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July 31st, 2011
01:00 AM ET

Do you speak Christian?

Editor's note: Kirby Ferguson is a New York-based writer, filmmaker and speaker who created the web video series Everything is a Remix. His videos, like the one above, can be found on Vimeo, an online community where artists share their films.

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - Can you speak Christian?

Have you told anyone “I’m born again?” Have you “walked the aisle” to “pray the prayer?”

Did you ever “name and claim” something and, after getting it, announce, “I’m highly blessed and favored?”

Many Americans are bilingual. They speak a secular language of sports talk, celebrity gossip and current events. But mention religion and some become armchair preachers who pepper their conversations with popular Christian words and trendy theological phrases.

If this is you, some Christian pastors and scholars have some bad news: You may not know what you’re talking about. They say that many contemporary Christians have become pious parrots. They constantly repeat Christian phrases that they don’t understand or distort.

Marcus Borg, an Episcopal theologian, calls this practice “speaking Christian.” He says he heard so many people misusing terms such as “born again” and “salvation” that he wrote a book about the practice.

People who speak Christian aren’t just mangling religious terminology, he says. They’re also inventing counterfeit Christian terms such as “the rapture” as if they were a part of essential church teaching.

The rapture, a phrase used to describe the sudden transport of true Christians to heaven while the rest of humanity is left behind to suffer, actually contradicts historic Christian teaching, Borg says.

“The rapture is a recent invention. Nobody had thought of what is now known as the rapture until about 1850,” says Borg, canon theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon.

How politicians speak Christian

Speaking Christian isn’t confined to religion. It’s infiltrated politics.

Political candidates have to learn how to speak Christian to win elections, says Bill Leonard, a professor of church history at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity in North Carolina.

One of our greatest presidents learned this early in his career. Abraham Lincoln was running for Congress when his opponent accused him of not being a Christian. Lincoln often referred to the Bible in his speeches, but he never joined a church or said he was born again like his congressional opponent, Leonard says.

"Lincoln was less specific about his own experience and, while he used biblical language, it was less distinctively Christian or conversionistic than many of the evangelical preachers thought it should be,” Leonard says.

Lincoln won that congressional election, but the accusation stuck with him until his death, Leonard says.

One recent president, though, knew how to speak Christian fluently.

During his 2003 State of the Union address, George W. Bush baffled some listeners when he declared that there was “wonder-working power” in the goodness of American people.

Evangelical ears, though, perked up at that phrase. It was an evangelical favorite, drawn from a popular 19th century revival hymn about the wonder-working power of Christ called “In the Precious Blood of the Lamb.”

Leonard says Bush was sending a coded message to evangelical voters: I’m one of you.

“The code says that one: I’m inside the community. And two: These are the linguistic ways that I show I believe what is required of me,” Leonard says.

Have you ‘named it and claimed it'?

Ordinary Christians do what Bush did all the time, Leonard says. They use coded Christian terms like verbal passports - flashing them gains you admittance to certain Christian communities.

Say you’ve met someone who is Pentecostal or charismatic, a group whose members believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as healing and speaking in tongues. If you want to signal to that person that you share their belief, you start talking about “receiving the baptism of the Holy Ghost” or getting the “second blessings,” Leonard says.

Translation: Getting a baptism by water or sprinkling isn’t enough for some Pentecostals and charismatics. A person needs a baptism “in the spirit” to validate their Christian credentials.

Or say you’ve been invited to a megachurch that proclaims the prosperity theology (God will bless the faithful with wealth and health). You may hear what sounds like a new language.

Prosperity Christians don’t say “I want that new Mercedes.” They say they are going to “believe for a new Mercedes.” They don’t say “I want a promotion.” They say I “name and claim” a promotion.

The rationale behind both phrases is that what one speaks aloud in faith will come to pass. The prosperity dialect has become so popular that Leonard has added his own wrinkle.

“I call it ‘name it, claim it, grab it and have it,’ ’’ he says with a chuckle.

Some forms of speaking Christian, though, can become obsolete through lack of use.

Few contemporary pastors use the language of damnation - “turn or burn,” converting “the pagans” or warning people they’re going to hit “hell wide open” - because it’s considered too polarizing, Leonard says. The language of “walking the aisle” is also fading, Leonard says.

Appalachian and Southern Christians often told stories about staggering into church and walking forward during the altar call to say the “sinner’s prayer” during revival services that would often last for several weeks.

