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Faith and Popular Music:

My Long And Winding Road

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I was born in the mid-60s and grew up in a garden variety Catholic home.

I was the 5th of six kids. We went to church as a family every Sunday.

(Well, except for the time they accidentally left me behind, playing in the yard. Home Alone is real, people.)

We made our sacraments, ate fish on Fridays during Lent, were enrolled in the Catholic school (mostly)….

…the usual stuff.

My parents were involved in various activities and ministries at the parish, and my two older brothers were altar boys. I would say we were devout, but not so much as to not blend in with what was typical Catholicism for the time.

That all changed when I was around 10.

My mother went on a Catholic retreat focused on Mary.

At one point, she went to confession and told the priest that she believed in God, but God felt distant to her. The priest encouraged her to pray and ask for God to be made real to her.

She did so, and she had what she later described as a profound experience, where suddenly, she didn’t just believe in God; she knew God, and deeply felt God’s presence like she had never felt before.

Something forever changed inside of her.

When she went back to our church, the people that seemed best equipped to help her sort through what had happened to her were part of something called the Catholic Charismatic renewal.

My mom began to attend their weekly prayer meetings and fully embraced the ethos of this group, which was heavily influenced by “born-again” Pentecostalism. Having a personal relationship with Jesus was at the foundation, and people were encouraged to read the Bible, and to be open to the baptism of the Holy Spirit, in the vein of what had happened to the disciples of Jesus on the day of Pentecost.

Which, yes, included speaking in tongues.

When it came to traditional Catholicism as we knew it, by all appearances: these folks had gone rogue.

What was evident to us was that my mom’s faith had exploded with a new vibrancy.

It was not uncommon to hear her praying with someone over the phone and talking about Jesus as a person who could very well be sitting in that room right with her. Her prayer on that retreat had been answered in spades.

God had become very much real and alive in her heart.

This remained true for the rest of her life, though her relationship with God was constantly evolving; never stagnant.

Whereas a lot of people tend to get stuck in their ways, she continued to remain open to change, and new ways of hearing the call and living out her faith.

I came to greatly admire that.

In those early days, however, I wasn’t sure what to think of what had happened with her.

And some of it flat out scared me.

I respected her faith and wanted to be close to God myself, but I kept my distance from the Charismatic stuff, until high school.

Two couples from the prayer group had started a group for teens. My mother encouraged me to try it.

I initially refused, but eventually I started going to meetings.

I attended throughout the remainder of high school, and although I mostly didn’t disagree with what was being taught, it only partially sunk in.

I kind of had one foot in the door and one out. It was often as if I was two different people- the “prayer meeting” me, and the me that was practically everywhere else in my life.

One thing that was emphasized in the group was the difference between “secular” music and “Christian” music.

We were told to avoid listening to secular rock music, as it was inherent with all sorts of evils, which were written about in great detail in a book I was given to read called Rock by Bob Larson.

I also remember being told that you could hear Led Zeppelin worshipping Satan if you listened to “Stairway to Heaven” backwards.

Which I later learned was a myth.

The alternative to this highway to hell (sorry, couldn’t resist) was to listen to Christian rock.

There was even a chart to make it easy that was basically “if you like this band, then listen to this Christian equivalent instead”. We went as a group to Christian rock concerts, where there would be altar calls and people could come up and get saved. I went up for several of these, but it always felt like it didn’t completely take.

My friend Matt argued that it wasn’t as black and white with rock music as we were being told.

He even brought a Black Sabbath album to the prayer meeting and showed our adult leaders the lyrics to “After Forever”, a song that could easily have been ascribed to a Christian band, to prove his point. (Check out the lyrics.) 

I thought he made a compelling argument, but he failed to convince them. The fact that “Sweet Leaf” was on the same album may not have helped.

As for me, I liked the Christian rock concerts, but I didn’t buy any albums and actively listen to it on my own, and I certainly didn’t stop listening to other kinds of music.

No, I was on a different path when it came to music.

The summer before my junior year, I became fully immersed in the Moody Blues.

They had just come out with “Long Distance Voyager“, and my older brother Greg bought the album and went and saw them live.

He came back raving about the concert and pulled out his older Moody Blues albums and started playing them as well.

Like had happened countless times before with my brother’s records: I came to love this band as well, but more so than usual. I couldn’t get enough of them, and whatever Greg didn’t have, I started to purchase myself. “Days of Future Passed” was the first album I ever bought with my own money.

