Tag Archives: religion

Mimetic, Mythic, and Theoretic Religion

Robert Bellah has an interesting and eminently useful way of classifying religions, adapted from Merlin Donald’s description of the evolution of culture. Donald classifies cultures into three stages: mimetic, mythic, and theoretic.

In a mimetic culture, which could possibly go back as far as 2 million years ago, members of the genus Homo acted out events with their bodies; that is, communication was predominantly gestural. However, these cultures were by no means silent, and they likely involved music and even simple, pre-linguistic utterances. Not surprisingly, music, dance, and ritual behavior are also the most basic forms of religious practice. So, religious physical enaction and ritual can be called mimetic religion.

Speech developed later than gestural communication — 250,000-100,000 years ago, as opposed to 2 million years ago. With speech came complex narratives, which, in some forms, were cultural and religious myths; hence, mythic culture. In the religious sphere, these complex narratives are religious myths, and they serve to augment — not replace — ritual practice. Myths allow ritual to enact more complex subjects than were previously possible. So, ritual religious enaction accompanied by a complex narrative can be called mythic religion.

Finally, in the 1st millennium BCE, theoretic cultures emerged. They subject the old controlling narratives to rational scrutiny, changing them into new forms, reorganizing them, and/or replacing them. These cultures argued in favor of ethical and spiritual universalism, rather than tribal parochialism. Their religions followed suit, calling the old myths and rituals into questions and changing them into, or replacing them with, something more acceptable. These religions did not abandon ritual or myth altogether, though; instead, they created new rituals and myths, based on their scrutiny of the old forms. These religions can be called theoretic religions.

I find this framework both concise and fair, and I think it’s worth adopting, as a way to study diverse religions without casting value judgments on them.


Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 2011), xviii-xix.

Merlin Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991).

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Religion and Madness

From a discussion at Religion Bulletin regarding the impending execution of John Errol Ferguson, a schizophrenic man with delusions of being “the anointed Prince of God,” who killed somewhere between 8 and 12 people in 1977 and 1978. These posts bring up some really good questions, ones that are worth thinking about: What is religion? What is madness? Where is the line between a religious belief and a paranoid delusion?

The question of whether Ferguson is mentally competent to execute appears to be hopelessly entangled with the theological claims of his delusion. If he believes he will ascend to sit at the right hand of God before the state can execute him, then he does not meet the standard outlined in Provenzano v. State. On the other hand, if he believes that, like Jesus, he will be executed, resurrected, and then ascend into heaven, he may be competent to execute under Florida law. In the later scenario, Ferguson does understand that he will be physically dead, if only temporarily. In contemplating this problem, it should be noted that Ferguson’s delusion does not have the consistency of a religious creed but rather shifts over time. …

All of this discourse assumes an “either/or logic” in which a religious worldview cannot be insanity and visa-versa. Dr. Tonia Werner, one of the psychiatrists who examined Ferguson, explained that he had a “hyper-religious” belief. The prefix “hyper” appears to be an attempt to make a categorical distinction between Ferguson’s delusions and mainstream religious views. Of course, religion scholars have long argued that “religion” is a second-order category that is always imposed on the beliefs of others from the outside. For this reason, the distinction between religious truth claims and mental delusions cannot be taken for granted. Furthermore, the sociology of knowledge teaches us that the distinction between madness and religion is often socially constructed. …

In The Principals of Psychology, William James argued that the supernatural claims of religion and the claims of “sheer madness” both represented alternative worlds separate from our shared world of “practical realities.” However, our legal system requires that these subjective worldviews––however we classify them––do have consequences in our everyday word of practical reality. The case of John Errol Ferguson demonstrates the need to think more critically about categories such as religion and madness. These categories are not given but socially constructed. They are so fluid precisely because they deal with beliefs and experiences that exist outside of our shared reality. When those in authority apply inconsistent or self-serving criteria to define these categories it becomes a particularly insidious form of hegemony.

