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My Take: When Bedford Falls Becomes Pottersville
December 24th, 2011
03:00 AM ET

My Take: When Bedford Falls Becomes Pottersville

Editor's note: Larry Alex Taunton is the founder and executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation. This article is adapted from his book “The Grace Effect: How the Power of One Life Can Reverse the Corruption of Unbelief.”

By Larry Alex Taunton, Special to CNN

(CNN) - My favorite Christmas movie is, unquestionably, Frank Capra’s 1946 feel-good flick "It’s a Wonderful Life." Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed play George and Mary Bailey, a happy couple living a life of genteel poverty in the small American town of Bedford Falls.

George is a kind and generous man. He is active in his community and in the war effort. Most importantly, George is all that stands between the town’s mean old man, Mr. Potter, and the demise of all that is good in Bedford Falls.

As financial pressures crowd in on poor George, he begins to question his value to the community. So much so, that he wishes he had never been born. To demonstrate to George the folly of his wish, an angel is sent to give him a glimpse of what Bedford Falls would look like if that wish were granted. In Dickensian fashion, the angel takes him from one scene in that small town to another. The difference is stark. Indeed, Bedford Falls isn’t even Bedford Falls anymore, but a place called Pottersville. The town’s main street is a red-light district, crime is rampant, and life there is coarsened.

When George, in desperation, turns to the angel, seeking an explanation for these drastic changes, the angel says, “Why, George, it’s because you were never born!”

According to a recent poll conducted by The Hill, 69% of voters think America is in decline, and 83% say they are worried about the country’s future. And that has generated a lot of finger-pointing: Republicans blame President Obama; Obama blames Republicans; environmentalists blame industrialization; the “Occupy” people blame everybody who isn’t occupying something - most of us agree that there is a problem, but efforts to identify the source of it are incomplete, misguided or downright evil.

CNN's Belief Blog – all the faith angles to the day's top stories

The problems of human society are the problems of human nature, wrote "Lord of the Flies" author William Golding. Indeed. This was the discovery of the monastics. Seeking to escape the evil of the world, they found instead a doctrine central to Christianity: that evil is innate to us all. History tells us that a given philosophy, creed or religion will either restrain our darker impulses or exacerbate them, but escape them we cannot. Not in this life, anyway.

So what will save us from ourselves and preserve human dignity and life in the societies we create? Democracy? Socialism? Stitching up the ozone?

These days, there is a lot of talk about religion - Christianity in particular - and its role in public life. Whether it is protesting Nativities, the debate over “In God We Trust” as our country’s motto or the controversy surrounding the public faith of Tim Tebow, a national discussion is taking place on what the present and future role of Christianity in America should be. The consensus among the secular elites seems to be that it is a bit like smoking: It is harmful, but if you must do it, do it in the designated areas only. Richard Dawkins, the Oxford scientist and atheist provocateur, calls Christianity a “mental virus” that should be eradicated.

The professor should be more careful in what he wishes for. Like many others, he grossly underestimates the degree to which his own moral and intellectual sensibilities have been informed by the Judeo-Christian worldview.

"It’s a Wonderful Life" is a fitting metaphor for a nation absent Christian belief. Jesus Christ said that his followers were to be like “salt”; that is, a people whose presence is felt for the good that they do. As a man or woman’s evil nature is gentled and restrained by the grace of God, there is a corresponding outward transformation of society. The data bears this out. According to the research of The Barna Group, Christians are the most charitable segment of the population by a substantial margin. Hence, any society that is liberally sprinkled with them has a greater concern for the poor, sick, orphaned and widowed - “the least of these,” as Jesus called them. (This is precisely what Nietzsche, and Hitler after him, hated about Christianity.)

But Christian influence goes well beyond benevolence: Our laws, art, literature and institutions find meaning in a rich Christian heritage. In his new book "Civilization: The West and the Rest," Harvard historian Niall Ferguson argues that the decline of the West can, in part, be attributed to the decline of a robust Christian presence in Western culture. Ferguson’s point is largely an economic one, but the inference that Christianity has served to strengthen the fabric of life in the West as we have known it is unmistakable. T.S. Eliot made a similar observation: “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes.”

That is just another way of saying that the difference between a nation with meaningful Christian influence and a nation without it is the difference between Bedford Falls and Pottersville.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Larry Alex Taunton.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Christmas • Church and state

soundoff (3,025 Responses)
  1. waztec

    Yeah, in your world we trade Bedford Falls for STEPFORD Falls, instead of Pottersville. A Potter is a Potter, and believe me you are as bad as the one in the movie.

