'Soul Surfer' opens after fights over depicting faith
"Soul Surfer" is a feature film about Bethany Hamilton being attacked by a shark and getting back in the water
April 12th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

'Soul Surfer' opens after fights over depicting faith

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

"Soul Surfer," the feature film based on the true story of surfer Bethany Hamilton being attacked by a shark and her journey back to surfing, opened last weekend in the fourth spot on the box office charts - partly a testament to its appealing family-friendly message and a marketing campaign that heavily targeted religious groups.

But even though Hamilton and her family's faith plays a key role in the film, many audiences would be surprised to learn that the question of how to show their religion in the film caused huge debate on set.

"I think to get anything in the film was a battle," said Sarah Hill, Hamilton's youth group leader at North Shore Christian Church, who was played by Carrie Underwood in the movie.

"Basically, what you're doing is you have all these people who want to make a movie about Bethany and they don't know the Lord and they don't have a personal relationship with Jesus. For what we have in the movie it was such a battle."

In one scene, Hill's character is shown counseling Hamilton as she struggles with living as an amputee. She reads from Jeremiah 29:11 " 'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.' "

The morning they went to shoot that scene, said Hill, who was on set often, "Twelve producers, me and the director were all sitting at the table and they all are just adamant about the Scripture not being in the movie. And they were saying at least let's not have the reference in it."

"For me it was a hill worth dying on to keep God in the movie," she said.

Tom Hamilton, Bethany’s father, said, “In my heart of hearts I wanted as many Christians as we could get to play parts in the movie. They just have a different spirit about them. ... Craig T. Nelson, who is a really strong Christian and goes to our church in Kauai, I called him and begged him to be in the movie.

“A lot of the producers didn’t want to go too overboard because they thought Christianity doesn’t always sell well,” Tom Hamilton said.

Kevin Sorbo, who plays Holt Blanchard, the father of Hamilton's best friend, said, "Sony (Pictures, the film's producer) was afraid to throw in the word Jesus. They said you can have God but not Jesus. They were worried about that.

"The studios, you can't really fight them," he said. "Hollywood screams for freedom of speech but only if you agree with them. It's a very two-faced industry."

Sorbo said Sony wanted to take out another scene in which Bethany Hamilton wakes up in the hospital. Her father, played by Dennis Quaid, is shown reading a Bible. He reads to her from Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through him who gives me strength."

Tom Hamilton said the studio rented a house for the family during the filming so they could be on set every day.

“They changed the script a lot,” Hamilton said. “Dennis Quaid would come up to say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t sound right, we need a Scripture here.’ The script was in constant motion, it changed on the set even.”

“They listened to us. We had some pretty heated discussions. Everyone saw how passionate about it we were, getting the message we wanted out there,” he said.

Rich Peluso, the vice president of AFFIRM Films, a division of Sony Pictures, said the studio made no efforts to whitewash the Hamilton family's faith for the movie. He points out that Jesus is mentioned twice in the film and that the family's faith is central to the plot.

On set, he said, "There were certainly lots of discussions," specifically about the inclusion of Hill's character quoting Jeremiah.

"There were some that voiced the opinion that may have made it sound too faith-focused," Peluso said. "The counter-argument was, 'Well, if her character uses those words and doesn't attribute them to the Bible it seems like she's stealing them.' We came to the agreement the best thing to do was to use the Scripture there."

The biggest question the movie's producers were trying to determine was, "How do we have it come off (in a way) that is authentic to the family's faith and doesn't push it too far so that it appears to the viewer to be forced in?" he said. "We didn't want it to appear we were pushing in faith to appeal to the faith community."

The studio made a big push to attract faith leaders to the project, setting up screenings for pastors and ministry leaders. But it's hard to characterize "Soul Surfer" as a Christian movie.

Like the hit movie "The Blind Side," though, the characters in "Soul Surfer" are decidedly Christian.  The movie opens with Bethany Hamilton rushing into a beachside church service because the Sunday morning waves were just too good to pass up.

"It's not that it's a Christian movie, it's an American movie," Peluso said.

In 2003, when a tiger shark attacked the 14-year-old Hamilton near Kauai, Hawaii, the story gripped the nation. Just three weeks after the attack, Hamilton was back in the water learning how to surf with one arm. A year later, she won a national surfing title.