All of this did not go unnoticed at the prayer group, and one night, in a car full of people, I was confronted by one of the leaders about my unholy love of the Moody Blues:

“They have an entire album devoted to a different religion and a song called Om where they are actually worshipping another god.”

“You shouldn’t be listening to them”.

Oh no he didn’t. I was not going to give up my beloved Moodies. Still, his admonishment got to me enough so that I avoided listening to “In Search of the Lost Chord,” the album he referenced; the album cover scared me anyway. The rest of their music was still on the table.

Until it wasn’t.

Later during my college years, I was at a Catholic Charismatic youth conference in Ohio and invited Jesus to not just be in my life, but to be at the very center of it. This time it seemed to stick. I was on fire with a new zeal to be a disciple of Christ. I spent most of my time going to a youth bible study, hanging out with people from the group, and praying.

Once I was even praying with my arms outstretched and my eyes shut while on a bicycle.

I hit a sign and wiped out on the front lawn of a random elderly woman, who bandaged me up.

Anything considered “not of God” or a worldly distraction slipped away from my life.

I began to fully dive into the world of Contemporary Christian Music and turned away from any music that wasn’t deemed “Christian”. The lines were clearly drawn, just like they had been in my high school prayer group. I never actually got rid of my Moody Blues records, but they were ruined in a flood, and I didn’t replace them.

After college, I started a band with like-minded musicians and we wrote and performed music that deeply expressed our faith, as an attempt to share it with others.

I pretty much stuck to this all or nothing mindset with music until the early nineties, when I started to mellow on some of my views of avoiding the “evils of secular culture”.

I slowly emerged from my self-imposed exile and began tuning into the newly minted alternative rock station. Hearing “Right Here, Right Now” by Jesus Jones didn’t seem to put my soul in peril, so I continued to explore. I also found myself listening more and more to classic rock radio and re-discovering the music from my childhood that was still deep in my soul.

Seven-year-old me:

Who knew every song on Alice Cooper’s “Billion Dollar Babies” (again, Greg:)

Was back in the building.

Within a couple of years, I began writing songs that, while still essentially about my faith, were less direct.

These were lyrically, and musically influenced by the heavier guitar sounds that were now dominating the alt-rock station, even though I was a piano player. At band rehearsals, I would sometimes break out into an old rock song, and the bass player, Tom, once suggested to me that I was grieving for what I had lost.

That made sense.

It was as if I was hoping to somehow get back a major part of who I was that had gotten discarded.

Once free and clear of any boundaries, my love of music of all kinds just continued to flourish, and with the eventual onset of streaming, deep dives into all sorts of genres eventually became a way of life for me.

I really have gotten back what I had lost. And so much more.

In terms of faith, when I stopped thinking of music as Christian or secular, it freed me up to find inspiration in endless places. I believe the same can be said of film, literature, and art. In her retirement years, my mother painted dozens of beautiful paintings of flowers and nature that would likely not be categorized as religious works, but to me, they wonderfully reflect God.

In 2012, I was hired as the music director at a forward-thinking church that really inspired me to stretch out musically and gave me the courage to try things I previously hadn’t thought of doing or wouldn’t have felt free to explore.

I began to wonder: What would happen if we did live concerts?

Instead of what you would normally hear in church, what if we focused on music that the average person might be hearing outside of church?

Where can we hear God’s voice in the everyday music coming out of our radios, playlists, etc.? 

I came up with a list of songs from a variety of genres and eras that I thought could work.

I wrote a spiritual reflection for each song, and put together a crack group of singers and instrumentalists to perform the songs. I had no idea what would happen, but people showed up, and many of them genuinely liked it and totally got the concept. For me, it was nothing short of exhilarating.

My younger self had been about the business of building a wall between the church and the culture at large.

This, in its own way, was knocking it down, or at least taking a chunk out of it. It felt good and right.

I knew we had to do it again…

…and again… and again… and again.

After a long break because of Covid, this past fall, the 8th incarnation of the original concept took place.

And from where I sat, it was as powerful of an experience as ever.

I rarely repeat songs and it can be challenging coming up with and rehearsing a whole new slate of songs, but it always comes together, through the efforts of a lot of talented folks. Some songs are no-brainers; others may seem like a stretch, but if they are on the list, it means I felt that the song had something to say that needed to be heard.

It’s me…

so of course…

I have a playlist for you of the songs we have played at these events.

About 97% of the time, we tried to remain as faithful to the recording as possible, but sometimes, the version of the song we chose to cover is itself a cover. In those cases, the playlist will feature that cover version and not the original.

