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Joel Osteen takes on his critics
Is Joel Osteen underestimated? One religious scholar says yes.
October 7th, 2011
12:26 PM ET

Joel Osteen takes on his critics

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - He peddles “gospel lite," a watered-down Christianity that mixes prosperity with piety.

That's how critics have described Joel Osteen's message. The televangelist may be the pastor of the largest church in America, but he still doesn't get respect in many parts of the religious community.

Osteen, a college dropout who never attended seminary, has built a huge international audience with inspirational messages that blend positive thinking and personal transformation. But is he preaching "gospel lite" messages devoid of any mention of sin and hard choices?

Osteen rejects that charge with the same honey-toned voice and unflappability he displays in the pulpit at Lakewood Church in Houston. There's no hint of defensiveness.

“I deal every day with life issues and sin in our church every week,” he says. “I deal with people who have cancer, talk to people about how to forgive when they’ve been hurt. I don’t think that’s light. That’s everyday issues.”

Osteen is promoting his latest book, “Every Day a Friday,” in which he shows readers “how to be happier seven days a week.” The book dispenses much of the same pulpit advice Osteen has given to the tens of thousands of members of his Texas church.

Much of that advice centers on attitude. Some samples: Playfulness is as important as sleep. After you climb, reach back. Give up your comfort to comfort others.

It’s not the traditional “turn or burn” pulpit message, and Osteen is OK with that.

“I don’t beat people down,” he says. “I don’t have a lot of condemnation in my message. I don’t believe that we’re supposed to be depressed and broke and poor and suffering. God wants us to be happy and to be a blessing to people.”

Osteen’s phrase “God doesn’t want us to be broke” sets off theological alarm bells for some critics who say that's code for preaching the prosperity message. Critics of that message – that God promises wealth to the faithful – say it transforms Jesus from a prophet to a financial adviser.

Go online, and there are plenty of pastors and scholars who go into detail about Osteen’s message. One of them is the Rev. Gary Gilley, senior pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois.

Gilley says Osteen preaches a “gospel lite” message that avoids anything controversial such as judgment or sin.

He says Osteen also preaches that wealth is a sign of God’s pleasure. There are plenty of heroes in the Bible, such as the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Habakkuk, who were poor, Gilley says.

“Someone might counter that David and Solomon were wealthy, but this was not the case for Jeremiah and Habakkuk, both godly men who lost everything,” Gilley says. “So where does Osteen come up with the idea that 'God wants to increase us financially'? Of course, millions of examples throughout the world and throughout history could be given of godly people living in poverty.”

Osteen doesn't deny preaching about prosperity, but he defines it in broader terms than do his critics.

“When they say prosperity, that’s some guy on TV asking for money,” he says. “Our ministry is not about that. We’re about helping people. When I hear prosperity, it means to have good relationships, to be a blessing to people, to have peace in your mind.”

Shayne Lee, a sociologist at the University of Houston, says Osteen has been misunderstood. Lee has been a blunt critic of televangelists. In his book “Holy Mavericks,” he examines how Osteen and other televangelists use branding to sell themselves to a mass audience. Lee spent a year studying Osteen's church.

He came away impressed.

“He’s underestimated,” Lee says of Osteen. “He’s got tremendous skills that people will never give him credit for.”

Osteen’s skills quickly became apparent when he took over from his father, John Osteen, Lakewood's founder and longtime pastor. Joel Osteen had run the media department for his father, Lee says.

Osteen had to give his first sermon a week after watching his father die, Lee said.

“Few thought that he was up to the task, and some thought the church would fall apart,” Lee wrote in “Holy Mavericks.”

Lakewood now has 45,000 members, Osteen preaches to sold-out arenas across the country, and his television ministry draws millions of weekly viewers.

Lee cites three factors for Osteen’s success:

Marketing: He says Osteen’s previous work behind the camera taught him how to brand a ministry and create a visually appealing and quickly moving worship service.

Timing: When Osteen hit the pulpit in 1999, people had already grown tired of the smooth-talking televangelists who were often caught up in scandal. Osteen was the boyish-looking pastor who exuded sincerity and never pretended he had all the answers, Lee says.

Preaching: Osteen may not have the grasp of theology and church history that some pastors have, but he knows how to connect with ordinary Americans through a therapeutic message that draws heavily from pop culture, Lee says.

