Volume 2, Issue 3 -- May/June 2001

The Religious Language Newsletter is written and published every other month by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D. (linguistics), from the Ozark Center for Language Studies (OCLS), PO Box 1137, Huntsville, AR 72740-1137 USA; e-mail It's available by e-mail only, in plain text, and is free to members of the Lovingkindness Network. To join the network, send $5.00 (annual dues) to OCLS; please be sure to include your e-mail address with your check, money order, or credit card information. For more information, contact OCLS; thanks to a generous donation, all issues are posted at

IN THIS ISSUE: Editor's Note; Network Input; The Prayer of Jabez; Journal Note; Quotes & Comments; Cyberstuff


I have two logistics items this bimonth. First: Several members have written to ask why I don't type the lines of text in this newsletter all the way to the right margin instead of wasting so much space. So far as I know, that can't be done without causing the text to arrive at many members' inboxes with the formatting totally messed up. We don't all use the same software, and only 65-character lines (roughly) are safe for everyone. If anyone among you has a solution that I'm unaware of, please let me know. Second: Those of you who subscribe to more than one OCLS newsletter will find some duplication this bimonth; I'm sorry about that. I try to avoid overlap, but it's not always possible. Many thanks for all the materials that you've been sending; they're much appreciated.


1. In the last issue, I quoted my favorite version of a traditional Irish blessing ("May the road rise up to meet you; may the wind be always at your back; may the sun shine warm upon your face, and the rain fall soft upon your fields; and until we meet again, may God hold you always in the palm of His hand"); I asked for your input as to why it is so beloved and has been for such a very long time. Bob Kingsbury wrote to say that it has a very specific meaning to people who, like him, have had to endure long and miserable marches without shelter or comfort of any kind. (In his case, during World War II.) I suspect that this is independent of the language used in the blessing, other than coincidentally.

Then, from Elizabeth Barrette: "First of all, you've got the five magical Elements there: Earth (road), Air (wind), Fire (sun), Water (rain), and Spirit (God). That's a common pattern in blessings around the world, although the number will vary... The idea is to make the recipient protected under all circumstances, or from all potential avenues of harm. The appeal is to the natural world first, and the transcendent second ... I have an abiding suspicion that the "God" part is a later add-on. My favorite version, which I've got on a postcard from a local realtor, ends "And may you always know the blessing of having a home to call your own" which is a very traditional play on Celtic hospitality and which I'd only heard in oral form before. In purely linguistic terms, of course, the versions I've seen all tend to rely on rhythm and repetition, which sound good to our ears."

All true, and the part about the "magical elements" is very interesting. But still.... I can toss off blessings according to that pattern a mile a minute. "May the earth be good to you, may the wind be good to you, may the fire never harm you, may the rain never harm you, and may God bless you always." Okay? All five elements. All the things someone who'd suffered a forced march in wartime might value more than the rest of us. Patterning all over the place. Rhythm and repetition. But it hasn't a fig's worth of power as it stands, and its chances of being beloved are infinitesimal. I want to know what it is, in the blessings that "work" that sets them apart and _makes_ them work. [Final note: I immediately want to change the realtor's final line to "And may you always have a home to call your own."]

2. From Pat Mathews: "I'm reading THE MEME MACHINE by Susan Blackmore, and she has a chapter on religion which is worth following. The thesis of her books is that memes, like genes, are a replicator: they survive and thrive by copying, variation, and selection. The best survivors are those bundled with other memes that help them spread. For instance: Take an idea about God and put it into three different brains. One believes that God loves magnificent buildings, classical music, and large choirs. One believes that God prefers simplicity and silence. The third believes that God likes show tunes and folk rock, large crowds and cheerleaders. (Churchgoers, especially Episcopalians, will recognize this as 'High Church, Low Church, and Contemporary Worship.') Which idea about God will prevail? That depends on the surrounding ideas. .... If this book is correct, a successful meme is one that includes instructions for spreading it... , is readily accessible to everyone, fits in smoothly with whatever other memes they may have in their heads..." and is attached to enough novelty to get peoples' attentions, but not enough to be Totally Obscure."