And to demonstrate just how much it has come full circle for me, the Moody Blues do make an appearance.

Twice.

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rollerboogie

Music is what brought me here, but I do have other interests. I like ill-advised, low budget movies that shouldn't even be close to good, but are great, and cats too.

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cstolliver
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May 31, 2023 6:15 am

Great piece, RB. Pretty sure we’ve discussed on the mothership that we have this faith tradition in common. I’m somewhat aware of what you’re discussing, having had friends in high school who got involved with similar groups, but I never warmed up to it. (Maybe subconsciously I knew I might be judged and found wanting.)

Nevertheless, I’ve often found particular Christian pop/rock (DC Talk, Amy Grant before, during and after her pop moment, Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith, BeBe and CeCe Winans) that I enjoy. Like you, I also enjoy being moved by “secular” music with spiritual or philosophical themes.

And, yes, “Long Distance Voyager” remains a favorite of mine — not just the singles but “Meanwhile,” “Nervous,” “22,000 Days” … a great album from senior year in high school/freshman year in college.

JJ Live At Leeds
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May 31, 2023 11:48 am

Thanks for sharing RB, really interesting piece. I’d say Contemporary Christian Music is really niche over here. The only British band I’m aware of is Delirious? who had a few mainstream top 40 hits in the 90s but only once they moved away from an overtly Christian message in their lyrics. I’m sure there is a movement here as well but unless you’re in the know its easy to remain completely oblivious to it.

I’d describe myself as without faith or religion but find it really interesting to understand other people’s journeys and how their beliefs motivate them. Its great that you’ve found something that combines two areas of huge importance to you in faith and music and provides such personal fulfilment as well as drawing in others with a positive impact.

stobgopper
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May 31, 2023 12:49 pm

Lovely writing, rb. Our paths in music and faith are winding ones, sometimes intersecting, sometimes going off in their own directions. I applaud your efforts to find common ground and bring differing viewpoints together. There hasn’t been enough of that lately.

LinkCrawford
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May 31, 2023 1:03 pm

This is very cool, rollerboogie. I’ve always valued faith in God, but it looks so different for every person, even in the same church or same household.

I remember going to Christian youth group activities in high school and experiencing the music judging. One guy disapproved of my “Jesus Is Just Alright”, saying that the Doobies were claiming Jesus wasn’t great or perfect…he was just alright. (eye roll). He didn’t like my Boz Scaggs or Joe Walsh either. Oh well.

I’ve said this before but the churches that I’ve attended in my life never promoted contemporary Christian music much, so I’ve never gotten into it. I have no shared experiences with it, so it isn’t mine. Undoubtedly, there is some that I would like and even love, but it would be quite an effort to find. I can’t fault the message though. It’s refreshing. I prefer traditional church hymns in church itself, since that’s what I’ve always experienced.

“Home and Dry” by Gerry Rafferty isn’t a spiritual song, though it’s lyrics of longing to go home could be stretched that way. But I was really into it during a particularly spiritual time in my life, and so it has a special, almost religious, meaning to me. (The majestic music in it helps). You can’t track that or judge that or account for that. It just is.

Phylum of Alexandria
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May 31, 2023 3:37 pm

Great write-up, rollerboogie. I grew up with CCM in the 80s. My first concert as a kid was James Ward, and even when I was getting into punk my first punk concert was the local Christian band Uzziah, who eventually found a bit of fame as One:21.

My breaking point was in high school, with a friend recommending DC Talk’s “Jesus Freak” to me. At that point I felt like a lot of the CCM music just wasn’t relatable. Even when it wasn’t didactic, it wasn’t speaking to me in any way.

Nowadays, I can go back to select songs, like Amy Grant’s “El-Shaddai”, MW Smith’s “Place in This World,” or James Ward’s rework of “Rock of Ages.” But I still can’t help thinking, overall, that the CCM model could have had much greater power if they sought to win listeners and converts by the strength of the music in comparison with the secular stuff, rather than offer a morally correct simulation of secular music and then discourage kids from listening to anything but the CCM canon.

As it was, it felt like a “pedagogical culture machine” strategy, but one with a lot less heart or inspiration than the best religious music (and secular music) can offer listeners. They would have benefited from the direct competition, rather than the isolation. Just my two cents, anyway.

Some favorite inspirational tunes from the secular world include:

Gloria by U2
Ghost Dance by Patti Smith
Jesus by the Velvet Underground
After the Flood by Talk Talk
and the finale of Les Miserables!