“People ‘testified’ to holding on to the pew until their knuckles turned white, fighting salvation all the way,” Leonard says. “You were in the back of the church, and you fought being saved.”

Contemporary churchgoers, though, no longer have time to take that walk, Leonard says. They consider their lives too busy for long revival services and extended altar calls. Many churches are either jettisoning or streamlining the altar call, Leonard says.

“You got soccer, you got PTA, you got family responsibilities - the culture just won’t sustain it as it once did,” Leonard says.

Even some of the most basic religious words are in jeopardy because of overuse.

Calling yourself a Christian, for example, is no longer cool among evangelicals on college campuses, says Robert Crosby, a theology professor at Southeastern University in Florida.

“Fewer believers are referring to themselves these days as ‘Christian,’ ” Crosby says. “More are using terms such as ‘Christ follower.’ This is due to the fact that the more generic term, Christian, has come to be used within religious and even political ways to refer to a voting bloc.”

What’s at stake

Speaking Christian correctly may seem like it’s just a fuss over semantics, but it’s ultimately about something bigger: defining Christianity, says Borg, author of “Speaking Christian.”

Christians use common words and phrases in hymns, prayers and sermons “to connect their religion to their life in the world,” Borg says.

“Speaking Christian is an umbrella term for not only knowing the words, but understanding them,” Borg says. “It’s knowing the basic vocabulary, knowing the basic stories.”

When Christians forget what their words mean, they forget what their faith means, Borg says.

Consider the word “salvation.” Most Christians use the words "salvation" or "saved" to talk about being rescued from sin or going to heaven, Borg says.

Yet salvation in the Bible is seldom confined to an afterlife. Those characters in the Bible who invoked the word salvation used it to describe the passage from injustice to justice, like the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian bondage, Borg says.

“The Bible knows that powerful and wealthy elites commonly structure the world in their own self-interest. Pharaoh and Herod and Caesar are still with us. From them we need to be saved,” Borg writes.

And when Christians forget what their faith means, they get duped by trendy terms such as the rapture that have little to do with historical Christianity, he says.

The rapture has become an accepted part of the Christian vocabulary with the publication of the megaselling “Left Behind” novels and a heavily publicized prediction earlier this year by a Christian radio broadcaster that the rapture would occur in May.

But the notion that Christians will abandon the Earth to meet Jesus in the clouds while others are left behind to suffer is not traditional Christian teaching, Borg says.

He says it was first proclaimed by John Nelson Darby, a 19th century British evangelist, who thought of it after reading a New Testament passage in the first book of Thessalonians that described true believers being “caught up in the clouds together” with Jesus.

Christianity’s focus has long been about ushering in God’s kingdom “on Earth, not just in heaven,” Borg says.

“Christianity’s goal is not to escape from this world. It loves this world and seeks to change it for the better,” he writes.

For now, though, Borg and others are also focusing on changing how Christians talk about their faith.

If you don’t want to speak Christian, they say, pay attention to how Christianity’s founder spoke. Jesus spoke in a way that drew people in, says Leonard, the Wake Forest professor.

“He used stories, parables and metaphors,” Leonard says. “He communicated in images that both the religious folks and nonreligious folks of his day understand.”

When Christians develop their own private language for one another, they forget how Jesus made faith accessible to ordinary people, he says.

“Speaking Christian can become a way of suggesting a kind of spiritual status that others don’t have,” he says. “It communicates a kind of spiritual elitism that holds the spiritually ‘unwashed’ at arm’s length."

By that time, they’ve reached the final stage of speaking Christian - they've become spiritual snobs.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Baptist • Belief • Bible • Christianity • Church • Culture wars • Episcopal • Faith • Fundamentalism • Politics • Uncategorized

soundoff (3,878 Responses)
  1. Jay

    Christians have a ton of political clout. What do they use it for? Bashing gays, forcing childbirth, lying about science, and starting wars. Awesome. They don't give 2 chits about starving kids, or homeless old people... But they do take time out of their busy schedules to whine about how oppressed they are, which is also fantastic, and helps society tremendously.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • warlock

      and you're completely a moron. good job.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
    • Former Christian

      warlock, he speaks the truth.

      Christianity today in the USA is all about intolerance, bigotry, and hatred.

      It makes me want to puke.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
    • warlock

      hey former christian, your're right, despite the fact that there are lots of religious charities out there, they definitely continue to practice bigotry and such because it's fun.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
  2. frank

    You'd think one honest look at the ugly bloodstained cacaphonous shit-hole that is "The Holy Land" would give just a few of these people pause, and make them wonder whether their magic book had a fib or two in it, but...nope!