[Notice... no mention of revelation, which presumably falls outside the scientific paradigm. People to whom some religious idea has actually been revealed -- in the sense of "revelation" -- are in a pickle if they don't have the good luck to glow in the dark, bear the stigmata, levitate, or some such thing. If they _do_ have that sort of good luck, on the other hand, they're just in a somewhat different pickle. Very inconvenient.]

3. From Douglas Dee: "Way back in the May/June 1997 issue of the L&SF newsletter (p 11), discussing the perpetual virginity of Mary, you said 'the real mystery is why, as long as He was setting aside laws, he didn't also set aside the one that said Mary had to suffer in labor.' Who says He didn't? The traditional Christian belief in ancient times was that Mary did not have to suffer labor pains. So far as I can tell, the Bible doesn't make a definite assertion on the question either way. The Catholic Encyclopedia says: "After bringing forth her Son, Mary "wrapped Him up in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger" (Luke 2:7), a sign that she did not suffer from the pain and weakness of childbirth. This inference agrees with the teaching of some of the principal Fathers and theologians... ... It was not becoming that the mother of God should be subject to the punishment pronounced in Genesis 3:16, against Eve and her sinful daughters." That can be found at: in the article under 'Mary.' " Thank you, Douglas; I'm amazed.


Recently I've been seeing notes everywhere about the book by Bruce Wilkinson titled _The Prayer of Jabez_, which has not only sold 3.5 million copies but has made it to the #1 spot on the _New York Times_ best-seller list. I had assumed that it was a novel; I was wrong. According to David Van Biema ("A Prayer with Wings," page 76, _Time_, 4/23/01), it is "essentially a bulked-up sermon" and "a bit of a genre-bender, packing a change-your-life message that evangelicals are used to seeing in 350-page tomes into an easy-to-read 93 pages." Wilkinson proposes that readers should pray the Jabez prayer daily, and claims that good things will surely follow.

All this got my attention, although I don't have the book. And when I went to check the verse (at 1 Chronicles 4:10) I found something surprising -- linguistically surprising. Here's the way the prayer is translated in the New King James version that Wilkinson relies on: "Oh, that you would bless me indeed and enlarge my territory, that your hand would be with me, and that you would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain." But in every other Bible translation I have in the LK library here, no matter what the wording, the fourth request from Jabez is that _he_ should not suffer pain, not that he shouldn't cause pain to others. The King James, for example, ends with "and that thou wouldest keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me." I went to Google and did an Internet search; there are many sites with pages about this prayer, and not one of them that I went to had a version in which Jabez prays that he will not _cause_ pain. I went next to my interlinear Hebrew/English Old Testament; here is the morpheme-by-morpheme translation it provides: "hand-of-you with-me and-you-keep-from-harm not to-have-pain-me."

Suppose we set aside the issue of which translation is accurate (and surely the New KJV translators must have had some evidence for their very different rendering of the verse?) and just consider the language itself. We would all have to agree that the difference matters. There's a vast gulf between praying that you yourself will not suffer pain -- a very common request -- and praying that you won't cause _other_ people to suffer pain. Apparently the new version has swept the country; the Internet has scores of offers for "Prayer of Jabez" merchandise of all kinds. Teeshirts. Posters. Coffeemugs. The usual array.

I'm interested. I'd like information about the reason for the new translation, especially from those of you who can read the Hebrew. I'd like your opinions about why this prayer (like the Irish Blessing I discussed last time) has somehow caught the imagination of so many people and joined the ranks of _beloved_ prayers. I can't help wondering why millions of adults in this country now should be reading Harry Potter books -- and _The Prayer of Jabez_. What on earth does that mean??? I look forward to your input.


I want to recommend to you the Winter 2000-1 issue of the quarterly called Image: A Journal of the Arts & Religion. Image is always a pleasure -- fine poetry, short stories, book reviews, art reviews, interviews, and more, each and every time; but this issue is breathtakingly good. I'll just give you a few snippets...

[From the poem "Adam Dreams of Darwin's Finch," by Kathleen L. Housley, on page 26]

It descends in a cascade of feathers,

brushing his cheek with its wingtip,

one more bird of the air seeking a name.

He has identified so many varieties already,

he suspects they keep getting back in line...

