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My Take: Stop sugarcoating the Bible
The 17th century painting Judith Beheading Holofernes, by Artemisia Gentileschi, depicts a biblical scene.
February 25th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Take: Stop sugarcoating the Bible

Editor's note: Steven James is the author of more than 30 books, including "Flirting with the Forbidden," which explores forgiveness.

By Steven James, Special to CNN

(CNN) - The Bible is a gritty book. Very raw. Very real. It deals with people just like us, just as needy and screwed up as we are, encountering a God who would rather die than spend eternity without them.

Yet despite that, it seems like Christians are uncomfortable with how earthy the Bible really is. They feel the need to tidy up God.

For example, look in any modern translation of Isaiah 64:6, and you’ll find that, to a holy God, even our most righteous acts are like “filthy rags.” The original language doesn’t say “filthy rags”; it says “menstrual rags.” But that sounds a little too crass, so let’s just call them filthy instead.

And let’s not talk so much about Jesus being naked on the cross, and let’s pretend Paul said that he considered his good deeds “a pile of garbage” in Philippians 3:8 rather than a pile of crap, as the Greek would more accurately be translated.

And let’s definitely not mention the six times in the Old Testament that the Jewish writers referred to Gentile men as those who “pisseth against the wall.” (At least the King James Version got that one right.)

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The point?

God’s message was not meant to be run through some arbitrary, holier-than-thou politeness filter. He intended the Bible to speak to people where they’re at, caught up in the stark reality of life on a fractured planet.

Dozens of Psalms are complaints and heart-wrenching cries of despair to God, not holy-sounding, reverently worded soliloquies. Take Psalm 77:1-3: “I cry out to God; yes, I shout. Oh, that God would listen to me! When I was in deep trouble, I searched for the Lord. All night long I prayed, with hands lifted toward heaven, but my soul was not comforted. I think of God, and I moan, overwhelmed with longing for his help” (New Living Translation).

And rather than shy away from difficult and painful topics, the Old Testament includes vivid descriptions of murder, cannibalism, witchcraft, dismemberment, torture, rape, idolatry, erotic sex and animal sacrifice. According to St. Paul, those stories were written as examples and warnings for us (1 Corinthians 10:11). So obviously they were meant to be retold without editing out all the things we don’t consider nice or agreeable.

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I believe that Scripture includes such graphic material to show how far we, as a race, have fallen and how far God was willing to come to rescue us from ourselves.

God is much more interested in honesty than pietism.

And that’s what he gives us throughout Scripture, telling the stories of people who struggled with the same issues, questions and temptations we face today.

Peter struggled with doubt, and we hear all about it.

Elijah dealt with depression; Naomi raged with bitterness against God; Hannah struggled for years under the burden of her unanswered prayers.

David had an affair and then arranged to have his lover’s husband killed. Noah was a drunk, Abraham a liar, Moses a murderer. Job came to a place where he found it necessary to make a covenant with his eyes not to lust after young girls (Job 31:1).

It’s easy to make “Bible heroes” (as Protestants might say) or “saints” (as Catholics might refer to them) out to be bigger than life, immune from the temptations that everyone faces.

I find it encouraging that Jesus never came across as pietistic. In fact, he was never accused of being too religious; instead he partied so much that he was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton (Matthew 11:19).

Jesus never said, “The Kingdom of God is like a church service that goes on and on forever and never ends.” He said the kingdom was like a homecoming celebration, a wedding, a party, a feast to which all are invited.

This idea was too radical for the religious leaders of his day. They were more concerned about etiquette, manners, traditions and religious rituals than about partying with Jesus. And that’s why they missed out.

That’s why we miss out.

According to Jesus, the truly spiritual life is one marked by freedom rather than compulsion (John 8:36), love rather than ritual (Mark 12:30-33) and peace rather than guilt (John 14:27). Jesus saves us from the dry, dusty duties of religion and frees us to cut loose and celebrate.

I don’t believe we’ll ever recognize our need for the light until we’ve seen the depth of the darkness. So God wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty with us about life and temptation and forgiveness. And grace.

