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Friday is for Friends: Rachel Held Evans

RachelEvans.jpgHello, my name is Rachel, and I’m a recovering Bible snob.

I haven’t always been this way.  As a child, the stories of the Bible enthralled me. I believed in them the way one believes in dinosaurs, Camelot, Abraham Lincoln, and other magical things that happened once upon a time.

As a teenager, the Bible evolved into a collection of affirmations designed to ease my angst-riddled existence (a hermeneutical shortcut Scot refers to as “morsels of blessings and promises” in The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible
), and in college, it served as my favorite answer book (Scot’s “big puzzle” shortcut). 

How has your approach to the Bible changed over the years?  Have you ever found yourself behaving like a Bible snob? How do you engage Scripture analytically without losing your childlike fondness for its stories?

It wasn’t until my early twenties that I began wrestling with the blue parakeets–those troublesome passages of Scripture that didn’t fit my theological grid, that seemed primitive and suspicious in light of modern science, that bothered my conscience, or that appeared contradictory. I went from loving the Bible to hating it for all the doubts it raised in my mind.

Thankfully, and by the grace of God, I learned to read the Bible in a new way.  With the help folks like Scot, N.T. Wright, and Eugene Peterson, I began to think of the Bible as a collection of stories, stories that God uses to tell a grand Story in a variety of ways and expressions. Because language is always shaped by context, God spoke in Moses’ days in Moses’ ways, in Jesus’ days in Jesus’ ways, and in Paul’s days in Paul’s way. This approach–(what Scot refers to as the “Wiki-story” approach)–helped me make peace with the Bible.

But there was one problem.

It seemed I had very little patience for folks who read the Bible differently than I did.

“He’s reading WAY too much into the relationship between Adam and Eve,” I’d think to myself during a wedding ceremony. “She did NOT just use the story of Abraham and Isaac as an example of true faith without acknowledging the implications of God’s rejection of child sacrifice.” I’d grumble after a devotional. “Am I the only one who’s read anything about ancient Near Eastern cosmology?” I’d wonder after a frustrating conversation about evolution.

In my conversations and writing, I couched my references to Adam and Eve, Noah’s flood, and the Tower of Babel with an acknowledgement that for ancient Israelites, a story could be true even if it wasn’t scientifically or historically true. I didn’t want anyone, especially my progressive friends, to peg me as a literalist.

In short, I became a Bible-reading snob.

My sin became apparent one day when I was reading through the gospels and happened upon Matthew 10, where Jesus tells his disciples “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Then, quoting from Micah 7, he adds, “For I came to ‘set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.'”

Before I could stop it, this thought flew through my head: “I think he’s taking those verses a little out of context.”

Oh, snap. I was nitpicking Jesus.

As I prayed for forgiveness and contemplated my pride, I saw that it was time to take a page from the Jewish culture I was so fond of referencing and lose myself in the shared Story of my faith community. I was not above my own context. The narratives of Scripture, despite their various interpretations and implications, informed my worldview and infused it with meaning. The one thing I had in common with liberals and literalists alike was a common Story, a sort of shared language with which to communicate, connect, and debate.

Jesus referenced Bible stories the way good poets reference literature–in an effort to conjure shared images and shared feelings, shared reactions and shared memories.  He wanted his listeners to shudder together at the thought of Jonah waiting for three days in the stinky, damp belly of a fish (Matthew 12:40), to be overwhelmed together by the image of a world covered with water (Matthew 24:37-39), to collectively relive the gratitude of their ancestors as they remembered the sweet blessing of manna (John 6:31-49).

We can conduct healthy debates about the degree to which Jesus was separated from the Father at the moment he cried, “Eli Eli lama sabachthani,”  but we miss the point when we fail to marvel that, in his greatest moment of agony, Jesus quoted one of our poets, forever connecting his suffering to our own. God, wrapped in flesh, wrapped himself in our story.

The best cure for Bible-reading snobbery is a humble reminder that we share a common story. And it’s a good one.

