Review: Growing in Holiness

growing in holiness

Growing in HolinessR. C. Sproul. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Compiled from the author’s lectures, the book offers both theological basis and practical help for the believer for growing in Christ-likeness.

This is one of those books I wish I had fifty years ago. I knew what it meant to become a Christian, but had no notion of what it meant to be a Christian. How should I live after I’ve believed? How do I overcome sin? How can I be assured of my salvation? How does Christ form his character in me? R. C. Sproul addresses all these questions and more in this book, which is a compilation of his lectures on growing in holiness, or our sanctification.

He begins by giving a very clear articulation of the goal of our life in Christ: “The goal of human life is to mirror and to reflect the very character of God.” Sproul acknowledges that coming to Christ can make more complicated as we are more aware of the gap between how we live, and the life to which we are called in Christ. Believing doesn’t make life easier, but rather we face opposition from the world, the flesh, and the devil and our own powerlessness apart from God and the support of his people. Sproul talks about the call to righteousness as the inevitable fruit of Christ’s saving work, and yet the truth that our salvation is grounded in the righteousness of Christ, and not our imperfect efforts.

Sproul contends that we may enjoy the assurance of our salvation. This is not faith in faith, the church, or experience but comes out of the trust that obeys Christ, repents from sin, and lodges one’s hope in the finished work of Christ. Such assurance is great encouragement in continuing to press on to become more and more like Christ. Our confidence in Christ moves us to profess Christ with others, deepening our own assurance.

The next two chapters focus on the virtues also called “the fruit of the Spirit.” Sproul focuses a whole chapter on the first and greatest of these, love–love that is long suffering, characterized by kindness, humility, and self-control. He walks through the remaining fruit of the Spirit, explaining what each of these looks like in the life of the believer. Finally, he returns to the ultimate goal of becoming like God, like Christ in our character. This comes as we focus on Christ, trust and obey him implicitly like children, and over time, grow up to maturity as we diligently, year in and year out, diligently pursue the means of grace.

Sproul helps us understand both how our sanctification depends on the provision of Christ, but also that we must persist in laying hold of that provision, settling for nothing less than growing up to be like Jesus in character. In the words of Philippians 2:12-13, we work out the salvation that God is working in us. Sproul neither lowers the standard nor makes it simply an accomplishment of human effort. He consistently throughout this work points us to the goal of growing to be more and more like Christ, and encourages us that in one day we will indeed be glorified, that Christ will accomplish his goal for us.

R. C. Sproul went to be with the Lord in 2017. We are fortunate for the efforts of the Ligonier Library and Baker to compile his lectures offering theologically rich and practical to the chief end of our lives.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone

j-c-ryle

J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand AloneIain H. Murray. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2016.

Summary: The biography of this nineteenth century evangelical Anglican, from his early student days, his conversion, the decision to enter ministry, and his growing national reputation and his different assignments, including his last years as the first Bishop of Liverpool.

Earlier this year, a reading group of which I am a part chose J. C. Ryle’s Holiness (reviewed here) for our book discussions. Having read English writers of this era like John Henry Newman, I was bracing myself for highly convoluted sentences from which I would ferret meaning. Instead, I encountered a writer who was plain-spoken and a man of gracious, but uncompromising conviction. So when I came across notice of this new biography of Ryle, I acquired a copy, wanting to learn more of this man.

Ryle grew up the affluent son of a banker. He was tall, a gifted player of cricket, and seemed bound for a successful career, possibly in politics. During an illness in his last year at Oxford, he began to read his Bible and came to a personal faith in Christ, having previously been influenced by the conversion of his sister and a close relative.

A second turning point came when his father’s banking interest collapsed and he found himself without the means to pursue the political career for which he seemed destined. Instead, he sought ordination in the Church of England, serving first at Exbury and then St. Thomas’s Winchester. This was followed by a pastorate in Helmingham, during which he married twice, losing both wives, leaving him with five children. He wrote of this time, “There are anxieties in such cases which no one knows but he who has gone through them; anxieties which can crush the strongest spirit.”