Only when the Bible seems relevant to us (which it is), only when the characters seem real to us (which they were), only then will the message of redemption become personal for us (which it was always meant to be).

We don’t need to edit God. We need to let him be the author of our new lives.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steven James.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Christianity • Opinion

soundoff (5,744 Responses)
  1. Judas

    Religion is a Business!
    All religions hate anyone who does not put money in their pocket.

    GOD exists, he loves us all...especially those who the righteous hates.

    February 27, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  2. southern

    Excellent! I have actually questioned for years the many translations and how true to the original writings they were. However, my belief can be summed up in this one statement. "I don’t believe we’ll ever recognize our need for the light until we’ve seen the depth of the darkness." Thank you for your article.

    February 27, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  3. Elizabeth Prata

    There are several issues and problems with the way Jesus is presented in Mr James's piece. I took issue with one point, the partying Jesus, and I responded to it in a piece I wrote. It is here if you care to read, "Response to CNN Belief Blog essay "Stop sugarcoating the bible" http://the-end-time.blogspot.com/2012/02/response-to-cnn-belief-blog-essay-stop.html

    February 27, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      You mean jesus isn't a dou.che bag from jersey shore? I mean that's how I pictured him. ripped abs, greasy beard, banging the little troll girl...

      February 27, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  4. David Claytor

    @Horus Gideon, Rahab, Moses, Joseph, Isaac, Sara (Sarah), Abram (Abraham), Enoch, Noah, Abel and Samson all of these have obtained a good report by faith. These are just a few accounts of the people that lived and walked by faith and their testimonies still speak to us today. Look at there lives and they will speak of Him that keeps promises, delivers, saves and blesses even unto 1000 generations.

    February 27, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  5. David

    Wow! Thank you sir! Well said!

    February 27, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  6. David Claytor

    @Concerned I know because I have been set free. Being set free is a prerequisite of know the truth. "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." John 8:32

    February 27, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • CNN Moderator

      Your posting access will be suspended if you don't use the 'reply' link.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • ashrakay

      A bible verse that is actually accurate. I know the truth and it set me free from my dependency on god. I hope the same for you.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • David Claytor

      @ashakray We must now define what it means to be set free. Free from guilt, shame and fear. free from the bondage and chains of sin (lying, stealing, lusting etc.) Are you really free? "If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed." John 8:36

      February 27, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Yo!

      "Free from guilt, shame and fear. free from the bondage and chains of sin (lying, stealing, lusting etc.) Are you really free? "

      I know I am and there's no god needed for that!

      February 27, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @David Claytor, Agreeing with @Yo.... yes... free from all that I wish to be free of, including guilt. You don't need god to free yourself from delusion. You only need to discover WHO you are. Until you find that, you will continue to look for answers that exist outside of yourself, such as drugs, money, god, friends... Peace exists when you let go of these illusions and it is permanent. While external answers will provide temporary relief from suffering, they will always need to be refueled and eventually cease to work.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  7. Berdie

    Lets get it out on the table. I am a Christian. Reading this article was encouraging and insightful, thank you for that. I'm grateful CNN chose to put this up too we (all people) tend to saddle up with those who we know are like us and this forces us out of our camps, which is a REALLY GOOD THING. A.W. Tozer once said, "What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” I think that is true, even if my thought was that He doesn't exist, that belief is defining. I'm grateful that today all of us that read this had to stop and think, "what do I believe?" It was challenging for me. I saw some areas that I had let American cultural Christianity define my view of who God is rather than who he has revealed himself to be in the whole of Scripture. Thanks!

    February 27, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Joe T.