The Curious Case of John Errol Ferguson: Part 1
The Curious Case of John Errol Ferguson, Part 2

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The Three Jesuses

I know I’m nearly two weeks behind, but I’d like to point out Andrew Perriman’s post, in response to a post by Scot McKnight, about the differences between three understandings of Jesus: the historical-critical Jesus, the historical-canonical Jesus, and the creedal-theological Jesus. Here’s a bit from Andrew’s post:

On the whole, it seems to me that there is an account of the “real” Jesus emerging from historical Jesus studies that is not so far from the historical-canonical Jesus, if we read the canonical texts without the later creedal and theological overlay. I think that the Jewish apocalyptic Jesus who proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God in the near future is the historical-canonical Jesus. Critical scholars and historical-canonical interpreters may not see eye to eye over the question of whether the miracles and the resurrection actually happened, but there is no reason in principle why we should not agree about their significance within the narrative. …

The problem for the church, however, is that the convergence between the historical-critical Jesus and the historical-canonical Jesus has caused a corresponding divergence between the historical-canonical Jesus and the creedal or theological, exacerbated by conservative, Reformed reactions against history. This is where I see the more fundamental incompatibility. It will take some time for the church to wean itself off its dependency on abstracted theology and learn to trust the story again.

“Scot McKnight on the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the church” | p.ost

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“It would seem that the Lord God is gently nudging man toward taking the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.” (Gen 3)

One of the textbooks for my “Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” class has this quote on the moral of the Garden story in Genesis 3. It’s long, but it’s good, and I thought it was worth sharing.


Who or what is responsible for man’s expulsion from Eden? In order for man and woman to be responsible for their behavior they would have to be free both to abstain from eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and to understand the consequences of eating from it. Man surely was not without all knowledge before he partook of the Tree of the Knowledge. He knew enough, for instance, to name the beasts which the Lord God paraded before him. He certainly knew that the woman was “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.” But did the man (and woman) understand what was entailed in taking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? The logic of the story dictates that man and woman both had a choice and understood the consequences of their choice. The Lord God holds them responsible and presumably He was in a position to know whether and to what extent the first human couple was responsible. And Adam and Eve do not deny responsibility so much as they indicate that the Lord God Himself wanted them to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

If one looks at some of the details provided by the narrator it seems that man and woman make a valid point. Consider the following:

  • The Lord God placed the Tree of Knowledge in the middle of the garden and within man’s reach;
  • the Tree of Knowledge “. . . was good for eating and a delight to the eyes . . . and the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom.”;
  • moreover, it is the Lord God who decides that it is not good for man to be alone, and who extracts the woman from the man. It is, of course, the woman whom the snake approaches. And the snake’s shrewdness is traced by the narrator to God. [Gen 3:1: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.”]

It would seem that the Lord God is gently nudging man toward taking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. However that may be, one should not refer simply to what happens to man and woman as a result of their acquisition of the Tree of Knowledge as a “fall.” For according to the Lord God (Who, be it noted, thereby corroborates part of what the serpent had told Eve), man has become in some sense divine by virtue of having eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. This godlike capacity, as we have seen, will enable man to create his destiny outside of Eden.

We can conclude that the first man and first woman, with a little help from God, found the lack of meaningful choices in Eden unendurable. Adam and Eve willingly chose the dynamism of life outside of Eden even though that choice carried with it not only the ability to create but also pain, suffering, and death.

[Jay A Holstein, The Jewish Experience (4th ed.; Boston: Pearson Custom, 2002),  88-90.]


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An Apology

From of old faith has not been every man’s affair. At all times but few have discerned religion itself, while millions, in various ways, have been satisfied to juggle with its trappings. Now especially the life of cultivated people is far from anything that might have even a resemblance to religion. Just as little, I know, do you worship the Deity in sacred retirement, as you visit the forsaken temples. In your ornamented dwellings, the only sacred things to be met with are the sage maxims of our wise men, and the splendid compositions of our poets. Suavity and sociability, art and science have so fully taken possession of your minds, that no room remains for the eternal and holy Being that lies beyond the world. . . .

