My Take: The 3 biggest biblical misconceptions
The Bible presents us with an evolving story, writes John Shelby Spong.
December 29th, 2011
09:10 AM ET

My Take: The 3 biggest biblical misconceptions

Editor’s note: John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, is author of "Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World."

By John Shelby Spong, Special to CNN

The Bible is both a reservoir of spiritual insight and a cultural icon to which lip service is still paid in the Western world. Yet when the Bible is talked about in public by both believers and critics, it becomes clear that misconceptions abound.

To me, three misconceptions stand out and serve to make the Bible hard to comprehend.

First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it.

The facts are that Abraham, the biblically acknowledged founding father of the Jewish people, whose story forms the earliest content of the Bible, died about 900 years before the first story of Abraham was written in the Old Testament.

Actually, that's not in the Bible

Can a defining tribal narrative that is passed on orally for 45 generations ever be regarded as history, at least as history is understood today?

Moses, the religious genius who put his stamp on the religion of the Old Testament more powerfully than any other figure, died about 300 years before the first story of Moses entered the written form we call Holy Scripture.

This means that everything we know about Moses in the Bible had to have passed orally through about 15 generations before achieving written form. Do stories of heroic figures not grow, experience magnifying tendencies and become surrounded by interpretive mythology as the years roll by?

My Take: Bible condemns a lot, so why focus on homosexuality?

Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.

Are the gospels then capable of being effective guides to history? If we line up the gospels in the time sequence in which they were written - that is, with Mark first, followed by Matthew, then by Luke and ending with John - we can see exactly how the story expanded between the years 70 and 100.

For example, miracles do not get attached to the memory of Jesus story until the eighth decade. The miraculous birth of Jesus is a ninth-decade addition; the story of Jesus ascending into heaven is a 10th-decade narrative.

In the first gospel, Mark, the risen Christ appears physically to no one, but by the time we come to the last gospel, John, Thomas is invited to feel the nail prints in Christ’s hands and feet and the spear wound in his side.

Perhaps the most telling witness against the claim of accurate history for the Bible comes when we read the earliest narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark’s gospel and discover that it is not based on eyewitness testimony at all.

My Take: Yes, the Bible really condemns homosexuality

Instead, it’s an interpretive account designed to conform the story of Jesus’ death to the messianic yearnings of the Hebrew Scriptures, including Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.

The Bible interprets life from its particular perspective; it does not record in a factual way the human journey through history.

The second major misconception comes from the distorting claim that the Bible is in any literal sense “the word of God.” Only someone who has never read the Bible could make such a claim. The Bible portrays God as hating the Egyptians, stopping the sun in the sky to allow more daylight to enable Joshua to kill more Amorites and ordering King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites.

Can these acts of immorality ever be called “the word of God”? The book of Psalms promises happiness to the defeated and exiled Jews only when they can dash the heads of Babylonian children against the rocks! Is this “the word of God? What kind of God would that be?

The Bible, when read literally, calls for the execution of children who are willfully disobedient to their parents, for those who worship false gods, for those who commit adultery, for homosexual persons and for any man who has sex with his mother-in-law, just to name a few.

The Bible exhorts slaves to be obedient to their masters and wives to be obedient to their husbands. Over the centuries, texts like these, taken from the Bible and interpreted literally, have been used as powerful and evil weapons to support killing prejudices and to justify the cruelest kind of inhumanity.

The third major misconception is that biblical truth is somehow static and thus unchanging. Instead, the Bible presents us with an evolutionary story, and in those evolving patterns, the permanent value of the Bible is ultimately revealed.

It was a long road for human beings and human values to travel between the tribal deity found in the book of Exodus, who orders the death of the firstborn male in every Egyptian household on the night of the Passover, until we reach an understanding of God who commands us to love our enemies.

The transition moments on this journey can be studied easily. It was the prophet named Hosea, writing in the eighth century B.C., who changed God’s name to love. It was the prophet named Amos who changed God’s name to justice. It was the prophet we call Jonah who taught us that the love of God is not bounded by the limits of our own ability to love.

It was the prophet Micah who understood that beautiful religious rituals and even lavish sacrifices were not the things that worship requires, but rather “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” It was the prophet we call Malachi, writing in the fifth century B.C., who finally saw God as a universal experience, transcending all national and tribal boundaries.