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posted November 6, 2009 at 6:49 am

Good post — Focusing the thinking on New Testament use of Old Testament (nitpicking Jesus) – this is something I’ve been thinking about lately. The Bible isn’t a text book, it is a shared story. We’ve lost something important and powerful.
There are two ways we distort this (perhaps more) and you’ve highlighted both…
The argument that they (Jesus, Paul, Peter, Luke, Matthew, …) were inspired so used Scripture ‘wrong’ under control of the Spirit but we are not inspired so must use Scripture differently (literally, in context, etc.) just seems to miss the point.
Paul, Jesus, … were speaking in a culture and using the common stories to make important points. The stories can be true without being fact.
But it is hard to draw lines – good liberal theology will take a “story” view of much of the NT as well (read Cox).
Thought provoking…

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Bob Smallman

posted November 6, 2009 at 7:40 am

Along these lines is a comment by Rebecca Manley Pippert that I came across some years ago:
“Jesus always seemed to be doing two things: asking questions and telling stories. Christians always seem to be doing two other things: giving answers and ‘preaching.’
“All four are necessary — at the right time and in the right place. But we tend to forget that the God of the Bible was an extraordinary communicator; we ignore Jesus? example of how to start conversation, and we jump in prematurely with answers and sermonettes before the listener?s curiosity is aroused.”

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Scot McKnight

posted November 6, 2009 at 8:15 am

Rachel, another good cure for Bible snobbery is to read the early fathers who read the Bible so different from how we read it; and the Medieval greats — who did the same — and the Reformers — who did too. We need to see that “our” approach is not the “only” approach and certainly not the approach that has always the one and only way the Church has read the Bible.
And yes I agree on the Story approach: it keeps the Bible together.

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posted November 6, 2009 at 8:37 am

This is a great post. It makes me reflect on “ownership” of the text. It seems so often that an interpreter wants to “own” the text. My lens — historical-critical, grammatical-historical, or whatever — is the lens through which all should see the text. There’s a tension here, because if the text is going to serve a normative function in the Christian community, it must have normative meaning(s) at points. But the best commentary, I think, is that which avoids pretensions of ownership.

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Taylor George

posted November 6, 2009 at 8:42 am

Recently I’ve been trying to do Bible studies with my 3 and 4 year old boys. This could cure anyone of snobbery. In order for them to understand the text I have to take the plainest most basic meaning of the text and expound on it. No advanced theories of the atonement or covenant theology vs. dispensationlism is going to go very far with a 3 year old.

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Rachel H. Evans

posted November 6, 2009 at 8:42 am

It’s always humbling when you find yourself getting irritated with Jesus! (Another cryptic response?! Another story?! Just answer the dude’s question!) :-)
When I first started paying attention to how Jesus quoted Scripture, it actually reminded me a lot of the poets I studied in lit class in college. It seemed the good ones always used allusion masterfully. The Wikipedia entry on allusion is actually pretty good: It says, “Allusion is an economical device, a figure of speech that draws upon the ready stock of ideas or emotion already associated with a topic in a relatively short space.”
With literary allusions, you don’t expect the metaphor or reference to be perfect. You simply expect it to conjure the mood of a shared memory.

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posted November 6, 2009 at 8:44 am

Great point – read the Bible and read how others have interpreted the Bible. You did a series long ago on a book – Christian Theologies of Scripture. This was one of the first that actually enticed me to buy and read the book you discussed and was formative in the sense that it gave a glimmer of insight that there was not necessarily one clear and obvious way to read scripture. All we need to do is find it.

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posted November 6, 2009 at 8:55 am

I enjoyed this and resonated with it, especially the journey from childhood story to God’s answer book to doubt to some sort of cohesion through a narrative framework.
The problem for me is that the opportunity for self-righteousness always seems to afford itself. To draw upon some adages, knowledge is power and knowledge puffs up. Interpreting the Bible is often just a way for me to gather ammunition. I suppose there is a diffeence between knowing Jesus and knowing scripture.
Well, off to convince everybody we share a common story and that they should have this superior hermaneutic…

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Mike Swalm

posted November 6, 2009 at 8:57 am

and here i was ready to take potshots at the esv-only crowd based on the facebook title “ever seen/been a bible snob?” humility indeed :)

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posted November 6, 2009 at 9:00 am

I’m reading a great book called “The Future of Faith” and I think it’s something that all followers of Jesus should be reading to get a better understanding on why we believe what we believe and how we are moving into an age of The Spirit.

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posted November 6, 2009 at 9:03 am

Reading a great book about this topic now called Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church by Merold Westphal.

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posted November 6, 2009 at 9:03 am

If you are reading it – join in our conversation (Faith and the Future – on the sidebar or here for yesterday’s installment.