Battles over how to portray religious themes in movies are becoming more common, as Hollywood becomes more open to addressing faith and marketing movies to religious audiences but worries about alienating nonreligious audiences or viewers from other traditions.

“After all the back and forth - and there’s always back and forth - it’s always best to err on the side of authenticity,” said Michael Flaherty, the president of Walden Media, which has helped produced the Chronicles of Narnia franchise and other Christian-themes movies.

“It actually is not in your commercial interest to secularize something like that, people will reject it,” he said of “Soul Surfer.” “People think they are making these decisions to broaden their audience but what they end up doing is narrowing it.”

But Flaherty said he thought “Soul Surfer” struck the right balance. “To see a movie where she wasn’t talking about her faith … it would have flopped,” he said. “It’s silly to narrow (the family’s faith). It’s like someone saying, ‘Let’s make a movie about Bethany but not talk about surfing.’”

Today, Bethany Hamilton is a professional surfer. In 2010 she was ranked 23rd in the world. "The shy kid has gone on to have a legit pro surf career despite her massive physical impairment," Joel Patterson recently wrote in Surfer Magazine, "and, in the process, she's inspired uncountable people struggling against cruel twists of fate."

Hamilton has long been outspoken about her Christian faith and the positive role it played in her recovery.

"We work with a lot of films, but the Hamiltons have to live with this for the rest of their lives, so that balance was important to us," AFFIRM's Peluso said. "I think we threaded the needle after a lot of work."

Tom Hamilton said Peluso constantly went to bat for the family with the movie, adding, "There was some give and take, but everything that was very important for us to portray ended up in the movie. We were very happy over all with the movie. We just wanted the real story told.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Movies • United States

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soundoff (2,051 Responses)
  1. Myke

    So referencing Jesus and the Bible in this movie is wrong, but it is okay to reference Jesus and the Bible in The Da Vinci Code? I see double-standards here.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Father Arcoleo

      The point that should be raised to Mr. Rich Peluso, the vice president of AFFIRM Films, a division of Sony Pictures, is not "how many times" the Name "Jesus" is used in a film but rather, the way it is used. If it was a question of frequency there are many films that use (or should I say: "ABuse") the Name more than twice and that sadly enough never seems to be a problem.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Pedro

      Nope – I don't see a double standard - keeping fiction in a fictional movie seems quite appropriate to me.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
  2. Jasonn

    It doesn't surprise me that the secular progressive Hollyweird crowd would resist telling the inspiring story of this young lady in a way that doesn't comport with their view of the world.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • JD

      Resist,,,by... making a feature movie out of it? Huh?

      April 12, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  3. Warrior

    I wish I could convey to everyone in the world the revelation that can be found in the one who loved us enough to bare the burden of our sins. Or to open the eyes of those who have been deceived by the one who has made it his mission to separate us from God. You may not be able to see these forces directly with the eye but you can see the effects they have on humanity. We have chosen to live in sin and turn away from righteousness, we have chosen hatred over love, we have chosen darkness instead of the light that shines on our true selves. We would rather walk in darkness than be subject to the light of accountability. As more and more turn away from truth and sound doctrine you will see the erosion of humanity. When this happens “Men's hearts will fail them for fear of looking after those things that have come to pass on the earth.” Christ said I am the Way the Truth and the life specifically for this rebellious generation so that there could be no argument. Yes there are other religions, yes there are other beliefs and doctrines, but there is only one truth, and Jesus spoke these words so that humanity would have no excuse. When you read these words you will either harden your heart even more to truth or you will know already the things I am referring to and pray with me for those who choose to walk in darkness.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Eric G

      You can convey to everyone your revelation. Just provide some verifiable evidence to support your claim.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      In hounding people who are not interested you should keep in mind what your Jesus said about doing this. DON"T Let God do His work.

      When the people we're talking to refuse to accept the Gospel, we aren't to get upset, but merely to move on to the next opportunity. Ultimately, it is God and not us who triggers change in people's hearts.

