The Enduring Authority of Scripture, Really?

Review of “Science and Scripture” in D. A. Carson, ed., The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures

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Introduction

Because of the attack on the authority of Scripture over the last few decades, a new 1,248-page book, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, edited by New Testament scholar D.A. Carson, was recently released with the aim of defending the authority of the Scriptures. While there are many positive aspects about the book, the chapter on Science and Scripture ironically undermines the very purpose of the book: defending the authority of Scripture.

The chapter on science was written by a theistic evolutionist, Dr. Kirsten Birkett.1 This article critiques several of the arguments used against young-earth creation as well as those used to establish Birkett’s own position that the consensus view of origins among scientists is compatible with the authority of Scripture.

Science and Scripture

Birkett opens her chapter by asking a good question:

What do we do with knowledge from outside of Scripture? How should we best understand the discoveries that Christians or non-Christians are making about the world around us?2
Our interpretations of the discoveries made in nature must be consistent with the special revelation found in Scripture.

This is an important question because we all need to consider what to make of scientific discoveries. However, over the last few centuries the discoveries that scientists find in nature have been primarily interpreted according to the framework of naturalism.3 As Christians, we must keep in mind that sin has affected how we view discoveries in nature (i.e., general revelation).4 Theologian Louis Berkhof states that “since the entrance of sin into the world, man can gather true knowledge about God from His general revelation only if he studies it in the light of Scripture”5—that is, general revelation in light of special revelation.6 This does not mean that we can learn nothing from studying nature. Rather, our interpretations of the discoveries made in nature must be consistent with the special revelation found in Scripture.

When the Church Is Too Pro-Science: The Story of Galileo

In order to gain perspective on the way to handle the controversy between science and Scripture, Birkett looks at the Copernican Revolution. She believes that this “is a case study in what happens when old science is threated by new data, and the institutions that have endorsed that science are too slow to change.”7

The church of Galileo’s day was too slow to accept the heliocentric understanding against the entrenched geocentric understanding of the universe. Birkett rightly recognizes that “at no point did Galileo’s story involve Christianity opposing science per se; it was the Church defending Aristotelian science.”8 However, she mistakenly applies the lesson to be learned from the Galileo affair:

The great Aristotelian synthesis left medieval Christianity irrevocably tied to an ultimately faulty philosophy. By the time the flaws in the philosophy were demonstrated, the upholders of the system supposed to be Christian were so steeped in Aristotelianism they were unable to cope with the changes. The result was that Christianity was discredited for something that has nothing to do with it. . . . The same danger potentially lies before us with theories of modern science, if we are not careful. Modern empirical science is an excellent route to knowledge about our physical universe, and most likely a lot of what it promotes is true.9

While there is no doubt that empirical science is an excellent route to knowledge, Birkett seems to allow historical science (i.e., evolution) to control her understanding of Genesis. Moreover, which Christians reject empirical science?10 Unfortunately, throughout her chapter, Birkett conflates science with the theory of evolution.

The church in Galileo’s day mistakenly thought that the Bible supported a geocentric system by allowing Aristotelian philosophy to influence theology. Geocentricism of the Ptolemaic and Aristotelian system was the scientific establishment’s worldview of that day, resulting in the church interpreting the Scriptures according to this system and holding to tradition rather than to sound biblical teaching.

Galileo himself was contesting the geocentric understanding of the universe and was seeking to show that the Bible lined up with the heliocentric system. Galileo was fighting against the interpretive principles of the church of his day, blinded by Aristotelian philosophy.

The history of the Galileo affair serves as a warning to theistic evolutionists and old-earth creationists, not to young-earth creationists.

The unfortunate lesson from the Galileo incident is that many Christians have not learned from history. They are repeating the errors of the past by insisting on taking the popular ideas of the age, such as Darwinian evolution over millions of years, as their authority and interpreting the Bible in that light. The history of the Galileo affair serves as a warning to theistic evolutionists and old-earth creationists, not to young-earth creationists.