One has only to look at Christian history to see why these misconceptions are dangerous. They have fed religious persecution and religious wars. They have fueled racism, anti-female biases, anti-Semitism and homophobia.They have fought against science and the explosion of knowledge.

The ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes human limits and calls us to a recognition that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called to be all that that life is capable of being. The Bible is, thus, not about religion at all but about becoming deeply and fully human. It issues the invitation to live fully, to love wastefully and to have the courage to be our most complete selves.

That is why I treasure this book and why I struggle to reclaim its essential message for our increasingly non-religious world.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Shelby Spong.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Christianity • Opinion

soundoff (6,068 Responses)
  1. Joel

    If the Bible isn't historically accurate, then a former Episcopalian bishop just said Christianity is a lie. Not someone I would take seriously. Sounds like he's just trying to pander watered-down Christianity to liberals and weaken any further debates that take a religious turn.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      There are other options there sonny. Are you 5 yet ?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
  2. Mila

    Wow this guy clearly doesn't Bible, people were inspired by God and wrote the Bible, and this bishop is being so "smart" and found JUST 3??? those who are not seeking God in the Bible will actually find a lot more than 3 biblical misconceptions, which apparantly only 3 in his head, so please do not measure everyone under the same ruler. I would be afraid to say something against Bible or question at loud if it is really word from God... Just tell me your opinion when you will be on death bed... even Darwin & Lenin cried to God

    December 29, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
  3. Henri 1994

    Hmm. The fact that a Christian leader, a "priest," is proclaiming these assertions and his personal feelings– and that these are his personal feelings, is indeed very disturbing. What is the world coming to, when a man of the cloth tells the world that Jesus actually never did ascend into Heaven.

    I don't want to point fingers, but I'lll do it anyway: it's not surprising that this is a Catholic priest.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
    • xnmt

      He's not a Catholic priest, he's a former Episcopal bishop. My goodness, it's there in black and white.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
  4. Rob

    To claim that 'every biblical scholar' denies the Bible accurately reflects history is simply wrong. Much of this is guess work. Scholarly research is divided on the historicity of the Bible. Read for instance articles/books by:

    Richard Bauckham, the biblical scholar and retired professor of New Testament at University of St. Andrews, Scotland.
    NT Wright, a leading New Testament scholar who taught New Testament at Oxford and former Anglican Bishop of Durham.
    Alister McGrath, professor of theology at Kings College, London.

    While the points raised are serious and should be thoughtfully engaged, it's unscholarly to claim such universal authority within the academy. That's just wrong.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
  5. Michael

    Dear brothers and non brothers,
    We may diagree or agree with this article. Personally I disagree with the article, God is who He is becuase He can be, He is Just, He is Spirit, He is Holy, He is light. We should love one another and seek the lost and not spend are time condeming people, but we as Christians are going to be cast out for what we belive. False prophets and othe wolves will try to steal or twist what the Elect have. Jesus is King and Lord over all and He is coming back and on that Day, the only thing that matters is, "Is He Lord over your life?" The bible is the true Word of God and it says what it says. At least God gave us a way to heaven when He could of just let us all burn and not give us a chance to repent. Come to Jesus!!!

    December 29, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
    • HeWhoSeeks

      Michael, the only things we know about God, the creator , or however we each choose to recognize him, is by our own personal relationship with him. Most people are christian, because they were born in a christian nation to christian parents. it is the same with most religions around the world. In reality, I would respect someone who took the step to convert to something different over the fears of turning against their own. The bible, the koran, the torah, are all written by men, whether enlightened or otherwise. We as individuals have no first hand knowledge of their source besides what other seeking individuals have told us. Becuase your preacher tells you it is the word of God, is no more valid then a Caliph telling is follower the koran is the word of Allah.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
  6. AB

    Religion doesn't matter. A personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ is all that matters. Once you acknowledge your sins and realize that there is nothing you can do to save your selves from your sins without the Lord Jesus Christ, you are for a real big surprise from the Lord. Everything blurry will be clear. All you have to do is surrender your heart to Him and you will not be deceived. Everything will be cleared and you will fall in the status of crazy Christians.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
  7. warinheaven

    militant priest and militant nuns===salvation 'army'

    December 29, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
  8. xnay

    I have noticed CNNs belief blog usually is a disbelief blog. This must be reflection of the CNN editorial news staff

    December 29, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
  9. Tom


    He says that books were penned too many years after the events occurred. He has no proof for this, so he assumes that we will believe him simply because he said it. This is based on assumptions by bible unbelievers that have not been proven.