“His lack of seminary training is part of his appeal,” Lee says. “He’s not saying big words he learned from seminary. He’s speaking in a language that contemporary Americans understand.”

Lee says Osteen’s church is also underestimated. He says that Lakewood arguably has the most diverse congregation in the nation in terms of race, income and age, and that it does a lot for the poor.

Critics who complain that Osteen waters down the gospel are suspicious because of his “lack of rigid dogmatism,” Lee says.

Yet Lee says Osteen’s preaching honors the example of Jesus, who told stories more than he issued dogma. He says many of Osteen’s sermons are built on insights extracted from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.

“Jesus used parables to speak in a compelling way that his contemporaries could understand,” Lee said. “Osteen is speaking the language of the people in the same way that Jesus did.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Books • Celebrity • Christianity • Church • Faith • Pastors

soundoff (1,331 Responses)
  1. ClaudiaL

    I watched him on Pierce Morgan & was shocked that he had no opinion on the death penalty saying we should follow the law. But, when Morgan asked him about abortion, which is lawful, he said that he opposed it. Sounds like double talk to me.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • ADESC

      well as much I hate this guy, being myself against both abortion and the death penalty. There still a difference that rules, in my view, out your opinion . In the death penalty the offender knows the consequences of his acts and hence he is responsible , in abortion, the one who is to come is absolutely innocent and devoid of moral fault

      October 7, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  2. mikel

    'Osteen may not have the grasp of theology and church history that some pastors have'

    That should send up red flags to Christians. Why should we study our bibles every day and do bible studies if the lead pastor doesn't?

    October 7, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • RIcky

      You've got that right Mike. Our Pastors are supposed to be teachers of the Word. You have to know it before you can preach it.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  3. Renee

    I think he is great! I started watching him not to long ago and I think even more of him now knowing that he didn't go to school! That is not what God and religion should be about, it should be about exactly what this man is preaching. My problem with christians now days and has always been is that they are there everytime the doors are open and are doing all this great work inside the church but when they leave they are mean unhappy people. That is not what being a christian should be. I like this guy because he is rich and he isn't afraid to share that with us, he isn't hiding anything and he talks about everyone being wealthy. He is truly a blessing to watch!

    October 7, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • RIcky

      You like him because he talks about everyone being wealthy.......... HAHAHAHAHA

      October 7, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • stephen

      God is a gracious father. He has given his son 2000 years ago when Jesus came, and finally died on the cross. But if you take holiness, Righteousness, Sin, and the warning of Hell out of the message you are ignoring THe true Message of Jesus. God paid a high price to pay for sin hiimself since He Loves his creation. But there is only One way of salvation. A complete surrender to the LOrd Jesus. People have been wrongly taught that God wants you to be rich. That is completely false. His desire is tthat you are saved, turn from your sin, Walk in the Ways of God. God does bless his children but it's not about money. Many belive falsely they prayed a prayer and now they are safe. The scripture states "not everyone who says to me lord, lord will enter the kingdom of heaven but only those who do the will of my father" again" the kingdom of heaven is not meat and drink but righteousness, peace and joy in the holy ghost" " many will say to me in that day lord did we not heal, cast out demons and do many wonderful works in your name. Then he(Jesus) will declare to them Depart from me you who practice lawlessness. then these will go away to everlasting punishment, but the righteous( those who obey Gods commandements) will go to eternal life" "for there is none righteous. no not one. All have turned aside. each one to his own way." "all who call upon the name of the lord will be saved" "there is no other name given under heaven whereby men must be saved except the name of Jesus"

      October 11, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • The Brain Fumigator

      Renee, your omnipotent creature needed his scapegoat son killed to do his saving thing why again? And how come he hasn't shown his face for 2K years? Reasonable doubt is more than called for. Weird stuff, what you Christians fall for.

      That scapegoat stuff was just copycatted from earlier supersti-tions than Christianity. And eternal punishment for even minor offenses in a short lifespan, wow, no modern western court would be that nasty. Quite the ass-hole, that god of yours.

      October 11, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • The Brain Fumigator

      post was reply to stephen, not Renee.