Chronology, the Age of the Earth, and the Days of Creation

Birkett then moves on to look at the issue of the days of creation, the age of the earth, and biblical chronology. She writes,

In more recent years, we have seen this played out in the major issue of the last two centuries in science and religion debates: how to read Genesis in the light of modern geological and biological science.11

Recognizing that the discussion over Genesis and science is a contentious issue within Christianity, she states:

Whenever I speak on the topic, even (or especially) when I make no mention of biological theory or Genesis in my talk, I can guarantee that the first question to be asked will be about Genesis, evolution, and the age of the earth.12

But why do people ask these questions? In our era of history, Genesis 1–11 is where the skeptics and secularists have aimed their attacks on the Bible. They recognize that the history and theology in Genesis 1–11 is foundational to all Scripture and the gospel itself.13

In order to defend a figurative reading of the Genesis 1 days of creation, Birkett seeks to show that throughout church history there have been different views on Genesis 1 and the days of creation. She writes:

It is easy to caricature those who accept a non-literal reading of, for instance, Genesis 1, to be seen as the innovators who have given in to a modern scientific worldview; whereas those who hold to the strict six twenty-four-hour days are those faithful to the traditional and most obvious reading of Scripture. However, church history, and the history of the interpretation of Scripture, does not in itself back this up.14

Unfortunately, it seems that whenever church history is brought up in the discussion over Genesis, there is either a preference over which fathers to use to make the case, or there is a misrepresentation of what they believed in order to support a particular view. For example, Birkett turns to the Jewish philosopher Philo (20 BC–AD 50) and the church fathers Origen (AD 185–254) and Augustine (AD 354–430) to support her argument that Genesis can be interpreted figuratively.15

Even though Philo, Origen, and Augustine were not influenced by modern science, they did have other influences, including the science of their own respective time. Philo was inclined to a more “allegorical interpretation of Scripture that made Jewish law consonant with the ideals of Stoic, Pythagorean, and especially Platonic thought.”16

Thus, to appeal to Philo for interpreting Genesis is extremely problematic. Philo’s commitment to Greek philosophy led him to allegorize the text of Genesis rather than seeking to do careful exegesis of the biblical text. On the contrary, a contemporary of Philo, the first century Jewish historian Josephus, understood the creation account in Genesis as historical; of which he said, “In just six days the world, and all that is therein, was made.”17

While both Origen and Augustine did not believe that the days were literally 24 hours, they also did not believe the earth to be ancient, but rather less than 10,000 years old.

Origen and Augustine were influenced by neo-Platonic philosophy. Due to the outside influence of neo-Platonic philosophy, Augustine believed that creation was instantaneous. Augustine understood from Genesis 2:4 that everything was created simultaneously. However, he had to rely on the Old Latin translation of the Bible, the Vetas Latina, which mistranslated the Hebrew in this verse. Since he did not know Hebrew, he didn’t know this and was most likely unaware that the Hebrew word for “instant” (rega`Exodus 33:5; Numbers 16:21) is not used in Genesis 2:4.18 Furthermore, Augustine also believed in a global Flood and the great ages of the patriarchs in Genesis 5 and 11.19 While both Origen and Augustine did not believe that the days were literally 24 hours, they also did not believe the earth to be ancient, but rather less than 10,000 years old.20 For example, Augustine said the following of those who ascribe to a world of great age:

Those who hold such opinions are also led astray by some utterly spurious documents which, they say, give a historical record of many thousand years, whereas we reckon, from the evidence of the holy Scriptures, that fewer than 6,000 years have passed since man’s first origin.21

Birkett’s selective use of Philo, Origen, and Augustine, in order to justify her figurative reading of Genesis 1, is unwarranted for two reasons. First, they did not believe the days were long periods of time or that the earth was millions of years old. Second, their interpretation of the creation account in Genesis was influenced largely by Greek philosophy, just as many scholars today have been influenced by a worldly philosophy (evolutionary naturalism).

