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4 big myths of Book of Revelation
The Book of Revelation has terrified and confused readers for centuries. Few agree on its meaning, but many have opinions.
March 31st, 2012
10:00 PM ET

4 big myths of Book of Revelation

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - The anti-Christ. The Battle of Armageddon. The dreaded Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

You don’t have to be a student of religion to recognize references from the Book of Revelation. The last book in the Bible has fascinated readers for centuries. People who don’t even follow religion are nonetheless familiar with figures and images from Revelation.

And why not? No other New Testament book reads like Revelation. The book virtually drips with blood and reeks of sulfur. At the center of this final battle between good and evil is an action-hero-like Jesus, who is in no mood to turn the other cheek.

Elaine Pagels, one of the world’s leading biblical scholars, first read Revelation as a teenager. She read it again in writing her latest book, “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation.”

Pagels’ book is built around a simple question: What does Revelation mean? Her answers may disturb people who see the book as a prophecy about the end of the world.

But people have clashed over the meaning of Revelation ever since it was virtually forced into the New Testament canon over the protests of some early church leaders, Pagels says.

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“There were always debates about it,” she says. “Some people said a heretic wrote it. Some said a disciple. There were always people who loved and championed it.”

The debate persists. Pagels adds to it by challenging some of the common assumptions about Revelation.

Here are what she says are four big myths about Revelation::

1. It’s about the end of the world

Anyone who has read the popular “Left Behind” novels or listened to pastors preaching about the “rapture” might see Revelation as a blow-by-blow preview of how the world will end.

Pagels, however, says the writer of Revelation was actually describing the way his own world ended.

She says the writer of Revelation may have been called John – the book is sometimes called “Book of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine” but he was not the disciple who accompanied Jesus. He was a devout Jew and mystic exiled on the island of Patmos, off the coast of  present-day Greece.

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“He would have been a very simple man in his clothes and dress,” Pagels says. “He may have gone from church to church preaching his message. He seems more like a traveling preacher or a prophet.”

The author of Revelation had experienced a catastrophe. He wrote his book not long after 60,000 Roman soldiers had stormed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., burned down its great temple and left the city in ruins after putting down an armed Jewish revolt.

For some of the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus, the destruction of Jerusalem was incomprehensible. They had expected Jesus to return “with power” and conquer Rome before inaugurating a new age. But Rome had conquered Jesus’ homeland instead.

The author of Revelation was trying to encourage the followers of Jesus at a time when their world seemed doomed. Think of the Winston Churchill radio broadcasts delivered to the British during the darkest days of World War II.

Revelation was an anti-Roman tract and a piece of war propaganda wrapped in one. The message: God would return and destroy the Romans who had destroyed Jerusalem.

“His primary target is Rome,” Pagels says of the book’s author. “He really is deeply angry and grieved at the Jewish war and what happened to his people.”

2. The numerals 666 stand for the devil

The 1976 horror film “The Omen” scared a lot of folks. It may have scared some theologians, too, who began encountering people whose view of Revelation comes from a Hollywood movie.

The Omen” depicted the birth and rise of the “anti-Christ,” the cunning son of Satan who would be known by “the mark of the beast,” 666, on his body.

Here’s the passage from Revelation that “The Omen” alluded to: “This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.”

Good movies, though, don’t always make good theology. Most people think 666 stands for an anti-Christ-like figure that will deceive humanity and trigger a final battle between good and evil. Some people think he’s already here.

Pagels, however, says the writer of Revelation didn’t really intend 666 as the devil’s digits. He was describing another incarnation of evil: The Roman emperor, Nero.

The arrogant and demented Nero was particularly despised by the earliest followers of Jesus, including the writer of Revelation. Nero was said to have burned followers of Jesus alive to illuminate his garden.

But the author of Revelation couldn’t safely name Nero, so he used the Jewish numerology system to spell out Nero’s imperial name, Pagels says.

Pagels says that John may have had in mind other meanings for the mark of the beast: the imperial stamp Romans used on official documents, tattoos authorizing people to engage in Roman business, or the images of Roman emperors on stamps and coins.