      October 11, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  4. Anomic Office Drone

    I'm not a big fan of religion in general, but it sounds to me like what Osteen is preaching has far more in common with what Jesus said than what Jerry Falwell and the other evangelical, TV charlatans say.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • DPeter

      I didn't realize that Jesus had a private jet and house in Aspen. Anybody that thinks a pastor who doesn't have an opinion on the death penalty, one of the most basic and profound moral issues of our time, is little more than Sunday morning cheerleader. He's not a moral leader, or a pastor in the true sense of the word, just an amusing guy on television who has made a great deal of money from middle class folks who understandably need a little bucking up in these tough times.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Schmooze with curls

      I agree he is not of the hateful Falwell / Pat Robertson type, he is not a divisive hate preacher. Still a charlatan and money grabber. Blessed are the meek who send their money to Mr. Curly (with his perfect $200 hair cuts)

      October 7, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  5. julietsierra

    He is great. He delivers the type of message that people can relate to. If you haven't listened to him, you should try before condemning or criticizing him. He's very funny,too.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  6. JES

    Matt 6:19-21 Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • RIcky

      Amen Jes.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  7. Johnny 5

    I'm sure he's a nice guy but he's also selling an invisible product and getting very wealthy from it.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  8. Jason

    Yeah, what a bunch of crap. I have seen him misquote scriptures and take things way out of context. Of course I am sure that most people don't open their bibles anyway and just sit there eating every word up.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Donn

      Never been out of context. Only out of context to you if it does not lineup with your thoughts. He's messages has always been very easy to understand and dead on.

      October 7, 2011 at 11:13 pm |
  9. scarlet29

    Usually I can't stand televangelists. They are worse than big bankers when it comes to greed. The "Hell Fire and Brimstone" message doesn't help anyone and the constant begging for money is even worse. That said, Joel Osteen is different. He doesn't take a salary from the church, he preaches every Sunday as a volunteer. Yes, he makes millions from his books, but how is that different from any other author? Yes, the TV show obviously helps sell the books, but you don't have to buy them. I find it refreshing to hear a minister with a positive message. I can't mock someone that wants to uplift people and prosperity isn't always about money. As Joel has said, prosperity can mean friends, health, and finding happiness. As far as his character is concerned: people who have spent time with him say that he really cares about people. (My brother is one of those people). My brother knew Joel before the million dollar book deals and before he was on TV. His heart is the same now as it was 20 years ago. He is just trying to put some positivity back into a negative world. But If you find him annoying: turn off the TV and don't buy the books.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Mikey

      Fine and dandy but a pastor should take SOME religious training. They should understand some Hebrew, Greek etc. They should understand the context of the social structure of the people they are preaching about. They should know more than the people they are supposed to be guiding!!!!

      October 7, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • ode

      I agree. Nobody has to listen to him. Whatever he makes for the church goes back to the church. Whatever he makes off the books, goes to him. No one has to give any money to him.

      October 7, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • Renee

      Very well stated! It is nice seeing someone try to put some "positivty" back into this world for a change!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • scarlet29

      The article is incorrect about his "religious training." Joel was a student at ORU in the 1980's (with my brother) and no matter what your major is, you were required to take religious classes as well. Even though he didn't finish college, he did have some training. He is also the son of a minister and he grew up in church. His father schooled him well in the Bible. Many good preachers have not completed an entire 4 years at divinity or theology school, that does not make them unqualified to preach. Some churches only require 2 year degrees from a Bible school and some other churches take on "lay preachers" that are trained in an apprenticeship like setting with instruction from a senior pastor. There is an African American lead Baptist church in my city that operates in this manner.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Peter

      Mickey. You are dead wrong. You don't need religious training to be a preacher. Most preachers in the bible were inspired by God with no education. The Pharasees who were trainned, do you know what Jesus called them? Hypocrites. So preaching the Gospel of Jesus has nothin to do with theology school. Thats why you have washed up pastors who have take the pulpit as a job not to spread the Message of God. Just because you go to theology school does not mean you have the Calling to be a preacher. Sad.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • RIcky

      Peter, Osteen sounds more like Dr. Phil than someone inspired by God. Pastors don't need formal training, but they need to understand what they are SUPPOSED to be preaching. Any knowledge he has of the Bible don't come across in his preaching.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  10. Geezer

    all of these televangelists are preying on the feeble minded religous freaks.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  11. do more prey less

    jJust another slick used car salesman. Be aware of these frauds.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • jj

      EXACTLY!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  12. Sharky

    L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, said that the best way to get rich is to start a religion.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • steveinmo

      As a Baptist, I sadly have to agree with that comment. Beware any tele-preacher...the greedy wolves only want your money.