[From "A Conversation with Pattiann Rogers," pp. 41-55; on page 49, and then on page 54]

"I've felt for some time that the Creator or the Benevolence...within this universe is not omnipotent or omniscient, and that the universe is in the process of being created, and that we have a role to play in that process, in bringing the universe into fulfillment. We struggle to understand that role. But we have a sense, I believe, of when our actions and thoughts are healthy and strong and constructive, and...when they shatter others and the world around us in harmful ways, when they inhibit beauty."


Suppose the molecular changes taking place

In the mind during the act of praise

Resulted in an emanation rising into space....."

There's a wonderful poem ("Where I Was") by Patricia Hooper in which she discovers that she would have been someone who refused Jesus when he tried to get her to drop what she was doing and follow him; Mary Kenagy's short story, "Loud Lake" is so good, and so unusual, that it's stunning. You would enjoy the art; you would enjoy Terrence E. Dempsey's article "Analogy, Meaning, and Religious Experience in Contemporary Abstract Art." The issue is $9.00 off the shelf, and worth every penny. Subscriptions are $30 a year (more overseas), to Image, PO Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834; credit card (Visa or Mastercard) orders are accepted at 1-800-875-2997.


1. In a Linguist List blurb on 4/10/01 for What Did Jesus Mean? (Oxford University Press 2001, 528 pages), Kimerbly Kahn wrote: "In this highly interdisciplinary work, linguist Anna Wierzbicka casts new light on the words of Jesus by taking her well-known semantic theory of "universal human concepts" -- concepts which are intuitively understandable and self-explanatory across languages -- and bringing it to bear on Jesus' parables and the Sermon on the Mount. Her approach results in strikingly novel interpretations of the Gospels. Written in dialogue with other biblical commentators...." [Full title: WHAT DID JESUS MEAN?: Explaining the Sermon on the Mount and the Parables in Simple and Universal Human Concepts.]

Anna Wierzbicka does very high-powered work in linguistics; I didn't know she had a theological hat as well. I'm certain that "strikingly novel" is an understatement, and I'm anxious to read the book. If any of you have already read it and could tell me your reaction, I'd be interested. (Now if she would just tackle Jeremiah....)

2. Baker Book House sent me the current issue (#6) of their magalog, _The Discerning Reader_. On pp. 3-5 they have a review of Robert K. Johnston's _Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue_ and an interview with the author. On page 4, we read that Johnston "believes that the wider world hasn't stopped thinking deeply about life, but for many the movie theater rather than the church is the preferred form for grappling with real-life issues" and advocates "theologically informed sympathetic dialogue as the right response to movies." In the interview, he praises the superior abilities of younger people in interpreting movies; they find far more in a movie than those of us over forty do, he says. On page 4: "In spite of the fact that Jesus gave us stories, the church continues to speak in propositions. ... Protestants need a better theology of the imagination than we now have. Catholics, with their sacramental theology rooted in image, are further along...." [And while I'm here, I'll mention that something called _Honky-Tonk Gospel: The Story of Sin and Salvation in Country Music_ turns up on page 13. I've read half a dozen books on the religious message component of rock music -- all very watery oatmeal -- but have never seen it done for country music..] To order the magalog (or books, of course), call 1-800-877-2665 or email

3. This isn't actually a quotation -- and wouldn't be legal if it were. I just want to tell you that I'm looking at one of my favorite cartoons, sent by the Kinast-Porters, from page 93 of the _Cortlandt Forum_. It shows Moses and the Hebrews on the shore of the Red Sea, and Moses' arm and staff extended; the waters have parted to offer the Hebrews a dry road on the bottom of the sea to the other side. And every inch of that road is covered with litter and trash. I love it. It's the religious equivalent of lèse majesté, or some such thing -- certainly a God who could divide the sea in two parts and hold them back could remove the litter on the seabottom at the same time. But I love it all the same.

4. From _Southwest Art_ for 8/00, pp. 140-142 ("Kachina Carving," by Antonio Lopez):

Clark Tenakhongva "takes a hard line regarding the religious purity of the art form." (Page 140) He believes kachina makers should speak Hopi; he objects to the sale of kachinas simply to earn money, especially since some carvers "carve kachinas that Hopi religious conservatives say are forbidden to be represented." He strongly objects to the use of wood-burning tools and synthetic materials, saying (on page 141) that "The dolls are human like us. They are created to represent spiritual beings. Like you and I, they are very fragile. ... They are live spiritual beings. Why would you want to contaminate another's body?" Aaron Fredericks, another Native American artist, does use wood burning tools. On page 142 he says, "We are moving away from traditional carving and trying new techniques to enhance our work. Things are changing, and I'm part of that movement. Other than that, I know it's wrong, but I still do it. I will continue to use a wood burner."

