Faith and Irony at Menno-Hof

A few weeks ago I visited a charming Amish and Mennonite “visitor’s center” in a nearby town. I noticed something I think Mormons can learn from.

Not long before the Mormons settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, another religious group fleeing persecution settled In Shipshewana, Indiana. The Amish also sought to restore true forms of Christian worship that had been lost in the centuries after Christ, rejecting infant baptism and insisting on religious freedom. They came to establish a community of true Christians on the American frontier, in several locations including Shipshewana.

Today, both Anabaptists (including Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites) and Mormons are often misunderstood. We need to make a bit of an effort to help people see what we are really about, rather than judging us by superficial differences or misleading hearsay. We build “visitor centers,” dramatizing our story, and trying to convey what matters most to us. What do we say? We emphasize that Christ is the foundation of our faith. We tell about the convictions and sacrifices of our early leaders and those who followed them. This far our approach is much alike; it was actually kind of spooky to see how much like our story theirs is.

There was one stunning difference, though, between this Anabaptist museum and a Mormon visitor center. It showed in a number of places, but two examples stood out.

One room was a full-size mockup of a below-deck section of a 17th-century sailing ship, like the cramped spaces where many Anabaptists endured weeks of hardship, disease, and often death to escape persecution and find religious freedom in the New World. This was their handcart experience. A plaque explained:

When food runs low, a dead rat will bring a steep price . . . More than half the children will perish . . . Given such conditions, your decision to set sail for America is one of great foolishness, or of great faith.

Which phrase would you not see at a Mormon visitor center? I’ll give you one guess. The narrator doesn’t just ask the visitor to enter his world; he enters theirs, fully acknowledging what many visitors will be tempted to think: these people are nuts! Yet precisely this humility, for me, was one of the most persuasive things about the place.

Another plaque explained the settling of Shipshewana:

“Bands of Indians roamed the rolling hills and flatlands of this area . . . around 1800. The Indians were friendly . . . In 1838 the remaining Indians were driven from the area . . . It is a sad irony that the Amish found refuge from their persecution on land made available by the earlier persecution of another peaceful people, the Pottawattamie.”

Providence here is bitter-sweet. The rightness of the Amish project is mingled with a serious wrong, though the Amish came later and would rather have died than drive the Indians away themselves. Yet just that mingling makes it all the more believable. Isn’t that how life really works, the life we all live? Isn’t that much like the message of Adam and Eve? Isn’t the compassion shown in this telling of the story a testimony that its teller truly knows Christ?

The Book of Mormon teaches that God grants unto all some portion of his truth. It also teaches that it contains a fulness of saving truth, and we believe that the man who brought it forth in modern times was uniquely authorized to organize and lead the true Church of Jesus Christ. But as we go about spreading the word about it, I think we could do a better job acknowledging the valid perspectives of sincere outsiders, and the Spirit will be more with us if we do.

39 comments for “Faith and Irony at Menno-Hof

  1. Ben:

    I have been to Shipshewana many times. It is in my ward. I took my parents to the Menno-Hof once when they visited. My fathers comment was something like – some individuals will only need to accept a few ordinances in order to be exalted. The Amish are good and sincere people.

    I think you are right. When we come on way to strong we can put people off. Better to provide the teachings and let the spirit work. I often say of the Bood of Mormon, that it is either the word of God, or one of the most successful frauds in history. You decide.

  2. Ben – A beautiful observation and one that we should all consider as we seek to defend our own religion. The attitude expressed your words is the attitude that will bring us all closer together in our common goal to live with God forever and, I believe, will establish us as true deciples of Christ. Thank you.

  3. Growing up in Michigan, my family used to go to Shipshewana on the weekends from time to time. It’s fantastic, and well worth a visit. There are many nice B&Bs, hearty restaurants, etc. It’s also extremely kid friendly.

    The Anabaptists have a confidence in the details of their history that is seemingly lacking among most active LDS. Just finished reading Grant Palmer’s book this weekend, which really drove home that point. Until the historical hurdle is cleared, it’s hard to imagine Church visitor centers being anything more than they currently are: polished and appealing, but not candid or (dare I say it??) completely truthful with the facts.

    re: 2 Eric, from my perspective your last two sentences come on a bit strong themselves. I imagined myself holding a BoM to my chest as your poke your finger at me saying “You decide!”