      October 7, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Ron

      Anyone who sends a dime to a televangelist deserves the fleecing they're sure to get. Televangelists are modern-day Elmer Gantrys, selling Jesus to make a buck (or millions of bucks, in some cases). Wise up, people–stop subsidizing media charlatans just because they might make you feel good for a few minutes.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  13. Logic

    The term you are searching for is 'Charlatan'.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  14. pitung

    As usual, there are always people that critize preachers although in my opinion, Joel is one of the humblest, simple and best preachers in America. Even the bible says that a preacher is not honored in his own land.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Thomas Perl

      many of us believe that there is NOTHING Christian about Osteen. I say let him be in peace – just don't define me by his religiosity – maybe he can do good by helping some lost souls find something other than crime to be engaged in – just don't steal from me

      October 7, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • Mike

      Yes, I must say that Joel seem to be a good man and have real solutions to real issues. I listen to him every Sunday.

      October 7, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • RIcky

      That is correct. The Bible says a "prophet" is not honored in their hometown (paraphrases). Joel has 45,000 members in a church in the town he grew up in. He sells millions of books and is practically worshiped by many (including pagans). What does that say about the man? Not honored? I don't think so.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  15. matt housto

    Whoever cannot leave his parents and all his wealth to follow Christ will not see the Kingdom. Whoever preaches otherwise, secures his way to Hell.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • fellfingolfin

      nice, you even made is sound like it came from the bible.

      October 7, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Chela

      This is the problem with the religious... misinterpretation of the word... god bless you sincerely but talk to someone who really know what that means ...

      October 7, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • matt housto

      "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. 39He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it."

      "And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! 24And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."

      "Then Peter began to say unto him, Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee. 29And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's, 30But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life. 31But many that are first shall be last; and the last first."

      It's called paraphrasing Einstein.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Terry Parker

      I sometimes listen to Joel Osteen and enjoy his message but in the interview on CNN he sounded more like a politician then a preacher. Piers Morgan didn't ask him about what Jesus said about how difficult (if not impossible) it will be for a reach man to enter the kingdom of GOD. When he indicated that he's not in favor of paying more taxes, which would only insure that he pays the same percentage as many of the poor people that buy his books, he illustrated why Jesus said it.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • RIcky

      Here are verses about giving up what you have to follow Jesus.
      Matthew 6:19
      Luke 14:33
      Matthew 6:24
      Matthew 19:21-24
      Matthew 19:28-29
      Luke 9:23-25
      Matt 13: 22
      Hebrews 13:5
      Phil 2:3
      Acts 2:44-45

      I doubt if you'll never hear these verses in an Osteen message.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  16. BJ Bell

    "It's all about the money boys" said big Dan Teague to Everett Ulysses McGill and Delmar. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDI4qOSxK0s

    October 7, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  17. lolarites

    I saw this guy on Piers Morgan the othe night and was shocked to see how dumb this guy is. He doesn't know the basic tennents of the Mormon doctrine. He didn't know anything about anything, except I think he is up to speed on how to deposit money in the different places he's got it stashed.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Reid

      I watched the same interview, and I was amazed at how well he handled himself. Piers was so intent on pushing Joel into saying something controversial, and Joel refused to do so. Yet, he was honest, and refused to get angry which Piers was trying to do.

      October 7, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • scarlet29

      Trust me, Joel does know the basics of the Mormon religion, but he is careful not to offend. I live among Mormons and have many as friends. We don't talk about religion because certain questions can offend them and I think it is better left alone. Joel knows PR, even if it means playing "dumb." I find it is better to play dumb than to hurt my Mormon friends.