This struck me because it's the first time I've come across an artist's statement like the one attributed to Aaron Fredericks: "I know it's wrong, but I still do it." There's a similar controversy with regard to the painting of icons, for example. Every statement I've ever seen from artists who deviate from the traditional rules for icons can be summarized as, "I am absolutely confident that what I'm doing, although it's not traditional, is appropriate and right." I should think it would cause an artist a great deal of pain to be doing something that he or she felt was religiously wrong; I wonder whether something has been lost in the translation here, or if the reporter has perhaps done some creative editing.

5. The 1-2/01 issue of _Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity_ was a special issue on fatherhood. On the cover, in eye-catching type, it said, "Return to the Father's House: God the Father & Human Fatherhood." This is a very conservative religious publication, which means that by definition it represents a worldview drastically different from mine, and I anticipated that; nevertheless, much of what I found inside distressed me. There's no way to cover the questions it raises here; let me just quote an example from Patrick Henry Reardon's "Thou Art the Everlasting Son of the Father: The Christian Meaning of the Fatherhood of God," (pp. 53-57. On page 57, Reardon says:

"Our calling God Father is not to be explained as a vestigial memory of some bygone patriarchal society. Quite the contrary. The patriarchal structure of the family and of the Church is based on the patriarchal structure of the Holy Trinity, not the other way around. A godly ordered human society is patriarchal, because the eternal divine society is patriarchal. Patriarchy is the inalterable structure of reality."

Patriarchy is the inalterable structure of reality. Imagine that on bumperstickers and teeshirts worldwide, please. It's quite clear that Reardon not only is fully aware of the potential effects of his religious language on readers, he is in fact doing his best to guarantee those effects.

Here are the relevant article titles from this special issue, some with their accompanying subtitles; I'd suggest reading them all. "Fatherhood Uprooted: A Sociologist Looks at Fatherlessness & Its Causes"; "Missing Fathers of the Church: The Feminization of the Church & the Need for Christian Fatherhood"; "The Father Almighty, Maker of Male & Female: A Psychologist Looks at the Importance of God the Father for Male & Female Identity"; "Rays of Fatherhood Shining Forth"; "The Christian Heart of Fatherhood"; "Thou Art the Everlasting Son of the Father"; "The Craft of Fatherhood"; "Too Close for Comfort." The issue is not exclusively male in its presentation, by the way; there is an interview with Elisabeth Elliot, "Woman on A Mission," on pp. 59-63. In large type on page 59, Elliot is quoted as follows: "I'm a hard-driving woman who wants to do her own thing and doesn't want anybody to tell her what to do. But through the experience of having three very different husbands, God has taught me the blessing of submission."

I'd be pleased to hear from any of you who read these materials; perhaps, over time, we can discuss them further. The journal -- which is a very classy publication -- lists the back-issue contact as Publishing Management Associates, 129 Phelphs Avenue, Suite 312, Rockford, IL 61108; phone 815-398-8569; fax 815-398-8579. There's a website at

6. The Kinast-Porters sent me a copy of an article by John Patrick titled "Apologetics in the Workplace," on pp. 32-35 of the Fall 2000 issue of _Today's Christian Doctor_. Dr. Patrick goes to work with a book of quotations in his pocket (collected by him, in the sense of the oldfashioned "commonplace book," although he doesn't use that term). The article presents his "method of apologetics that can be used effectively in the workplace," which includes whipping out the commonplace book and reading an apt quotation on the spot. The section subtitled "Cite Secular Sources Where Possible," on page 34, begins with "As an apologetics principle, it is always best to allow an unbeliever to make the Christian case," followed by an example quotation, with discussion. On page 34: "The key to practicing apologetics in the workplace is to learn the art of asking questions. Never make a statement when you can ask a question, even if you end up answering it yourself." The article includes sample dialogues. [The publication has a website at]

