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My Take: The danger of calling behavior ‘biblical’
The author argues that there are many meanings of the adjective 'biblical.'
November 17th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Take: The danger of calling behavior ‘biblical’

Editor's Note: Rachel Held Evans is a popular blogger from Dayton, Tennessee, and author of “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.”

By Rachel Held Evans, Special to CNN

On "The Daily Show" recently, Jon Stewart grilled Mike Huckabee about a TV ad in which Huckabee urged voters to support “biblical values” at the voting box.

When Huckabee said that he supported the “biblical model of marriage,” Stewart shot back that “the biblical model of marriage is polygamy.”

And there’s a big problem, Stewart went on, with reducing “biblical values” to one or two social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, while ignoring issues such as poverty and immigration reform.

It may come as some surprise that as an evangelical Christian, I cheered Stewart on from my living room couch.

As someone who loves the Bible and believes it to be the inspired word of God, I hate seeing it reduced to an adjective like Huckabee did. I hate seeing my sacred text flattened out, edited down and used as a prop to support a select few political positions and platforms.

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And yet evangelicals have grown so accustomed to talking about the Bible this way that we hardly realize we’re doing it anymore. We talk about “biblical families,” “biblical marriage,” “biblical economics,” “biblical politics,” “biblical values,” “biblical stewardship,” “biblical voting,” “biblical manhood,” “biblical womanhood,” even “biblical dating” to create the impression that the Bible has just one thing to say on each of these topics - that it offers a single prescriptive formula for how people of faith ought to respond to them.

But the Bible is not a position paper. The Bible is an ancient collection of letters, laws, poetry, proverbs, histories, prophecies, philosophy and stories spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own.

When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word, we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t quite fit our preferences and presuppositions. In an attempt to simplify, we force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone and turn a complicated, beautiful, and diverse holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.

Nowhere is this more evident than in conversations surrounding “biblical womanhood.”

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Growing up in the Bible Belt, I received a lot of mixed messages about the appropriate roles of women in the home, the church and society, each punctuated with the claim that this or that lifestyle represented true “biblical womanhood.”

In my faith community, popular women pastors such as Joyce Meyer were considered unbiblical for preaching from the pulpit in violation of the apostle Paul's restriction in 1 Timothy 2:12 ("I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent"), while Amish women were considered legalistic for covering their heads in compliance with his instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:5 ("Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head").

Pastors told wives to submit to their husbands as the apostle Peter instructed in 1 Peter 3:1, but rarely told them to avoid wearing nice jewelry as the apostle instructs them just one sentence later in 1 Peter 3:3. Despite the fact that being single was praised by both Jesus and Paul, I learned early on that marriage and motherhood were my highest callings, and that Proverbs 31 required I keep a home as tidy as June Cleaver's.

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This didn’t really trouble me until adulthood, when I found myself in a childless egalitarian marriage with a blossoming career and an interest in church leadership and biblical studies. As I wrestled with what it meant to be a woman of faith, I realized that, despite insistent claims that we don’t “pick and choose” from the Bible, any claim to a “biblical” lifestyle requires some serious selectivity.

After all, technically speaking, it is “biblical” for a woman to be sold by her father to pay off debt, “biblical” for a woman to be required to marry her rapist, “biblical” for her to be one of many wives.

So why are some Bible passages lifted out and declared “biblical,” while others are explained away or simply ignored? Does the Bible really present a single prescriptive lifestyle for all women?

These were the questions that inspired me to take a page from A.J. Jacobs, author of "The Year of Living Biblically", and try true biblical womanhood on for size—literally, no “picking and choosing."

This meant, among other things, growing out my hair, making my own clothes, covering my head whenever I prayed, abstaining from gossip, remaining silent in church (unless I was “prophesying,” of course), calling my husband "master,” even camping out in my front yard during my period to observe the Levitical purity laws that rendered me unclean.

During my yearlong experiment, I interviewed a variety of women practicing biblical womanhood in different ways — an Orthodox Jew, an Amish housewife, even a polygamist family - and I combed through every commentary I could find, reexamining the stories of biblical women such as Deborah, Ruth, Hagar, Tamar, Mary Magdalene, Priscilla and Junia.

My goal was to playfully challenge this idea that the Bible prescribes a single lifestyle for how to be a woman of faith, and in so doing, playfully challenge our overuse of the term “biblical.” I did this not out of disdain for Scripture, but out of love for it, out of respect for the fact that interpreting and applying the Bible is a messy, imperfect and - at times - frustrating process that requires humility and grace as we wrestle the text together.