However, because of the figurative views of Philo, Origen, and Augustine, Birkett seriously misrepresents church history when she says:

The question of the age of the earth and how to read Genesis in the light of extra-biblical evidence is, then, contrary to most popular thought, hardly a new one. Long before modern geology, the issue of the time spans and genealogies in Genesis, and indeed the question of how to read different kinds of biblical literature, were thoroughly discussed.22

Yet, if Birkett had taken the time to read what young-earth creationists believe, then she would have realized that we were already aware of these kinds of historical claims. Because of her selective use of early church sources, Birkett has failed to see that for much of church history—both before and after the Reformation—the days of creation have been understood as a chronological sequence of 24-hour days.23

The Rise of Creationism: Science against Scripture

This section of Birkett’s chapter is extremely disappointing as once again young-earth creationists are caricatured as “literalistic” and “fundamentalists.” Sadly, there are a number of disappointing elements to this section of her argument.

There is no empirical evidence whatsoever for Darwinian evolution.

First, the subheading “The Rise of Creationism: Science against Scripture” itself is very misleading since no biblical creationist is against science. The debate over creation and evolution is not a battle between science and Scripture but between two different worldviews—naturalism and biblical theism—and how the observed physical evidence (e.g., rock layers, fossils, redshift of starlight, DNA or anatomical similarities) is to be interpreted in light of them. Birkett simply assumes that evolution is science. Yet there is no empirical evidence whatsoever for Darwinian evolution (i.e., the belief that natural processes could explain the evolution of life as we see it from simple beginnings). Creationists do not deny natural selection or mutations, but they do deny that these processes produce the necessary changes that would increase genetic information and change one kind of creature into a different kind of creation (e.g., a fish into an amphibian or a reptile into a mammal or bird). Evolutionists have failed to observe even one example of this.

Also Birkett never defines what she means by “science” and fails to note the significant difference between two significantly different types of science: historical science and observational science.24 Historical science seeks to reconstruct the unrepeatable, unobservable past by looking at the evidence of non-repeatable, non-observable events that produced what we see in the present. And such historical reconstructions are very dependent on a scientist’s belief system or worldview. On the other hand, observational science uses repeatable, observable, testable experiments to find out how things in the present world operate so that we can find cures for disease or produce new technology. Even a few evolutionary scientists recognize this distinction.25

Those who hold to the supernatural creation of the world are not claiming that science and Bible are irreconcilable but that evolution and the Bible are irreconcilable. Rejecting evolution is not rejecting science but an ideology, an anti-Christian worldview.26

Second, in the section of her chapter dealing with young-earth creation, there is not one citation from a primary source of the young-earth position. This is obviously very disappointing in such a scholarly tome. However, she seems to be aware of creation organizations, as can be seen from this statement:

In particular, the debate has become so deeply riven in American society that there are no doubt all sorts of sensibilities being trampled by an Australian author often quite bewildered by the assumptions hidden within different opinions.27

Now, although Birkett does not put a name to the Australian author in America, it seems like a quite obvious reference to Ken Ham, the CEO and founder of Answers in Genesis. If it is, then Birkett has no excuse, as a scholar, for not interacting with at least a few works from the vast amount of scholarly material produced by Answers in Genesis and other prominent creationist organizations that have PhD scientists on their staff.

Birkett’s lack of interaction with primary sources leads to a number of misleading statements. She says the young earth position is a “reaction to what was perceived as the atheism of Darwinism, along with certain convictions about literal readings of the Scripture.”28

The young-earth reading of Genesis has been the dominant view throughout church history and not a reaction at all.

As we have seen, the young-earth reading of Genesis has been the dominant view throughout church history and not a reaction at all. Moreover, if Birkett had read primary sources, she would know that the young-earth position is based upon a grammatical-historical understanding of Scripture. Responsible scholarship involves studying what other people believe in order to represent them accurately and interact with what they have said thoughtfully, even if one strongly disagrees with their views.

Third, rather than relying on the primary sources to critique young earth creation Dr. Birkett relies heavily on the former young-earth creationist Ronald Numbers, an apostate from Seventh Day Adventism because of the theory of evolution,29 for information.30 This is not the kind of scholarship you would expect from someone writing at this level.