    July 31, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
  3. James price

    ah theology the pinnacle of pataphysical science !

    July 31, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  4. harold

    who wrote the bible?

    July 31, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • Spiffy

      Me...

      July 31, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
    • Richard S. Russell

      You've heard the old joke about how a camel is a horse assembled by a committee? Same deal here.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
    • Wanderer

      Someone who knew not Christianity!

      August 1, 2011 at 12:09 am |
  5. Bible Warrior

    Hey Jews, Mooslims, Athiests, Hindoos, and Catholics:

    GOD GIVES YOU A CHOICE:

    1. ACCEPT HIS UNCONDITIONAL LOVE

    or

    2. ROAST IN HELL FOREVER!

    It's simple really.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • Murdoch Malone

      Hallelujah! Testify, brother in Christ!

      July 31, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
    • Spiffy

      He sure is a loving God.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
    • Tim

      How can anyone question the Lord's mercy? All he wants is that you join his fan club. That's it. He doesn't care about your character or works. He only cares that you joined his fan club.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
    • Richard S. Russell

      How can anyone question the Lord's mercy? Google "mercy" and all shall be made plain.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • Fred1

      I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints!

      July 31, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Bible Warrior wrote: "It's simple really."

      No... it's simplistic, really...

      And exactly where did this "god" of yours make this threat? And how do you know that your "god" is different from the ones that the Jews, Muslims, and Catholics may believe is the "real" one? What about all the other thousand gods that mankind has invented over the years?

      July 31, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
    • Muneef

      It is still practiced in the west by the west it goes as this .... "It's your Money or your Life"....and that explains the plenty of Money that runs between their fingers coverting the world....

      July 31, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
  6. Jay

    Modern "Christians" are a bunch of panty-sniffing lunatics... More concerned about what the gay couple across town is doing than the 10,000 homeless kids between here and there.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
  7. Save Us from the Christians

    Here, I'll speak Christian – "hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate".

    July 31, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  8. Parlemort

    There is no heaven,
    There is no hell,
    There is no god,
    I wish you well.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • Wanderer

      Yes, they are somewhere that can not be found through faith, rather by abandoning all dualistic thoughts.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
    • Mano

      What an inspirational story! As a nurse I see the need in the tommunicy every day so one day when my building had a Be The Match drive I was excited to sign up! It seems such a simple thing to do to change someones life forever Lesley

      March 2, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  9. Aneriz

    True Christianity speaks every human language and crosses all cultural barriers thru love and forgiveness.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • Dan613

      true christianity??? hahahaha what a moron you are!

      July 31, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
    • Spiffy

      Which Christianity is that? Pick one.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • Anon

      Christianity eradicated and is still eradicating other cultures.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
    • Richard S. Russell

      Love and forgiveness, eh? Did anyone think to mention those to Torquemada, Amalric, or Hitler?
       
      And don't start in on how they weren't "true" Christians because they didn't meet YOUR definition of "true". They proudly claimed to be Christians and could cite chapter and verse as to exactly why they were doing the Lord's work. They probably would've thot that YOU weren't a "true" Christian, either. Why should we believe you any more than them? You're all nuts.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
    • Fred1

      Then I guess I've never met a true christian

      July 31, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
  10. Cranston

    Religion does have a few good things. Don't be too quick to dismiss it as primitive nonsense.

    After all, religion brings hope in a world torn apart by religion.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • Pingpaul

      When I was watching a locomotive be refueled, I saw a worker smoking. I asked him, "Isn't it dangerous smoking here? He flicked his cigarette into a puddle of diesel fuel. It went out. Yet, that same fuel, atomized by the injectors in the engine will burn furously.
      Enlightened self-interest atomizes society into individuals. No wonder they explode in rage. A certain amount of individuation is necessary, but when carried to extremes, extreme things happen.
      Religion is all about a relationship between the believer and God. Because God is superior in the relationship, individualism takes second place to obedience. In Christianity, the obedience is to what God has taught: love of Him and love of neighbor. Get outside the boundaries of that and what you have is no longer Christian. It is something else.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
  11. Dan613

    "God has a plan for you".... "God loves you" .... "Jesus Loves you".... "accept christ as a personal saviour"... these are more of those expressions christians use and love to throw at people. More garbage and more inventions, as usual.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
  12. thomasirby

    There are a ton of comments here and I may not be the first person to say this, but...