The fact of the matter is, we all pick and choose. We’re all selective in our interpretation and application of the biblical text. The better question to ask one another is why we pick and choose the way that we do, why we emphasis some passages and not others. This, I believe, will elevate the conversation so that we’re using the Bible, not as a blunt weapon, but as a starting point for dialogue.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rachel Held Evans.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Christianity • Opinion

soundoff (4,657 Responses)
  1. Christian7

    The Bible is the inspired word of God. God was not in the cultures of the past. The Bible represents God's current high standards then, today, and tomorrow. Rather than saying how evil you think it is that someone would stone someone for adultery, consider for a moment how bad that an knowing God thinks adultery is if He commanded in the old testament law to stone and adulterer to death. Accepting Jesus, does not give you the right to go out and knowingly commit a sin. Accept Jesus and do your best effort to live righteous and holy lives. We do not understand the full extent and destructiveness of our sin. God does understand this. Fear God's holy justice.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • a dose of reality

      The buybull is a book written by bronze age tribesman ....and you are so afraid of death that you believe it. grow up

      November 18, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • truth be told

      Ignorance and misused words might work for a bully but present no legitimate argument. To resort to the response posted is more testimony against the position said bully is trying to imply.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • a dose of reality

      Truth be told.....That makes no sense......just like religion

      November 18, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • truth be told

      To a fool all sense is unable to be understood. It is no wonder you can't understand.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • == o ==

      "Ignorance and misused words might work for a bully but present no legitimate argument. To resort to the response posted is more testimony against the position said bully is trying to imply."

      LOL. Only the disgruntled ex Evangelical Fortune Cookie Co. "writer" could come up with something like that.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • linguist

      Stone Petraeus; stone Broadwell.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • a dose of reality

      Truth be told....me thinks you are delusional. No point in carrying on a discusion with a delusional person. Stay home and pray to the sky fairy. It's certainly better than you roaming the streets.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • Christian7

      "If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell." Matthew 5:22

      November 18, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • GetRealBeLearnSpiritualTruth

      Christian7, good post but a waste of time for these lust puppies.

      November 18, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Boi-oi-oi-oing

      @@@@@ GetRealBeLearnSpiritualTruth @@@@@

      Well, she's finally completely snapped, friends. We all knew it was coming, though...

      November 18, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  2. nycjw

    I stopped reading this article here: It may come as some surprise that as an evangelical Christian,

    November 18, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  3. us_1776

    .
    The Sky Fairy does not exist.

    Get over it.

    .

    November 18, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • truth be told

      Ignorance and abuse is not a valid argument but appears to be all you have.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • a dose of reality

      Yea, religion ceretainly is not ignorance and abuse.....well, actually it's one of the best examples of ignorance and abuse on the planet

      November 18, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • truth be told

      Glad you represent the other side your ignorance is too obvious to everyone. You lose.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • == o ==

      "Ignorance and abuse is not a valid argument but appears to be all you have."

      LOL. The disgruntled ex Evangelical Fortune Cookie Co. "writer" strikes again.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • GetRealBeLearnSpiritualTruth

      us_1776, I hope you realize that more mature people than you are shaking their head with disappointment. Then again, we know some people mature at different rates. I hope that is some hope you strive for.

      November 18, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  4. REDFIREBALL

    Satan has blinded the eyes of the non-believers - the Bible is a compilation of fairy tales and myths, so says your evil god. Satan caused Job to suffer temporarily also. Satan charged that Job was faithful to jehovah because of all his earthly blessings and possessions. Job was very rich and enjoy material wealth that would make Buffett and Trump jealous today. Jehovah allowed Satan to do whatever he wanted to Job EXCEPT take away his soul (meaning kill him). atan reduced Job to pitiful rubble - sack cloth and ashes. Everything taken away. Yes, Satan had a field day but lost in the end. Jehovah restored all that Job lost 10 fold for passing the test of righteousness. Think about it.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Tridentine

      We all realize that minorities have historically been treated wrongly in America.The smug white folks that champion gay marriage always talk about gay rights as something of a civil rights issue.If that were the case wouldnt the minorities who have been treated so wrongly be leading the parade for gay marriage.Yet you dont see them.This looks to me like the last vestige of the do-gooder white smug,Prius driving urbanites that want to be politically correct.No matter how wrong it is they have to prove to somebody they are fighting to save humanity.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Dan