You must transport yourselves into the interior of a pious soul and seek to understand its inspiration. In the very act, you must understand the production of light and heat in a soul surrendered to the Universe. Otherwise you learn nothing of religion, and it goes with you as with one who should too late bring fuel to the fire which the steel has struck from the flint, who finds only a cold, insignificant speck of coarse metal with which he can kindle nothing any more.

[Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 1, 18.]

I have an apology to make. Over the past several months, for various reasons, I have allowed myself to become, to borrow Schleiermacher’s words, one of religion’s “cultured despisers.” More specifically, I’ve let myself lapse into anger against evangelicalism, allowing my own crisis of faith to color my vision of too many genuine believers. For that, I am deeply sorry.

I am no longer an evangelical; however, I am still a Christian — and that means that, though I no longer camp under evangelicalism’s broad tent, evangelicals are still my brothers and sisters in Christ. I’ve forgotten the mutual love and humility I so recently called for, and have allowed myself to speak arrogantly against my fellow Christians. For this, as well, I am deeply sorry.

From now on, I will be limiting myself mostly to academic posts on this blog for the foreseeable future — a public forum isn’t the place to hash out personal struggles, especially when those struggles cause you to act angrily toward those who don’t deserve it. If I ever should find reason to write about evangelicals in any sort of way, I will work to make sure my tone is even and fair, the same way I would when talking about Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or any other Christians to whose denomination I don’t belong.

Again, to anyone I have belittled, I am deeply sorry. I will try my hardest not to enter that territory again, and I hope you can forgive me.

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A Definition of Progressive Christianity

James McGrath posted an image from progressivechristianity.org the other day that gives a definition of what it means to be a Progressive Christian.

Now, it’s not everyone’s definition of “progressive Christianity,” as the comments on Dr. McGrath’s post show. But, I think it’s a good starting place. Progressive Christianity is about following Jesus’ ethical teachings and trying to live justly and generously with everyone else.

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“The chronic mystic actually despises mystery.”

The chronic mystic actually despises mystery. He wants inner slogans to deal with his frights, fears and everyday narcissism. He refuses to acknowledge that the origins of the universe and the purposes of the universe are genuine mysteries. They are not only unknown, they are unknowable. They aren’t mysteries to be solved, as one solves a crossword puzzle, the mysterious theft of one’s ring, or the question of whether water exists in other galaxies. They are unsolvable mysteries; and this he can’t tolerate.

Occult, spiritual, religious and other mystical worldviews that claim to honor mystery actually fear and despise mystery, whereas a naturalistic worldview honors mystery. It lets mystery be mysterious, not transparent, simple, or obvious. It never says, “It’s all a great mystery but really it isn’t. Here’s the answer in a DVD.” It never anthropomorphizes the universe and says, “The universe wants this” or “The universe demands that.” When it calls a mystery unsolvable, it means it.

“Dignity, Mystery, and Natural Psychology: Is human dignity possible in an indifferent universe?” | Rethinking Psychology

Does a non-naturalistic religion or worldview really despise mystery? Or does it just treat mystery in a different way from what this author would prefer?

Very interesting to think about.

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Morton Smith, “II Isaiah and the Persians”

I recently read Morton Smith’s article “II Isaiah and the Persians,” which is quite enlightening for the study of Deutero-Isaiah. Smith argues that Deutero-Isaiah (specifically, Isaiah 40-48) is strongly influenced by Persian thought and, especially, Cyrus’ propaganda against Babylon.

Go check it out. You can find it in Journal of the American Oriental Society 83 (1963), 415-421, and Shaye J. D. Cohen, ed., The Cult of Yahweh, vol. 1 (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 73-83.

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Isaiah 40:3-8: MT, LXX, Gospels

Continuing in my text criticism/analysis of Deutero-Isaiah, here’s Isaiah 40:3-8. Like before, I’m using the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text as the bases for my criticism and analysis. English translations are my own.