    Clearly though, the things he says about the bible ARE NOT TRUE.


    Abraham's son Isaac loved his enemies by letting them steal 2 wells that he had dug. The Law of Moses teaches men to love their enemies in Exodus 23:4-5.

    The fact that our Creator inspired judgment on evil nations that were burning their sons & daughters in the fire to various idols does not make Israel a hater of their enemies. Rather, they were a tool of justice on wicked nations.

    A loving Creator is not a foreign concept to the law of Moses:

    Deut. 10:18 – "He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.

    Deut. 33:3 – Yes, He loves the people; All His saints are in Your hand

    This man, to his own shame, DOES NOT KNOW THE BIBLE. If he doesn't know about those verses, how can we trust the rest of what he says?

    December 29, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
    • HeWhoSeeks

      Tom, sigh... It is a known fact that the gospels were written over 60 years after the fact. simply ask your preacher, or priest, its no secret. Just not many people take the time to actually study historical religion.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
  10. warinheaven

    saw a bunch priest from differnet christian sectos and denominations having a gang fight in the house of God...that is war in heaven...

    December 29, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
  11. Anthony

    This guy really needs to look up the word 'misconception'. I think the word he was looking for was 'disagreement'. Surely he isn't that pompous? His first two 'misconceptions' are immediately followed with factual errors:

    "First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it." There are many Biblical scholars who do not agree with this statement; in fact, almost every biblical scholar in history would disagree with it until about 50 years ago.

    "The second major misconception comes from the distorting claim that the Bible is in any literal sense “the word of God.” Only someone who has never read the Bible could make such a claim." There are, in fact, many people who have read the bible (myself included), who much such a claim. His points in this section then proceed to claim that the Bible can't be the word of God because he doesn't think God would do certain things. Hello?

    This is just plain bad journalism, whether you agree with it or not.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • HeWhoSeeks

      Anthony, your comment is a case in point. you have read the bible, and believe it to be the literal truth. I would hope that living within the age of enlightenment, that many would recognize esoteric writing when they saw it. the bible is full of symbolism not facts. However revelations does say in the end the wise will have understanding, it did not say everyone would. These comments prove we have more of the later here.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
  12. Monte

    Sad. If the God can create the universe, and all this amazing beauty and life that surrounds us, we are led to believe that he could not inspire and preserve the people and accounts of their lives. Pandering.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • Anthony

      That's what the Episcopal Church stands for... pandering.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
  13. wisdom4u2

    My Take: The 3 biggest John Shelby Spong misconceptions

    1) Thinking that he‘s ‘WISE‘
    2) Believing that he‘s found the ‘TRUTH‘
    3) The belief that he‘s ‘HUMBLED‘!!!

    “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there ‘SHALL BE’ false teachers among you, who privately shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.”

    BUH-BYE, John Shelby Spong.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • Sam Houston

      Right on.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
    • HeWhoSeeks

      It will likely never cease to amaze me, those who feel obligated to chasitise someone for their opinion. He simply stated facts, those facts are why there are over 1750 different christian demonations. It explains the inquistions, the protestant reformation, the jew bashing and the arab hating. stating facts does not make one evil, acting on them does.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      Yes, and I'm only stating my opinion after reading his article...Okay?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
  14. El Kababa

    Anyone who takes the Bible seriously will never eat pork. If there is any sin that is unquestionably and obviously condemned by God and all His prophets and by his Son, it is surely the eating of pork.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
    • ozzy

      Seriously, we are under grace. Did you know read that all things are lawful but not all expedient. Have you not read that what goes into a man does not make him unclean but what comes out of the heart. The eating of pork was a dietary provision. Jesus rebuked this idea of outward signs of cleanliness and pointed to the inner mans heart as the source of uncleanliness.

      thanks for you post.