Since Revelation’s author writes in “the language of dreams and nightmares,” Pagels says it’s easy for outsiders to misconstrue the book’s original meaning.

Still, they take heart from Revelation’s larger message, she writes:

“…Countless people for thousands of years have been able to see their own conflicts, fears, and hopes reflected in his prophecies. And because he speaks from his convictions about divine justice, many readers have found reassurance in his conviction that there is meaning in history – even when he does not say exactly what that meaning is – and that there is hope.”

3. The writer of Revelation was a Christian

The author of Revelation hated Rome, but he also scorned another group – a group of people we would call Christians today, Pagels says.

There’s a common perception that there was a golden age of Christianity, when most Christians agreed on an uncontaminated version of the faith. Yet there was never one agreed-upon Christianity. There were always clashing visions.

Revelation reflects some of those early clashes in the church, Pagels says.

That idea isn’t new territory for Pagels. She won the National Book Award for “The Gnostic Gospels,” a 1979 book that examined a cache of newly discovered “secret” gospels of Jesus. The book, along with other work from Pagels, argues that there were other accounts of Jesus’ life that were suppressed by early church leaders because it didn’t fit with their agenda.

The author of Revelation was like an activist crusading for traditional values. In his case, he was a devout Jew who saw Jesus as the messiah. But he didn’t like the message that the apostle Paul and other followers of Jesus were preaching.

This new message insisted that gentiles could become followers of Jesus without adopting the requirements of the Torah. It accepted women leaders, and intermarriage with gentiles, Pagels says.

The new message was a lot like what we call Christianity today.

That was too much for the author of Revelation. At one point, he calls a woman leader in an early church community a “Jezebel.” He calls one of those gentile-accepting churches a “synagogue of Satan.”

John was defending a form of Christianity that would be eclipsed by the Christians he attacked, Pagels says.

“What John of Patmos preached would have looked old-fashioned – and simply wrong to Paul’s converts…,” she writes.

The author of Revelation was a follower of Jesus, but he wasn’t what some people would call a Christian today, Pagels says.

“There’s no indication that he read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or that he read the gospels or Paul’s letters,” she says. “….He doesn’t even say Jesus died for your sins.”

4. There is only one Book of Revelation

There’s no other book in the Bible quite like Revelation, but there are plenty of books like Revelation that didn’t make it into the Bible, Pagels says.

Early church leaders suppressed an “astonishing” range of books that claimed to be revelations from apostles such as Peter and James. Many of these books were read and treasured by Christians throughout the Roman Empire, she says.

There was even another “Secret Revelation of John.” In this one, Jesus wasn’t a divine warrior, but someone who first appeared to the apostle Paul as a blazing light, then as a child, an old man and, some scholars say, a woman.

So why did the revelation from John of Patmos make it into the Bible, but not the others?

Pagels traces that decision largely to Bishop Athanasius, a pugnacious church leader who championed Revelation about 360 years after the death of Jesus.

Athanasius was so fiery that during his 46 years as bishop he was deposed and exiled five times. He was primarily responsible for shaping the New Testament while excluding books he labeled as hearsay, Pagels says.

Many church leaders opposed including Revelation in the New Testament. Athanasius’s predecessor said the book was “unintelligible, irrational and false.”

Athanasius, though, saw Revelation as a useful political tool. He transformed it into an attack ad against Christians who questioned him.

Rome was no longer the enemy; those who questioned church authority were the anti-Christs in Athanasius’s reading of Revelation, Pagels says.

“Athanasius interprets Revelation’s cosmic war as a vivid picture of his own crusade against heretics and reads John’s visions as a sharp warning to Christian dissidents,” she writes. “God is about to divide the saved from the damned – which now means dividing the ‘orthodox’ from ‘heretics.’ ’’

Centuries later, Revelation still divides people. Pagels calls it the strangest and most controversial book in the Bible.

Even after writing a book about it, Pagels has hardly mastered its meaning.