    December 25, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  2. Dave

    My take on this debate: having a personal faith to guide your own life is great; having an organized religion – whose aim ineveitably is to impose that faith on others – is not so great.

    December 25, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • agathokles

      What's inherently the difference between an organized religious faith trying to impose its beliefs on everyone, vs. an organized political or commercial organization doing the same? Every time we vote, we're hoping to impose our wants/beliefs on everyone else. An opinion is an opinion, regardless of its origins.

      December 25, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  3. Zargoth

    It was good of Mr. Taunton to read Nietzsce, & good for him to not read him more closely...

    Replacing the false truth of faith with the real truth of rationality & compassion is beyond his comprehension, but the failure to do so may well be the death of us all.

    December 25, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  4. GodofLunaticsCreation

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6axdZAxyt2g&w=640&h=390]

    December 25, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  5. jon

    "the 20th Century was the century of Atheist control in many countries. Atheists through Lenin/Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, the Kims of North Korea killed more people under the banner of atheism than religion in all the previous centuries. The lack of Christian values gives rise to the dictatorships of atheism."

    Are you kidding me??????
    Atheists this past centurty did kill a lot of people, but are you forgetting how many people died in the name of religion in past centuries or were killed by religious rulers? Ever hear of the Inquisition, the crusades, (the entire middle ages?) The people you mentionkilled a lot of people because they were sociopaths not because they were atheists, and they were particularly good at it because technology made it easy to kill people.

    Its statements full of half-baked facts like yours that the religious establishement seems to hang it's hat on and justify its own existence. "Christian values" through the centuries have led to more suffering and blood shed than atheists ever could.

    December 25, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Zargoth

      Please try to distinguish the so-called atheism of these tyrants (who replaced all religion with a cult of personality, so one form of irrationality for another, with very similar features) from those of us who are best identified as rationalists...

      December 25, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  6. NevadaOne

    Jesus was made into a G-d by the Romans. No different than Hadrian making his lover into one. I left Christianity because Christians hate me because of who G-D made me into. There is only one G-d and it loves me more than anything else. No his name is not Jesus! It has no name but LOVE alone...

    December 25, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • agathokles

      People seem to equate "Christianity" with conservative, evangelical versions of it. That's not fair. It's equally not fair to equate Islamic extremism with all Islam. I'm a Christian, but do not accept a literal interpretation of the Bible. The Bible is "truth," not fact. It reveals truth about ourselves, not historical facts. Genesis is a creation myth, not a creation history. I try to accept people for who they are (gay or straight; black, brown, white, whatever). I don't always succeed, but I try. And at the end of each day, I take time to reflect on what I have done and what I have failed to do. Please don't paint with a broad brush.

      December 25, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  7. rgrahamok

    If Mr. Potter were alive today, he would surely be a Republican.

    December 25, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  8. Bill S.

    How wonderful it felt to wake up this Christmas morning to this steaming pile of fecal matter.

    Yes, social ills can be blamed on people not believing that God impregnated a woman to have a son who he would later allow to be brutally killed so he could gain the ability to forgive us of our sins. Anybody who doesn't believe this is contributing to the moral decline of this country. In order to be a good, moral person you must be a Christian. Apparently, Christians invented being kind and respectful to each other, even though many such as this author don't act like it.

    People have always been complaining about "moral decline." It doesn't exist. Yeah, our economy is tanking but it's not because of non-Christians (nearly everyone who runs the government is Christian!) Our made-up social ills have been blamed on everything from rock-and-roll to gay people. Live your life as you please, but spare us your judgement. After all, it's what your Lord and Savior commands you to do!

    December 25, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  9. Mitchell

    I'd point out the flaws in his argument but it looks like someone already did it for me, enjoy!: http://skeptico.blogs.com/skeptico/2011/12/a-wonderful-life-without-religion.html

    December 25, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Thanks for the link. I knew that this CNN fluff piece was a steaming pile, but the article on the link demonstrates the reasons why quite nicely.

      December 25, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  10. southside nike

    Pottersville is capitalism run amuck.

    December 25, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  11. J. X. Mooncalf

    I totally disagree with Mr. Taunton. The film is about human goodness, not belief in religion. The angel serves, in a comical way, to provide Bailey with a Twilight-Zone-type experience before there was a "Twilight Zone." It's an experience that brings on a realization, namely that Bailey is a good guy who has done well for his town in the face of opposition from a bad guy. Christians throughout history have done much good and much evil; the presence of belief is no indicator of what kind of person one is. Dawkins is right; morality comes from us and is projected into religion, not the other way around. Look how much morality has IMPROVED since the Bible; today we reject slavery, not so in the Bible. I guess I see a very different movie than Mr. Taunton does.