      It is good to see someone who looks at it somewhat objectively instead of just swallowing what you are told.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • ashrakay

      I too and glad you are searching for truth. It's a wonderful journey that requires intellectual integrity and great courage. I would only recommend that rather than asking, "what do I believe?" a more apt question is, "who am I?" Accept no subst.itutes for truth.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • Berdie

      @ashrakay: Not to be argumentative, but I think it is just as important for me to be clear and honest. Ultimately, I believe that I have found Truth (Jesus) or better yet Truth found me. I also know that my mind and more importantly my heart easily strays from that truth and wants to buy into things that are more...comfortable. My hope is that for the next however many years, days, hours I have I will strive, pursue, and toil for greater & deeper belief in the gospel of Jesus expressed in Scripture. Who I am is important, all the personality quirks (i have alot), what I am passionate about, how I treat others, that matters, it matters alot, but who I am and who I long to be is found in Jesus. The more I can look like Him the better, and I cant make myself like Him. I can "act" like Him, I can care for orphans and widows, I can give all my money away, I can read the Bible for 5 hours a day but if my heart is off in it it doesn't matter. If I serve orphans and widows only because it makes me feel good about myself I have served myself not them. God desires that our hearts are changed, our motivation is changed and I can't change that. I tired. I failed. I mean sure, i would white knuckle it for a bit, I would "do better" for a little bit, but in the end I would fall back into serving myself. I was nice because I wanted people to think i was nice, I gave money because I wanted be seen as generous. I served a god at that time, me. But God intervened, showed me I needed the grace of Jesus to change my heart, to soften it, I for sure didn't see it coming, I wast raised in church or anything. I just knew, my heart was broken and needed fixing and the only one that could was Jesus, he lived the perfect life i couldn't, died for my sins and gave me his righteousness. And look i know i sound weird to you, and I'm ok with that. You talk about the things you are passionate about right? And I am passionate about Jesus. Thats not to say I don't struggle to look like Him, I do. Everyday. But now my shortcomings, my weaknesses reveal His strength.

      February 27, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • Nah

      "But now my shortcomings, my weaknesses reveal His strength."

      It just proves how delusional you are.

      February 27, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • Berdie

      I would have said the same thing to someone that wrote what I wrote not too long ago also, so I get it...... Im not by they way. I mean, I know delusional people never think they are delusional but I feel very connected to reality. 😉 Thanks for reading though, I hope something in there was encouraging.

      February 27, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  8. Wisdom4u2

    I see the stinkin troll is using my 'Wisdom4u2'... wellllll
    It's not right but it's okay
    I'm gonna make it anyway ... LOL
    Good day old chaps!

    February 27, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • CNN Moderator

      Please never post here again.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Wisdom4u2

      @CNN Moderator ~~~ Kiss my A S S, fake jerk!!

      February 27, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  9. David Claytor

    @Joe T. and again he says in another place: Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. 1 Corinthians 1:21

    February 27, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • CNN Moderator

      Please use the 'reply' link we have provided.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • Wisdom4u2

      @CNN Moderator ~~~~ Kiss his A S S, too....fake ass jerk!!

      February 27, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • ......

      "@CNN Moderator ~~~~ Kiss his A S S, too....fake ass jerk!!"

      See what we mean by idiot posts like this one.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Wisdom4u2

      ......
      See what we mean by idiot posts like this one.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • Wisdom4u2

      @......
      Actually we do, 'cause you forgot the '?'. Did you drop out of pre-school?

      February 27, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • .......

      "Actually we do, 'cause you forgot the '?'. Did you drop out of pre-school?"

      That wasn't a question idiot, it was a statement.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • Wisdom4u2

      @......

      Liar....it was a question...read it again!!! ha

      February 27, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  10. David Claytor

    @Joe T. While you make that statement in jest, you're actually right and you have spoken it in a prophetic voice: Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. 1 Corinthians 1:27

    February 27, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • David Claytor

      I don't even care about this mystery reply button anymore – I just want to look cool by making the most posts.

      February 27, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      Here's my prophetic voice: People will disagree with me

      I guess since people disagree with me, everything I say must be true.

      February 27, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • David Claytor

      @facepalm please read @Joe T.'s comment and you will see why I posted this comment.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @*facepalm*,
      You are so right.