“The book is the hardest one in the Bible to understand,” Pagels says. “I don’t think anyone completely understands it.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Books • Christianity • Church • Devil • End times • Faith • History • Jerusalem

soundoff (8,460 Responses)
  1. Bob

    folks who believe want to need to it could be called any name you need to give credit to somthing or somebody

    April 13, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
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    March 31, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
  3. Nephilium

    my issue with the book of revelations is how it is being interpreted I guess... I mean at the start it talks about how the antijeebus unifies the world.... But then it goes on to say basically that the world is not unified and a small part of it will unify and start this big war... so I mean right off the bat it contradicts its self?
    I will be honest how I feel about church there are few if any people who go who actually believe in the bible, or even try to understand it, Really gets me when some one believes so much in the bible that they can say dont take it seriously... And I have heard this from many religious people.
    Any one who truly fallows it and cares to truly learn about it would most likely separate themselves from the false hoods of the church... The bible is a book that has been manipulated and rewritten to serve the means of the greedy and ignorant.
    It is smaller then it used to be and not just because the print is smaller, so much has been taken out of it and who knows how much got changed in translation.
    Read it, Know it... Don't be fooled by those who would lie to you about it!!
    Last note I find it really arrogant when someone quotes the bible and then throws in where the passage is like they are the ultimate authority on it... They know not what they do.

    March 23, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
  4. Mathews K

    To see this published on CNN is amazing! Reminds me of the book of Dan Brown where an old man who out of nowhere knew the whole history of mankind!

    March 17, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
  5. no1wonder

    Mass hysteria that's what they aim for

    March 10, 2013 at 3:39 am |
  6. Theo

    This is completely ignorant. Pagels has an entirely minimal understanding of St. Athanasius and would have done better if she left Church History out of the discussion. Worse still, she is guilty of reduction on several accounts, as historians have taken Revelation to refer to something past, present and future- not just past. I hope no one buys her arguments.

    March 6, 2013 at 11:56 pm |
  7. Letthescalesfallaway

    This is a very uneducated view of the book of Revelation. This person truly needs to search their heart before creating a stumbling block for others. Remove the plank from your own eye before trying to remove it from another's eye. I hope this half truth truly from the Devil using someone as a vessel does not cause the death of another. Jesus be with you all!

    March 3, 2013 at 11:59 pm |
  8. ghostofphillipdick

    I got half way through the King James version and had to stop. That's one scary freakin book, my friends and I think Elaine Pagels is more in denial than "wrong", not willing to take the actual text at face value. As far as time frames, there are certain hints, the beast from the "bottomles pit" could be petroleum. Also I think it's a mistake to apply current radical feminst views to say what John writes about Jezebel, who's being criticized not by John but by the one who's the source of his vision. (let's say an archangel for sake of argument) It's more reasonable staying within Christian Wold View, including the Gnostic Gospels of course (So not literalism IMHO, it includes thinking for oneself) It's also true of the human mind that if Revelations means God can play with the whole universe like some kind of toy "the heavens disappeared like a scroll rolling up", it will instantly say no way, no freakin way ... a pure reflex. So maybe this is comforting, (just sayin') Revelations might be about potential alternate futures if human race doesn't get its act together. Maybe no seals will ever be broken ...

    February 25, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  9. Keith

    It is easy to tell which posters here are "fundamentalist" and which ones are not. The fundamentalists do not want to know the truth because they somehow believe it threatens their faith or Religion. Those of us who are not fundamentalist read these things and add it to our knowledge and go one with the faith in our beliefs. The King James version of the Bible was a creation of the Catholic Church and the Roman Government at the time, not the unquestioned word of God.

    February 24, 2013 at 10:00 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      All versions of the bible were written by men, and all of them are questioned by men. What's your point?

      February 25, 2013 at 10:57 am |
      • Keith

        There are Christians and there are Fundamentalists – The term usually has a religious connotation indicating unwavering attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs.

        I don't' believe most Fundamentalists are "Christian"

        February 25, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • ghostofphillipdick

      And besides a-theism is a religion and scientists who think they can disprove vast active living intelligence (VALIS) may be brilliant in their fields, but set them loose on this subject, watch your wallet ...