7. I was pleased to get a copy of the Winter 2001 issue of _The Flame_, a newsletter that had disappeared for a number of years. It's a publication of the Coalition on Women, Religion & Spirituality. Here's something interesting from page 2, a piece by Elise DeGooyer titled "Editorial: Coalition Sparks Rise from Well-tended Embers":

"As we begin this new century, the same need for dialogue between feminism and religion exists. The dialogue has shifted, the language has perhaps expanded, the stakes may be different. But new needs emerge. This was made clear recently when several friends of the Coalition were kicked off a feminist email listserve because they raised controversial religious issues. They were told that religion must be kept out of the conversation."

My guess is that this eviction from the conversation has little or nothing to do with the fact that the eviction was from a feminist e-mail list. Overtly religious language continues to be taboo in mainstream U.S. culture outside an overtly religious discourse context, feminist or not -- despite the fact that covertly religious language is as common in our nonreligious discourse as salt in soups.

8. My thanks to Jeanne Gomoll for a copy of an interview with Ursula K. Le Guin on pp. 36-39 of the 3/98 _The Progressive_; the interviewer was Jane Slaughter, the title just "Ursula Le Guin." Here's a sample from page 39:

'I'm not an atheist in the sense of one who wants to fight with those who believe in God. I am simply not interested. I have a strong natural sympathy for polytheism, people like the Hindus or ancient Romans who had little gods everywhere, or Native American religions, which -- what I know about them, which is not a lot -- have a fully spiritual approach to reality. They don't have gods, but everything is sacred. Now that makes complete sense to me. This is the religion I understand. But as soon as you get centered into a hierarchy with a boss at the top, I'm out."

9. "A woman I know once agreed to take a young Asian child to visit a school in New York... The visitors were shown a chapel, no longer greatly used for devotional purposes, but deemed a sight worth seeing. The child was shaken by a picture of Jesus, bleeding and nailed to the cross. 'What have they done to that poor man?' she asked, in pained incredulity. I somehow thought of her response to what is after all a standard image in the Western artistic canon when I saw a sign that the Whitney Museum has placed at the admissions desk to Biennial 2000: 'Sections of the exhibition present artwork or other material that may not be appropriate for some viewers, including children.' Nothing on view could possibly have the impact on a sensitive child of a routine depiction of Christ's unimaginable agony. Such a warning sign might far more suitably be placed outside any of the West's great museums, where images of cruelty and torment are found on every corner." (From "Art of the Free and Brave," by Arthur C. Danto, pp. 45-49, _Nation_ for 5/8/00; on page 45.)


1. Yet another article on "religious neurobiology" is available on the _New Scientist_ website, at; it's written by Bob Holmes and is called "In search of God." Here's a brief quote describing the work of neuroscientist Michael Persinger, who has been doing research in this area with a technique called "transcranial magnetic stimulation": "Through trial and error and a bit of educated guesswork, he's found that a weak magnetic field -- 1 microtesla, which is roughly that generated by a computer monitor -- rotating anticlockwise in a complex pattern about the temporal lobes will cause four out of five people to feel a spectral presence in the room with them. ... Religious types often identify the presence as God." Other scientists are quoted arguing that what Persinger's technique creates is absolutely not a "genuine religious experience." Sceptics say religious neurobiological research proves that there is no God and that "religious experiences" are all in your head; believers say otherwise.

Suppose you _have_ had a "genuine religious experience." And suppose you undergo Persinger's technique and are able to conclude that the two experiences are not at all equivalent. Your tongue is tied, because no English vocabulary is available that would let you complete either of these two statements: (1) "I know that my previous religious experience was genuine, because....."; (2) "I know that the experience evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation is not a genuine religious experience, because...." Few arguments are less convincing than "I just know, that's all." Very interesting article; I recommend it.