Birkett’s Alternative: Evolution Alongside Scripture

Dr. Birkett then presents the alternative position that she favors—evolutionary creation (i.e., theistic evolution). In order to defend this position, she presents the views of Dr. Denis Alexander, whom she describes as “both a conservative Christian and an evolutionary scientist, so holds a high view of truth in both areas.”31 Birkett looks at Alexander’s attempt to reconcile evolution with Bible in his book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose?32

Birkett notes that Alexander critiques33 the young-earth position by asking how it accounts for predatory structures before the Fall.34 The important thing to realize with this objection, and others like it, is that it is based upon anti-biblical philosophical presuppositions—that the present is the key to the past (see 2 Peter 3:3–6). In other words, because animals are predators now, they must have always been. However, it is reasonable to assume that the pre-Fall animals could have had “predatory structures,” even when they had a vegetarian diet (Genesis 1:29–30). If we consider the fact that God foreknew the Fall would happen (1 Peter 1:18–20; Ephesians 3:11; Revelation 13:8), then it is also logical and perfectly consistent with what we know about genetics (that much of the DNA code functions as on-off switches controlling other parts of the code) to say that “He programmed creatures with the information for attack and defense features, which they would need in a cursed world. This information was ‘switched on’ at the Fall.”35 As is typical of the theistic evolutionary position Birkett wrongly follows Alexander in understanding death in Romans 5 as being spiritual.36

Birkett’s promotion of Alexander’s view as a serious choice for Christians who hold to the authority of the Scripture is seriously flawed theologically and exegetically.

Another alternative: Science Dominates Scripture

Birkett then moves on to John Polkinghorne, a leading physicist and Anglican clergyman who reconciles science and theology in a very different way to Alexander. The purpose of this section, however, is to critique Polkinghorne as an example “of a thinker whose science is leading his interpretation of the Bible, not the other way around.”37 But in methodology there is only a difference of degree between Polkinghorne and Alexander. The former is only applying the hermeneutical method more consistently than Alexander. Only young-earth creationists are using the Bible to interpret the scientific evidence. It should be noted that Polkinghorne has not done so well in his interaction with informed creation speakers.38

Birkett’s Conclusion

Birkett sums up her chapter by concluding,

When we let our interpretation of what Scripture says be led by philosophies found outside the Scripture, we are not giving Scripture its due as an integrated and coherent—although not exhaustive—guide to understanding reality. . . . For the purpose of this essay, the main message is: do not approach Scripture saying ‘but it can’t mean that’—whatever ‘that’ might be. It can. It can mean whatever God has written it to mean. External philosophies, even ones as successful in explanatory power as modern science, do not have the final say.39

This is great advice but it is a shame that Birkett did not follow it. Unfortunately, she has allowed herself to be swayed, not by empirical science, but by the philosophy of evolution in her interpretation of Scripture. By not engaging with young-earth literature, Birkett has approached Scripture by basically saying, “But it can’t mean that.” But not only did she ignore young-earth literature, her chapter on “Science and Scripture” did not discuss a single Scripture verse! How is that upholding the authority of Scripture?

The understanding of Genesis 1 by biblical creationists is that the account of Genesis 1 is an inspired, inerrant, reliable, historical account of the creation of the world and humanity that took place within six 24-hour days. This is confirmed by God’s own commentary in Exodus 20:8–11, which reveals the meaning of Genesis 1 that God intended.

Theistic Evolution and the Erosion of the Authority of the Bible

It is unfortunate that, in a book meant to uphold the authority of Scripture, the position of theistic evolution was promoted as being consistent with biblical authority. Theistic evolution does not uphold the authority of the Scriptures; it undermines it. There are practical consequences of trying to synthesise evolution with the Bible. The theory of evolution has been likened to a “universal acid”40 which eats its way through Christian doctrine: the Fall, the supernatural creation of Adam, the concept of original sin, the atonement of Christ, and the need for a new heavens and earth.

The issue is what Christians have to abandon theologically and biblically in order to hold to their belief in evolution.

