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

My Take: Stop sugarcoating the Bible

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

By Steven James, Special to CNN

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

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

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

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

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

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The point?

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

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

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

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

God is much more interested in honesty than pietism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s why we miss out.

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

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

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

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

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

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Christianity • Opinion

soundoff (5,744 Responses)
  1. Aezel

    More nonsense spewing about a book of nonsense. Wake up and smell reality for a change.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  2. Reality

    Only for the new newbies: -------->>>

    Putting in all into the 21st century:

    And only for the those interested in a biblical update:

    1. origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482

    “New Torah/OT For Modern Minds

    Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions – the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years – have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity – until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine docu-ment. “

    2. Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations (or “mythicizing” from P, M, M, L and J) and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Ludemann, Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects.

    The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hitt-ites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.


    For added "pizzazz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "filicider".

    Current RCC problems:

    Pedophiliac priests, an all-male, mostly white hierarchy, atonement theology and original sin!!!!

    2 b., Luther, Calvin, Joe Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams, the Great “Babs” et al, founders of Christian-based religions or combination religions also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of "pretty wingie thingie" visits and "prophecies" for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immacu-late co-nceptions).

    Current problems:
    Adulterous preachers, pedophiliac clerics, "propheteering/ profiteering" evangelicals and atonement theology,

    February 26, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • blogwriter

      OK, we get....You're Jewish and you want to crucify Jesus all over again! "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone" Otherwise shut up!

      February 26, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Reality

      Not Jewish.

      With respect to the crucifixion:

      From Professors Crossan and Watts' book, Who is Jesus.

      "That Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, as the Creed states, is as certain as anything historical can ever be.

      “ The Jewish historian, Josephus and the pagan historian Tacitus both agree that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea. And is very hard to imagine that Jesus' followers would have invented such a story unless it indeed happened.

      “While the brute fact that of Jesus' death by crucifixion is historically certain, however, those detailed narratives in our present gospels are much more problematic. "

      “My best historical reconstruction would be something like this. Jesus was arrested during the Passover festival, most likely in response to his action in the Temple. Those who were closest to him ran away for their own safety.

      I do not presume that there were any high-level confrontations between Caiaphas and Pilate and Herod Antipas either about Jesus or with Jesus. No doubt they would have agreed before the festival that fast action was to be taken against any disturbance and that a few examples by crucifixion might be especially useful at the outset. And I doubt very much if Jewish police or Roman soldiers needed to go too far up the chain of command in handling a Galilean peasant like Jesus. It is hard for us to imagine the casual brutality with which Jesus was probably taken and executed. All those "last week" details in our gospels, as distinct from the brute facts just mentioned, are prophecy turned into history, rather than history remembered."

      See also Professor Crossan's reviews of the existence of Jesus in his other books especially, The Historical Jesus and also Excavating Jesus (with Professor Jonathan Reed doing the archeology discussion) .

      Other NT exegetes to include members of the Jesus Seminar have published similar books with appropriate supporting references.

      Part of Crossan's The Historical Jesus has been published online at books.google.com/books.

      There is also a search engine for this book on the right hand side of the opening page. e.g. Search Josephus

      See also Wikipedia's review on the historical Jesus to include the Tacitus' reference to the crucifixion of Jesus.

      From ask.com,

      "One of the greatest historians of ancient Rome, Cornelius Tacitus is a primary source for much of what is known about life the first and second centuries after the life of Jesus. His most famous works, Histories and Annals, exist in fragmentary form, though many of his earlier writings were lost to time. Tacitus is known for being generally reliable (if somewhat biased toward what he saw as Roman immorality) and for having a uniquely direct (if not blunt) writing style.

      Then there are these scriptural references:

      Crucifixion of Jesus:(1) 1 Cor 15:3b; (2a) Gos. Pet. 4:10-5:16,18-20; 6:22; (2b) Mark 15:22-38 = Matt 27:33-51a = Luke 23:32-46; (2c) John 19:17b-25a,28-36; (3) Barn. 7:3-5; (4a) 1 Clem. 16:3-4 (=Isaiah 53:1-12); (4b) 1 Clem. 16.15-16 (=Psalm 22:6-8); (5a) Ign. Mag. 11; (5b) Ign. Trall. 9:1b; (5c) Ign. Smyrn. 1.2.- (read them all at wiki.faithfutures. Crucifixion org/index.php/005_Crucifixion_Of_Jesus )

      Added suggested readings:

      o 1. Historical Jesus Theories, earlychristianwritings.com/theories.htm – the names of many of the contemporary historical Jesus scholars and the ti-tles of their over 100 books on the subject.
      2. Early Christian Writings, earlychristianwritings.com/
      – a list of early Christian doc-uments to include the year of publication–