      December 30, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  15. Benjamin

    The shocking thing about Abrahamic religions isn't that these misconceptions exist, it's that there are people who are aware of them and nonetheless believe.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
    • david

      You should have written "beautiful" instead of "shocking"

      December 29, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • El Kababa

      The need to be religious is a product of evolution. It short-circuits the rational mind somehow and it allows believers to believe despite the facts and despite their own experience. None of the faithful Christians posting here have ever heard God's voice or seen God. They have never had visions or seen miracles. Yet they believe.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
    • PleezThink

      Hi El Kababa. Do you believe that something came from nothing? Do you believe in the big bang, yet you never heard it?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
    • david

      The idolization of "The Rational Mind" creates far more violence and inhumanity than belief in "G-d". Scientific progress is both wonderful and consistent with fundamentalist monotheisms. The problem isn't Rationality; the problem is the worship of Rationality.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
    • PleezThink

      David. Well said.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      They HAVE heard the Big Bang. Stay awake in science class next go-round. (Google COBE).

      December 29, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
    • ozzy

      El Kabbab, it is sad to hear that you have not heard Gods Voice or seen visions or miracles. I have experienced all these. Could it be because you reject God he has left you to your own free will. We all have free will God will not force himself on you. As to Peppermint Patty, I read the article and if you want to get technical they heard the radiation that was created by the Big Bang. They per say did not hear the BANG. Its irrelevant because we get into the cause and effect argument. What caused the Big Bang. I believe it was God who created The Bang.

      December 30, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  16. John Faile

    To Mr. Spong:

    Who do you believe in, yourself?
    Explain to me the origin of design.
    Explain to me your ability to reason.
    Explain to me why you are right and everyone else is wrong.
    You will not be able to answer these questions, because you don't know.
    If you think you know, you are an arogant jerk.
    If you don;'t know, then who does?
    God does, you should ask him because obviously he hasn't revealed the truth to you.
    Jesus was asked "what is truth?" I think he answered "I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me"

    Mr. Spong:

    Long after you are dead, and you are eternally rotting in hell, Jesus' words will still stand. No one will know who you are, but Jesus and his father will be glorified forever; and you will ask for a drop of water because your throat is burning in sulfur.

    Repent Mr. Spong and ask God for his forgiveness least your fate is forever sealed.
    What if you are wrong!

    December 29, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
    • Answer

      I'm sure you're just threatening. Keep at it. One day it will sure to work.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
    • Drew

      If no one comes to truth except by Jesus, why do you need some rule book that was written and compiled by intelligent but flawed men?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
    • El Kababa

      I assure you that, by your definition, I am an arrogant jerk.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
    • HeWhoSeeks

      You my friend have alot more to learn. Thankfully, with age for some (perhaps not all) comes wisdom, I find it is best not to comment on matters until you have fully thought them through. Now watch as those same individuals reply to this.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
    • Don

      Amen, Mr. Faile. Spong has been in left field so long that I doubt that he could recognize truth if an angel confronted him in his bedroom. Maybe we should pray for that to happen. God surely has enough mercy to send an angel, not to preach the Gospel to him but to arrest his leftist thoughts.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
    • bill

      wow john. The writer of this article is basically right about everything he said. I think your attack of him reveals alot about yourself. I am a follower of jesus christ and i dont see anything wrong with this article. Just take a big breath john.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
    • Tyler

      Sounds like someone is petrified of the truth.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
  17. Flex

    Keep up the attack and squeeze on the Bible, while Islam which is full of contradictions, runs wild and free. Only in America with a Muslim president this would take place.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
    • Answer


      Those idiots over there have their own problems. The sweet thing about their problem is that they have a lot of young people. A new generation. There is hope for them to change because younger people want knowledge.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
    • themiddleman67

      That's BRILLIANT!! Take one religious work of fiction, compare it to another religious work of fiction that terrorist use as their "playbook", and then hide your racism by calling the President a Muslim, instead of what you "really" want to call him with your white hoodie pulled down over your face. C'mon man, be honest, own your racism while you clutch your bible, torah, or any other religious text, and claim "fact" as fiction to keep your little world and intellect "safe"...we wouldn't want your head to explode with simple logic and fact. That, would be too much...right?!