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John W Frye

posted November 6, 2009 at 9:06 am

Excellent and provocative post. I grew up in a tradition where being a “Bible snob” was defined as “rightly dividing the word of truth.” As I am getting older I am beginning to wonder if I was taught to substitute a hermeneutic for the Holy Spirit. Of course, the substitution was not blatantly endorsed, but was an easy, almost imperceptible shift where I take “control” of the text rather than the Spirit and Word taking control of me. I, too, am thankful for Scot’s skillful, thoughtful and pleasant-spirited way of opening us to the grand varieties in the use of Scripture. I know that acknowledging a wide spectrum of ways to read and use the Bible drives some of the Bible-thumpers nuts.

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Jim Marks

posted November 6, 2009 at 9:13 am

Isn’t anyone going to mention the fact that it is 2009 and she said “oh snap”?!?! ;-)
But seriously, thank you for writing this. A big part of what keeps me on the outer periphery of these movements and revolutions in Christianity is that too often it looks like all that is happening is that literalist elitism is being replaced by narrative contextualist elitism. With a kind of vehement open mindedness that creates its own very insidious dogmatic outlook couched in the supposed abandonment of dogma.
It is heartening to know that some people have begun to realize this and are trying hard to break free.

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Rachel H. Evans

posted November 6, 2009 at 9:14 am

“Off to convince everybody we share a common story and that they should have this superior hermaneutic…”
Love it. It’s all in the attitude, right?

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posted November 6, 2009 at 9:27 am

I sure have been a snob. I embarrassingly remember how loudly I agreed with a pastor’s criticism about the Amplified Bible. It’s still not a favorite of mine, but there’s no need to run it into the ground as though it was written by Satan himself. I’ve also learned not to force my views of scripture onto others and judge them as somehow inferior if they do not read it in the same way that I do. I’ve learned to take my own advice which is, “there’s room in God’s economy for all of us.” Now I try to only speak out against and/or correct truly false, anti-biblical thinking. I try to leave room for anything else that does not fit into either of those categories.

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posted November 6, 2009 at 9:36 am

Great post. We cite scripture like a lawyer cites legal authority, but rarely like a poet.
RJS, love this:
“The argument that they (Jesus, Paul, Peter, Luke, Matthew, …) were inspired so used Scripture ‘wrong’ under control of the Spirit but we are not inspired so must use Scripture differently (literally, in context, etc.) just seems to miss the point.”
It makes me see that some of what I tend to think of as abuses of scripture (like we discussed here a few posts ago) is my own “bible-snobbery.” Some see a preacher more as a expository scientist of the scriptures; others have said it’s one of the last great artforms. I guess it’s important not only to know the context of the scriptures, but also the preacher. Is this guy taking the stance of a theological/historical scientist or a poet or is he attempting both? The line between poetic license and abuse may be more blurred than I would like.

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Travis Mamone

posted November 6, 2009 at 9:38 am

Awesome job, Rachel!

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Rick Presley

posted November 6, 2009 at 9:39 am

Excellent post!
Yes, it is so easy to see the faults in others when the beam in our own eye blinds us to our own.
“Hi, I’m rick and I’m a Bible Snob.”
When is our next Bible Snobs Anonymous meeting?

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Your Name

posted November 6, 2009 at 10:15 am

Great post as usual, Rach. I figured out a couple of years ago that I had become a sermon snob of sorts. God broke my heart and my pride….and I am thankful for that!

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John W Frye

posted November 6, 2009 at 10:20 am

Hi, I am John and I am a Bible snob and I’ve come to join BSA along with Rachel and Rick and T.
Step 1: I am a Bible snob and I am helpless to fix myself. I acknowledge a higher hermeneutic that alone can deliver me.

