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. p hargus

    I love to take advice from people who think the world is flat – It makes me want to have a tea party.

    July 31, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  2. Observer

    Y'all... CNN is not pro-Christian beliefs group. The people they carefully select to write "religion" articles are selected because they have the same narrow Christianity-demeaning views.

    That being said, if you want to improve anything, who's the best person to ask? Your greatest critic.
    So this dude's criticisms of Christianity are largely true... but when it comes to his theology, he is off.

    For example, the assertion that the beliefs underlying the term "the rapture" are "a recent invention" is blatantly erroneous. According to the Bible, at the time of Jesus' departure from earth (after he rose from the dead), angels told Christ's disciples that he would physically return the same way he departed. Reference: Acts 1:11, link: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+1%3A11&version=NKJV
    Then later in the Bible it is specifically stated that the followers of Christ will be physically transported from earth when Christ returns as per above. Reference: 1 Thessalonians 4:17, link: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Thessalonians%204:15-18&version=NKJV

    Ergo, taking the Bible as the honest word of the Deity, as mainstream Christendom has done shows that from the very start of Christianity the teaching of the rapture has been a valid part of the Christian faith.

    July 31, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • Rallen

      Mathew 6:34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Sounds like we should worry about the here and now to me.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Ben

      Yeah, and all those animal burnings for god that the bible of mainstream Christians says you should do, better not miss out on those or god will burn you in hell forever. Don't miss that part and make sure you ra-pe a few daughters and cut off a few hands while you're at it, just like the bible says you should. God gets real mean and sends tsunamis if you don't keep him happy.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Richard Williams

      Close. Yes, the scriptures referenced to make the point. Although they were not viewed to represent two events (2nd coming verses the rapture) until the mid-1800's. It was John Nelson Darby that brought this theology to light. The logic is actually very interesting. Darby felt a literal interpretation of the scriptures required a literal Israel as separate and distinct from the church (the body of Christ). He felt only then could God's promises to Israel could be literally fulfilled. Darby's thoughts on this are referenced in many histories of Zionism from the same period (the movement to create again a literal nation of Israel after its fall in AD 70.) With this literal distinction between Israel and the Church, the remaining unfulfilled prophecy of Daniel (the 7 year tribulation) made sense with a two-fold return of Christ: the pre-tribulation Rapture followed 7 years later by the return of Christ to the Mount of Olives (as referenced in your Acts quote). Whether this was or was not part of "historical Christianity" is of no consequence – at least to me. If understanding the Bible through this teaching helps us understand things priorly not understood, so be it.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  3. JiminTX

    The idea of an invisible sky friend who watches over me, demands sacrifice, and will punish me forever when I die os absolutely ludicris. Then Christians take their magic even further by saying the Invisible Sky Friend procreated with a child-virgin. Hocus pocus has no place in my life or the lives of any critical thinker.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • BK

      To be fair, the whole thing with the virgin birth wasn't made up by Christians. Several other religions used that exact story before they did. Giving them credit for the creativity is more than they deserve.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:04 pm |

    Most of the stories in the Bible were taken from older Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek mythologies

    July 31, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • HumanNature

      No, genius. It isn't

      July 31, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • The real john

      Has anyone ever thought that maybe its not stories being recycled, but God? Perhaps all this time there really IS only ONE god, and he is all of them, given to the people in terms in wich they understand.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • Ben

      So, "The real john", then how come the stories contradict each other in the characteristics and actions they describe for their gods?

      Good try at trying to justify your foolish beliefs though. Keep on twisting and turning. It's funny.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • J.W

      The real john I have thought that before too. Perhaps they are all different interpretations of the same God. That is one reason why I have become interested in studying other religions.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Monica

      Because Ben, as it is with humans when a story is told over and over again among generations people add and take away from what originally happened. So the account of Noah in the Bible gets retold over and over again among many different cultures and societies and by the time you get it , the gist of the story is the same but some of the details have changed because someone somewhere decided to add an angle to the story that fits their belief in their god.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • Ben

      You're getting close, Monica, but the right answer is that your bible stories are mostly fiction with a few historical anchors tossed it so most people don't toss up on it immediately. The contradictions are vast, and the bible even contradicts itself. See here http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jim_meritt/bible-contradictions.html

      And note that the supposed word of god is imperfect if it can't survive time, if even one detail changes. So the bible cannot be the work of a perfect being.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • pat

      He is actually correct. The story of the flood was originally a Sumerian myth that was written many years before the beginning of christianity.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilgamesh_flood_myth

      As for virgin conception and birth, many eastern religions had that one included within their tradition long before western religions picked up on it: Hindus with Krishna and Buddhism with the Buddha.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • Monica

      No, the accounts in the Bible are correct. And if you study and understand it then you realize that their is no contradictions. It is man who adds the fiction! I don't know how many times I seen a show on TV that tries to tell about an account in the Bible and see them get all the details wrong. And they have the written book readily available to get it right. So what of those in times where they didn't have the scripture readily available. How much fiction can we expect to have gotten from a story retold.

