the human as spirit-in-flesh, but both reactions are widespread.

When a historical narrative of decline breeds despair, an institution, congregation, or individual might retreat into the basics of everyday existence that seem to provide solace, hunkering down in the comfort of one’s familiars. This may in fact be the stubbornness that offers delight. Alternatively, an institution, congregation, or individual might react to the despair of decline with a futile and even Quixotic fight—a rage against everything as if a congregation, institution, or individual was “the wronged victim of the whole world and of all life.” Each of these reactions to despair might be characteristic of some Lutherans in the United States, which is my primary field for inquiry.

I do not want to dismiss the quite real reasons that some might see decline among Lutherans—whether demographic, political, cultural, sexual, liturgical, theological, or what-have-you. Name your decline and hang onto it, if you must. But I want to explore a different kind of question: what’s OK about Lutherans today? My approach is historical, but I encourage you to take your own disciplined approach to the topic and come up with your own answer. Succinctly, then, my answer in the form of a thesis is this: Lutherans in the United States today represent almost surely the most widely literate, financially secure, historically aware, culturally open, theologically informed, and socially engaged group of believers in the five-hundred-year history of Lutherans, and among the most widely literate, financially secure, historically aware, culturally open, theologically informed, and socially engaged group of believers in the history of Christianity. That we do not recognize these facts I am quite willing to attribute to demonic madness, which is of course nothing new in history but always manifests in distinctive, historically-specific symptoms that require distinctive, historically-specific modes of exorcism.


In the sixteenth century, which we recently celebrated in an orgy of Reformation nostalgia, the literacy rate was, by one estimate, 1 percent of the population. Allow me to reiterate, for emphasis: in Luther’s Germany, maybe only one out of a hundred people could read anything. If you recall that the 95 Theses were posted in Latin, you realize that the number of those who could decipher that iconic document can be reduced even further. Luther, to his credit, recognized this gap—and his Small Catechism was one remedy, as was his quite specific recommendation that every village have a school for both boys and girls. One economic historian even suggested modifying Max Weber and specifying that the Protestant work ethic was really the Protestant reading ethic.

In the Americas, then, Lutherans took Luther’s advice about books, and worked with believers of many other persuasions to establish a norm of universal schooling that many of us now simply take for granted. Securing the universality of that norm was no small accomplishment. It required organization, advocacy, and deep investments of practical resources. Many Lutherans have, by virtue of a two-realms theology that acknowledges the value of secular excellence, been completely comfortable supporting public schools and sending their children to them. Others (notably the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) have chosen a different course and established private schools. But the point remains the same across the board for all U.S. Lutheran groups: literacy has been valued and supported—at least until a certain point.

That point takes us into the topic of gender, about which I’ll share two stories that may suggest something like progress. The first is about my Aunt Gertrude Wastel. Gertie, born on a farm outside Shawano, Wisconsin, in 1918, attended school through eighth grade. At that point, her parents (my grandparents)—good German Lutherans—thought she had had enough learning and ought to join the workforce. Similarly, my mother, Barbara, born in 1935 and raised among Norwegian Lutherans on a farm near Gillett, Wisconsin, wanted to go to college, but her parents did not support that desire. In contrast, my father, Fred, born in 1931, was pushed to finish high school and then to attend Valparaiso University.

Today, such gender-based exclusions from access to education are almost unimaginable among U.S. Lutherans, although I suspect the prejudice behind those exclusions still exists in some contexts. Nevertheless, in my experience over the past few decades in Lutheran higher education, I have observed that more female students (if not faculty and administrators) than males serve as leaders at undergraduate institutions such as St. Olaf College, Gustavus Adolphus College, and others affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I am willing to wager a similar dynamic takes place in Lutheran campus ministries and at many of the nine LCMS college campuses across the country. And in recent years, the number of women attending ELCA seminaries has reached, if not surpassed, the number of men.