      December 29, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
    • Mike

      Since when has Obama been Muslim? Keep moving troll.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
  18. PleezThink

    I would have to disagree with Bishop Spong's conclusion of the "ultimate meaning of the Bible". While we are to love our neighbor, no doubt, thereby emulating God, the ultimate meaning of the Bible I would say is: There is a God. I'm not Him. We are to love and honor our creator and the foremost way to do this is to love our neighbor. I'm sure that this will upset someone but I don't know why it would and I would be interested in their thoughts.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
  19. Scott

    Cnn again shows they are all for gays and all against God. Every month I read something on here trying to pull people a certain way. Cnn has taught me this . . .1. If your a little white girl and you go missing your story will be on within hours with blame thrown on the parent ...2. Feel bad for gays and what gays say is ok but others can not have their own opinion. 3. Cnn does not think God exist so they challenge God and what our country was founded on ... Last Cnn reaches for stories when it is a slow news week.. I would rather watch Kardashians anymore than read this crap.

    December 29, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • teresa, ohio

      Scott, I agree with everything you said up until the Kardashians... no can do there.

      I find that on one topic you brought up, CnN censors me each and every time.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
    • Lady-N

      You shouldn't have any opinions on gays because they don't affect your life. If you don't like gays then don't marry them but they aren't hurting you so lay off.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
  20. Jim J

    If God isn't real, how did he create man in his own image?? Checkmate atheists!

    December 29, 2011 at 9:59 pm |
    • Answer

      Hilarious and stupid. 🙂

      December 29, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • Asklepios417

      "If God isn't real, how did he create man in his own image??"

      He didn't.

      The Tooth Fairy did.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • PleezThink

      Hi Asklepios417. Do you believe in the tooth fairy?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
    • jimbo, st. louis mo

      If God created us in His image why aren't we invisible ?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
    • PleezThink

      Do you think that God is invisible?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
    • Bilal

      In his own image? Really? Did you go to Isaiah madrasah for your Ed?
      So you God has balls? Or boobs? Make up your ind son..

      December 29, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
    • Bilal

      In his own image? Really? Did you go to Isaiah madrasah for your Ed?
      So you God has balls? Or boobs? Make up your mind son..

      December 29, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
    • Andrew

      As some atheists believe in. Man come from apes, apes come from amphibous creature which arises from fish that came from bacteria which came from what? dirt?

      God created us.

      Note: I thought matthews was the first book in the gospel

      December 29, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
    • El Duderino (if you're not into the whole brevity thing)

      1. If God is infinitely powerful how can anything finite be made in his image?
      2. If God want's us to be Christians then why are there so many other religions? Why can't any religion prove that they are the one true religion?
      3. What about people who've lived before Jesus? are they doomed to spend eternity for not picking a religion that didn't exist at their time of existence?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
    • PleezThink

      Bilal. Boobs, Balls, hmmm. How about hands? Heart, mind & soul?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
    • PleezThink

      El Duderino. 1. We're not finite. 2. You're choice 3. No.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
    • RollingOnTheFloor

      If the unicorn doesn't exist, how can it has a horn? If tooth fairies don't exist, how can fairies eat? If hell doesn't exist, how can we have fire? If Jim J doesn't exist, how can we have Zen koans? If atheists don't exist, how can we have God?

      December 29, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
    • Asklepios417

      "Do you believe in the tooth fairy?"

      Well somebody left that money under my pillow.

      It wasn't my parents. They said they didn't, and I've never known them to lie.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
    • PleezThink

      Asklepios417. So you do believe in something then? Even if it is the toothfairy.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
    • themiddleman67

      The thought of God, and any religious text written from the beginning of time, until now, has been created to explain things where science does not exist, and to manipulate the weak-minded into throwing them money and giving them the path to leadership because they are seen as "enlightened"...LOL, they are enlightened alright. Enlightened enough to get you to give them your money and do what they ask, no matter how ridiculous. Religious people give money to other people to "tell them the meaning of life and their place on this Earth", as well as strapping themselves to explosive devises and detonating in a crowd of innocent people...they are one in the same person. One wants your cash, the other wants your life, they are BOTH leeches and you are simply a vessel in their (very human) means, to an end. Get a clue. Get some self-esteem and intellect, and GROW UP. The "Great OZ" is just a dude behind a curtain. Everyone thinks that movie is a "song and dance" routine. It's not, it's social commentary on how pathetic we are to believe in the "great Oz", aka God, the bible, and any other religious text claiming to be historical record and fact. It's all a huge ponzi scheme... all BS.

      December 29, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
    • Peppermint Patty

      Not so fast there genius. Man created god in HIS image. Name one quality god has, that man could not have cooked up.

      December 29, 2011 at 11:00 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.