      February 26, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
      • Keith

        I was raised a "Christian" I can recognize a flim flam man a mile away.

        February 26, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
  10. Erevna Den

    Well...that was about as heretical as it gets.

    February 21, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
  11. Amelia LaVonne HornedEagle-Beck and Drew Jerome Beck

    I am GOD'S gift, his Love, I know and will explain the good book. I am her who holds the seven stars in my right hand. It is written in riddles because he kept me safe. I chose to be the only one sith the memories of the apocalypse. To sacrifice myself so the world will all go heaven. It is time for everyone to know the truth of our love.

    February 20, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
  12. Amelia LaVonne HornedEagle-Beck and Drew Jerome Beck

    I can explain the book. I have been GOD'S gift, God kept me hidden and safe. I am her that holds the 7 stars in my right hand, it is written in riddles but I know the truth and am willing to explain.

    February 20, 2013 at 9:38 pm |
    • no1wonder

      Ok then start explaining

      March 10, 2013 at 3:32 am |
    • Tony

      Amazing, I would like to here from you. My book is coming out soon. So you know revelations is happening as we speak. I know the seven spirits and wormwood. I know the candle sticks and the olive mount. I will not use your information as my book is in publishing already and I do not wish to add or change it, but you can share with me your story and I will share with you mine.

      Tony

      March 17, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
  13. Shamyrah Torres

    This interpretation of the book of revelations has no truth in it.
    The author was John the apostle a CHRISTIAN. It says in chapter 1 that John was God's servant therefore he was a Christian. I pray those that read this interpretation are not deceived cause this is completely wrong. I say this with zeal for the Word of God. And love for the author. God bless all.

    February 13, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
    • Keith

      The truth and real history of Revelations scares you does it? Too bad, you can know the truth and still choose to believe in Christ. If you don't know the truth you will believe in your church, your church can not save you

      February 24, 2013 at 9:51 am |
  14. jjteresi

    This is a pretty poor explanation of the book of Revelation. Also, Revelation must not be considered in isolation, but must be read holistically and in light of the rest of the bible. The author is clearly well versed on the OT, but is also supportive of the gospel being preached by the apostles. Revelation is very consistent with the gospels and epistles. I do agree with the writer of this article that the author, Revelation is written to the first century church, but is also written for Christians at all times, and helps paint a complete picture of God, Jesus, and the coming of the new age.

    February 3, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
    • End Religion

      You mean to say it's all horseshit, right?

      February 3, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
  15. Roger

    Christianity like other ideologies cannot be interpreted by someone who knows nothing about the matter. if you are sick do you seek professional care or do you consult with the first person you see on the street. It is the same if you want to really learn something about Christianity go to the scholars not to pagel her interpretation is lame. faith and work complete each other if you have faith but you do not act on it of course you will not be saved. It is clearly stated in the letters of the apostles in the Bible . Demons themselves believe in God but they dont go to heaven because their actions are evil. Jesus himself asked for actions not faith alone. He asked his disciples to carry their crosses (burdens) and follow him(his way). He did not ask them to only believe in him and go sun tan in Galilee. Regarding the book of revelation it is full of hidden meanings and symbolism . Jesus himself taught in proverbs. Anyway in biblical terms the number 7 is a symbol of completion and 7 churches represent all the believers around the globe.Beacons of light could mean that these are major churches and centers of Christianity. A church is not made of stone it is made of the people . so this is a message sent out to all the believers around the globe. the clues in the text are hard to miss. some think that the church of Ephesus is a reference to the church of Russia which experienced false teachings for a while but rejected them , it also represents the countries directly influenced by it, Pergamus is the church of the US where all the power lies .It is the source of all anti christian beliefs which are spreading and being widely advocated (anti means against) anti christ means against Christ. The belief system currently being idolized is the one that preaches teachings completely opposite to those of Christ and the Church, Sardis is Europe where churches are empty and being turned to museums, thyatira is England, Smyrna is Jerusalem also represents the persecuted churches of the middle East where the blood of Christians is flowing in the streets, Ladokia represents the churches of the gulf who are more concerned about increasing their wealth than with the kingdom of God ,Philadelphia represents the small communities with little resources but specially consecrated to Jesus who still hold their faith . If you need more info just read the Bible dont just copy paste phrases together and pass groundless judgments based on somebody's opinion who copied it from someone who heard it from someone else. It is just stupid. this is the time of the second battle described in revelation , we already know who the false prophet is and who the beast is. The angel of revelation who roams the earth carrying out warnings to the world represents all the Marian apparitions of the last century which are consistent in their message and which continue to this day... If you want to know more about christian beliefs read the bible yourself or ask a christian scholar or someone who actually knows what they are talking about.