I do not want to get bogged down on the matter of Lutheran advocacy for women’s education. The point is simply this: American Lutherans have dramatically changed the rampant illiteracy that once characterized their kin and other Christians in early modern Europe and early modern America. This is undeniable progress, akin to the changes in the economic well-being of ordinary Lutherans in the Americas.


Sticking with our Weberian theme, then, the history of Lutherans and economic life suggests that by many measures, Lutherans have done well as industrialization and market economies have expanded. Many observers have lauded the Nordic model of economic development; those Lutherans in Norway and Denmark and Sweden and Finland and Germany have flourished in market economies since the sixteenth century. But what about Lutherans here in North America? There are plenty of statistics, but two vignettes illustrate the historical trajectory I see.

In 1652, Governor Johan Printz of New Sweden (now Delaware and Southeastern Pennsylvania) coveted the hand grain mill of one of his subjects, Clemet the Finn. So Printz took it. When Clemet understandably protested, Printz—who was over 300 pounds and a veteran of the Thirty Years’ War—beat Clemet to a pulp, in church. He then sentenced Clemet to eight days in prison, and then “hard labor” on Printz’ farm, for “some weeks.” Clemet’s fate was an extreme case of the economic norm among many of the first Lutherans in the Americas. Some were slaves. Some were indentured servants. Some were refugees. Many were peasant farmers. All were immigrants. Most were poor.

Today, by way of contrast, most Lutherans are economically OK. For instance, to stay with anecdotes, last year I was invited to a dinner honoring James Scott upon his retirement from the Thrivent Financial Board of Directors. Nearly 100 guests attended this event at the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia. It was OK. And to delve very briefly into one simple statistic, currently Thrivent (still largely representing Lutheran constituents) posts assets under management/advisement of $136 billion dollars.

More substantively, perhaps, as signs that Lutherans are OK economically, are the educational, medical, and service institutions Lutherans have built. Pastors routinely lament congregational giving, but I suspect that Lutherans exemplify what Robert Putnam and his team reported on in American Grace: that people of faith in the United States actively participate in civil society and charitable endeavors. (There’s a dissertation or three waiting to happen on the histories and economics of Lutheran social ministries such as Lutheran World Relief and the other agencies of Lutheran Services in America.)

At the same time, given the country’s rising inequality of income and wealth since roughly 1979, many Lutherans in the economic middle class have suffered. Many other Lutherans—those in working class and service vocations, those without the privilege of a quality education, and those who have fallen into the prison-industrial system—have suffered even more as social compacts have attenuated and unions have been systematically undermined. But these changes are reversible, and even taking into account these detrimental trends, the general economic well-being and daily lifestyle of the average Lutheran today is undoubtedly better than that of her counterpart in the era of Clemet the Finn. Finally, if the ELCA’s social statements carry any weight as indicators of historic Lutheran commitments, and I believe they do, then sufficient, sustainable livelihood for all is the admirable ethical telos toward which U.S. Lutherans ought to (and, at least to some degree, already do) orient their institutional, congregational, and individual economic action.

Historical Awareness

A third, perhaps surprising, aspect in which Lutherans are OK in North America today is in historical awareness. Many years ago, University of Chicago historian Sydney E. Mead observed that Americans (by which he meant generally citizens of the U.S. of European descent) by and large lack any sense of history or tradition. Today, Mead’s observation manifests frequently as amnesia about anything that happened prior to the last tweet.