      Do you think it is possible that, in the course of Satan disguising himself as God, some of those lies were never identified and made their way into the Bible as the word of God? After all, how can we verify that this God actually forced the hand of a human being to write such books? Even if the supernatural does exist, we know absolutely nothing about it. Heck, 2,000 years later, we're still being duped by mediums and psychics.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  5. David

    A very thoughtful article, thank you for writing it. I hope that more people will see it and will question their use of the Bible and their beliefs in modern-day affairs.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  6. Emo Philips

    When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn't work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Dan

      Nice.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  7. Amy

    Ms. Evans, Thank you so much. I appreciate the light that you shed on this topic. I think that your mission to explore putting practices from the Bible into literal practice is fascinating. I also think that your experiment challenges anyone who claims to be a committed Christian to read and understand the Bible in its entirety. Only then can people speak and write (and comment, ahem) from an informed position about their faith.
    I read in a very wise book that the opposite of faith isn't doubt: the opposite of faith is absolute certainty. I believe that your book is truly an experiment in faith, challenging the absolute certainty with which we sometimes believe what we know about our religion.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  8. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    November 18, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • Raoul Duke, Jr.

      When I see an amputee regrow a limb after praying and being prayed for, I will be the first person to say Hallelujah. Until then, just shut up.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Colin G

      This is to Raoul – exercise a bit of humility and you may just very well see those miracles that you are scoffing at.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Dan

      Not sure how this is relevant to the article, I didn't see anything about Atheism. But anyways, praying hasn't solved the problem of The Bible being interpreted tens of thousands of different ways. And when Christians ignore the problem, it does nothing for its hypocritical reputation. I applaud Rachel Evans for addressing the shortcomings and attempting to open a dialog instead of pretending these problems don't exist within Christianity.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  9. Darrell

    That is one of the many things I love most about Christians–they pick and choose the tiny portions of "God'a Eternal Law" they follow, and expect us to follow the exact same portions that they themselves have deemed important enough to follow. Well, not all of the time–they do make mistakes here and there, but they get forgiven of those. We, however, go straight to Hell. But they, as long as they repent of the portions of the Bible they have opted into, get Eternal Bliss.

    As for the portions they decide not to follow–they say stuff like, "That was the OLD Testament–it no longer applies!" or "It doesn't really mean that." Hey, I got news for all of you–it is ALL "old testament" and NONE of it applies. It was all just made up rules and myths to help mold a tribe of people under a single operational system. So, until you put your children to death for talking back to you, or men you refuse to sit in a chair your wife or daughter has sat in while it is, "that time of the month", or any of the several hundred other downright stupid rules dropped into the Bible,don't expect us to take any of your rules any more seriously than the ones you ignore.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • Colin G

      What you fail to realize is that you are the product of a Christian society, complete with rules and regulations (though, admittedly, with your new president, one is beginning to wonder about the fate of America), that allows you to freely express your opinions (wrong though they may be – speaking tongue in cheek ... kinda :-). Study a bit of history. Christianity is the only religion with a complete and sound set of rules that allow for the blossoming of a free and healthy society.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Dan

      Colin G. Societies have, time and time again, demonstrated sound laws without Biblical intervention. And even if there is some truth to what you're saying, in my opinion, the laws weren't established by a God. Instead, they were established by man who sought to inject a vengeful God in order to augment the inadequacies of leadership. Seems like you're cherry-picking history.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • Tim

      Colin,
      I think you need to study history a little more as well. Christianity is not as pure as you want to make it out to see. You seem to forget others were killed and robbed in the name of Christianity (Native Americans were considered heathens but who turned out to be the real heathens). Man is flawed. And if you look at ALL religions they are believe in one thing- a higher being. They differ on the messengers but not the one at the top.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • Colin G

      To Tim – I agree with you that man is flawed and that there have been abuses in the past in Christianity. However, my point was about the laws and tenets of Christianity – there is no other religion that sought to liberate man from his own flaws and follies as complete as Christianity. However, unfortunately, abuses will always be there once humans are present in any enterprise.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Darrell

      Last time I checked, the only tolerance Christianity had for Free Speech was to have a big ol' bonfire and burn the heretics who utilized it.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
  10. JBullets

    If you want to live a Biblical life, move to Afghanistan. That's a lot closer to the Bible than any society you'll find in the west.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  11. Tony