    Bad idea. Most people will decide to move on.

  4. Thanks for the affirmations. Eric, my parents had a very similar reaction at Menno-hof. It was a wonderful experience to visit with them. We stuck around after the place had theoretically closed and had a nice conversation with the young woman who had sold us our tickets and her husband, who is studying at a nearby Mennonite seminary.

    Let’s try to think a little more broadly, then. Can anyone else think of contemporary examples of this beautiful blending of faith and humility, even irony? either among Mormons or non-Mormons? I’m thinking especially of public or in-print examples. What makes these possible? In so many cases irony seems to be simply the first step toward loss of faith–what makes it possible to combine them as we see here? How can we Mormons better cultivate the capacity of combining these, in a way that strengthens, rather than weakening, our faith?

    Is there some reason why Mennonites (who seem to be the ones who built the visitor center) and Amish might have a higher tolerance for irony? Of course, it is possible that what I saw is the work of one unusual person who composed the presentation at this museum. What produces such people, and how might we get some of them to work on our publicity materials?

  5. I also enjoyed my visit to the Menno-Hof, and was intrigued to see a quiz board at the end of the tour where visitors could test their knowledge of the Anabaptist movement. There were a bunch of little doors with the names of religious groups on them, and the test was to guess which were “related” to the Amish and which were not. One of the doors said “Mormons,” and when you opened it, there was a nice paragraph about the LDS Church, its founding by Joseph Smith, and the fact Mormons are not part of the Anabaptist movement. I remember being impressed at their accuracy and fairness. Is this still there, Ben?

    I imagine that Mennonites are fairly frequently misidentified with Mormons, or else they wouldn’t have included us like that. I remember on my mission in Germany meeting a person who informed me that Mormons eschew electricity and automobiles. No matter how hard I tried to communicate that there were a couple of real, live Mormons standing in front of him, who clearly embraced technology, he insisted that Mormons drive horse-and-buggies and wear all black. I can laugh about it now, but at the time I wanted to throttle the guy.

  6. MikeinWeHo:

    Sorry if it seemed strong. It may be the limitations of this medium. I was really not trying to be challenging in the ‘you decide’ statement. It was more meant to be – you can find out the truth for yourself. I was really trying to express a little understanding to someone considering learning about the BofM. I think if you were to see my body language and facial expressions and tone of voice you would see that I probably don’t have a confrontational bone in my body.

  7. Nice post, Ben. Honesty is the best policy. Seems it finds its way into the 13th Article of Faith and a few scriptures too. (although I know it’s not that simple, including the whole “lying for the Lord” thing…)

    On Mormons and Mennonites/Amish being confused (#6): I was in a master’s program with several international students a few years ago. One of the students from Russia was shocked when he found out I was Mormon but drove a car. We quickly discovered he thought I was Amish, or that Amish and Mormons were the same. Even funnier was the reason why. Apparently some foreign versions of the old Harrison Ford movie “Witness,” in which he is a detective and lives in an Amish community for a while while trying to solve a murder case, substitute “Mormon” for “Amish” in the subtitles, so anyone watching would think it was Mormons, and not the Amish, who ride in buggies and do barn-raisings!

  8. yeah,

    We used to get the Amish=Mormon idea frequently in South Africa. I would usually mention who invented the TV in response

  9. Is their humility and irony possible because they are not missionary-minded? Sometimes our sloppier efforts at PR (by individual members) make us seem grasping and pathetic.

  10. I think Julie may be right. We are both very eager to get other people to believe in Mormonism, and understandably afraid that they won’t. Moreover, it is frequently implied that the failure of our friends to convert is our fault. This combination makes us defensive, and sometimes even less than honest, I think.

  11. re: 7 I believe you. Goodness knows what people must think I’m like in person judging from the tone of some of my blog entries!

    Wasn’t it Roseanne who said the Mormons were “like Nazi Amish” ??

    The Amish don’t proselytize, do they? Judging by their genetic problems, a few converts might be a good move, though.

    Hmmmm, that gets me a’ thinkin…. What would an Amish missionary program and PR campaign look like ? It might appeal to the Northern California / organic crowd.