Lutherans, by contrast, do retain at least some sense of historical awareness, both right in our name and running throughout central congregational practices such as scripture reading, preaching, and the sacraments. Even more, those practices now bear the indelible mark of the historical consciousness that has characterized modernity since the rise of the discipline in the late nineteenth century. Congregations and individuals now read scripture (if decades of seminary education have accomplished anything) with at least some awareness of the gulf between ancient and contemporary contexts. And while today’s preaching may not be as beholden to historical-critical exegesis as it was twenty years ago, it’s the rare Lutheran preacher who doesn’t bring some historical insight into her sermons. As for the sacraments, one of the truly significant accomplishments of Lutherans since the 1960s (and the Second Vatican Council) has been the rediscovery of the historic liturgy—including in many cases weekly communion. Such historical awareness of tradition as a guiding pattern, or “the living faith of the dead,” as Jaroslav Pelikan elegantly put it, differentiates Lutherans from those traditionalists who, again in Pelikan’s terms, manifest the dead faith (or we might even say more tragically, the killing faith) of the living.

One of the virtues of historical awareness is humility (and I am aware of the irony of speaking as a devotee of the discipline who also routinely violates this virtue in practice). Historical reasoning makes one aware of precedents, limits, contingency, and causes beyond the immediate and circumstantial. It is no surprise that Lutheran historians have been well represented in the field over recent decades—Martin E. Marty, L. DeAne Lagerquist, Jaroslav Pelikan, Betty DeBerg and many others. Finally on this point, not all of the Reformation anniversary celebrations were mere nostalgia. My colleagues Tim Wengert, Kirsi Stjerna, and others put together with Fortress Press The Annotated Luther, six volumes that advance key aspects of sixteenth-century theological writings for a new generation of English-language readers. Such historical awareness is not only OK; it is in fact a vital aspect of how Lutherans can contribute to a healthier public theology.

 Public Theology

Speaking of public theology—there are those ELCA social statements, which, whatever you think about how they have been used (or not) in congregations, reflect a historical record of theological deliberation and sophistication that is truly unprecedented in the history of American Lutheranism. Much has been made of the supposed “confessional” integrity of prior versions of Lutheran theological reflection (take your pick from among the writings representative of the Ministerium of Pennsylvania, General Synod, General Council, or Synodical Conference, down to the ALC, LCA, and LCMS), but most of them reflect rather starkly parochial worldviews not up to speed with contemporary scientific, social scientific, and humanistic understandings of their era (in contrast to Luther’s own embrace of the humanities). Similarly, many if not most of the statements that characterize Lutheran public theology from the sixteenth century until the very recent past also were not as much deliberative documents reflecting robust debate as theological tour de forces, penned by a single (or several) prominent “experts,” usually seminary professors.

Now, nothing against my predecessors at Philadelphia or Gettysburg or any of the other dozens of seminaries that dot American Lutheran history, but much of the “reasoning” in these prior arguments (see the debates over predestination or the lodges in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Lutheran circles) reflected internecine pissing contests marked by dogmatic hair-splitting. Many of the most hotly debated topics (dancing, for instance) suggest pale efforts by Lutherans to catch up to American evangelical moralizing and denominational (or congregational) politics. Such obtuse reasoning came from representatives still reflecting a former state-church tradition not fully attuned to democratic processes.

In other words, the sharp differences between Lutherans in the U.S. today—notably between ELCA and LCMS Lutherans—reflect (ironically) democratic progress. Lutherans have found that we do not have to take on face value the authority of any single voice or source. This is, in contrast to, say, mid-twentieth century German Lutherans, a very good thing.

It suggests fertile ground for future Lutheran work in ecumenism, interfaith activism, and resistance to empire—which is, I believe, a contextual contingency our first Christian ancestors would have understood. Put as a question: If the story of the twentieth century of U.S. Lutheran history was the unification of many diverse immigrant churches into two large national churches, what will the story of the twenty-first century be? It is always perilous for a historian to turn predictive—so I shall resist that temptation. But U.S. Lutherans have been at the forefront of patient ecumenical collaboration; the kinds of rapprochement between Roman Catholics and Lutherans, as evident in the 2017 Lutheran World Federation publication From Conflict to Communion, are impossible to imagine without the contributions and impetus of U.S. Lutherans. On the national level, there are signs of thawing in the LCMS (especially among young people), and the hottest issues that have bedeviled Lutheran unity—notably gender and sexuality, may be cooling (again, among young people) in ways that can make progress possible. And pressures that have necessitated interdenominational and interreligious engagement on the national and international levels—from terrorism to militarism—are now in play even on the local level. Neither are the technologies, from air travel to social media, that have connected representatives of faith traditions in unprecedented ways, and made cooperation and resistance both possible and exciting.