The issue is not whether a person can be a Christian and believe in evolution: Christians can often hold to wrong ideas. Rather, the issue is what Christians have to abandon theologically and biblically in order to hold to their belief in evolution. While it is possible to believe in God and evolution, this does not mean that you can believe in both with a consistent and coherent understanding of Scripture. Many theistic evolutionists inconsistently reject the supernatural creation of the world yet nevertheless accept the reality of the virgin birth and the miracles and Resurrection of Christ, which are equally at odds with the truth claims of the secular scientific majority. Theistic evolutionists have to tie themselves up in knots in order to ignore the obvious implications of what they believe. The term “blessed inconsistency” should be applied here as many Christians who believe in evolution do not take it to its logical conclusions.

Understanding the world as being supernaturally created by God in six literal (24-hour) days is essential for a coherent, logical, and internally consistent theological understanding of the biblical message of creation, the Fall and sin, and redemption (Genesis 1:1–2:3; Exodus 20:11; 31:17; Acts 3:21; 17:22–34; Romans 5:12–21; 8:19–25; 1 Corinthians 15:1–5; 21–22, 26, 45; Colossians 1:15–20; 2 Peter 3:3–7; Revelation 22:3). It is also foundational to the truthfulness and authority of the whole Bible.

Conclusion

There are a growing number of evangelical scholars today who are unintentionally undermining Scripture by uncritically accepting the conclusions of evolution. Unfortunately, to get anywhere even in Christian scholarship today, it is more than likely you have to uncritically accept evolution (along with the disguised naturalistic presuppositions that undergirds it). The majority of evangelical scholars who embrace evolution today do so by following tradition (200 years of compromise) and by not carefully examining the young-earth scientific and biblical arguments against it and the methods and assumptions used to draw evolutionary conclusions.

Birkett should be conversant with contemporary evangelical views that differ from hers if she wants to maintain scholarly and biblical integrity. Her arguments for theistic evolution are seriously flawed in light of Scripture, and, sadly, history has shown that compromise on Genesis undermines and erodes the authority of the Bible, which in turn undermines the proclamation and believability of the gospel. The state of the church in Western Europe, Great Britain, and increasingly in America proves this. We need to stand boldly for the truth of the authoritative Word of God in this day!