  12. Ding ding ding…I think Julie #10 is on the right track. Overconcern for proselytism and PR skews the way we present things at these sites. If you’re not trying to convince people to join your movement, you can be much freer with describing things in not always entirely self-flattering ways.

  13. MikeInWeHo: The Northern CA Organic crowd (most of them anyway) don’t really want to live like the Amish, they just want to pretend they do. It’s romantic to “live off the land” and go “totally natural”, and they want to live out their romantic fantasy without all the accompanying un-romantic reality: organic produce without shoveling crap. The proof of this is that they don’t make anything more than gestures toward real “natural” living. They’ll feed their baby only organic baby food mixed with the finest bottled spring water, but they’ll slap a Huggies on his butt just like everyone else because they can’t be bothered to grow their own cotton, spin their own thread, weave their own cloth and sew and wash their own diapers.

    When they start washing their own diapers, then I’ll start having some respect for their little organic fantasy.

  14. Great thoughts. Perhaps another distinction is that the Anabaptists are not concerned in the least with “fitting in” to the larger society–being “in the world” in Mormon vernacular. Instead, they are perfectly content to plant both feet firmly in their idea of Zion. In contrast, we LDS sometimes seem so infatuated with our public image and desire to be seen as mainstream that we are willing to let our standards slide a bit (Harry Reid?) if it means greater social acceptance. Doing so, I’m afraid, leads many to assume that we are just another evangelist sect. When I think of the Lord’s “peculiar” people, I think: separate, distinct, different. I think Amish, not Mormon.

  15. Hm. So should we be more like the Amish? Have we gone too far in our push to proselytize? I definitely think Julie is right about at least a big chunk of the reason. The Amish are probably more concerned about being left alone than anything–being understood as sincere and well-meaning human beings, and hence, for example, not having their way of life disrupted by laws the rest of us might pass that would cause them problems. They have had to work out a few special arrangements as I understand to be able to educate their children their way, and employ them in the family businesses. And of course there’s the conscientious objector exemption from military duty it’s important for them to maintain.

    I also think the point about history has something to it. They have at least had more time to digest their history than we have.

    Mennonites, though, have something of a missionary impulse. They do not separate themselves the way the Amish do because they want to be the leaven in the societal loaf. They want to be a witness to the world of Christ’s truth. So they are not as different from us, and as I said I’m pretty sure it’s Mennonites who set up the museum.

    Yes, Dan (#6), that board with all the doors is still there, indicating relationships, or lack thereof, between Anabaptists and other groups. We told them about Sidney Rigdon, whose congregation more than doubled the size of the CJCLDS when it joined up, and I believe they were part of what is now called the Church of the Brethren, which did historically have some significant influence from the Anabaptist movement as I understand. A bit tenuous as a source of influence perhaps, but there might be more to it if someone looked carefully.

  16. I believe Sidney Rigdon was Campbellite (Church of Christ) and not part of the Anabaptist tradition. Right?

  17. B. Dylan (#15) I too was impressed with the Amish willingness to do their own thing. I would like to see Mormons participate a lot less in the ickiness of popular culture–oversexualized media, materialism, chasing glitz . . . we are too much of the world. It’s a tough balance, though, since we are, as the Mennonites point out, called to be a light to the world, and I think the Amish have done a pretty good job of hiding themselves from view.

  18. Interestingly, the Amish have taken a stand quite similar to the Church on SSM. In Ohio, there was consensus among the Amish (who usually don’t vote) that they needed to actively support the SSM ban ammendment in 2004. There are 100k Amish (give or take) in Ohio…given their position on the ammendment, we can probably bet who they voted for for President…they may have decided the election. Hidden perhaps, and generally out of the ‘english’ world, but not always.

  19. re: 14 Oh totally. I was actually just kidding when I made the comment. As a hypocritical liberal myself (SoCal variety, not North), I’m well aware of the fact that there’s nobody less likely to become Amish than someone like me.

    re: 15 Harry Reid represents slipping standards and assimilation?? Who knew. I thought it was Larry King’s wife’s fault.

    re: 17 One suspects you’d lose that bet. Just because they opposed SSM marriage in Ohio doesn’t throw them into the welcoming arms of Karl Rove. There’s that little issue of being hard-core pacifists that perhaps give them pause. Good try, though! If the GOP can mesmerize the Amish en masse they way it has the Mormons, it will impressive indeed.