      When Jesus sent his disciples out he told them that if they were discouraged or found discouragement in a town that they should shake the dust off their feet and move on.
      Mark 6:10-11

      Don't you just hate it when atheists know more about your religion than you do and know the Bible better? There should be a lesson here: At the very least study your own religion from many sides so you don't look like a clone instead of a free person with a brain.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • QS

      "You may not be able to see these forces directly with the eye but you can see the effects they have on humanity. We have chosen to live in sin and turn away from righteousness, we have chosen hatred over love, we have chosen darkness instead of the light that shines on our true selves."

      The effects on humanity – such as fighting wars and killing others all in the name of ones religious beliefs...or in defense of said religious beliefs due to some perceived insult by one from another belief structure.

      Or the effect of teaching and perpetuating the hatred and intolerance of gay people, leading those oh so righteous religious people to act in a way opposite of how their professed messiah advised them to.

      And who is this "we" you speak of? I haven't chosen to live in darkness, hatred or sin. Sin is a religious concept that has no bearing on my life, or death. The hatred and darkness I see usually comes from those who claim to be religious yet go out of their way to prove they have no real conviction other than to make themselves seem better than others.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  4. Ran

    I don't get it......so Jesus gets credit for giver her hope, but not for sending the shark.....

    April 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  5. Cranky Athiests

    @ Sir Craig: Are ya makin' a positive impact now? Or are you just hating something for the hell of it?

    1. If you think religion is about guilting people into doing or not doing stuff, then you are totally missing the point. It's about doing good for the sake of perpetuating good.

    2. If you weigh the "religious" and "anti-religious" comments here, which do you think is more positive for society?

    April 12, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • runtumblerun

      Actually, I would disagree with you. I feel much much better about society when religion is not at the wheel.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
    • Hello

      Ah, so you approve of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and all the other atheism-pushing, mass murdering communist societies, eh?

      April 14, 2011 at 8:44 am |
  6. Reformed Atheist

    If there is a God let Him prove himself!

    Isaiah 42:8-9

    I am the LORD, that is My name;
    I will not give My glory to another,
    Nor My praise to graven images.
    "Behold, the former things have come to pass,
    Now I declare new things;
    Before they spring forth I proclaim them to you."

    Isaiah 41:21-24 (New American Standard Bible)

    21"Present your case," the LORD says.
    "Bring forward your strong arguments,"
    The King of Jacob says.
    22Let them bring forth and declare to us what is going to take place;
    As for the former events, declare what they were,
    That we may consider them and know their outcome.
    Or announce to us what is coming;
    23Declare the things that are going to come afterward,
    That we may know that you are gods;
    Indeed, do good or evil, that we may anxiously look about us and fear together.
    24Behold, you are of no account,
    And your work amounts to nothing;
    He who chooses you is an abomination

    Isa 53:1-12
    1 Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
    2 For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; He has no {stately} form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.
    3 He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
    4 Surely our griefs He himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
    5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being {fell} upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed.
    6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.
    7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth.
    8 By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke {was due?}
    9 His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet He was with a rich man in His death, because He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth.
    10 But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting {Him} to grief; if He would render himself {as} a guilt offering, He will see {His} offspring, He will prolong {His} days, and the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.
    11 As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see {it} and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities.
    12 Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, and He will divide the booty with the strong; because He poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors.

    This was written in 700 bc.
    The oldest surviving manuscript is from the Dead Sea scrolls dated at 100 bc.
    Who is the scripture talking about?

    1. Forsaken by his people?
    2. Pierced through, scourged for the sins of others?
    3. Silent during his trial before his accusers.
    4. Assigned death with wicked men…yet he was put in a rich man’s tomb.
    5. Who was called Righteous One. No one in the bible was called righteous…all called sinners, but this person is a Special person…sinless. Bears the sins of many!
    6. Died for others sins.

    This fits one individual…Jesus of Nazareth.

    Does God exist?

    April 12, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • pat


      April 12, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Doctordonna

      Can't wait until 2,000 years from now. That's when all the believers in the mystical Harry Potter will take to his books to prove he exists.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Maybe

      Reformed Atheist,

      Guess what? The writers of the NT read the OT (as did Jesus). They chose a bunch of 'prophecies' and wrote that Jesus fulfilled them... right down to the borrowed donkey story.

      They wrote about a few other fairly important events in his life which were not prophesied, however. Where is the OT prophecy of The Last Supper? The Sermon on the Mount? The temptation by Satan? The crucifixion day earthquake? Women discovering the empty tomb? The promise of a second coming?