2. There's an interesting brief paper -- identified as a "discussion paper" and without byline -- at The title is "The Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Strategic Function of (Christian) Religious Discourse." It opens with the claim that the function of religious discourse in the context of the South African TRC is that it puts the justification and explanation of forgiveness into a familiar context, and that it "envelops the entire exercise in a protective mystical bubble away from conventional political/legal analysis." It goes on to say that a third function is for religious discourse to act "as a shield against potential accusations of political bias" because it's assumed to be apolitical. (I'm not sure that's true in the U.S., by the way, but the claim is that it's true in South Africa.) The author uses examples from things Archbishop Tutu and others have said; he talks of the image of the Last Supper as a context. [As I read, I wondered what sort of discourse context would be established if we were to have a "truth and reconciliation commission" in the U.S., with the requests for forgiveness directed at the Native Americans, or at the descendants of slaves. And of course with everyone terrified that asking for forgiveness, even retroactively, would get in the way of future lawsuits.]

3. A generous array of links to religious materials on the Internet can be found -- quickly and conveniently -- at the Virtual Religion Index hosted by Rutgers University. It's a marvel; too complex to describe. Please go look. The address is

4. The 3/6/01 issue of _PW Religion Bookline_ says there's a fad for "religion/spirituality/inspirational titles with a baseball spin," about such matters as "baseball's mystical power and the sport's endless teachings about the game of life." There's Robert Benson's _The Game: One Man, Nine Innings, a Love Affair with Baseball_. There's Dave Dravecky's _Play Ball_. There's Bob Muzikowski and Gregg Lewis's _Safe at Home_. There's Orel Hershiser's _Between the Lines: Nine Principles to Live By_....

5. I suppose it was inevitable. The same issue of _Bookline_ has a brief piece about the new "What Would Buddha Do?" flurry. Coming in June, _What Would Buddha Do at Work?_, by Franz Metcalf. I hope we can stay away from such extrapolations as "What would Thor Do?" and the like; I vividly remember the business books based on the "philosophy" of Attila the Hun.

6. Thanks to Laura Mallard for the curiously-titled "John's: The Maverick Christian Group: The Evidence of Sociolinguistics," by Bruce J. Malina. Here's the abstract (which is less cryptic if you're aware that "John's" is intended to refer to the religious circle of the disciple John, in the New Testament):

"The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that John's was a maverick Christian group, and that the nature and quality of this group can be seen in the nature and quality of the language used in the gospel. By employing insights from speech accommodation theory, antilanguage perspectives and the sociolinguistics of intimacy, one can establish the general lines of the Johannine association that might assist in a more adequate interpretation of this gospel."

I've now read the paper, and I have to say that I'm not convinced. The thesis Malina argues is interesting, and the way he goes about making the argument is instructive; the _evidence_ he presents, however, strikes me as weak. (It may be that it's weak because it was written for _Biblical Theology Bulletin_; perhaps that's a publication whose readers aren't interested in rigorous argument.) It's worth reading, however, for the novel perspective on the analysis of religious language; it's remarkable for at least _mentioning_ the body language that might have accompanied the spoken words. (I much enjoyed Malina's remark on page 1 that "Often beginning Greek students learn to express meanings from their own social system by means of the wording and spellling found in John's gospel. In this sense, they learn to speak English in Greek.") The URL is

7. I continue to slog on in my efforts to "discover" a grammar of prayer for English (as evidenced by my interest in that Irish blessing, for example). I hope someday to get far enough with the project to put together at least a Lovingkindness Working Paper on the subject; so far, it's very slow going. In that context, you might want to look at a paper on "linguistic fideism" by D. S. Clarke titled "Changing Conceptions of Sign Interpretation and the Language of Prayer," at To give you the flavor of the thing... Clarke says, "This raises the question whether there remains a legitimate role for prayer and for the narrative framework in which it takes place. I believe there is, but it is surely a different role from that assigned to it in earlier periods. As a first step in determining what it might be, let's now review features of the language of prayer as a means for both requesting help and expressing hopes for the future." And this leads to such questions as whether the language and structure of prayer, like the language and structure of commands and requests, "presupposes the existence of the addressee." (In which case, presumably, we would need to write that as "the Addressee.")

8. Finally, I think you would enjoy "King David was a nebbish," by Laura Miller; you'll find it at


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[E-mail newsletters by Suzette Haden Elgin for 2001 are: _The Linguistics & Science Fiction Newsletter_; _The Religious Language Newsletter_; and _The Verbal Self-Defense Newsletter_. Each $5.00 a year for the six issues of the calendar year, by e-mail only, advertising-free; for more information or a free sample issue, send an e-mail request to]

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