  20. Well, basically right, Adam; Rigdon wasn’t an Anabaptist per se, but the Menno-hof exhibit listed the Church of Christ as a somewhat related movement–influenced by the Anabaptists through such-and-such a figure. Sorry, I can’t give more detail just now.

  21. Sidney Rigdon was a Regular Baptist before he joined Alexander Campbell and the Reformed Baptists. Rigdon split from Campbell prior to his forming the Disciples of Christ. I don’t think he was ever involved with the United Brethren, if that is the church you are referring to. On the other hand, numerous early British converts came over wholesale from the United Brethren

  22. “Marin’s sustainability coordinator leads by example … she uses cloth diapers, washing them in a water-miser front-loading washing machine and drying them on the clothesline.”

    “Santa Rosa CA”

    “Helping parents diaper naturally since 1984. … Granada, CA”

    Looks to me like the Northern CA crowd might be convertible to Amish. They’re already washing their own babies’ cloth diapers.

  23. Yep, I’m with Beijing. I started parenting in Northern California (Bay Area and then Davis) and I can assure you that they walk the walk. I only agree with about half of the ‘natural family living’ protocols, but I was nonetheless impressed at the expense and hassle that its devotees were willing to go to for their ideals. Our downstairs neighbor had four children 4 and under (and wasn’t even LDS!!) in a 600 sq. ft. apt., with cloth diapers on her infant twins, and no washing machine or dryer in the apartment. Now that’s devotion!

  24. Yes, but tree huggers almost en masse did multiple piercings just about before anybody, too, lol.
    – – –
    (I grew up Mormon in Cali a time when remaining chaste et cetera but otherwise having being influenced by the counter culture, though not even officially a sin, was in practice treated much more of one than one’s merely going out and sexing and partying and then coming back to the straight and narrow. At the time I thought this situation strange but maybe it make perfect sense somehow. As just drinking or having a fling DOESN’T question the values of the Church — but in the age of Woodstock, instead of somebody’s choosing a casual sportswear type shirt and tennis shoes, their running around wearing a heavierweight plaid workshirt, workboots, and jeans worn long enough to have a rip in them DOES? (They of course didn’t have em in the store pre-ripped in 1970.))

  25. Last summer’s discussion of Anabaptists is available here and here and here and here, but there remains a lot more to say about Mormons and Mennonites. If someone is going to mistake my religion for another, I wouldn’t mind being counted as an Anabaptist. (And Harry Reid representants all that is true and good in the world, and makes life worth living.)

  26. I dated a girl who was raised Amish and left.These people are kind, honest and generous and in many ways live lives close to God. But I feel we tend to idealize them. Like Mormons, the Amish have a few inconvenient problems in their religion. Here are a couple three, based on her ideas as I remember them decades later.

    First, they reject education and all forms of the life of the mind. Children drop out of school after about the 8th grade. Being plain stubborn and stupid within certain bounds is not considered a bad thing. This is a terrible waste and this rejection of the cultivation of the mind makes it impossible for them to survive as anything but dependents on other modern societies. Their lives might seem nice in some grand theory propagated by highly erudite professors who have forgotten what it is like to be ignorant, but to so suffocate the natural curiosity of youth is horrible.

    Second, they try to raise all of their children as Amish, but in fact they loose 80 or 90% of them. They continue to grow because of large families. Most Amish teenagers realize that they are not going to be part of this society at a fairly young age. This leads to a profound sense of rebellion and alienation from their tight little communities and large families. They know little about the outside world (“the English”) and are extremely frightened by it. Amish youth learn how to work hard and are extremely valuable in that way; but they also learn how to party hard and to sneak around (although most parents are resigned to this reality and just look the other way). They secretly indulge in extreme drunkeness, drug abuse and sexual debauchery, often right under their parent’s noses. How it must pain the Amish parents (who may have been just as bad at one time), so connected to family and community, to see most of their children going to the devil never to return. They realize the future holds so much hurtful shunning which is integral to their society. It is a paradox for a group of people to value family and community to the extend they do and yet reject their youth. Great joy is attached when one of the children decides to repent and be Amish for life, which happens at about age 20. Sort of opposite to our families are forever concept and sending our 19 year olds on missions.