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posted November 6, 2009 at 10:25 am

Excellent post. I can relate to your story. If it weren’t Jesus, we’d accuse him of “prooftexting”. We still need to grow in our understanding of the ways in which the word of God is “living and active”. I do need to pick up Scot’s book on this.
Peterson has also been a great help to me, especially in “Eat this Book”. I believe it was here that he roughly stated that we tend to focus more on “exegeting the word of God” rather than letting the word of God “exegete us”. In this way, the Holy Spirit can speak the same written word uniquely into the soul of each person who hears/reads/receives it(smaller stories that he can intricately weave into his Larger Story). Lectio Divina has been a helpful way of reading for me in recent years, tho I have also been able to become “snobbish” here as well:)

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posted November 6, 2009 at 10:35 am

T,Rachel and RJS,re#17,
I have found these pasages where Jesus, Paul or Matthew, Mark Luke or John “got it wrong” to be some of the most interesting passages. In some very particular circumstances, suggesting that “Jesus misquoted” or “took ___ out of context” have produced very interesting and fruitful conversations about what Jesus or the author was up to.
I thank you for the warnings about Bible snobbery. When I was in grad school I used to wonder whether everyone had to be an intellectual historian (like me) in order to read the Bible properly. Of course the wondering produced its own answer.
In 1996 I discovered NT Wright. I very quickly became a close follower of his methods, primarily because they matched what I was learning and practicing as a grad student. I am not now any less enamored of his work. HOwever, I feel like I am reaching a point where I can now read him and his methods more critically rather than like some kind of devotee.

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Rachel H. Evans

posted November 6, 2009 at 10:39 am

Updated for Jim#14 and a 2009 audience: “Yo, Jesus. I’m really happy for you, and I’mma let you finish, but John the Baptist had one of the best biblical references of all time.”

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Dave S

posted November 6, 2009 at 10:40 am

In my experience I like to be right more than I like to be loving. It’s always tempting to think I have a corner on the truth, but then I look at the disciples, how they lived and worked directly with Jesus and were often clueless. I’m 2000 years away, and I think I’ve got it all down? Talk about arrogance. It’s a regularly occurring battle for me. Great post, it’s nice to know others struggle the same way.

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posted November 6, 2009 at 10:41 am

Great post, but I’m wondering how it fits with the “Abusing Scripture” thread we had several days ago.
Seems to me like there are times when we need to be “snobs” in the sense of correcting or resisting “abuse”. If I see somebody pushing scientifially literate people away from the Gospel by insisting on reading Genesis as a science textbook, or if I see out-of-context Scripture used to push a personal agenda, I don’t think I should let it pass just to avoid being a snob.
I suppose a key is to act in love and humility and awareness of the likelihood of logs in my own eye.

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ellen Haroutunian

posted November 6, 2009 at 10:43 am

LOL, Hi I’m Ellen and I’m a Bible snob.
About 16 years ago I had the gift of the most wonderful hermeneutics professor who later became a mentor and friend. He taught us to “see” and spoke of story and transformation. It was unlike anything I had ever encountered in seminary. I had become so bored with dissecting and “applying” the scriptures; it seemed rote and lifeless – he gave me my bible back.
I loved Blue Parakeet – have you all also read “From Stone to Living Word” by Debbie Blue?

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posted November 6, 2009 at 10:58 am

Great post, Rachel. Thank you. I appreciate and need the reminder. I also really like the image of Jesus expressing anguish through the words of the psalm. Good stuff.

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Rachel H. Evans

posted November 6, 2009 at 11:06 am

AHH – Coming from Dayton, Tennessee, (home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925), I can relate to the frustration of being shoved out of a dialog simply because you don’t interpret Genesis 1 and 2 as a scientific entry. It can be incredibly frustrating. This is why I’m so thankful for books like “The Blue Parakeet” that challenge people’s approach to Scripture in a way that is accessible and humble.
I think the trick is knowing the right context in which to talk about context. In other words, in a forum like this one, it might be completely appropriate to challenge someone’s approach to Genesis. But if my Sunday School teacher talks about the story of Abraham and Isaac as an example of true faith without acknowledging the implications of God’s rejection of child sacrifice, it’s probably not appropriate to raise my hand and challenge him in class. I’m realizing that it’s okay to sit back, relax, and soak in the story.
The “solution” to Bible snobbery of course lies more in attitude than anything else.

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posted November 6, 2009 at 11:33 am

You poor, poor little people. You don’t have the single meaning of every passage figured out. How sad. ;^)
Seriously, can this become too open-ended, where every interpretation is allowed?
(Why do I feel like Tim Keller is getting a laugh at this topic, given some recent comments at this blog- my own included)

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posted November 6, 2009 at 12:15 pm

This post by Rachel is right on topic for some of the things I was thinking about wrt Keller’s book. He seems to stretch the texts – but maybe that is a reasonable and appropriate thing to do in a conversation (not as pronouncements of absolute).