3 A voice shouting in the wilderness:
“Ready the Lord’s road,
Make straight our God’s paths.
4 Every valley will be filled,
And every mountain and hill will be brought low,
And everything crooked will be made straight,
And the rugged will be made into a plain.
5 And the Lord’s glory will be seen,
And all flesh will see God’s salvation,
Because the Lord has spoken.”

6 The voice of one speaking: “Shout!”
And I said, “What should I shout?”
“All flesh is grass,
And all a man’s glory is like a flower of grass.
7 The grass is dried up, and the flower falls,
8 But our God’s word remains forever.

3 A voice calling out in the wilderness:
“Clear out YHWH’s road,
Smooth out highways in the desert for our God.
4 Every valley will be lifted up,
And every mountain and hill will be brought low,
And the crooked will be made into a level place,
And the rugged places will be made into a plain.
5 And YHWH’s glory will be uncovered,
And all flesh will see together
That YHWH’s mouth has spoken.

6 A voice saying, “Call out!”
And he says, “What should I call out?
All flesh is grass,
And all his faithfulness is like a flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because YHWH’s breath blows on it;
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God will stand forever.”

Verse-by-Verse Analysis

Verse 3:
In the desert Because the LXX has the shorter reading of this verse, it is to be preferred over the MT’s reading. The MT’s “in the desert” is probably an addition to the text, to make it clear where YHWH’s highways are.

Verse 4:
Overall, this verse is promising that, when YHWH returns Judah to their land, he will make it suitable for agriculture. In filling in the valleys, leveling the hills, and removing the stones from the rugged places, he will remove the impediments to farming that plague the Judean countryside.

Will be brought low The LXX’s “will be brought low” (tapeinothesetai) means, literally, “will be humiliated.” It is strange to use the word in the sense of “level off” (which is the meaning it carries here, in parallel with “will be filled”); however, it corresponds exactly with the MT’s yishpalu, which carries the same force – it denotes being “brought low,” but it connotes being “humiliated.”

Will be made straight “Will be made,” in lines 3-4 of this verse, is a gloss. The LXX reads, literally:

And everything that is crooked will be into straightness,
And the rugged (fem. sg.) into a plain.

Likewise, the MT reads, literally:

And the crooked will be into a level place,
And the rugged places into a plain.

Verse 5:
See God’s salvation/See together 
The LXX’s reading is a harmonization with the content of 40:9-11, which describes how God will lead Judah back to their country, as a sort of second Exodus, which means that the MT’s text is more original.

Nevertheless, the LXX’s alteration, along with the scribal error in verses 7-8 (see below), changes the tone of the passage distinctly, making it more hopeful than the MT. In both the LXX and MT, YHWH’s glory is associated with radical changes to the landscape and with the fleeting nature of humanity; however, the MT goes further and describes YHWH’s breath as devastating, while the LXX goes in a completely different direction and relates how God’s glory will being salvation to the whole world. (It is, of course, not difficult to see why Luke — uniquely among the Gospel writers — includes the LXX version of this verse in his description of John the Baptist, whom he saw as Jesus’ forerunner.)

Because the Lord has spoken (LXX) It is possible to read the LXX’s “because the Lord has spoken” as “the Lord has said,” with verses 3b-5b as a quotation from YHWH (who would then be identified with the Wilderness Voice). This latter reading makes good sense in context, as v. 6a shows the “voice of one speaking” as issuing Isaiah’s call to prophesy. However, from a purely grammatical point of view, this reading is unnatural, so I have not followed it.

(N.B. Though I do not make an explicit connection in my translation that YHWH = the Wilderness Voice, I think a strong case for this identity may be made exegetically, based on verse 6a. Generally speaking, I think it is poor translational practice to make explicit what the text before you leaves implicit, so I have done exactly that.)