    This article is about 10 years behind. I have heard people make fun of "Christianese" since I was a kid. I feel like a lot of the generalizations of this article have been greatly disseminated in Christian culture. At this point, Christianity has undergone such a drastic shift that there has been an over-compensation of Christians that specifically don't use typical Christian jargon. In fact, there are a lot of groups that are being criticized because they aren't using traditional doctrinal terminology (like "redemption" or "sanctification") in an effort to balance out the awkward, big-haired, TBN-saturated 1980's and 1990's.

    Anyway... I agree with the point that the article is making. I'm just a little caught off guard because I thought that this debate had been dead for at least 5 years.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
  13. Anthony

    Why are christians so stupid? GET OVER IT! There is no GOD! If you would all stop being followers we could stop some of this religious extremist crap! You guys are the GLOBAL PROBLEM!

    July 31, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
  14. Liebchi

    Good grief! The author's description of the church is the way it used to be. When I was a little girl, the church bus used to pick us up because parents didn't take their kids to church. That blow dried pastor, trying to make a name for himself on A.M. radio. He would make the entire congregation stand in prayer, their heads bowed for as long as 20 minutes, waiting for someone to be saved. When the finances were not where he wanted, he would pick members out from the pulpit, brother this, sister that, would you be willing to give X dollars for the church? When I was a little girl, I was in love with church and with God. He soured me to ever going to church again.

    Things change. Great churches aren't like that anymore. People think that because we look conservative, that we are conservative. Nothing can be further from the truth. No one can really read the Bible and be condemning. If anything, we have no business judging anyone else, and we know it. We keep the doors open for anyone that wants to worship God, and just to be present if you ever need us.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • Cranston

      Churches have actually gotten worse. Far worse. It's now all about fleecing the flock of its money.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
  15. reed

    is this the same john blake who went to howard university and lives in atlanta? timewarner and cnn?

    July 31, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • Observer

      Someone needs to alert CNN about this creep "reed." He sounds like the kind of nutcase that climbs a towers and kills 30 people.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • True Christian

      reed, you have been reported to cnn.

      You sound like a sick individual.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
    • frank

      reed, does your neighbor's dog talk to you?

      July 31, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
    • martinipaul

      Yes. It is.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
  16. Bill Fitzgerald

    Attention Jesus is the only way> What about all of the people who were ever born that never heard of Jesus Christ. They go to hell? Study the Teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and you can find the answer.

    July 31, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • Bob

      Sorry, bro. LDS is a crazy cult that has no connection with Christianity.

      I will pray for your soul.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • Alex

      Yeah AND you get to have 50 wives, so its win-win!

      July 31, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • Anon

      You're both nuts.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • L R

      That's already covered in the Bible in the book of Romans. No need to search in the darkness for an answer.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • Dan613

      mormonism is the stupidest religion EVER !! What a bunch of myths and absolutely impossible "stories" to prove. Maybe mormons are "morons" per se...

      July 31, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
    • PEBbles

      Bob you are correct. The LDS think that Jesus and Satan are brothers and that if you are a good enough Mormon you will be a god over your own planet one day, just like the god of the bible did....really? hmmm

      July 31, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
    • PEBbles

      OH and lets not forget.....President Brigham Young, for example, in the March 1863 Journal of Discourses 10:110, said: "Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so."

      I NEVER READ THAT IN THE BIBLE

      July 31, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
    • Richard S. Russell

      Ha ha ha, self-professed Christians coming on this board to ridicule Mormons. It's like believers in Daffy Duck saying "There is no Bugs Bunny."

      July 31, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • ritamweep

      Are you people afraid to read a little
      book of Mormon?

      July 31, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
  17. reed

    http://www.whur.com/johnblake/gallery/view_gallery.one?gal_id=1 click on photos

    July 31, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • Justine

      What's your plan, Mr. Creepy Creepazoid?

      July 31, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • Richard S. Russell

      Hey, Reed, are you the famous "Rabid Reed" of the Stalker family? Man, I've got some friends who work in the Hoover Building in DC who've been looking EVERYWHERE for you. Stay in touch, why don't you?

      July 31, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  18. ritamweep

    (Political candidates have to learn how to speak Christian to win elections,)versus the political candidates who tell lie after lie to win elections?