Phylum of Alexandria
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May 31, 2023 5:41 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

I must also pay some respects to spiritual music that doesn’t try to be nice or pleasant. Let the faith be freaky!

Some of my favorites:

Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”
Sixteen Horsepower: “Black Soul Choir”
Krzysztof Penderecki: “The Dream of Jacob”
John Coltrane: “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”
Pharaoh Sanders: “Creator Has a Master Plan”
Sufjan Stevens: “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”
Current 93: “Thunder Perfect Mind I”
Henryk Gorecki: 3rd Symphony (well, pleasant, but deeply sad)

Phylum of Alexandria
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May 31, 2023 5:52 pm

Also, I put this on the mother site. It’s blackgaze, so I doubt that it’s conventionally religious, but this first song is imbued with so much feeling. When listening to it on full blast, you’ll either see God or just start weeping, or both.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eL7A3fENFbE

Virgindog
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May 31, 2023 3:37 pm

I was raised to believe that your religion isn’t my concern and vice versa, which is why I don’t post about my beliefs here or anywhere. “Don’t discuss religion or politics in polite company,” as the saying goes. Even saying this much makes me a little queasy.

Pretty much the polar opposite of evangelism, really.

That makes Christian music a non-starter for me. It’s people singing about something that’s none of my business. It’s a turn off.

On the other hand, I tend not to listen to lyrics unless the music catches my interest. I’ve given Christian music a chance on occasion and have yet to hear anything musically interesting enough to bother getting around to the lyrics, with the possible exceptions of early DC Talk and the occasional Amy Grant track. I also like 1950s and 60s gospel, George Harrison’s Krishna stuff, Bad Brains’ Jah stuff, and Beethoven’s 9th.

Virgindog
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May 31, 2023 5:22 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

You had me at T Bone Burnett. Thanks, I’ll check it out!

Virgindog
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May 31, 2023 5:47 pm
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Oh yeah, that’s cool.
https://youtu.be/RHLxciN-8L8

Virgindog
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May 31, 2023 5:30 pm
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Virgindog
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May 31, 2023 5:48 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

Their reggae stuff angered some hardcore punks but I like it a lot.

cstolliver
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May 31, 2023 8:53 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

I do understand your hesitation. I also think mt has a strong editor’s sense of how far is too far in crossing lines either in explorations of religion or politics.

I guess, for me, after spending half of my life either afraid to speak (prior to coming out) or restrained in what I could say (when I was a professional journalist), I’m more inclined these days to go wherever I feel the muse takes me. My own personal values: 1) Own my thoughts as my thoughts. 2) Don’t tear down others for having thoughts that differ from mine. 3) Find points of agreement wherever possible, and 4) When I disagree, try to be clear and compassionate.

If any of you catch me violating my own values, I trust you’ll give me a gentle nudge.

Last edited 1 year ago by Chuck Small
Zeusaphone
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May 31, 2023 6:08 pm

In the 60s and 70s and even occasionally in the 80s you could get overtly Christian songs on the Top 40 stations. The “Contemporary Christian” music movement was a fairly transparent hijacking of religious music for political purposes, to remove all that liberal claptrap about peace and charity to focus on dogmatic obedience.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alyfpXxyNbY

cstolliver
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May 31, 2023 8:45 pm
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I don’t know that I would go that far. I’m sure you’re right about some artists, and certainly about some chains that peddled the merchandise. But Amy Grant, for one, is subtler and more expansive in her explorations of faith.

cappiethedog
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June 1, 2023 2:02 am

rollerboogie, didn’t we have a short exchange about Leslie Phillips? I like The Turning a lot. The production is solid. A song like “Libera Me” could have been recorded under Sam. Thanks to streaming, I discovered there were three more albums, in addition to The Turning.

Dancing with Danger is cool because it sounds like Phillips is attempting to be a Contemporary Christian version of Pat Benatar. I can’t cite a particular song as a favorite, but it’s great time capsule stuff. You can really feel the eighties.

My favorite non-Turning tracks are “Hourglass”, “You’re the Same”, and “The More I Know You”. Did her original fans make the journey with her to the other side?

When Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker made the switch from rock to electronic music, he knew there’d be some resistance. So he wrote this; it’s from the album track “Yes, I’m Changing”.

Yes, I’m changing
Yes, I’m gone
Yes, I’m older
Yes, I’m moving on
And if you don’t think it’s a crime
You can come along with me

Currents helps me imagine what John Lennon could have sounded like today. Because Parker’s voice didn’t change; it’s still Lennon-esque.