Yet during these years Murray describes the pattern of a ministry that was constant in pastoral care visiting people in their homes, saturated with study, of the scriptures and the best of the Puritans, marked by compelling preaching, and further propagated through the publishing of tracts and collections of sermons. It was a time when Newman, Pusey, Keble, Froude, and others were publishing Tracts for the Times and leading a movement toward Anglo-Catholicism emphasizing sacraments, ritual, and ties with Rome, that Ryle and others thought contrary both to the Thirty-Nine Articles and to an evangelical faith rooted in the scriptures and the saving work of Christ.

A move to Stradbroke in 1861 brought with it a third marriage that would last until Henrietta’s death in 1889 and an increasingly national reputation as a voice for the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church. There were further publications, including his commentary on the Gospel of John. In 1872 he became Canon of Norwich and in 1880, at age 64, he became the first Bishop of Liverpool. He remained in this post until shortly before his death in 1900, establishing 44 new churches and mission halls, and becoming beloved among the working people, if not among a Church of England growing increasingly sacramental and tolerant of theological heterodoxy that moved away from evangelical conviction.

He was not able to stem the tide despite his efforts, even with his own son Herbert, who became a leader in the “broad” church. They differed but always remained charitable toward each other. One telling observation made however is that J.C. Ryle’s work continues to be re-printed and read, Herbert’s has not.

This makes me wonder about the subtitle, “prepared to stand alone.” It appears that this may often have been the case for Ryle, especially later in life. Are there times when it may seem that many, even those most dear will desert “the faith once delivered?” Perhaps this is why some find the writing of Ryle of such comfort in a time where parts of the church are given over to political captivity and others to a latitudinarianism that considers matters of doctrine of little value. Ryle brings together in his life and preaching both clarity of conviction and charity toward those with whom he ministered as he sought to proclaim that transforming power of new life in Christ.

Murray’s new biography explores the “long obedience” of this evangelical leader who never left the Church of England. He also includes two appendices, one with quotes from Ryle, and the other a brief profile of Herbert Ryle, his son. I’ll close with one of those quotes, on the “new birth,” a terminology that has undeservedly fallen into disrepute:

“The change which our Lord he declares needful to salvation is evidently no slight or superficial one. It is not merely reformation, or amendment, or moral change, or outward alteration of life. It is a thorough change of heart, will, and character. It is a resurrection. It is a new creation. It is a passing from death to life. It is the implanting in our dead hearts of a new principle from above. It is the calling into existence of a new creature, with a new nature, new habits of life, new tastes, new desires, new appetites, new judgments, new opinions, new hopes, and new fears. All this and nothing less than this is implied, when our Lord declares we all need a ‘new birth’…. Heaven may be reached without money, or rank, or learning. But it is clear as daylight, if words have any meaning, that no one can enter heaven without a ‘new birth.’ “

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

The Month in Reviews: March 2016

Gods that fail

My reading this month went from the Civil War to the civil engagement of how religious people relate to public life. Back to back, I reviewed a fairly unconventional view of church and then a mainstream treatment of church growth. There was a classic on holiness and a recent book on how we experience spiritual transformation.  There was a new edition of a book on the idols of our time as relevant as it was when first published twenty years ago. I finished the month with two works of fiction, one set in Anglo-Saxon England, the other in post-Independence India. Here’s the list with links to the full reviews.

Unkingdom of GodThe UNkingdom of God, Mark Van Steenwyk. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. The author advocates a kind of “Christian anarchism” consisting in a repentance from the ways Christianity has been entangled with worldly “empire”. Review.

Growing God's ChurchGrowing God’s Church, Gary L. McIntosh. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016. In light of the changing culture that has rendered classic approaches to evangelism less relevant, the author looks at how people in our contemporary culture are coming to faith while arguing for the continued priority of not only presence but proclamation and persuasion in our witness to the gospel. Review.