    I read some of these comments from the militant, wacko evangelical Christians and have to laugh. People, we are in the 21st century! There are no gods. There is no more validity or proof of your "God" than of Zeus and Poseidon that the ancient Greeks believed in. At least the author is trying to use some common sense and think outside the box. That's a lot more than I can say of some of you who post here.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  12. JanetMermaid

    The bible is the worst thing that ever happened to women. And men too for that matter.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  13. Dan

    Neither abortion nor gay marriage are issues which involve religion. There's no biblical context for discussing them. Christians should certainly oppose abortion because it involves killing, but by itself it is not an issue which is raised in the Bible. Marriage is mentioned in the Bible in the context of the nations which existed back then, but in the modern world marriage is a legal contract and is completely secular in nature. It's not possible to oppose gay marriage on religious grounds because it's not a religious ceremony in this country.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • Dwight

      I will have to disagree with you on gay marriage not being Biblical. The things that those who know little about the Bible say about religion is often a regurgitated mess they heard some where else or something from a philosophy class. Often the text is perverted and cherry picked by those who do not have the faith as much as it is by the uneducated Christian. The Bible clearly puts one man and one woman together in the beginning and throughout the Bible when more spouses (polygamy) are introduced you will see a fall every time. The Bible shows that the addition of another spouse generally leads to complicated families and a turning away from God.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Shee

      Amen, Dan. I totally agree with you.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  14. cynthiabeachy

    I agree with this article in that we can't "pick and choose" what is "Biblical" and what is not. Where Ms. Evans falls short is in putting the Old Testament on par with the New. Jesus has called us to uphold His teachings as presented in the New Testament. Following these will make one radically stand out in today's "liberated" culture but will in the end bring the ultimate liberty and peace.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  15. Colin G

    What this author fails to realize is that the New Testament fulfils the Old Testament and supercedes it. A lot of her biblical references come from the Old Testament (polygamy, etc). Christ, however, proposes a "new" law that by far outweighs the customs and laws of the old, which, as Jesus himself explained, were so because of their "hardness of heart". Which leaves me wondering – is she a Christian or not?

    November 18, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • Dan

      You're missing the point of the article. You just demonstrated the problem. If I had a nickel for ever time I heard, "They're not real Christians." I've heard others say you're not a real Christian unless you accept the entire Old and New Testament as the literal word of God. And it seems as people who claim that the New Testament supersedes the Old Testament still cherry-pick what they keep and discard from the Old Testament. Taking the position of "They're not real Christians" dismisses the argument and does nothing to unite you Christians.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • drpantsovmd

      Then I don't need to follow the 10 commandments, do I, since Jesus law supersedes Old Testament law? Sweeet.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Jeff

      "Is she a Chrsitain or not?" Excellent use of religion...form an exclusive membership and then cast doubt on the qualifications of others to be members.

      First, it's far from clear that Jesus specifically denounced the old testament. This statement is just a convenient way for "Chrsitians" to distance themselves from the horrible instructions contained in that collection of fables....a collection, btw, that was mostly assembled well after Jesus supposedly existed. But even if Jesus had proclaimed a new set of rules that specially denounced items in the old testament, does this mean that God was fallible, that he suddlenly changed his mind? Why not just get it right the first time, especially if he is an omnipotent being? Do you see how silly the construct of an Abrahamic God is upon even the slightest intelligent reflection?

      A God may well exist - a certainly cannot prove that s/he does not - but it is utter arrogance to attribute these ridiculous rules to a God that we know darn well has no basis in proof.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Colin G

      By superseding the Old Testament I don't mean replacing the Old Testament 10 commandments, but the traditions and customs (such as polygamy, divorce etc.) Our Lord himself said he didn't come to replace the law but to fulfil it.

      By questioning whether she is Christian or not I don't mean to personally attack her but to question her belief and knowledge of certain basic tenets of Christianity.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  16. Devon Westhill

    "The fact of the matter is, we all pick and choose. We’re all selective in our interpretation and application of the biblical text. The better question to ask one another is why we pick and choose the way that we do, why we emphasis [sic] some passages and not others."