      The word of God survives because he allows it to survive. One just has to disregard all the fiction that man tried to add.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • AvdBerg

      No, Monica, you're wrong. I've posted the whole truth here http://gaychristian101.com. The word of god survives because it's an effective meme and so priests can go safely chasing little boys.

      July 31, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Rob

      "And note that the supposed word of god is imperfect if it can't survive time, if even one detail changes. So the bible cannot be the work of a perfect being."

      In the spirit of this article, I'd like to point out that God didn't write the bible. No denominations take that stance.

      July 31, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
  5. MH

    I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Lee Cherry

      Takes more than believing. Satan believes and trembles. Blessed are the DOERS

      July 31, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Lee Cherry

      Keeping His Commandments. All of them. Which includes the proper day of worship. SATURDAY. Jesus worshipped on saturday. He never changed the day. Satan did. Study

      July 31, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Charge Nurse Betty

      I believe the moon is made of green cheeze.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  6. Jenade

    Correction: Salvation CANNOT be attained by working at it. The Bible clearly says, "For it is by GRACE you have been saved, through FAITH - and this not from yourselves, it is a GIFT of God - not by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8,9). For us to receive this gift of salvation, we must BELIEVE and RECEIVE the gift from Him, "Yet to all who receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God." (John 1:12)

    July 31, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  7. Torah101

    The truth is that if 'true' christian really wanted Hitler dead, he would have been dead a lot sooner. But they didn't. They liked his work!


    July 31, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Wow

      This is the most ridiculous statement out of the 1800 posts here. You really captured it with the cartoon......

      July 31, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  8. G Lush

    In the article "Do You Speak Christian" it would appear that the gentlemen you quote – Marcus Borg & Bill Leonard have much knowledge about "Church Christianity" but very little about "Jesus Christianity". Many of their thoughts show a lack of understanding of God's PLAN, Purpose & Pattern and the overall understanding the Alpha and Omega of God's Plan. Re the Rapture (Being caught up) – WHERE is Enoch? WHERE is Elijah who was "caught up"? Where did Moses and Elijah come from when they met Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration? WHERE did they go when the cloud lifted? There is another dimenrsion into which the Lord will gather His ELECT children until the time to sit up HIS Kingdom on earth. MANY are CALLEDE but FEW chosen to go in that Rapture and eventually reign with Him over the others who will be saved. WAKE UP and Take ALL the the Bible says – see the WHOLE picture. GRACE!

    July 31, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Real Deal

      G Lush: "WHERE is Enoch? WHERE is Elijah who was "caught up"? Where did Moses and Elijah come from when they met Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration? WHERE did they go when the cloud lifted? "

      WHERE is the verified proof that these events really happened?

      July 31, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  9. Eric

    Wow! That theologian from Trinity Episcopal Cathedral really hit the nail on the head about the rapture! You don't often see that historical view in print anymore. As a Christian, are you courageous enough to examine the evidence for yourself? Then click away ... http://www.amazingfacts.org/FreeStuff/OnlineLibrary/tabid/106/ctl/ViewMedia/mid/447/IID/9/LNG/en/7/Anything-But-Secret/SC/R/Default.aspx

    July 31, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  10. BRB San Deigo

    Just what I expected, a bunch of rambling religious crap. Essentially, you can make up anything you want about religion as long as you make it personal – that way no one can call you a moron without criticizing the religion. It is a great fail safe technique that all mystic, crapola groups employ.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Stephen Daniel Bennett

      But then there is zero foundation for debate.

      Sure, I could INVENT a religion, but I could not make up anything pertaining to Christianity without being a liar or a hypocrite. The text would convict my imagination. It's no fail-safe, it's just the way it is. Now if you want to address any specific points, assuming you'd have an intelligent rebuttal, then by all means express yourself.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  11. Richard S Kaiser

    Of GOD was Born the Gods of GOD,
    This matrix was a Facade!
    Of Gods I became a god on Earth,
    What manner is My Worth?
    Rich, Poor and Inbetween,
    Does one really know what I mean?

    July 31, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  12. Descarado

    Is CNN, one of the world's most rabidly, frothing-at-the mouth anti-Christian sewer pipes now offering classes on how to speak Christian? LOL!

    July 31, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  13. NorCalMojo

    ...and CNN throws the christophobes their weekly ration of raw meat.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  14. Lu

    Consider this Taoist adage: Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Stephen Daniel Bennett

      You put value behind that? That's like Nineteen Eighty Four doublespeak.

      If taoism were true, sure, the statement would be fine. If it's false, then the statement serves as the means to make sure people do not try to find the truth about existence. Like that saying that says, "When you aren't looking for it, you've found it. When you look for it, you've lost it."