      April 12, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      @ Reformed Atheist

      I rejoice seeing your post! 🙂

      Praise be to God who speaks His Word, sends His Spirit and resurrects the dead!

      This is for the rest of you, Atheist, out there..... You see what God can do wen you have sincere heart, and want the truth above anything, not willing to settle for less?! You should try it, and see what happens !

      April 12, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  7. Sam C

    I can appreciate this story. It lets me know not to go see the movie

    April 12, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  8. TSR13

    Ben, your level of ignorance is astounding and disheartening.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  9. Scott Yardley

    Why is it a movie can have a close up scene of a drill being pushed into someone brain through their ear (Phantasm) and its artist license, but just speak the name 'Jesus' and it's offensive.
    What a load of crap! What group a whiners! "Don't say the word 'Jesus' or I just may have temper fit"
    It's the cry baby Christian haters who tell the world what kinda of movie they are allow to make who are offensive.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • Doctordonna

      Never seen said movie and never will. I don't find gratuitous blood and gore "artistic license" and I'm willing to bet most humanists would agree. I grew up in the church, so I know there's a lot of christians who would be happy to queue up to see such a movie, however.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm |

    get a life and stay out of ours.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • JP



      April 12, 2011 at 3:38 pm |

    you people are sad excuses

    April 12, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  12. Donald

    Lycidas: I think I speak for many from the agnostic/atheist side when I say that our problems stem not from wanting to deny people their faith necessarily, but they stem from being forcefed faith through politics, through school, through American society on a daily basis. For instance, one thing I find offensive in this country with regard to religion is the total takeover of the Republican party by the religious right. I also find it offensive that Christians claim abortion is murder, yet don't care at all that many tens of thousands die in America every year due to lack of health insurance or coverage of some sort. I find it offensive that Christians in America would deny simple freedom of marriage to gays because of ancient texts. I can go on and on. The problem is not that we want to deny Christians their faith, it's that we're sick of their faith being forced upon us through public policy.

    Most find a better way to show this frustration with the Christian right of America... but some become offensive in their own way of combating this... by attacking it in a harsh and unnecessary manner. And when we hear the refrain from Christians that 'Christians in America are persecuted' or 'Christians in America need to fight back and take our coutnry back' ... it frankly makes me, and many others angry, because you have dominated the political language and landscape of this country for the last 60 years.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • pat

      FACT: Religion is on the decline, here in america and the world.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • ozzie1

      Donald – You hit the nail on the head. Couldn't agree more.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Doctordonna

      Amen, brutha! Most of us aren't anti-religion, we just want to keep the separation of church and state. Keep your holy deity at your holy shrines, please.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  13. Kisha

    If you tell someone's story, you can't omit key parts. In this case, its not about religion or the perception of religion, but rather giving an accurate account of her ordeal and how she's overcome it!

    April 12, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Donald

      Agreed. But by the same token... and from the view of the producers... if the main character believed that she was able to surf again because the flying spaghetti monster allowed her to surf again.... well, clearly this movie would not have been made at all, or that part would have been left out completely. You get my point, there is a growing segment of the American population and even moreso around the world, that has come to realize that Christianity (or any deity or deities) is just as absurd/likely as the flying spaghetti monster.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  14. Cecile Bee DeMille

    Not that interesting as a movie and less interesting as a news story about making the movie: Hollywood changes the facts behind an interesting story in favor of making a bigger profit.

    That's what the good folks in Gomorrah, I mean Hollywood, do. They make movies that people want to see. They think no one would be interested in seeing a faith-based story. And maybe they're right.

    It's happened before, it'll happen again and OMG it's happening RIGHT THIS MOMENT, probably.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  15. Joe

    Man, atheists have become more preachy than christians, how ironic...

    April 12, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Joe

      This is nothing to do with atheists. There are many Christians who might be turned off by a movie that comes across as too "preachy" and thus not recommend it to their friends. This is solely a numbers issue. The more people who see it, the more money the producers make. That's all.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Pete H

      That's because they watched too much Seinfeld. You know; the "show about nothing."