All in all, Lutheran public theology centers in the notion of vocation: the ways we apply our gifts and skills in particular times and places. It is in their vocations—as nurses and doctors and lawyers and engineers and parents and soldiers and students—that millions of U.S. Lutherans consciously struggle to articulate and to engage their faith in meaningful ways as citizens. Such dimensions to the history of Lutheran public theology extend far beyond the parochial and crabbed reflections of a few seminary professors about the perils of Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination.

Culture (including Liturgy and Arts)

Speaking of crabbed Lutheran parochialism, let’s talk about culture, starting with worship, which in some circles remains stuck in the ’50s—the 1650s. There is much important lament and protest percolating about Lutheran monoculture; call it the anti-Lake Wobegon branch of Lutherans today. As recent statistics from the Pew Research Center make clear, Lutherans join other mainline Protestants in remaining overwhelmingly, by numbers and on the rolls, white.

Of course, some cultural diversity exists among Lutherans. Lutherans also experience diversity through media and popular culture in ways that have changed attitudes on the ground, if not yet in the pews or in liturgical practice.

For instance, consider the role of film, music, and television in U.S. Lutheran lives. I haven’t seen the study on Lutheran media habits because it hasn’t been conducted, but anecdotally, Lutheran youth, for one demographic, have moved well beyond Bach and Ingmar Bergman in their musical and cinematic consumption. In my own effort to explore how Lutherans might look to media to better understand race, I offered a class in 2016 at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia on the topic “Do Black Lives Matter in the Media?” That painful historical study (have you seen Birth of a Nation?), led one student (now preacher), Lenny Duncan, to produce a documentary film, Do Black Churches Matter in the ELCA? In good Lutheran fashion, Duncan’s answer to his question is a paradoxical both “no” and “yes.” It is both an indictment and a prescription. Duncan has followed up that film with a book: Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S., due out in April.

The film’s music was provided by Tangled Blue—Aimee and Joel Pakan, who would not (statistically) be likely to be counted as advocates of diversity or movement beyond Lutheran monoculture, but who recently wrote and recorded a liturgy that highlights the harmonies and rhythms of the African American Indian cultures of the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans, where they lived for six months. They exemplify an openness and willingness to move beyond Lutheran monoculture.

But the film is, finally, Duncan’s. As an African-American man who is outspoken about his prior incarceration, Duncan has been active in a movement called decolonizing Lutheranism. Decolonizing seeks many goals, but one in particular speaks to a historical point:

Since early Christians were never bound to respectability and social perceptions of right behavior and often boldly contradicted these standards by lifting up the lowly and the downtrodden, #decolonizeLutheranism believes that we must all do likewise. Because of this, every member of the church is to be aware of and respect all of the voices in the room, not just the most evident or numerous, for each sings a part in God’s chorus.”

This metaphor of a chorus is a helpful way to recognize and to celebrate the existing cultural diversity among Lutherans. Among many of the urban synods of the ELCA and urban districts of the LCMS, the myth of a Lutheran monoculture has been exploded by liturgies every Sunday in literally dozens of languages, and in marvelously diverse music, clothing, and other arts. The kinds of intercultural experiments documented several years ago by Heidi Neumark in Breathing Space are beginning to bear fruit.

Social Engagement, Faithful Living, and Justice

Finally, on the matter of what’s OK with Lutherans in the U.S. today, let’s talk about social ministry organizations as examples of faithful Lutheran living on behalf of greater justice and peace. As made clear in the essays in Carter Lindberg and Paul Wee’s The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation (Lutheran University Press, 2016), Luther had the quaint notion of a community chest to address the kinds of needs that would today be met by social service institutions. Very few of the initiatives that Luther imagined and proposed, and that in some cases were instituted in various cities and towns in early modern Europe, carried over to North America. Lutherans in New York and Pennsylvania and Georgia and the Virgin Islands were by and large on their own economically.