    December 25, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Suki Barnstorm

      I totally agree with you. I have felt that our country has been sliding into Pottersville for about the last 20 years. It has nothing to do with Christianity, but corporate greed. George Bailey saved Bedford Falls only because he believed that all people deserve a lift.

      December 25, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  12. piouslung

    Merry Saturnalia, everyone!

    December 25, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  13. Steven L. Bullington

    I to was a non believer for 60 years.
    Be very carefull what you ask for, because when you ask Jesus to come into your life you had better be ready for all the changes he has in mind for you!! Your old self actually dies, this is a gradual process thank God otherwise you might think you were going crazy!
    If you would like to experiance Gods gift, try putting a small Bible in your pillow case tonight. See what kind of dreams you have. In the Bible we read how God spoke to some men in thier dreams, satan can also do this but not with the Bible in your pillow case! If you want the full experiance ask Jesus to come into your heart , mind and soul before you go to sleep.
    No one needs to know that you are doing this it's between you and God..
    Merry Christmas and good luck.

    December 25, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • pat

      Steven.. thank you so much for your post.. although it took less than 60 years for me to find my way home, I can very much relate to your words... God Bless and Merry Christmas..

      December 25, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • mo

      It should be "I too" not "I to"

      December 25, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • TR6

      Along with the bible in your pillowcase you must also wrap you head in aluminum foil to protect your mind from the evil thought control rays being sent out by the CIA and the democratic party

      December 25, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  14. doug

    My bet is that Mr. Potter like many of the hypocrite bankers on Wall Street was in fact a "Christian." Perhaps he was even a deacon at his church. The absence of Christianity won't destroy this country, but greed, and the Republican party whose policies compound it like the interest on one of Mr. Potter's loans, will.

    December 25, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Mark

      Doug, it's narrowminded bigotry like you just spewed that is causing the probs in Washington. As an independent I can definitively say your party has really let me down since I voted for hope and change.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • frank candor

      Well put! However, we should acknowledge that Christianity was in origin class warfare against the ruling Jewish and Roman establishment. It was originally the poor man's religion, arose in urban areas (pagan means farmer) and served the political interests of the underbelly of the Empire. How in heaven's name Christians can say that Christ wants you to be rich is a bold-faced liar or ignoramus. Everything in the gospels concerning his life and teachings shows he wants us to shun worldly wealth. That made him a radical then, though today through manipulation people can be rich extremely rich and Christian. What a joke! What an affront to historical truth. Yet what won't the filthy rich do to keep their wealth, to hell with all others. People like Taunton only facilitate the divide between rich and poor. Of course, many Christians continue to be truly charitable with their time and wealth, and that no doubt has contributed to their success as a world religion.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Dave Davis

      "The absence of Christianity will not destroy this Country...." I hope you are right, because the media and secularists are doimg everything within their considerable power and influence to make this as godless a nation as possible. I guess time will tell. My family has been in this Country since 1613 (Virginia colony) and ours is a great history, despite the slavery, civil war, and so forth. There can be no question as to Christianity's effect on America's developement. Read Alexos de Toqceville. Google the entry "America's Christian Heritage." Sure there were things that were less than ideal. Did Jesus or Christianity invent slavery, war, or any other evils? I think not. However, it does take time for thing to change. God bless America, our friends and our enemies, all people everywhere on this Day when most of us CHOOSE to celebrate the Lord's Birth.

      December 25, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • TR6

      @Dave Davis: “Did Jesus or Christianity invent slavery, war, or any other evils? I think not. “

      They didn’t invent kindness, compassion, good will or charity either; though, they often act as if they did

      December 25, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  15. Bob C.

    Excellent analogy!

    December 25, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • LastSaneMan

      The problem, in a word, is GREED.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Bill

      The real problem in a word...SIN.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • TR6

      @Bill:”The real problem in a word...SIN.”

      And where in the 10 commandments does it say greed is a sin? Although it does explicitly forbid cooking baby goats in their mother’s milk. –Exodus 23:19, 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21

      December 25, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  16. jmpgfoto

    This is a very well thought out pice and echos what I've been thinking for some time. Evidently many other Americans agree that we are in decline as a nation and even more worry about the future. We are exporting all of the living wage jobs to third world countries so that the wealthy can increase their booty while the average family moves closer to poverty. Anyone who reads knows that the gap between the rich and the rest of us has increased drastically in recent years and more people than ever are one paycheck away from being homeless. I will save this article for the future, it is that important to remember where we came from and why (America that is). Greed has replaced compassion and humanity and war has become a way of business, exchanging profits for lives. Many churches can no longer support themselves and are closing. I have been shocked by the small number of church members who show up for services and the majority are older and barely supporting themselves let alone their church, all very sad. YE$, AMERICA IS RAPIDLY BECOMING POTTERSVILLE, and it seems that no one is interested in changing our direction!