    February 2, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      A lot of stupid assumptions in that massive wordwall. What a weird world you inhabit.

      February 2, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • End Religion

      lol... more preposterous conspiracy theories, brought to you by your local kooks!

      February 3, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
    • Keith

      Elaine Pagles is one of the most learned writers about the scriptures there is in America. Funny, I haven't read your name in any of the books I have studied.

      February 24, 2013 at 9:53 am |
    • .

      Keith is trolling too funny. Funny Keith your name didn't come up either idiot.

      February 24, 2013 at 9:56 am |
    • Rosemary

      I just don't get why people don't get it, its right in front of them to read our lord our savor has been telling use and telling use in his words of the past and present and whats to take place.

      March 4, 2013 at 12:09 am |
  16. Kevin

    She makes a great point though that in recent months I've had to admit I realized, and one that bothers me: this John appears to not promote a "saved by faith alone in Christ alone" salvation. he clearly promotes, and through the "words of Jesus", a works-based you-still-have-to-be-good-enough-for-heaven salvation (jesus +works). Evangelical christians, doesn't this bother you?!? Even the GOOD churches were getting slammed for something! yes, the apostles in other NT books exhorted believers to grow in good works and refrain from sin, but it was from the basis of being saved ALREADY. They didn't teach works as a means of salvation (and please spare me the verse from James "faith without works is dead", which does NOT say grace + works = salvation, merely that saving faith would be EVIDENCED by good works. Reread it with that in mind, it makes a lot more sense!).

    Revelation I believe bothers many more Christians than will admit – and why not? We are, after all, threatened by the verse "he who takes away from this book, their name shall be taken from the book of Life, and whoever adds to this book shall have added the plagues written in it". Okay, so, all of the Christians who didn't respect this book in the first few centuries of church history – before the book became officially canonized – are not in the book of Life? Christ's blood ain't enough again, it seems like! It's a threat to push Christians who would read it to see it as authoritative. Special note: Jesus DID NOT state that, the WRITER did. Isn't that something Jesus. or the Angel who accompanied John, would say? But it does suggest that this writer did know he would have an audience, and apparently in the Asia Minor region.

    That's another thing though- why not a letter to Jerusalem, or Antioch, or any other place besides cities in Asia Minor? These "seven spirits" Jesus was said to have before the very Throne are special how??? That itself doesn't disprove it much, it's just kind of rather odd, one would think.

    Christians today think we're getting prepped for the AntiChrist because of Revelation, but they – well, that is, the American Christians – are not sounding like they are interested in having their bloodshed in martyrdom for Christ, but rather of shedding blood to prevent the persecution catastrophe (!!!) In that case, the philosophy of personal freedom is of more importance than the Gospel and teachings of Christ. Odd. Don't see any mention of the persecuted fighting back against the Beast (before Christ's return, I mean). Which is just as well, followers of Christ were asked to surrender to such a fate without violence, in the rest of the New Testament. So, at least in regards to the behavior of Christians being martyred during the Tribulation, this "john" is consistent with the rest of the NT.