    STOP arguing and just think about it.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  17. Scott

    The problem is that you DID pick and choose which passages to ignore. You chose to ignore the fact that Acts 15 taught that non-Jews who converted to Christianity shouldn't worry about following the Old Testament and all of the restrictions therein. You chose to ignore Colossians 2 where it says quite similarly that the "certificate of debt" that is the Old Law was canceled out when it was "nailed to the cross" and that Christians are not to be judged based on adherence to the Old Testament. Of course, you may have overlooked these passages out of ignorance – many do. That's easily correctable. Many folks ignorantly teach/assume that the entirety of the Bible is fully binding on Christians today. In actuality, Paul explains that the Old Testament is a "tutor" to help us understand, but he and others clearly teach it is not binding (some of its regulations and all of its concepts are re-stated in the New Testament and are therefore still binding – not because the Old Law is still valid, but because they are specifically included in the new Law).

    The problem is that when folks who haven't studied the Bible make broad, sweeping statements like yours about what it is or isn't to "live Biblically" you confuse other folks who haven't studied seriously. You make the comment about Amish and head coverings in 1 Co 11:5 but then ignore the fact that in 1 Co 11:15 Paul further explains that a woman's hair is given to her to serve that very purpose. You make the snide comment about women keeping silent but ignore the fact that the very verse you quoted specifically addresses women who were teaching or exercising authority, not meaning absolute silence.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • John

      The Bible says that All scripture is profitable for doctrine. The fact that you draw such a solid line between the old and new testament shows your ignorance. The fact is, as originally written, there was no distinction or even mention of the old or new testament.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Dan

      Wow, you just showed your ar$e in that last sentence. It doesn't tell women to be completely silent, just forbids them from educating others and imposing authority? Nothing more to be said.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • Scott

      @John, yes, profitable for doctrine, which means teaching. Didn't I say Paul called it a tutor? As for there not being a solid line when it was written, Paul stated that there was, the apostles stated there was in Acts 15, and Jesus said He was here to "fulfill" the law (same verb for fulfilling a contract).

      @Dan – I pointed out what the Bible says and was contrasting it to the author's claim tht it teaches absolute silence in church. Nice attempt to create a straw man, though. Women, in the context of the church, are not permitted (according to the Bible) to teach or have authority over a man. Paul makes this statement and says that it has been this way since the dawn of time. If you believe the Bible to be authoritative/true, this is a clear teaching.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  18. Joe Roszin

    Sharing the same binder, the Christian Bible is divided into two books, the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT). These two major books are then subdivided into smaller portions or books, 66 in all and present a very different meaning to its readers.
    In a nut shell:
    The OT established a beginning, then a foundation of rituals and rules that were very cultural and related directly to God’s chosen people. That nation was directed and judged as a whole.
    The NT presents Jesus Christ, and the relationship with the creator changed. The Gospels reveal Jesus who came calling God his Father, revealing a personal choice and relationship with God. The other authors of the NT writings continue with the theme of heartfelt desire instead of rule book definition. Believers were to desire holiness and change that was to come from within, relationship was to replace superficial religion.
    Now, it is God’s Holy Spirit that begins a new life within a repentant heart. A not yet a perfect life as free will is never removed and choices play out, inspiring change. Believers describe this as the ‘Born Again” experience and it is described in the NT gospel of John in chapter three.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  19. Tom

    The very last line states "This, I believe, will elevate the conversation so that we’re using the Bible, not as a blunt weapon, but as a starting point for dialogue." To your point the Pharisee's did this and look what it got them. If you are looking for a "majority" agreement on the discussion you will always lose. However Rachel kudos for trying to apply and practically learn what is being taught, no matter how off some may think it is. Its time to stop talking and start doing. Oh yeah, John Stewart's assessment of the Old Testament is a slap in the face of his own heritage, I am sure there are many Jews out there that would take issue with that. Or is it because he "claims" to be a Jew we are supposed to allow him to be the authority on the matter. Why are you quoting talk show hosts on something this powerful? No Rabbi's or Pastors but talk show hosts....?.?.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  20. REDFIREBALL

    To those who believe in multi-religious tolerance - there is only One "true" God, and only One "true" Christ - Do not be misled - Jehovah God is not One to be mocked. Man can decieve other men, but Jehovah and Jesus Christ saw everything about Benghazi - they know who is guilty and deserve to be punished. Congress and the Media will be well-guided. Satan's little playthings should just go back to there snake pits. Watch Jehovah's justice, through hands of "righteous" men, about to be executed.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini, D.D. (h.c.) ©™

      Did you mean, "their snake pits?"

      November 18, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • REDFIREBALL

      In celebration of my human imperfection, yes I meant "their" 🙂

      November 18, 2012 at 8:46 am |
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