Christians and the Common GoodChristians and the Common GoodCharles E. Gutenson. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011. Explores what the teaching of scripture says about God’s intentions for how we live together and the implications of this for public policy. Review.

Life Together in ChristLife Together in Christ, Ruth Haley Barton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Using the account of the two disciples’ encounter with Jesus on the Emmaus road, Barton explores how we may experience life transformation through our encounter with Christ in the presence of others in Christian community. Review.

HolinessHoliness, J.C. Ryle. Chios Classics (electronic text), 2015 (originally published 1877). The classic collection by nineteenth century evangelical Anglican J.C. Ryle emphasizing that growth in Christ-like character (holiness) involves not only faith in Christ’s empowering work but effort in laying hold of that work and that this basic matter is far too often neglected in the church. Review.

Lee's LieutenantsLee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command (One Volume abridgement), Douglas Southall Freeman, abridged by Stephen W. Sears. New York: Scribner, 1998. Stephen Sears abridged version of Douglas Southall Freeman’s three volume study of the military leadership of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee. Review.

FlourishingFlourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, Miroslav Volf. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. Volf argues that the twin globalizing forces of international economics and world religions, problematic as they may be, may also be the source of rich and holistic flourishing for the human community. Review.

OnwardOnward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, Russell D. Moore. Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2015. Written by a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, this book describes an agenda for a post-Moral Majority church, centered around both cultural engagement and gospel integrity. Review.

IncarnateIncarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement, Michael Frost. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Frost explores what it means to be incarnational people in an “excarnational” world, one marked by increasing focus on disembodied, virtual experience, and disconnection from physical community. Review.

covenant and commandmentCovenant and Commandment, Bradley G. Green. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. In light of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith, Green considers the place of works, obedience and faithfulness in the Christian life. Review.

Making Neighborhoods WholeMaking Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development, Wayne Gordon & John M. Perkins, forward by Shane Claiborne. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Two of the founders of the Christian Community Development Association recount the history of this movement, weaving a narrative of their own and others stories into a summary of the eight key principles that have defined this movement. Review.

Gods that failGods That Fail: Modern Idolatry and Christian Mission (revised edition), Vinoth Ramachandra. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016. A consideration of how the false gods of late modernity both undermine human flourishing in a globalizing world and render ineffectual the witness of the church in that world, set in contrast with the biblical narratives of creation, the nature of evil, and the unique, transformative power of the cross. Review.

Last KingdomThe Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell. New York: Harper C0llins, 2006. This first of the Saxon tales tells the story of the invasion of England by the Danes and the fierce resistance led by Alfred the Great, all through the eyes of a boy turned warrior who at different times fights first for the Danes, then for Alfred. Review.

Midnight's ChildrenMidnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie. New York: Random House, 1981 (25th Anniversary Edition, 2006). Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight when India won its independence. He believes his life is “twinned” with the fate of the country, even as he is telepathically linked with the other “midnight children”, all of whom have unusual powers. Review.

Best of the Month: That is a tough choice! Freeman’s classic Lee’s Lieutenants sets the standard for Civil War history and studies in leadership, Miroslav Volf’s Flourishing is undoubtedly an important new work addressing positively the role religion can play in human flourishing. But I will give the nod to Gods that Fail not only because Ramachandra’s prose is a delight to read but his sweeping and incisive analysis exposes the hollowness of the idols of our time and challenges the church to recognize its own worship of false gods.

Quote of the Month: I was challenged by this statement about coming to terms with privilege in Sami DiPasquale’s contribution to Making Neighborhoods Whole:

“For people of privilege, reconciliation begins with sinking to our knees before God. We can choose to build relationships with those outside traditional power structures, with people who are ‘other.’ We can listen to their stories, paying careful attention especially when we hear a pattern emerging. We can put ourselves under the authority of someone from a different cultural heritage. We can choose to live in a setting where we are the minority. We can study history and theology from the perspectives of those who were not invited into the process of creating the standard textbooks–history can sound so different based on who is telling the story. We can grieve the tragedies that our forebears were a part of and try to figure out how they factor in to how we live today. We must ask God and others for forgiveness, and we must forgive ourselves. Finally, we must move forward, always listening, always striving to embrace voices from the outside with a resolve to confront the sin of injustice at every opportunity” (pp. 73-74).