    Third is the genetic problem. This is not going to go away and will only get worse because they are not going to have much, if any, infusion of new blood lines. Ususlly if an older brother or sister stays Amish he or she can get get some of the younger siblings to follow. So when only 10% stay, it is not a random 10% but a much higher portion concentrated in certain families; while many other families loose all of their children. This further compounds the genetic problems. They are not alarmed by it, considering it to be the will of God.

    You really can’t be converted to Old Order Amish. You would have to find someone who spoke good old fashion German and who had not been to school past the 8th grade, or who had not learned anything they considered valuable after that point. And you would have to be able to reject all of our pop culture; everything in the media and in society from music to sports to literature and science and business and politics and the arts. You would have to shut down most of your mind and stop thinking modern thoughts to really be part of them. It is doubtful that as a new convert, if you are older than 30 could train your body to physically work as hard as the Amish do for 16-20 hours a day 6 1/2 days a week. (Yes, there are necessary Sunday farm chores). Unless you are already training for the Olympics or the Tour de France. People who jog for a couple hours make old Amish farmers laugh. In addition, you would have to acquire a couple decades worth of archiac knowledge about harnessing horses and growing things and building, etc. Not to mention learning to love howling mournful music and an ancient theological perspective, which being the only outlet for the mind is quite developed along certain lines. But you would have to tolerate and even indulge in a surprizing number of crude habits including farm humor (graphic sexual jokes connected to animal reproduction) and spitting, nose picking, flatulence, etc. And most of all you would have to overcome their suspicions, because quite a few wackos do try to join them and always meet with abyssmal failure. They do not believe it is possible for real conversions to take place (how could they when 90% of the children raised in it don’t convert) and so they are not going to help you in the least.

    I feel for the Amish. I admire their good traits. We have nmuch to learn from them. But they are fundamentally incompatible with the real world as it has changed and they will soon face extinction. They won’t survive the next major revolution. Maybe few of us will.

    Disclaimer: I realize this is based on one person’s perspective a long time ago and runs the risk of being highly distorted. Like asking Ed Decker about Mormons. But then again it might be quite accurate.

  27. I might add that Mennonites are probably more like us than Old Order Amish. Mennonites share historical connections and some basic theological similarities with Old Order Amish but have greatly modified or compromised on lifestyle issues and probably don’t have the same problems. At least not to the same degree. But I don’t know any Mennonites very well so I contribute what I know about for perspective.

    Another group of interest are the Hutterites of the Northern plains, featured in a recent National Geographic magazine article. They are the only religion that I know of that has figured out how to practice a form of the United Order in modern times in North America. This should be of great interest to us Mormons. Anyone know about them?

  28. Mike:

    Although you don’t have to answer this, lol: Where the heck do you live? The Idaho panhandle? Colorado? And, anyway, did she have any kind of take on the distinctions between the Amish and, say, the Hutterites? (My brother-in-law was from near Calgary, Alberta, near to where there is an extensive community of Hutterites is why I ask. Who, from what I’ve read, actually assign a trusted member of their community to read the newspaper and have books and whatnot to then, as I’d assume, be enabled to knowledgably interact with the outside world and also to give advice to the community whenever some worldly expertise is seen necessary to be taken account of.) Yet which also brings up the point of people from one Mennonite sect switching to one less stringent or more stringent: Would this happen, as she was aware of? And, if so, generally in which direction?

  29. Mikein weho,

    There were a bunch of articles in the national press in October 04 about the Amish supporting Bush in Ohio because of SSM. Were the articles accurate? Probably??

    Harry Reid is an interesting character for active LDS. I have heard multiple negative comments about him from fellow ward members recently over SSM. As for me there is an interesting contingent of LDS Democrats out of Nevada that include Gibson who wants to be the Governer. I was comps with Gibsons Nephew and the whole family is Democratic and completely active in serious LDS leadership positions. So I called my old comp and asked him about his uncle and he told me that his uncle is an ecomonic liberal and a social conservative in a pre-1968 Democratic way and had been recently the local Stake President. I am wondering what % of LDS vote for Harry Reid out of tribal loyalty?

  30. I’d be inclined somewhat to vote for Gibson sight unseen. ((My grandfather was a Dem, when most of the Saints there still were, and served in Nevada’s then parttime legislature.))