Footnotes

  1. Dr. Birkett teaches ethics, philosophy, and church history at Oak Hill Theological College in London. See http://www.oakhill.ac.uk/teaching_staff/kirsty_birkett.html.
  2. Kirsten Birkett, “Science and Scripture,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W. B. Eerdmans, 2016) 948.
  3. In the science journal Nature, evolutionary scientist Dr. Scott Todd stated: “Even if all the data point to an intelligent designer, such a hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic.” S.C. Todd, “A view from Kansas on that evolution debate,” Nature 401 (1999): 423.
  4. The New Testament uses various words to describe the ruin of humanity’s intellect: futile (Romans 1:21); debased (Romans 1:28); deluded (Colossians 2:4); darkened (Ephesians 4:18).
  5. Louis Berkhof, Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology (Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1932), 60.
  6. Again, as Berkhof correctly states: “Some are inclined to speak of God’s general revelation as a second source; but this is hardly correct in view of the fact that nature can come into consideration here only as interpreted in the light of Scripture.” Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology: New Combined Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1946), 96.
  7. Birkett, “Science and Scripture,” 950.
  8. Ibid, 953–954.
  9. Ibid, 956.
  10. Given the tone of her chapter, this would seem to imply those who believe in a young earth.
  11. Ibid, 956. Again, Dr. Birkett’s bias to theistic evolution is once again shown in a footnote at this point, recommending two commentaries on Genesis, both written by theistic evolutionists, Bruce Waltke and Henri Blocher.
  12. Ibid, 956.
  13. Peter Bowler, a Darwin historian, understands the implication of trying to fit evolution with the Bible: “If Christians accept that humanity was the product of evolution—even assuming the process could be seen as an expression of the Creator’s will—then the whole idea of Original Sin would have to be reinterpreted. Far from falling from an original state of grace in the Garden of Eden, we have risen gradually from our animal origins. And if there was no sin from which we needed salvation, what was the purpose of Christ’s agony on the cross? Christ became merely the perfect man who showed us what we could all hope to become when evolution finished its upward course.” Peter Bowler, Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007) 7.
  14. Birkett, Science and Scripture, 956-957.
  15. Ibid, 957–958.
  16. J. M. Bassler, “Philo,” in Harpers Bible Dictionary, ed. P. J. Achtemeier (San Francisco, California: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985), 791.
  17. Flavius Josephus, The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus: The Jewish Historian, Trans. W. Whiston (Green Forest, AR: New Leaf, 2008), 1–4.
  18. See Jonathan Sarfati, Refuting Compromise: A Biblical and Scientific Refutation of “Progressive Creationism” (billions of years), as Popularized by Astronomer Hugh Ross (Green Forest, Arkansas: Master Books, 2004), 118.
  19. See Terry Mortenson and A. Peter Galling, “Augustine on the Days of Creation,” Answers in Genesis, January 18, 2012, https://answersingenesis.org/days-of-creation/augustine-on-the-days-of-creation/.
  20. See J. R. Mook, “The Church Fathers on Genesis, the Flood, and the Age of the Earth,” in Coming to Grips with Genesis: Biblical Authority and the Age of the Earth, ed. T. Mortenson and T. H. Ury (Green Forest, Arkansas: Master Books, 2008), 34.
  21. Augustine, City of God. Repr. Trans. H. Bettenson (London, England: Penguin Books, 2003), 484.
  22. Birkett, “Science and Scripture,” 958.
  23. See James R. Mook, “The Early Church on Creation,” Answers in Genesis, October 18, 2007, https://answersingenesis.org/christianity/church/the-early-church-on-creation/.
  24. See Ken Ham and Terry Mortenson, “Science or the Bible?,” Answers, July 1, 2007, https://answersingenesis.org/what-is-science/science-or-the-bible/.
  25. Harvard Professor E. O. Wilson pointed out: “If a moving automobile were an organism, functional biology would explain how it is constructed and operates, while evolutionary biology would reconstruct its origin and history-how it came to be made and its journey thus far” (E.O. Wilson. From So Simply a Beginning [New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2006], 12).
  26. Evolutionary philosopher Michael Ruse said: “Evolution is promoted by its practitioners as more than mere science. Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion—a full-fledged alternative to Christianity, with meaning and morality. I am an ardent evolutionist and an ex-Christian, but I must admit that in this one complaint—and Mr. Gish [Duane T. Gish the creation scientist] is but one of many to make it—the literalists are absolutely right. Evolution is a religion. This was true of evolution in the beginning, and it is true of evolution still today.” Despite his protestations his article reveals exactly this point. See Michael Ruse, “Is Darwinism a Religion?,” The Huffington Post, July 21, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-ruse/is-darwinism-a-religion_b_904828.html.
  27. Birkett, “Science and Scripture,” 962.
  28. Ibid, 962–963.
  29. See Ronald Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (University of California Press, 1992), xvi.
  30. Birkett, “Science and Scripture,” 963–965.
  31. Ibid, 966.
  32. For a review of the book see Paul F. Taylor, “Creation or Evolution: Yes, We Have to Choose,” Answers in Genesis, December 3, 2008, https://answersingenesis.org/creation-vs-evolution/creation-or-evolution-yes-we-have-to-choose/.
  33. Although Alexander only “critiques” a strawman argument as he shows no evidence of interacting with published answers to this question. For example, see Bodie Hodge and Andy McIntosh, “How Did Defense/Attack Structures Come About?,” The New Answers Book 1, Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2006, 259–280, https://answersingenesis.org/evidence-for-creation/design-in-nature/how-did-defense-attack-structures-come-about/.
  34. See Birkett, “Science and Scripture,” 968.
  35. Sarfati, Refuting Compromise, 212.
  36. See Bodie Hodge, “Biblically, Could Death Have Existed Before Sin?,” Answers in Genesis, March 2, 2010, https://answersingenesis.org/death-before-sin/biblically-could-death-have-existed-before-sin/.
  37. Birkett, “Science and Scripture,” 972.
  38. See “The Big Question Debate: Is Evolution Compatible with the Christian Faith? Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne KBE, FRS vs. John Mackay, International Director of Creation Research,” debate at Liverpool Cathedral in 2005. Retrievable from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IngvMROfvCM.
  39. Birkett, Scripture and Science, 984–985.
  40. See Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 34–40.

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