Reviewing Soon: I’m thoroughly enjoying Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns on the Great Immigration of Blacks from the South to the North between 1915 and 1970. This changed both the South and the cities of the North. I am in the middle of Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch, and fascinated by the basic insight of the book–that living both strong and weak, with authority and vulnerability is to live well. I also discovered a pair of novels by management guru Peter Drucker. Sitting on my TBR pile is a book on fasting, Forty Days of Decrease, and Oliver Crisp’s new work on Jonathan Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest theologian.

Don’t want to miss any of it? Then follow Bob on Books for some good reading on good reading!

 

 

Review: Holiness

Holiness

Holiness, J.C. Ryle. Chios Classics (electronic text), 2015 (originally published 1877).

Summary: The classic collection by nineteenth century evangelical Anglican J.C. Ryle emphasizing that growth in Christ-like character (holiness) involves not only faith in Christ’s empowering work but effort in laying hold of that work and that this basic matter is far too often neglected in the church.

J. C. Ryle was an Anglican rector, and eventually bishop of the then-new Diocese of Liverpool. He lived from 1816-1900. Much of his work was among working class people, and it is evident in reading this collection of sermons why he was so popular. Unlike others who cultivated a dense eloquence, Ryle spoke plainly and clearly outlined his points such that anyone giving him their attention could follow. Even his titles were straightforward, the longest of which is only five words (“A Woman to be Remembered”, on Lot’s wife!).

Ryle’s main concern was for the decline in practical holiness in his day. Against the Keswick movement and others who took a type of “let go and let God” approach, Ryle argued that holy character was something assiduously fought for (one of the sermons in this collection is titled “The Fight!”), and that while faith in Christ’s working in one’s life was necessary, so also was effort and exertion.

The title sermon of this collection, “Holiness”, begins with an exposition of the nature of true holiness in one’s life, why such holiness ought to be pursued, and finally how such holiness may be attained, through striving and through dependence upon Christ. In the concluding section he writes:

That great divine, John Owen, the Dean of Christ Church, used to say, more than two hundred years ago, that there were people whose whole religion seemed to consist in going about complaining and telling everyone that they could do nothing of themselves. I am afraid that after two centuries, the same thing might be said with truth of some of Christ’s professing people in this day. I know there are texts in scripture which warrant such complaints. I do not object to them, when they come from men who walk in the steps of the apostle Paul and fight a good fight, as he did, against sin, the devil and the world. But I never like such complaints when I see ground for suspecting, as I often do — that they are only a cloak to cover spiritual laziness, and an excuse for spiritual sloth. If we say with Paul, “O wretched man that I am!” let us also be able to say with him, “I press toward the mark!”

The collection begins with a sermon on the nature of sin (“Sin”) and is followed by one on “Sanctification”, including the diligent use of means, and then the title sermon of “Holiness”.  He then follows up on the theme of the struggle in the Christian life with chapters on “The Fight” and “The Cost”. He writes of the marks of “Growth in Grace” being a deepening sense of sin coupled with stronger faith, brighter hope, and growing love and spiritual-mindedness. The sermon on “Assurance” both holds out the reality of confidence in the work of Christ, coupled with the knowledge that one may not experience this and yet belong to Christ.

Then come four sermons around figures in scripture. He looks at Moses as an example of living by faith, Lot as a “beacon” warning us of the example of less than full-hearted obedience and Lot’s wife as “A Woman to be Remembered” because of the privileges she enjoyed, the repudiation of it all in the backward look, and the judgment she experienced. Finally, “Christ’s Greatest Trophy!” concerns the thief on the cross who believed–one of the rare instances I’ve come across of a sermon on this episode.