    July 31, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
  19. Charlie

    I would sure let the Bible prove to me that what the so called idiots say and do is wrong before I would join the "cool" crowd that says God doesn't exist. He is very real and very much full of love. Quit looking at others and let the book prove it to you. Most that are against Christianity, sorry it is in the bible, have never read the bible. Not knocking anyone, just saying it like it is. God is really cool and created this really cool place to worship him in his Son's name. The simplicity of Christianity is again confusing some people. Read, pray, give, enjoy.......................

    July 31, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • RBD

      You blaspheme the Lord with this hippie prattle. Go join a real Church not some new agey cult.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
    • DLW

      Utter nonsense. That book proves NOTHING other than the fact that people desired to have some sort of explanation for how the world and universe work and wanted to have some sort of ethical framework upon which to base their lives. Voltaire, I believe it was, who said it best: "If God did not exist, it would be necessary for man to invent Him." And that is precisely what man did.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
    • jay a.

      So typical that they post articles on CNN where the reporter cherry-picks his sources (why not ask other Theologians). The word rapture is a description/term of when Jesus returns and his redeemed are "caught up" with him. The Trinity is also not in the scripture but it too is a description/term of the doctrine of many, many passages that confirm the 3 persons of God. And it also was not a doctrine in the original church, but it doesn't make it any less truthful. Born again is actually a phrase Jesus used in John 3:5. If you take what Jesus said it is a logical paraphrase.

      July 31, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • Fred1

      By all means try reading the bible. It sure changed me. I didn’t really become an atheist until after I started reading the bible. I didn’t get very far. Man there is nasty stuff in those first 5 books. Evil, war, genocide, fratricide, ince$t, adultery, patricide, r_ape, child mole$tation and slaughter of the entire population of entire cities (every man, woman, child and even animal) in city after city … and that was the good guys, with god’s blessing.

      July 31, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
  20. Richard S Kaiser

    The Church wrote: “According to scientists we might all be holograms.. that said.. maybe we're all imaginary. Wouldn't make you so imaginary then would it 'god' if we all happen to be imaginary projections? Just something to think about. You should really stop blaspheming by speaking in our Creator's name. Then again, it is the one unforgivable sin so it's probable you're beyond help at this point anyhow.” On July 31, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    Scientists of many Science Relatives dare not say we are as holograms for if we were why then do we bleed and feel pain?

    "To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
    And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.
    Hold Infinity in the Palm of your Hand,
    And an Eternity in an Hour.”
    By the famous poet- William Blake

    The Church Wrote; “Kaiser, which edition of the Bible are you getting that out of? If so, would you care to give reference to chapters and verses because I don't recall your phrases as having to do anything with any of the content in the Christian Bible.” On July 31, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    Luke 17:21, “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within/Inside you.”

    Do you (The Church) deny these Words of Christ Jesus?

    1 Corinthians 6:20, “For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's.

    Therefore I can say, “Of GOD and By God in me, I am but a lowly god and do give Glory to GOD, Upon The Highest of High and try so to Honor the unknown-to-me God that is in me, and does sustain my thought-filled Menageries to an semblance worthy to be reckoned to me and to those who do see My words as Truth!

    The Church
    The Church wrote, “According to scientists we might all be holograms.. that said.. maybe we're all imaginary. Wouldn't make you so imaginary then would it 'god' if we all happen to be imaginary projections? Just something to think about. You should really stop blaspheming by speaking in our Creator's name. Then again, it is the one unforgivable sin so it's probable you're beyond help at this point anyhow.” On July 31, 2011 at 5:34

    In ancient Days even Long before the Romanairian Period, the Babylonians did have Gods and Goddesses that they idolized and thru Bereavements were their Gods and Goddesses wiped from the face of this Earthly Realm. The Anciently derived The Zodiac or Astrologic Signs which does Infer/conclude that these Ancients viewed the aboveness as being full of All manner of Beings, but alas, they had it upside-down for outside-in is the Truth! Our Bodies are as; True Temples is a moot matter of Fact. GOD's Gods and Goddesses truly do IMO; Reside, inside the Temples Christ did tell of but only to His Chosen Few so long ago! Therefore, To Say, “Of GOD (ALL Of CREATION), By God (Christ Jesus the King of His Brothers, and otherly Gods living inside of all Earthly Life Forms) and In Ending; I am but a lowly god as are all men of this world's Past and Now Age! :-(

    July 31, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • Richard S. Russell

      zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

      July 31, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.