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posted November 6, 2009 at 12:23 pm

meaning meaning meaning . during the 9-5 daily grind, I spend a lot of time trying to work out the meaning of documents that were written in the last few years, in the language I have mastery over. These documents are all written with the intent of being accessible to all (i.e. they are regulations). However, in spite of this, the meaning is the cause of hours of debate and a lot of money.
What’s my point? . . I don?t have one. But I do have a question: How do we then expect documents written 2000 years ago in languages almost forgotten to be accurately interpreted?
Does this leave us in literary no-mans land? No! far from it. It means we have to wrestle with our historic/sacred texts. Just in the way people always have (St. Paul, Jacob even Jesus’ interpretive battles with the religious in His day). It’s kinda fun. Although i can see the tendency, as with anything for those that have thought about something for a while to be snobbish about those that haven’t. Same goes in my professional field.

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Your Name

posted November 6, 2009 at 1:07 pm

“HI JOHN!” (We all say in unison.)
Well, this post has let me have a good laugh at myself, which was overdue! Perfect for a Friday. Thanks again, Rachel.

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posted November 6, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Hi, This is my first look at this blog — recommended by my son. You have so succinctly said exactly what I’ve thought over my many years of Bible reading. Thank you!
I want to relate a true story of how that childhood belief in the Bible stories actually saved my life. (Brief background. 1. I grew up in Sunday School from babyhood in a church that allowed no teaching aids except the Bible, even for children. A talented teacher would hold the Bible in her hand while she told the most marvelous stories from it that kept us enthralled. 2. From babyhood my mother took pictures with a box camera — pre-flashbulbs — and she counted the time exposure seconds by saying rhythmically “Stand still, don’t move, stand still, don’t move”; I was trained to stand stock still when she said that.)
The true story: While visiting my grandfather’s farm, I wanted to watch the hogs eat. I was leaning on a low rail fence watching real animals grunt and gobble up their food. Fascinating to a little city girl. I then heard my mother, from the porch of the house, saying, “Stand still, don’t move. Stand still, don’t move, stand still . . . .” I did move my eyes to the side and out of the corner could see my grandpa running toward me quite fast, with an ax raised over his head. The only thought I had then was a vision of a picture in my Bible Story book, of Isaac laying bound on the altar and Abraham’s hand raised with the knife, and an angel stopping him from killing Isaac. That picture kept me from moving, because I “saw” that angel protecting me like it protected Isaac. Grandpa got to me and began chopping at the ground by my feet. He was killing a cottonmouth snake that, my uncle tells me, was poised to strike me. That snake is a viper and very poisonous. My uncle said that he was sure I was as good as dead, for we were miles away from any antivenom and I was a small child. And when he heard my mother say “stand still, don’t move,” he was sure I would start to move and the snake would strike. But that didn’t happen.
That’s how that Bible story from childhood literally save my life!

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posted November 6, 2009 at 2:47 pm

I read your post Rachel (very excellent by the way) and immediately thought “Hi, I’m Terry and I’m a Bible Snob.” Then I set out to read some of the comments and find that I am in good company. I still cringe at my former level of arrogance, and even in that I know I wasn’t among the worse. Sigh. It is a disease I have sought to be cured from as the idea of forever being a recovering Bible Snob, to extend the metaphor, is disheartening. I have found some of my way with the same authors that you mention, and some friends from the Jesus Creed community.
The beauty of this is that we can reject Biblical-snobbery, and not replace it with another flavor. May we all have the power and grace to do so.

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posted November 6, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Maybe we should start a group on Facebook…
Great post.

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Jeremy Berg

posted November 6, 2009 at 5:24 pm

My name is Jeremy. And I am also a recovering Bible Snob. And I’ve taken the liberty of creating a Facebook group….because that’s what youth pastors are good at. =)
Join our support group at
Great post Rachel!

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Ted M. Gossard

posted November 8, 2009 at 5:11 pm

Yes. Excellent post, Rachel. I can identify. We can be so “right” and yet at the same time so wrong. God’s Spirit uses all of God’s people, and we need to humbly remind ourselves of that. While at the same time, seeking to wisely share our own faith and gift among God’s people, but not as those who think we have the final or best understanding.
And the emphasis on story has helped me immensely as well, and I’m still working on it.

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