The next sermons concern the Lordship of Jesus in adversity, (“Ruler of the Waves”), and over the church (“The Church Which Christ Builds” and “Visible Churches Warned”). Sermons fifteen to eighteen focus around our call to love the Lord (“Do You Love Me?”), the sobering reality of life “Without Christ”, how Christ addresses our deepest thirst, and through us addresses the thirst of others (“Thirst Relieved!”). He explores the “Unsearchable Riches” of life in Christ.

His concluding sermons in this collection focus first on the “Needs of the Times”, including the authority of scripture, a clear grasp of Christian doctrine, a pursuit of holiness, and perseverance in private devotion. This sermon does have some sharp words against the Catholicism of his day. The collection concludes on a high note as Ryle explores all the ways “Christ is All”, a wonderful resource for nurturing one’s worship!

Ryle’s frank and straightforward preaching is a breath of fresh air. Read Ryle if you want to learn how to preach plainly. Read him to understand how good shepherds of God’s people afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Read him to examine your own life and to stir you from indifference. Read him to appreciate the marvelous riches one has in Christ. And read him for the practical help he gives in pursuing a “practical” holiness.

A note on editions: All of the most inexpensive editions of Holiness are in electronic form, including that linked to in this post. As a public domain work, it may be found for free or very cheaply online in various e-formats. Amazon also sells print-on-demand editions. Crossway has a more expensive paperback that includes a biography of Ryle by J.I. Packer under the title Faithfulness and HolinessOne should check to see if the edition you are buying has all twenty sermons–some are abridged–and it is worth getting them all!

 

Review: The Theology of the Book of Isaiah

Theology of IsaiahThe Theology of the Book of Isaiah, John Goldingay. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Taking the book of Isaiah as a whole and as it would have been read by its first readers, Goldingay both considers the theologies present in each major section of Isaiah, and traces the theological themes emerging from the book as a whole.

I wish I had this book a few years ago when I was teaching Isaiah in an adult ed class at my church. Isaiah’s 66 chapters encompass a sweeping vision extending from the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah to the post-exilic destiny of Israel and the nations. Most of the commentaries on Isaiah are multi-volume or lengthy single volume works. What makes this a great resource is that it is both a concise work and yet gives the reader a good grasp of the framework of the book and key theological themes, crucial to understanding the book. What is also refreshing is that rather than pursuing the endless discussion of “how many Isaiahs are there?” he simply deals with the book as we have it, “the book called Isaiah”.

Goldingay notes what many of us who have taught Isaiah have seen–this is no ordinary book of sequential narrative or discourse. Rather it is a collection of prophecies occurring over an extended period of time. Goldingay contends that this collection can be considered as five or six “collages” that make up the book: Chapters 1-12; chapters 13-27 (or a separate collage of 24-27); chapters 28-39; chapters 40-55; and chapters 56-66. The first part of the book then delineates the major theological themes to be found within each “collage”.

The second part of the book explores the theology that emerges from “the book called Isaiah” as a whole. The themes he explores, each in a short chapter are:

  • Revelation: Words of Yahweh mediated through human agents
  • The God of Israel, the Holy One, Yahweh Armies
  • Holy as Upright and Merciful
  • Israel and Judah
  • Jerusalem and Zion Critiqued and Threatened
  • Jerusalem and Zion Chastised and Restored
  • The Remains
  • The Nations
  • The Empires and Their Kings
  • Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility
  • Divine Planning and Human Planning
  • David
  • Yahweh’s Day

One thing that the reader should be aware of is that Goldingay does not read Isaiah in light of the New Testament but as its first readers would have considered it, which is actually careful scholarship and interpretation controlled by what is found within the book itself. This is most evident in his discussion of the “servant” passages, which he treats in terms of Israel, the prophet, and eventually Cyrus. I think he is right in the sense that these were in fact the only interpretive options that would have made sense to the first readers. Yet, this seems to evade the question of who in fact fulfilled this–neither Israel, Isaiah, nor Cyrus completely do so. The question the Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip recorded in Acts 8:34 reflects this enigma: “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