    December 25, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Dave Davis

      As long as we have a little life left, we have hope. The writer of Revelations said to "exercise that which remaineth." If we follow the Bible, this Nation will "go on prospering and to prosper. But, if we reject Him, who can tell how soon and how great a calamity shall overtake us..."

      December 25, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  17. This is God posting from Heaven

    Puritan witch hunts.
    Nazi alignments with christianity.
    Spanish inquisition.
    Abortion bombers.
    Protestant and Catholic conflicts in Norther Ireland.
    Jews versus Muslims.
    Christians versus Muslims.
    Muslims versus Jews and Christians

    Religion is the cause of much of the world's evil.

    December 25, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Sally

      Pol Pot- atheist killed millions
      Stalin-atheist killed millions
      abortionists-killed hundreds of thousands
      Mao-atheist killed millions
      people are evil it's not religions fault.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • piouslung

      Sally - And who created those people??? Ultimately, everything goes back to Him.

      Merry Saturnalia!

      December 25, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • Chris

      the 20th Century was the century of Atheist control in many countries. Atheists through Lenin/Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, the Kims of North Korea killed more people under the banner of atheism than religion in all the previous centuries. The lack of Christian values gives rise to the dictatorships of atheism.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Mike

      I know you're all knowing and all...but you forgot the 100+ million deaths from atheistic dictators (Mao Zedong, Pol pot, Stalin) plus a few others...

      December 25, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Communists killed in the name of politics. Christians killed in the name of god. Humans kill humans. Religion is not an effective deterrent.

      December 25, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • TR6

      The governments you mention, like North Korea, Russia and China, do not wave a banner of atheism for the populace to rally around – they are cults of personality (Kim Jong Il, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung, respectively).
      Lots of people have done terrible things in the name of Christ, but none in the name of atheism.
      The former Soviet Union, China and North Korea are all dogmatic, authoritarian, totalitarian belief systems, just like all the other religions. They are all systems with answers you may not question

      December 25, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Jeff

      Yes some people do exploit religion and do horrendous things in the name of their "God". However, it is vastly ignorant to say that religion is the cause of these atrocities. Bad men call themselves good and exploit people all the time, Obama is a prime example, he is a straight blasphemer. However, you cannot question the tenants of a religion that did in fact usher in the greatest nation on Earth. However, we have lost the ideals of the Bible, and our moral compass is lacking. The "Protestant Work Ethic" got us to be the greatest nation on Earth. Now the Secular "Do What Makes You Feel Good" is going to bring us back to the bottom. Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist: you can still agree that the Bible lays down a good moral patchwork to guide your life.... Today's Times and Failures compared with Yesterday's successes and everybody saying "I wish we lived back then", this is all the proof YOU need....

      December 25, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  18. Eric Fournier

    “I have gained this by philosophy: that I do without being commanded what others do only from fear of the law.”
    Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE)
    Words spoken centuries before Christianity existed and the true moral engine driving the story of It’s a Wonderful Life. The film is also my favorite and, in fact, did a better job teaching me how civilized humans should treat each other than Christianity (10 years of parochial school) ever could. The author completely misses the point. “Good” people created religion (law) to help teach morality, not the other way around. Religion is nothing more than a tool that every culture uses in some form to promote good will towards all people. All people!... not just the wealthiest 1%... or White people… or Christians. The movie’s foundation is not religion, but basic morality. You could easily replace any reference to Christianity with any other religion and achieve the same conclusion. Watch it again with a more open mind.

    December 25, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • jmpgfoto

      Well said, and that is the reason that no one religion is right or wrong, it's the humanity that is important and our humanity has declined drastically from what I can see in everyday life. Everyone blaming everyone else for the problems that we face. Civility is rapidly disappearing and instead of treating others the way we would like to be treated we are trying to take advantage of them (or kill them) before they do it to us. Pottersville is a very sad and depressing place and I don't want to live there but I don't know what it will take for people to see the light and make some changes in their lives.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Dave Davis

      This is more is in reply to jmpgfoto. You make mention of people becoming less civil. I, too have noticed this and mentioned it to my father the other day. We were driving down the road out in the country near our home. I asked Dad if he had noticed that people, especially the young people, 30 years and less are rude, hateful, malicious and so forth. Dad said "Yeah, they're the ones, by and large that have never hardly been to Church except for funerals and weddings." You know, the more I think about it, the more sense this makes.