    Without the book of Revelation, the Christian Church's foundational doctrines can STILL survive. Apocalyptic end-time teachings and Christ's return are all mentioned throughout the OT and NT. God putting things right? Still mentioned in the rest of the Bible. Removing it from the canon might be a shock, but if the message of Revelation is that we are saved only because of righteous service deemed "satisfactory" by God himself – who of course won't tell us until after we die, then, if we sucked and get hell-fire – if that's the message, and the church insists on declaring it God-breathed infallible Scripture, then, as any atheist is screaming anyway, the Church has practically contradicted itself out of existence by way of it's own conflicting foundational doctrine – the Gospel of a free gift of Salvation. If a Christian doesn't really believe its that free, they will show it by not really feeling the joy they'll claim exists to everyone they witness to. Of course, condemning me for questioning the authenticity of Revelation is a good way for them to "even out the scales" in God's eyes, as a means of dissuading judgment from God for their own imperfections, who, as I recall, Jesus is said to have forgiven once and for all, "as far as the east is from the west".

    January 30, 2013 at 4:10 am |
  17. Chk

    Look at all the children here clinging to their crazy fairy tales. When someone tells them the truth about the crap they believe, they go NAH NAH NAH I CAN'T HEAR YOU (like the posters below me).

    January 26, 2013 at 1:41 am |
  18. Nirine

    I think Pagel knows nothing about christianity or the Book of revelation . She is just trying to make cheap profit.
    Actually it is astonishing when you read the book of revelation carefully you will understand that it is describing our own time including the sensational descritption of the false prophet and the beast and the unholy alliance that is going to form between them.The book of revelation describes the persecution of the church and how it is enemies are going to gain power for a limited time.Nowadays people are worshiping the beast wether knowingly or unknowingly.They bow before its image both old and young. Their actions are evil and their thoughts are evil. They golrify murder,abortion, adultary ..and all the other evils and vices that were subdued for a while but are back again with full force...At the present time we have reached the final chapters of the book of revelation which is by the way about new beginnings...Pagel's interpretation is misleading and not worth the money.

    January 19, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
    • rascus48

      Totally agree with you.....Pagel knows nothing about what shes talking. My opinion is that she is all about Gnosticism....she speaks way to much of the Apocrypha....just to say that John was not a Christian....she is way off the mark!!

      February 2, 2013 at 9:21 pm |
    • smokey

      I couldn't agree more. It clearly states in the bible that eventually the church age will end, the word being preached in the churches will no longer be the word of god, there will be no sign of god, only evil will be evident. That is the world as we know it, that time is now. People think they can commit whatever act or engage in any sin and as long as they go to church it's ok. I don't understand how people laugh about the existance of god but yet a LARGE percentage of the world beleives we evolved from a monkey or were put here by Aliens. Really? Aliens? Here's a question for ANY scientist in the world, if we evolved from apes then why has no other living species evolved into something different? I don't see bears evolving into sasquatches, or fish evolving into mermaids. And somehow it's more believable that E.T will land in the backyard than it is that someday God will appear in the sky, lol.The sad thing is that most people get their knowledge from internet articles like this one. Most people will argue all day long about religeon based on what they read on Wikipedia, when in reality they have never read page 1 of the bible.

      p.s- I know im like a month late to reply to this article but I just read it today, lol.

      February 25, 2013 at 10:53 am |
    • Duh

      The percentages of people belonging to Christianity hasn't changed for centuries, it's has stayed at about 33%. So the sky isn't falling and your revelations is wrong. LOL!

      February 25, 2013 at 10:55 am |
  19. pastordan smith

    The book of revalations is the judgement of God on this earth for those who refuse to repent and believe on Jesus Christ the only begotten son of God,

    January 15, 2013 at 8:32 pm |
    • Keith

      No it is not.

      February 24, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • Rosemary

      Yes it is

      March 4, 2013 at 12:24 am |
  20. Michael

    “The book is the hardest one in the Bible to understand,” Pagels says. “I don’t think anyone completely understands it.”

    LEAST OF ALL YOU, ELAINE!!!

    January 11, 2013 at 6:14 am |
    • rascus48

      I have to second that one! A total uknowledgeable person about the Book of Revelation!!

      February 2, 2013 at 9:24 pm |
    • muddy

      Right, Because clearly someone who has spent the better part of 50 years actually reading and studying Christianity in and out of the bible knows way less then you do!!

      April 5, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
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