It is worth noting that, if the voice of 3a and 6a are the same person – namely, YHWH – then the Gospel writers have misinterpreted this passage. Each of them (Mk 1:2; Mt 3:3; Lk 3:4; Jn 1:23) have the Wilderness Voice as John the Baptist (John’s Gospel actually has the Baptist explicitly identifying himself with the Wilderness Voice). What seems likely to me is that, because John the Baptist was a prophetic figure who stationed himself in the wilderness, and because he was, in the Christians’ estimation, Jesus’ precursor/predecessor, the Gospel writers used this passage as a proof text to validate John’s authority and, thus, to equate Jesus with YHWH.

Verse 6:
And I/he
said The LXX has “And I said” while the MT has “And he said.” In the case of the LXX, verse 6 is a dialogue, which may be expressed as follows:

Voice: Shout!
Narrator: What should I shout?
Voice: All flesh is grass,
And all a man’s glory is like a flower of grass. . . .

The MT, however, presents verse 6 in the mouth of only one speaker, as here:

Voice: Call out!
What should I call out?
All flesh is grass,
And all his faithfulness is like a flower of the field. . . .

Line 2 in the MT is thus a rhetorical question in the Wilderness Voice’s proclamation, while the LXX presents it as a second speaker in a dialogue. The MT’s reading is so awkward that I can’t help but think it is corrupt, and I thus prefer the reading of the LXX, as do the NLT, ESV, NRSV, and NIV. The KJV follows the Hebrew text woodenly.

The NET translates this verse as follows, taking some explanatory liberties in the translation:

A voice says, “Cry out!”
Another asks, “What should I cry out?”
The first voice responds: “All people are like grass,
And all their promises are like the flowers in the field. . . .”

The NET’s notes remark that “[a]pparently a second ‘voice’ responds to the command of the first ‘voice.’ While this interpretation, i’ll admit, does more justice to the MT as it stands, it makes the most sense to follow the LXX’s wording.

All a man’s glory/All his faithfulness The MT’s “faithfulness” is more difficult than the LXX’s “glory,” so the MT is to be considered more original here. However, both readings do make sense in context, so neither should be deprecated; instead, we should see them as two separate traditions of the text.

The LXX contrasts human fame, which is fleeting and impermanent, with God’s declarations, which are fixed and eternal; the LXX’s version is thus a meditation on humanity’s ultimate insignificance. The MT, on the other hand, contrasts human fickleness and flakiness with God’s ultimate reliability.

Verses 7-8:
Compare the reading of the LXX here:

7 The grass is dried up, and the flower falls,
8 But our God’s word remains forever.

with that of the MT:

7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because YHWH’s breath blows on it;
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades,
But our God’s word will stand forever.

The most likely explanation for the difference between these two texts is scribal error. That is, at some point in the production and/or transmission of the LXX – whether in the transmission of the LXX’s Hebrew source, in the act of translation itself, or in the transmission of the Greek text of the LXX – a scribe/the translator unintentionally skipped from the first line of v. 7 to the last line of v. 8. (The proper term for this error is homeoteleuton.)


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More on the Hebrew and Greek Texts of Ezekiel 2

I did some more digging after I posted about Ezekiel 2 in the Septuagint a couple of weeks ago. I found a couple articles dealing with the problem of the differences between the Hebrew text (the Masoretic text; hereafter, MT) of Ezekiel 2 and the same text in the Septuagint (hereafter, LXX):

E. Tov, “Recensional Differences between the MT and LXX of Ezekiel,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 62 (1986): 89-101.

Jake Stromberg, “Observations on Inner-Scriptural Scribal Expansion in MT Ezekiel,” Vetus Testamentum 58 (2008): 68-86.

Tov argues (as does Stromberg after him) that the LXX text of Ezekiel is older than that of the MT. Tov sees two reasons for this argument. First, the text of LXX Ezekiel is roughly 4-5% shorter than that of MT Ezekiel. This means that either the translator was loose with his translation and felt free to leave things out as he saw fit, or, if he was strict in his translation, his Hebrew text must have been shorter than what is recorded in the MT (Tov 91-92).