      April 12, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      Atheists preachy is kind of a weird thing as all they are saying is do some research on the other side of the fence from you. Be critical and thoughtful with what you read and say. They are also defending themselves and the science they study to find out about cosmology and that is not preachy. It is simply, and usually, a rational defense. I don't mean the snot nosed little teen bopper trolls who slime around on all sides without committing to any.
      There is no common set of beliefs among atheists. They do not, as such, seek each other out. It is not a church and has no dogma. It is hard to preach when you do not have the trappings of a religion to work from. If "think for yourself" is preaching then, okay, they are asking you to be a whole and free person by learning about things rather than just doing the knee jerk dance.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • QS

      Sounds almost like somebody is nervous about that. Perhaps the more that Christians feel threatened by others recognizing the absurdity of religion, the more they lash out and spew scripture, the more we Atheists attempt to counter the ridiculous with logic and reason.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  16. Tom Cruise

    Christianity is just a mind game. Now, let me tell you about Scientology and our true and wonderful alien overlords!

    April 12, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Little Surri

      Hail Xenu!

      April 12, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  17. WHAT...THE

    So it's ok to show every bad thing man ever thought of, but not mention about God? You know there's something wrong when you can show all the bad things, but not the good things.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      There are many who think that religion shoves itself in our faces way too much. That is one of the things wrong with it. Christians are bigots even if they think they are not. Maybe they support civil rights and are good people. Ultimately, they believe everyone who is not "born again" is going to the hot spot. Believing that ONLY your path is right and everyone else is wrong is bigotry if you state it aloud to anyone outside your circle . These people go around pointing out, with some glee, that most of us will not be in heaven. Well, good. Who wants to spend eternity with these people?

      April 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • lancem

      @calgary – aren't you a bigot for assuming that every christian (over 2.1 billion people) is exactly the same?

      April 12, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • QS

      You really know something is wrong when the bad is accepted by a majority of the population which in turn causes it to be perceived as good...such as it is with religion.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  18. Me

    Dear CNN, I know it's profitable but why do you have this section to simply pander to the delusional? The world will never get better until we all stop believing in fairy tales such as the bible.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Izzisgirl

      Dear CNN, Thank you for having this section to allow us to simply talk about our beliefs. The world will be much better when we all believe in G-d.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      Why are you in the religious blogs if you are opposed to the subject? How ignorant can you be to not understand that many people enjoy the articles and banter on the subject? How ignorant can you be to not recognize that you cannot understand people if you do not know the important, to them, things about them.? You cannot, CANNOT, understand the history of the West without an understanding of the varieties of Christianity that influenced it. It is absolutely critical to understanding the US to have a good grasp on what people believe and why. Much American behavior is not understood around the world because foaming at the mouth fundamentalists have no political pull in other nations. This leads to many guffaws outside the US. But, it all makes sense if you understand the Puritans' faith and dogma.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • CW

      @ Me,

      You are clearly blind....The bible is truth.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Matthew

      Lots of reasonable dialog and you go and make a fool of yourself and show how intolerant and bigoted you are toward people who love God.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • nick

      hey u know what,all this doesn't matter, if you believe in god fine, if you don't fine, stop arguing, no way si better than the other, they're all just DIFFERENT, different doesnt mean bad!!!

      April 12, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • lancem

      Probably ecause they want to provide a service to 83% of the US which claim to be religous.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • JP


      LOVE IT.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  19. Fred Mertzz

    I worship in the Garage Temple of Fred Mertz. Our holy shrine has the sacred lug wrench hanginging over the image of our savior the V8 Chevy 357 big block with duel carburetors. Many times as I kneel in prayer on a spare tire as they pass around the hubcap for offerings why so many think we are not worshipping but are just high on exhaust fumes the show such intollerance to my faith.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Well Read

      Chevy never made a big block that small. The smallest Big Block was a 396ci. The smallest W head Chevy was 358ci. The Small Block Chevy went from 350i to 400 ci with no factory displacement between. All the LS series engines are classified in liters, not cubic inches. So, I would say you worship in ignorace of the savior.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Guest

      Fred Mertzz, I'd say you're an idiot! Trying to be funny and failing miserably.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  20. pat

    The shark represents the fact that good and evil are not natual and the surfer returning to the surf board represents the fact that pleasure is the measure of all things.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Pete H

      Let's see you do it...

      April 12, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
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About this blog

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.