By the mid-late nineteenth century, however, most Lutherans in the United States were aware of something called “inner missions.” Many of these Halle-inspired agencies might have a deaconess working in (or running) a hospital or orphanage, for example. These were often started by or based within a congregation, which allowed ordinary Lutherans to learn about, contribute to, and get involved with these agencies. Unfortunately, it also meant that these agencies drew from a narrow economic pool, exhibited ethnic and linguistic parochialism, and frequently perpetuated a patronizing paternalism that necessitated the rise of more standardized professional practices (as found, for instance, in the emerging discipline of social work associated with Jane Addams and the Chicago School).

Today, Lutheran Services in America represents 300 agencies across the United States with revenues of nearly $21 billion. Much of this funding (varying from agency to agency) comes from state and federal grants in addition to individual donations. Governmental ties surely bring reporting burdens, but they also require professional standards of accountability and best practices to which LSA members, in my observation, have sought assiduously to meet.

More substantively, perhaps, while governmental cooperation and the adoption of professional business practices by LSA members might appear to signal the “secularization” of agencies and even a diminution of Lutheran identity, this is not necessarily the case. If we understand Lutheran identity as inherently relational (focusing on others) rather than tribal (focusing on our own) then perhaps the expanded scope and reach of Lutheran agencies beyond “inner” mission intent makes intrinsic (and even theological) sense.

Take the case, briefly, of Lutheran World Relief. LWR originated as a Lutheran response to Lutheran need: after World War II, one-fifth of the world’s Lutherans were homeless, and far more suffered economically. In cooperation with the U.S.-led Marshall Plan, and in coordination with other Lutheran and ecumenical agencies, U.S. Lutherans organized LWR to ship clothing, blankets, food, and other commodities to Lutheran communities across northern Europe. Originally intended as a temporary relief effort, LWR endures today because U.S. Lutherans developed a global perspective and came to understand that ecclesiastical commitments entail social responsibilities. Today, the majority of LWR projects do not serve Lutherans, but serve where need is greatest—in Sudan, India, Guatemala. The LWR website clearly and forcefully articulates the organization’s Lutheran identity. And LWR has embraced a goal of “sustainable development” that moves far beyond collecting and shipping blankets and care packages while still recognizing the important role these activities play to engage local Lutherans in service.

If we think of the church in four concentric circles—congregational, synodical, church-wide, and social ministries—it is to the credit of Lutherans, and not at all a sign of “decline,” that social ministries are the one aspect of the church that has grown in qualitative and quantitative ways over the past few decades.

The Devil’s most effective temptation, as Paradise Lost makes clear, is to elicit sympathy by fixating our attention on suffering; there is no end to the suffering of the world. Yet to yield to this temptation invariably leads us to fixate on our own suffering, and thus to neglect to perceive, much less to appreciate and to enjoy, the real gifts of delight (the Edens, if you will) that exist in our lives. History, as a record of the living past, is no exception to this temptation to obsess about our own fragility and victimization. As Steven Pinker contends in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, it is proximity and perspective bias—the tendency to magnify the suffering near and dear to us—that keeps us from recognizing that we live in the most peaceful and prosperous era of human history. We enjoy the longest life expectancy, lowest infant mortality rate, lowest murder rate, and least international warfare. We enjoy creature comforts unimaginable to our ancestors. The failure to perceive this progress among U.S. Lutherans has consequences that demagogues can exploit; there is no absence of modern-day messiahs offering to make Lutherans great again.