      December 25, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  19. John Moore

    Free will is part of God's nature. Out of love we have the choice to embrace him or not, rather than have been created as mindless automatons to worship him. A lot of good and a lot of bad has and will come in the name of Christianity, atheism, Judaism, Muslim faith, etc. It is human nature. As an American I believe we should have the freedom to express our choice in beliefs. An atheist has as much right to their beliefs as a religious zealot. Like most things, political correctness has right and left embracers. I start getting annoyed when we swing too far in either direction and our freedoms of choice are taken away. In the end, I believe all of us will be held responsible for the choices we made while here on Earth for such a brief time.

    December 25, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  20. mg

    People like Richard Dawkins are every bit as scary as religious fundamentalists. The statement calling "Christianity a “mental virus” that should be eradicated is so absolutely intolerant that even athiests should not defend this man. The last time somebody thought a religion should be eradicated it was that little guy in Germany with the funny mustache. I have no doubt that anywhere people who think in intolerant absolutes like Dawkins gain real political power (whether they be religious or secular) persecution and atrocities will happen. I've often said that i would not like to live in a theocracy or an atheocracy. In a theocracy the state believes it is imposing gods will. In an atheocracy, the state becomes god. Both are great recipes for atrocity.

    December 25, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • This is God posting from Heaven

      Fundamentalist religious zealots are worse. Far worse.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • mg

      Really? Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Jung Ill....Go live in North Korea, or the former Soviet Union and try to speak your mind and then tell me that fundamentalists are far worse. You're wrong.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Shell

      Okay MG how about the overwhelming Theocracies vs Secular Dictatorships? Let's see you post this in Saudi Arabia or Iran? By the way, the secular laws and government is the only thing giving you this freedom of religion and expression. Not a god or supernatural spirit. Just like how you get to enjoy science and technology every day without magic.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • mg

      Shell – Like I said, I wouldn't want to live in at theocracy or an atheocracy. Secular is different. We live in a secular society, which neither promotes nor suppresses religion. My point, which you seem to be missing, is that both extremes are just as harmful. The kind of extreme statements that Dawkins, makes only makes it easy to dehumanize the people you disagree with. I mean, if you believe somebody has a "mental virus" it makes it easy for to look at them as less than equally human as you. Same thing with the fundamentalists who believe they are speaking for god. I'm not defending the fundamentalists, but you shouldn't be defending Dawkins either. Both are intolerant of people with different beliefs and that makes them both dangerous. And by the way, I have a PhD in engineering. I help develop that technology we all enjoy. You're welcome.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Adam

      mg your so full of lies and apologetics for intolerance and hate spewed by religous fundamentalists , you should be ashamed

      December 25, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • mg

      Adam – Have you even read what I wrote? Do you have any reading comprehension whatsoever? Clearly, no.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Shell

      MG, I was responding to your comment that somehow Pol Pot or any atheist or secular dictator was considerably worse than a faith based fanatic. Then you got upset and ran home to grab your PHD off the refrigerator to show all of us. I admit confusion since I wasn't aware PHDs in Engineering were offered at VoTech centers or community colleges but then I suddenly remembered the state of our infrastructure and things cleared up considerably.
      Clearly reading comprehension and social science is not required for your, ummm..degree so breaking this down to you in the most simplest of terms would be a waste of both our times. And why are you saying "your welcome" for a career of your choice that you don't appear to be very good at? How vulgar.

      December 25, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • pat

      Adam.. mg is absolutely correct.. how in heaven's name (sorry about that, force of habit I suppose) .... could you possibly interpret mg's comments in this manner... I'm just curious?

      December 25, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • dbag dave

      @ MG says :"You're wrong" ... oh, and your right? You're the all knowing, all seeing, final word on what is correct and incorrect? Whats makes you any different than the people you're criticizing? Making such emphatic statement smacks of hubris and is exactly what people , like myself, do NOT like about religion... Your point was made without that last statement, you want people to listen to you? Stop acting like your word is god... its an opinion, just like mine and should be treated accordingly.

      December 25, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • TR6

      BS alert. Hitler was not trying to wipe out the Jewish religion. He was trying to wipe out the Jewish race. So having converted to catholic didn’t help if your parents were Jewish.

      December 25, 2011 at 2:56 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.