      October 7, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • dean

      The guy is a born salesman, which come in many forms. Coming out of Texas, it is no wonder he appeals to the masses there. A religious, gun carrying group of people that are easily influenced. Religion is complicated because no one has all the answers. Someone conveying that everything is good and it will all turn out for the best in the end surely gets plenty of followers. I don't have a problem with the guy being a billionaire. We have allowed much worse to amass fortunes at the expense of ordinary Americans.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  18. Truthwillsetyoufree

    Wow, getting on this guy is stupid... He teach religion smart. The other teach religion brainless. Wake up people. This guy says nothing about hate. He helps you understand how to deal with things. Dont be so frggin' ignorant!

    October 7, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Nonimus

      lol

      October 7, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  19. MarylandBill

    Joel Osteen: "I don’t believe that we’re supposed to be depressed and broke and poor and suffering. God wants us to be happy and to be a blessing to people.”

    Jesus Christ: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it."

    Not saying you can't be rich and a good Christian, but if you think God makes you rich in this life so you can be happy in this life, think again!

    October 7, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Thomas Perl

      Amen

      October 7, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • R. Diane

      AMEN!!

      October 7, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • RIcky

      Amen!

      October 7, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Evelyn

      AMEN!

      October 7, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • ndeipala

      No offense but last time I checked you are not God so “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you." Mathew 7:1-2

      October 7, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • MarylandBill

      ndeipala, I agree we should not judge the man. He might be a good an honest fellow, and might well believe what he is preaching. That being said, the call to not judge certainly does not apply to using what we know to be true and applying it to those who claim to be preaching the Gospel. In fact, we are called to use our judgement so as not to be deceived by false teachings.

      October 8, 2011 at 1:51 am |
  20. Mr Mark

    Osteen offers the same BS that all religionists offer – he may not have all the answers, but he'll tell you what god wants you to do/think/believe. Of course, god and Jesus are fictional characters, so Osteen has to invent a god that – miracle of miracles – just happens to agree in large part with Osteen's outlook on life. It's just the typical case of god following the agenda of the believer, not the believer following the agenda of god (which, let's be honest, if there was a god, we'd never know its agenda in the first place).

    Unfortunately, Osteen is offering nothing more than feel-good BS to his church members, no different from the Horatio Alger myths that all an American has to do to get rich is to work hard, or the fantasy that Santa will reward you at Xmas if you're good (so why do all the bratty rich kids get the best gifts while the poor kids get the lead-infused toys from China?). Osteen's feel-good crapola pales in comparison to the real help available through scientifically based life-direction help, help that is readily available in the form of psychiatry and psychology. But neither of those sciences offers hope of an eternal afterlife, as do religions, so people opt to waste their money in the collection plate, rather than visiting a doctor, buying a dream rather than a solution.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • JJman

      You think people don't visit Drs.? Half our nation is on prescription anti-anxiety drugs (fact), second only to sleep aids. Science ain't winning the happiness battle. Mind, SPIRIT, and Body my friend. The balance must be struck. You can contend God is fake, but we can see and test nature. The body produces all kinds of feel good drugs and hormones naturally(a scientific fact, nature) you just have to trigger the stimulus to produce them. The trigger is wellness through mind, SPIRIT, and body. If all you believe and have hope in is man and science, you're a miserable existance.

      October 7, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @JJMan,
      "Science ain't winning the happiness battle. Mind, SPIRIT, and Body my friend."
      And how long exactly have the spiritual arts, for lack of a better term, been working on the issue? If that were an effective answer, would psychiatry and psychology ever have started?

      October 7, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • stephen

      Jesus is definitley not a fictional character but a real person in the historical record. The bible is a historical record on it's own. THe people ahd areas described are verified thru the findings and diggings in the middle east. Jesus is also recorded outside the biblical record by such historians as josephus the jewish historian, tacitus the roman historian, Pliny the younger. Just as persons such as George washington and abraham lincoln are known to be real from the historical records. The difference is Jesus Is God in the flesh who paid the price for your sins. If you will pray and ask his to reveal himself to you he will. IF you recieve his as lord he will Forgive you for your sins and give you the gift of eternal life. He will also guide you your whole life. Read the book the case for christ by Lee Strobel and look at the evidence for Jesus. what you do about Jesus is the most important decision you will ever make in your whole life.

      October 11, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • The Rest of the Story

      stephen:

      If you haven't read the rebuttals to Lee Strobel's works, you are not finished yet...

      http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/strobel-rev.html

      October 11, 2011 at 1:00 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.