      But nature demands otherwise. We want the truth. It is out of a desire for authenticity and truth that we begin to look at religion. And there, we must find the ones who speak about the world AS IT IS.

      July 31, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  15. xrceus

    why not just cope with religion... odds are it won't go away

    July 31, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  16. Wow

    Let's see. my job has made me use language that I don't use any where else, but it slips into my everyday conversation. Atheists use language that is used by them, freethinker, etc. It's not that Christians are a secret society. They use language that fits their beliefs. I don't agree with all the different theologies that are talked about, and view some of them as dangerous and definately not Biblical. These people believe what they believe as do I. I am a Christian and do my best to follow Biblical teachings. Sometimes I falter. I just thank God for the forgiveness of my sins through his Son Jesus Christ. The only thing I don't agree with is the spiritual elitism that the writer talks about. I am sure some Christians think this way, but it's implied all do. I mean to say the Bush used wonder working power to get the Christians on board is stupid. It's a term he used to describe the American public.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  17. Richard S Kaiser

    AS I Said on the way up, "Of GOD and By God I am AS a god" while women ought say, "As a goddess of a Goddess By GOD and HIS GODDESS Am I"!

    July 31, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Turoq

      Oh My God!

      July 31, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
  18. Duke

    Peace be with the reader.
    Those who have not been restored(born again), are the one's who speak 'Christian'.
    There can be no meaningful dialogue between spiritual man and natural man(fake Christians).

    The faithful witness

    July 31, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  19. Lee Cherry

    On which day do you speak Christian? Sabbath (saturday) or sunday (pagan sunworship day? Jesus never changed the day of worship. He was very clear. REMEMBER... Have you all forgotten? Whose voice are you listening to on sunday? Jesus of Satan? Really! Jesus will hear and answer your prayer if you ask Him what the true day of worship is. The answer is in the Bible. SATURDAY.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Stephen Daniel Bennett

      And yet Christians, historically, celebrated and shared the "Lord's Supper" on the "Lord's Day", Sunday. Even the apostles. The same church that delivered you the Bible, that same body of Christians, celebrated on Sunday. From 33 AD.

      July 31, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Richard S Kaiser

      @ Lee Cherry,

      Really? Saturday? Or are you a Seven Day Adventist? I dunno 🙂

      July 31, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Lee Cherry

      Iam a Seventh-day Adventist. I worship on the Lord's day—SATURDAY. Remember, Jesus RESTED on the Sabbath and rose on sunday, the first day of the week. I dont see a change there.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Lee Cherry

      Ah Oh!! Here come all the crazy comments on which is the true Sabbath day. I ve heard them all.
      Study your Bible again.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  20. Stephen Daniel Bennett

    "The idolotry of worshipping a book (the Bible) has reached fever pitched. We can only pray such Christians evolve into an awareness of the unity of all life rather than continue to worship false idols.' -emtech

    The statement is ludicrous. How do you worship a book that says doing such a thing would be idolatry? It would be a sin, according to the book, to worship the book.

    – _ –

    Do you all know what has reached a fever pitch? The universal ignorance and lack of knowledge regarding these religions and their relationships with each other. And any information regarding Christianity and the history of it beyond Roman Catholicism's...

    "Do you speak Christian'? How about this question: "Is your understanding of Christianity based off a gross misinterpretation of contemporary translations or men who use religion to make a profit?" Because according to this same book, in these times of evil (and even the most positive-minded atheist should know something is WRONG with our environment) men will distort the teachings for their own gain. They're called false teachers and prophets. I guarantee all of you that the majority of those who call themselves Christians (sincere or not) are under the tutelage of false teachers and profiteers.

    Ever heard someone say "I've been born again?" Did they act like a new creation or a human with a conscience? Because you don't need to be Christian to have a conscience. What differentiates those "born again" from those who aren't? If there is no observable difference, than their statement is false.

    The majority of you who have words to say against Christians tend to reference points based off a misinterpretation of the Bible perpetuated by those who wish to profit off of it. Few realize that not everything is to be taken literally from the book.

    bobcat2u brings up Noah and uses the text as a scientific explanation of the history of mankind. He already made a mistake. What if I told you that Noah and his ark is a type of "shadow" or prophetic sign of what is to come at the end of the world: a "flood" which cleans the lands of those which pollute it and only those who are in the ark (can you interpret it?) will make it through?

    It is of a different nature and must be approached that way. The Bible is not written for the benefit of telling you how the universe works and how, supposedly, electrons (in quantum physics) will act as a wave when unobserved but as a particle when observed. It is not concerned with any of that. It's not there to satisfy a curiousity. It is a book designed for your mind, heart and soul, to guide your thoughts and actions for the sake of – according to the book – making sure that when your body decomposes into dirt, your existence will not be in a place of darkness. Call it outer space. Call it hell.

    July 31, 2011 at 2:47 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.