One of the most significant insights comes in his discussion, which recurs at several points of holiness as uprightness and mercifulness (mispat and sedaqa). He writes at one point:

Mispat and sedaqa thus suggests the faithful exercise of power in community. People with power control resources; they will therefore make sure that ordinary people can share in resources such as land and food. People with power do control decision making in court, which meets at the city gate; they will see that judicial decisions are made in a fair way. People with power control what happens in community worship; they will make sure that it is offered in a way that is faithful to Yahweh.” (p. 22-23)

Israel in Isaiah’s day, and the church in our own have rarely worked with such a comprehensive vision of holiness, and we see that this is both Israel’s problem, and the realization of this vision, Yahweh’s intention. Goldingay’s approach teases out important themes like this, and Yahweh’s ultimate intention not only for Israel but the nations that might often be missed.

I would commend this book for anyone looking for a concise treatment of this book, including those, like me, who might be attempting to teach “the book called Isaiah” in an adult ed setting. Yet there is also the academic depth to make this an assigned text either in a seminary level course on Isaiah, or a wider survey of the prophets.

Review: Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity

Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity
Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity by Gordon T. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book might change your thinking about “sainthood”. Sometimes, we conceive saints as these unworldly, serious, ascetic, and somewhat odd creatures. Gordon Smith would propose instead that being a saint is something to which all of us are called and what this means is growth into Christian maturity–a kind of perfection of holiness that isn’t perfectionism but rather a kind of completeness or wholeness of life.

This is especially important for many evangelicals, who may excel at seeing people come to faith but have little idea of how to direct them into becoming holy (or sanctified, a word drawn from the same root as saint–in other words, saintified). Most often, since we do the crisis experience of conversion so well, we simply propose additional crisis experiences. Smith proposes a different route.

Smith begins with what he sees as the essence of the Christian life, which is union with Christ. To be in Christ is to be united with Christ through his Spirit, which is a profoundly humbling thing that promotes our dependence upon Christ, our focus on the person and work of Christ, and our Spirit-enabled obedience of faith. In a later appendix, Smith applies this to the scholarly life, which is a life grounded in prayerful dependence upon Christ and illumined by Christ.

Smith then talks about four expressions of holiness that might surprise you. The first of these is wisdom, the practical understanding and knowledge of how to live well in the fear of the Lord. This can be expressed as having the mind of Christ, of seeing all of life through the lenses of creation, fall, and Christ’s redemptive work. Wisdom that understands the cross understands suffering in light of the cross.

The second expression of holiness is vocational holiness. By this, Smith means a life of good work that flows out of a sense of being called both into union with Christ, and into the world. Vocational holiness understands our agency in the world as fallen but redeemed image-bearers of God. It involves self-understanding of our temperament, skills, gifts and situation and lives in hopeful realism throughout the seasons of one’s life.

The third expression of holiness is social holiness expressed in our love for others in the communities to which we are called. This will find expression in radical hospitality where we welcome each other as we have been welcomed in Christ, forbearance, forgiveness and reconciliation, and in generous service to others. All of these are formed in the worship, teaching, and witness of our churches.

Finally, and surprisingly, Smith speaks of joyful holiness–the ordering of our emotional lives around our hope in Christ. He sees these particularly worked out in the practices of worship, friendship, and sabbath. This last is especially radical because in sabbath, we trust that while we must rest God doesn’t and his work is prior to and over ours.

The book concludes with two extended appendices, one addressed to applying these truths to the life of the church, and the other to the life of the academy, particularly, but not exclusively the Christian university and seminary.

I came away from this book with a different rubric for thinking about Christian maturity that is neither obsessed with sin nor activity, but rather in the kind of person we become in union with Christ–wise, called, loving, and joyful. That is a kind of “sainthood” that seems quite attractive, and one to which all, and not simply some “spiritual elite”, might aspire.

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