Certainly, apocalyptic doom is a dread worth acknowledging, and I believe the issue that demands the most urgent and collective action from Lutherans, Christians, and all people of faith, is climate change. A Sixth Extinction truly looms as the Melancholia of our grand-children’s future. But however stony the road our ancestors trod, we can also, I hope, be encouraged to face our own struggles by recognizing how far we’ve come, by faith. Recently the African Descent Lutheran Association celebrated its thirtieth anniversary with a gala Eucharist at Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion in Philadelphia. In that service, we poured libations to our ancestors—to those literal and metaphorical parents and grandparents who went before us. It is in that spirit that I offer this meditation of what’s OK about Lutherans in the United States—lest, as Gilbert put it, in our attention to injustice we wind up only praising the devil.

Jon Pahl graduated from Valparaiso University in 1980, taught at Valpo from 1988-2000, and is currently the Peter Paul and Elizabeth Hagan Professor of the History of Christianity at United Lutheran Seminary (Philadelphia/Gettysburg).  Jon also serves as Minister of Faith Formation and Community Engagement at Union Congregational UCC in Green Bay, WI. Jon lives in Clintonville, WI with his wife, Lisa. They have three grown children. Jon has published six books, and his next, Fethullah Gulen:  A Life of Hizmet--Why a Muslim Scholar in Pennsylvania Matters to the World, will be out in April. 


For another translation, see Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death (Princeton University Press, 1941), p. 82: “Precisely upon this torment the man directs his whole passion, which at last becomes a demoniac rage. Even if at this point God in heaven and all his angels were to offer to help him out of it—no, now he doesn’t want it, now it is too late, he once would have given everything to be rid of this torment but was made to wait, now that’s all past, now he would rather rage against everything, he, the one man in the whole of existence who is the most unjustly treated, to whom it is especially important to have his torment at hand, important that no one should take it from him—for thus he can convince himself that he is in the right. This at last becomes so firmly fixed in his head that for a very peculiar reason he is afraid of eternity —for the reason, namely, that it might rid him of his (demoniacally understood) infinite advantage over other men, his (demoniacally understood) justification for being what he is. It is himself he wills to be; he began with the infinite abstraction of the self, and now at last he has become so concrete that it would be an impossibility to be eternal in that sense, and yet he wills in despair to be himself. Ah, demoniac madness! He rages most of all at the thought that eternity might get it into its head to take his misery from him!”

Works Cited

African Descent Lutheran Association, online at http://www.adlaelca.org/

Becker, Sascha O. and Ludger Woessmann. “Luther and the Girls: Religious Denomination and the Female Education Gap in Nineteenth-Century Prussia,” Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 110(4): 777-805.

Decolonize Lutheranism, “About Us,” at http://decolonizelutheranism.org/our-beliefs/

Duncan, Lenny. Do Black Churches Matter in the ELCA? Part One: youtube.com/watch?v=BtD41cytL9Q Part Two: youtube.com/watch?v=51eVgofg2IY

The Economist, “The Nordic Countries: The Next Supermodel,” February 2, 2013, online at https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21571136-politicians-both-right-and-left-could-learn-nordic-countries-next-supermodel.

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Pew Research Center, Religion in Public Life, “Racial and Ethnic Composition.” http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/racial-and-ethnic-composition/

Pillay, Kavita. “Did Martin Luther’s Reformation 500 Years Ago Leave its Mark on Today’s Eurozone Economic Crisis?,” PRI’s The World, October 31, 2013. https://www.pri.org/stories/2013-10-31/did-martin-luthers-reformation-500-years-ago-leave-its-mark-todays-eurozone

Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking, 2011.

Putnam, Robert D., and David E. Campbell. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Stout, Jeffrey. Democracy and Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Thrivent 2017 Report to Members, https://www.thrivent.com/about-us/files/25012_18.pdf

United Nations.“We Can End Poverty: Millennium Development Goals and Beyond 2015,” at http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/stats.shtml.

von Trier, Lars. Meloncholia. Denmark: Zentropa, 2011.


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