Tov’s second reason, however, narrows the options down to a quite comfortable and manageable level. Analyses of the vocabulary of LXX Ezekiel (see Tov 92, n. 11) have shown that the LXX translator was strict and consistent in his translation, which can only mean that his Hebrew text was shorter than that of the MT. Thus, this means that the MT is an expanded version of original Ezekiel, rather than the LXX being a shortened version thereof.

So, revisiting the two texts:

1 And he said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.” 2 And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. 4 The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD.’” (ESV, from Hebrew)

1 This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord, and I looked and fell upon my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. And he said to me: Son of man, stand upon your feet, and I will speak to you. 2 And a spirit came upon me and took me up and raised me and set me upon my feet, and I heard him speaking to me, 3 and he said to me, Son of Man, I am sending you out to the house of Israel, those who are embittering me — who embittered me, they and their fathers, to this very day, 4 and you shall say to them, “This is what the Lord says.” (NETS, from LXX)

Verse 1: Same as my last post; nothing big here, except that the two texts divide the chapters differently.

Verse 2: It’s not that the LXX turns the story into an otherworld journey, as I previously thought, but that the MT removes the signals that Ezekiel is on an otherworld journey. Both the LXX and MT mention Ezekiel being:

  • possessed by a spirit/the Spirit
  • lifted to his feet (he had fallen to the ground in his trance, 1:1-3, 28)
  • spoken to by God.

However, the MT leaves out Ezekiel being:

  • taken up (ἀνέλαβέν; i.e. into heaven)
  • raised (ἐξῆρέν; more at “taken away,” but again, into heaven)

So, while the MT has Ezekiel’s commission from God takes place while Ezekiel’s still standing by the Chebar canal (1:1-3), the LXX implies quite strongly that Ezekiel’s commission takes place in heaven.

Therefore, I still say that the LXX provides relatively early evidence of a mystical tradition surrounding Ezekiel’s merkabah vision, but I change my opinion at two points: 1) it is likely that original Ezekiel represented this mystical tradition, including a (shamanic) trance, spirit-possession, and journey to heaven; 2) at some point and for whatever reason, the text represented in the MT was edited down to remove Ezekiel’s journey to heaven, leaving him with his feet planted firmly on earth during his commission.

Verse 3: The LXX doesn’t skip goyim (“peoples,” sometimes derogatory, in the sense of “Gentiles”) here; the MT adds it. Tov (93) thinks that the MT includes goyim in order to soften the blow of  the next word, hammordim (“rebellious”), but I’m not sure; this phrase, goyim hammordim, is found mostly in rabbinic Hebrew (Tov 93, n. 16), so I think it likely that this addition was made by a later scribe or rabbi who added this more-or-less stock phrase into the text, whether thoughtlessly or intentionally, without intending to change the meaning.

I’m not so sure now, though, whether goyim carries its own pejorative force here, or whether the pejorative sense rests more on hammordim. I’d need to read more about the sense of goyim hammordim in rabbinic literature, to see what the range of meaning — and range of insult — the phrase carries there. Suffice it to say, for now, that both the LXX and MT here cast Israel in a negative light.

Verse 4: The addition to the MT here (“The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them”) is, as Tov points out, totally redundant, and derives its content not only from the surrounding context, but also 3:&, 33:3-5; 34:9; and Deut 9:6-13 (Tov 93). These sort of expansions — that is, expansions based not only on the immediate context, but also on other biblical texts — are pretty prevalent in MT Ezekiel (Stromberg 70-83; cf. Tov 93-99).

In sum, between the time the LXX was translated (2nd-1st centuries BCE, give or take) and the time the MT was canonized, a scribe changed the text of Ezekiel. In some cases, he added to and expanded the text, such as in 2:3 and 2:4, in order to make the text easier to understand or to fit the idioms of his day. In other cases, he deleted things from the text, as in 2:2, where he sanitized the text and removed Ezekiel’s otherworld journey.


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