      (sorry, couldn't resist)

      February 27, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  11. David Claytor

    @jimtanker Many, many years ago there was no such thing as books, computers and ink pens so therefore history was recorded orally. Oral accounts of history was handed down from one generation to another. The gospels and Pauls letters were written approximately 100 years after Christ. The miracles that Jesus performed and his resurrection was surely something that would have been handed down from generation to generation even to this generation and his life and the testament of his blood is as alive today as it was 2000 years ago.

    February 27, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • David Claytor

      I keep looking all over for the reply button, but there are no buttons.

      February 27, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • Horus

      Amazing such greatness was only recorded (in text) by a single source; one you seem to use to validate itself, which is known as circular logic, and not reliable.

      February 27, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Joe T.

      David, there are many recorded words from thousands and thousands of years ago. Whether it be on scrolls, papyrus, walls, history was recorded. The Egyptians wrote about their many gods so according to you, those gods must be real.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • David Claytor

      @Joe T. Sure we have the Pentateuch or The Law of Moses Jesus ministered from the book and stated that he came to fulfill it. Read the pentateuch and you will see hundreds of prophecies that Christ fulfilled when he walked the face of the earth. Jesus saves and I am a witness.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • jimtanker

      Oral history is hardly a reputable source of information. Ever play the telephone game when you were in grade school? You say something to the person next to you and so on and so on through the class and see how much it has changed from when it started to when it ends. Same thing for your oral tradition. Myths get bigger and bigger until you get god. Pretty simple really.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Over It

      David Claytor,

      As you said, Jesus (if he existed) read (or heard) the Pentateuch and all of the old-timey Hebrew prophecies - so did Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (or whoever wrote under those names). Pretty danged easy to write stuff that appears to 'fulfill' those tales. Jesus even supposedly told his friends to go get a couple of donkeys for his ride into Jerusalem - so it would look like he was fulfilling prophecy.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Joe T.

      How do you know Jesus did any of that stuff? How do you know this? Because it tells you so? That is not a good answer. That is circular logic. When you engage in debate with somebody, to help prove your point it is best to avoid making use of logical fallacy to prove your point.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  12. Wisdom4u2

    Sam “You're spiritually constripated, though. That's probably more uncomfortable.” ~~~
    Thank you for showing how stupid you are…I’m thinking you mean CONSTIPATED? That’s what I’m talking about….get some education, fool.

    February 27, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • sam

      Shhhh, troll. You're getting too excited. Constripated is when you strip in an effort to coerce your system into being regular again. I can't believe you don't know that. Since you're spiritually backed up, you just need to strip in a church. Get going.

      February 27, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • sam

      Also, using this key a lot '~~~~~~' is a secret signal on the internet that you're gay. Did you mean to keep signalling that you're gay?

      February 27, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Wisdom4u2

      @ Sam ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~HI There, sammy. Toodles

      February 27, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  13. David Claytor

    @Yo! God in his wisdom chose faith as the way to find him and has hidden The Way from the wise and prudent of this world. God being much wiser than man has chosen a way that no one can find without faith. For without faith it is impossible to please him for those that come to him must first believe that he is and He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

    February 27, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Wisdom4u2

      I don't get it.

      February 27, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Joe T.

      So god only wants idiots to be his followers?

      February 27, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • jimtanker

      Faith is the belief in something for which there is no evidence. This is also called delusional behavior.

      February 27, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Yo!

      "He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him."

      Hey herbie aka all your other handles, there are many Christians that suffer and are starving throughout the world yet your god does nothing, the reason is it doesn't exist or it's really just an evil god. Wow you are one gullible stupid person.

      February 27, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Rather convenient, don't you think? I mean if you want someone to believe in something that doesn't exist, your only tools would be "faith" or deception.

      February 27, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      Jiimtanker u always make these gaffes. Faith is trusting and obeying God based on that trust. It is not blind belief. Even if you do not understand this definition a little contextual reading will help like the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac.