Great essay, rollerboogie.

lovethisconcept
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June 1, 2023 11:39 am

Lovely account of your faith and music journey. My own was very different. During the CCM explosion I was still very firmly in agnostic territory (can you be a firm agnostic?). I appreciated other people’s views, but CCM’s message did not appeal to me. As music, most of it struck me as imitative and of lesser quality than what was available from secular formats.

I have heard anecdotally, from various acquaintances who were involved in CCM, that the artists were often not compensated fairly. As in, “you shouldn’t want to get rich from this, it’s a mission.” I never noticed any of the product being less expensive than secular music, though. Again, I have no first-hand knowledge, just gossip from friends.

Logan Taylor
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June 1, 2023 12:50 pm

Already said my bit on TNOCS Classic, but now that I’ve actually read it, I wanted to stop by and leave my praise. Wonderful piece, roller.

Cool it Leroy
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June 2, 2023 3:41 pm

Hey RB! This was very well written! Even though I’ve heard about your faith journey before, I enjoyed reading the article, because some of it I hadn’t heard before. I appreciated the positive comments about Mom and how her faith led you to a stronger belief in God. Thanks again for mentioning me and what are becoming to be now, through your articles, my famous albums. I never realized at the time, that they would impact your life like they have. It make my happy!  🙂 

Ozmoe
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June 4, 2023 8:18 pm

I enjoyed this immensely, rollerboogie, for many of the same reasons that others here have cited plus this one. Talk about unusual timing. My church is holding a contest for its parishioners like me to pick out two favorite hymns (not ones associated with Christmas or Easter to avoid stacking the deck, I guess!) and this week will create a top 32 chart to have us narrow them down to four picks that the preachers will cover each week in August. Yes, just like the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament.

Anyhow, when notified of this, I approached it with the same fervor I had whenever I participate in a contest involving favorite secular songs. I reviewed our hymnal while at the service once it was announced and had 20 favorites that I painstakingly had to narrow down to two. Maybe it was more of me acting a certain type of retentive. But I digress ….

The point I’m trying to make is that while I do tend to keep my secular and religious songs separate, I still share the same tendencies in determining which ones I like. In both cases, I favor melodic, “catchy” music with upbeat lyrics, something I didn’t consciously realize until this contest occurred. I like and understand what you’re doing in breaking down the often artificial divisions between the genres, and I wish you all the best and continued success in your efforts.

dutchg8r
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June 6, 2023 2:20 pm

Sorry I’m late to the discussion, wasn’t able to start getting caught up until today. But this was certainly an interesting journey you have gone on, rb, and I’m thrilled you’ve found a happy medium and been able to compromise to find your grounded center.

I only had residual CCM exposure from growing up. One of my best friends was very active with her church and was very much into CCM in the late 80s-early 90s. She’d be telling me about DC Talk and MWS and Amy Grant with the same enthusiasm as someone talking about being a huge Madonna fan. But we also shared Top 40 cassettes as well, so I don’t think she was surrounded by a bunch of people condemning secular music.

I have 5 older cousins all at least 10 years older than me, and they were all heavily into music and going to concerts; they were all super cool as far as I was concerned. One of them became completely caught up in Young Life as a teen, and he wound up becoming a youth pastor for many years after attending seminary College. He’s a head pastor now in western NY, has been for awhile. Anyway, he got so into the Christian Rock scene that he wound up being a musical director for the Ichthus Festival I think it is, for several years. He was so excited at holiday gatherings to tell us about what he’d been doing and who he’d interacted with, and I always felt bad cause I didn’t really know who he was talking about! But it never occurred to me until reading your article rb how fortunate he probably was to be free to enjoy the entire musical spectrum and not be told huge swaths of it were evil and off limits. As much as he loved music and serving God, it would have been devastating for him to be told its one or the other, there’s no middle ground. Just like it was devastating for you, so it’s nice to read the happy ending, rb. 🙂

Edith G
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June 12, 2023 7:45 pm

I’m sorry to be too late for this conversation , but I really enjoyed this piece.

I’m also a Catholic, and even when I studied the secondary school in a nun’s school, I couldn’t say that I know the Bible very well, and as a told in the mothership, those weren’t good formative years for me.

In my country, those who are not Catholic (I guess they’re Protestants) somehow had sort of stolen the word “Christians”. Anyway, I never been to related to CCM, in fact it took me years to realize that Amy Grant’s music was from that genre.

I haven’t heard the playlist that you posted yet, but I’m glad to find out that there are songs that had “spoken” to me in different times of my life.

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