    But due to my apostate status, if (married familywoman/ business owner/ Republican) Mimi Mimiyagi (@ ) had a chance in heck — like Jesse Ventura was able to pull off — I could end up voting for HER! Of course, I live in New Jersey. But —

  31. Hi bbell,

    I read some of the articles back then (being a fierce news junkie), but prior to this thread had never given Amish political views much thought. : ) My impression was they generally do not vote or otherwise participate in the “world.”

    But perhaps you’re right and the gays have driven them into the Republican fold. Who knew?? Karl Rove should be handing out thank-you notes on Gay Pride Day….sigh……

    Why is it so hard for so many LDS to accept someone with Harry Reid’s views? He articulates his positions very clearly and seems as devoted to Mormon morality as anyone you’ll ever meet. When did Mormon=Republican become so widely accepted??

  32. “Why is it so hard for so many LDS to accept someone with Harry Reid’s views? He articulates his positions very clearly and seems as devoted to Mormon morality as anyone you’ll ever meet. When did Mormon=Republican become so widely accepted?? ”
    I can’t tell if this is sarcasm or not. I can’t count the number of times people have given me looks of horror when I’ve said I didn’t vote for Bush in either election. Of course I live in Utah, so maybe it’s Utah Mormon = Republican, not Mormon=Republican.

  33. The folks at Menno-hof indicated that many Amish kids who decide not to be Amish become Mennonite. It’s kind of a natural move.

    Re: #29, your phrasing makes it sound like the Mennonites split off from the Amish as a kind of compromise with the world, but as I understand, Mennonites are actually the older movement, and the Amish split off from them, feeling the Mennonites were becoming too worldly. Kind of funny considering how old-fashioned the Amish look to us, but it hasn’t actually been long at all since nearly everyone was a farmer and wore bonnets and such.

    Re: #28, That sounds a bit like something my dad might have said about what it was like growing up among the Mormon farmers in Utah Valley . . . or probably a lot of farming communities. Luckily, now they have cable television and fiber optic internet there, so all is well?

  34. Re: #35 Re: #28 Well said. That reminds me of a film the Church / BYU once made about the challenges of morality / word of wisdom in a sixties era rural farming community. Same kind of story.


    Just an interesting note. All 8 of my wife and my grandparents are Democrats (5 are still alive) My wifes granma is Brigham Youngs grandaughter. (her father was a post manifesto polygamist) She is as democratic and active LDS as they come as were all of her 9 siblings. What is really interesting is that few of their children or grandchildren are democrats. We all vote Repub. These LDS Democratic relatives of mine are FDR Dems. I am pretty sure that the excesses of the 1960’s, and the massive shift to the left on social issues that drove my family from the Dems to the Repubs. This shift has slowly occured over the last 40 years till we are were we are today.

  36. I agree with your assessment of why the Democrats lost their support among the LDS, Evangelicals, etc. It has been my belief for a while that Democratic party leaders should be forced to live in middle-America, red state areas rather than liberal enclaves. Clearly they don’t have a clue about heartland America and its world view. It’s terribly frustrating. Bill Clinton understood, imo, which is why he was re-elected despite the incessant philandering.

    But back to the Amish. Here’s an article on today:

    Beware black market Amish milk !

  37. *clap* for Ben in #35 for getting the Mennonite sequencing right.

    There is actually quite a bit of co-incidental historical affect between what is now the Mennonite Church USA and the Mormons (long-story very short: the chaos surrounding the departure of the Saints from Nauvoo resulted in the death of one newly arrived Mennonite pastor – the official history says Mormons killed him – and another pastor was sent for from ‘the east’… two arrived; they were later instrumental in the founding of the General Conference Mennonite Church, in Lee County, Iowa, across the river from Nauvoo).

    The more accurate comparison for the Mormon handcart exodus would be the 1874-5 Great Migration of impoverished Mennonites from Russia, whose sufferings took place in Kansas.

    If you go to the visitor’s center (near Halstead, I believe, or thereabouts), you’ll hear their story told with the background music of “Come, Come Ye Saints.”

    (Which was imported into their hymnbook by a member of the hymnbook committee who had once been a pastor in Lee County, Iowa… across the river from Nauvoo).


    (bona fides: descended from the two pastors mentioned above… 1/4 mennonite ancestry, straight back to Switzerland… but is a Mormon anyway)

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