      February 27, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      It is a belief that says if He says He can do it in His Word let me see if it works. As in science u exercise this faith to explore concepts which are closed to your comprehension per the information you have. The more He proves Himself the more u trust. Blind faith says follow dogma. Faith tests.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      Yo! by now u shud know THE ATHEIST DOLT PROPOSITION
      Suffering(God's will)=Relief(Satan's)
      Suffering(Satan's will)=Relief(God's will)
      Ignoring or ignorant of Gen.2
      Suffering(Man's will)=Relief(Man's will)
      This is why men must love their neighbor as themselves. It is our responsibility to show love.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @Nii Croffie, You should know that atheists do not actually ascribe the suffering of man to god or satan as they don't believe they exist. They only point out the inconsistency of religious teachings that point directly to god or satan as the origin of suffering. If god created all, then god is responsible for suffering because being all powerful he could have created a world without suffering.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Max

      Ashramkay or whatever: Its always convenient for you to attempt to poke holes when someone speaks to anything about Christ/ Bible/God. My question to you is simple. Is there any other person or being that claims to have created the Universe, Man or satan? Ifg you have found one, why not simply go and follow the thing and leave alone the "crazies" that choose Christ the son of God and Truth. Atheists have not shown or claimed to have created anything nor can we say the goat you subscribe to created an ant. Please go back to the lab rats where you belong.

      February 27, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  14. Wisdom4u2

    Me, Leeanne and David Claytor are all actually the same poster...sorry guys. Couldn't help myself.

    February 27, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  15. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 27, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Nope

      .The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs...

      February 27, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • nope

      nope .

      February 27, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Nope

      "nope

      nope ."

      More desperation because you know Nope is right! YeeHaw! LMAO!

      February 27, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • nope

      nope .

      February 27, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  16. thepastorate

    You hit it on the head, Steven. Thanks for your sincere reminder of the Bible's relevance to us where we are today. I believe that most people miss the reality of the Bible because they don't read it to discover God. Jeremiah 29:13, "You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart."
    The only thing I am cautious of is to read too much into Jesus partying. The Bible says that He was accused of being a glutton, but I don't see Jesus partying like you would see college students party on spring break. That's not Jesus! I believe the simple fact that Jesus mingled freely with sinners and IRS agents (those people we tend to detest the most) and LOVED being around them, the religious leaders saw an opportunity to condemn Him. But for me, Jesus associating with the down and out low-life of society, gives me hope that He cares for me too–even at my lowest!!

    February 27, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • jimtanker

      It's fiction. Why dont you start ar religion based on Harry Potter? It will be more believable.

      February 27, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • GauisCaesar

      You may be missing the point. This is a liberal pastor that doesn't quite believe in sin the way the Bible obviously does. (And for the future, CNN NEVER does a positive story that involves a "Bible-believing" pastor. Only time they are invited is when there is a debate with a secular liberal pastor that sounds more like human secularism than actual Christianity.

      February 27, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Cathy

      Such a heartfelt response. Nice!!!

      February 27, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  17. nope

    nope .

    February 27, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  18. Wisdom4u2

    Hey Sam/Ummmm "Hey idiot learn to use the reply button!" ~~~~ Excuse me, but there is NO "button" dummy! LOL!

    February 27, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • sam

      You're so cute! Is your mommy home? Can you put her on now?

      February 27, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Huh?

      "Excuse me, but there is NO "button" dummy! LOL!"

      Wow do you feel better about yourself now loser? A link is often referred to as a button on the internet moron.

      February 27, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Wisdom4u2

      MOM! MEATLOAF!

      February 27, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Wisdom4u2

      Sam and Huh are embarrassed because they're dummies.....it's okay, dummies, we understand.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  19. David Claytor

    @sam are you ok?

    February 27, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Wisdom4u2

      LOL!!!

      February 27, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • sam

      Google S&M, David. You do know what Google is, right? Right after that, Google Santorum. It'll be such a spiritual experience for you!

      February 27, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  20. Mr. Anderson

    What version of the Bible would be the most correctly translated or "unabridged" as it were?

    February 27, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Joe T.

      The hip hop Bible.

      February 27, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • GodPot

      That would be a literal translation instead of a paraphrase bible. But even the literal translations are only giving you a word by word translation of the book's that were decided upon by ex-pagan priests over 300 years after the "hero" of the story was killed.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:02 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.