      30-60 CE Passion Narrative
      40-80 Lost Sayings Gospel Q
      50-60 1 Thessalonians
      50-60 Philippians
      50-60 Galatians
      50-60 1 Corinthians
      50-60 2 Corinthians
      50-60 Romans
      50-60 Philemon
      50-80 Colossians
      50-90 Signs Gospel
      50-95 Book of Hebrews
      50-120 Didache
      50-140 Gospel of Thomas
      50-140 Oxyrhynchus 1224 Gospel
      50-200 Sophia of Jesus Christ
      65-80 Gospel of Mark
      70-100 Epistle of James
      70-120 Egerton Gospel
      70-160 Gospel of Peter
      70-160 Secret Mark
      70-200 Fayyum Fragment
      70-200 Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
      73-200 Mara Bar Serapion
      80-100 2 Thessalonians
      80-100 Ephesians
      80-100 Gospel of Matthew
      80-110 1 Peter
      80-120 Epistle of Barnabas
      80-130 Gospel of Luke
      80-130 Acts of the Apostles
      80-140 1 Clement
      80-150 Gospel of the Egyptians
      80-150 Gospel of the Hebrews
      80-250 Christian Sibyllines
      90-95 Apocalypse of John
      90-120 Gospel of John
      90-120 1 John
      90-120 2 John
      90-120 3 John
      90-120 Epistle of Jude
      93 Flavius Josephus
      100-150 1 Timothy
      100-150 2 Timothy
      100-150 T-itus
      100-150 Apocalypse of Peter
      100-150 Secret Book of James
      100-150 Preaching of Peter
      100-160 Gospel of the Ebionites
      100-160 Gospel of the Nazoreans
      100-160 Shepherd of Hermas
      100-160 2 Peter

      3. Historical Jesus Studies, faithfutures.org/HJstudies.html,
      – "an extensive and constantly expanding literature on historical research into the person and cultural context of Jesus of Nazareth"
      4. Jesus Database, faithfutures.org/JDB/intro.html–"The JESUS DATABASE is an online annotated inventory of the traditions concerning the life and teachings of Jesus that have survived from the first three centuries of the Common Era. It includes both canonical and extra-canonical materials, and is not limited to the traditions found within the Christian New Testament."
      5. Josephus on Jesus mtio.com/articles/bissar24.htm
      6. The Jesus Seminar, mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/seminar.html#Criteria
      7. Writing the New Testament- mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/testament.html
      8. Health and Healing in the Land of Israel By Joe Zias
      9. Economics in First Century Palestine, K.C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Fortress Press, 1998.

      February 26, 2012 at 3:00 pm |


    February 26, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Liberals Are Stupid

      The Bible says in several places that the earth is round, and that was before they had scientific instruments. Perhaps you should read the Bible before misquoting it.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      The bible describle the world as a circle, not spherical. Thus, the bible says the world is flat, which was what most primitive people, like those who wrote the bible, believed at the time.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Liberals Are Stupid

      the Biblical Hebrew word for “circle” (חוג—chuwg) means “round” or “sphere.” Get your facts straight.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:35 pm |

      You're an idiot if you think, when they wrote their fiction book, if you think they knew the world was round. I do however feel sorry for your lack of actually intelligence.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • TG

      Some 2, 700 years ago, the prophet Isaiah was inspired to write that "there is One who is dwelling above the circle ("circle", Hebrew chugh, meaning "spherical or a circle") of the earth, the dwellers in which are as grasshoppers, the One who is stretching out the heavens just as a fine gauze, who spreads them out like a tent in which to dwell."(Isa 40:22)

      February 26, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  4. Kevin Clark

    Great stuff! Except you forgot to mention genocide (the Canaanites) and incest (Lot's daughters, for example), both of which figure prominently into the Judeo-Christian mythos. These events certainly weren't edited out the Bible translations I read as a teenager, in fact, they were basically recounted in positive way. Genocide, rooted in violence, is especially acceptable to the Christian world view, even inspiring cute kids' songs like "Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho". Why do Christians forget the central message of their own religion? Jesus was about love, not hate, not violence, not intolerance. Could you please do the world a favor and listen to him?

    February 26, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  5. CEL1

    the entire bible was written after the fact, no dates can be proved, so it is a pile of menstrual rags. it needs to be cleaned up.
    it was interpreted , written and compiled to suit those in power at the time. Same for the edited versions like the king james version. it was done to suit the wished of the head man at the time.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:22 pm |


    February 26, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  7. Andy

    As a bible college student I support this article. Thumbs up.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:21 pm |

      Good to know there's people wasting their time still instead of positively contributing to society. Thanks for wasting my tax dollars! Your mind is better spent somewhere else. THAT is truth.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  8. F B M

    But..........I thought only the Koran was supposed to be 'filled with hate'.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  9. The Central Scrutinizer

    I have started a new indie rock band named "The Thumpers". We take all manner of religious books like the bible and quran, different sizes, different book covers, etc. and the mic them, throw in some groovy electronics and literally thump them with a variety of drum sticks and mallets. We are making beautiful music out of religion. Something religion can't do!

    February 26, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  10. reverseangle

    Some babes are only ready for pablum and others are ready for meat. Most of all that preach God that I have met have stated and reiterated to read the bible. You can lead them to water but they may not drink. Read the whole bible in a style you understand and if possible without every sentence numbered to see the the whole meaning. It is quite revealing, but don't be fooled the ancient world was cruel and the seed of that cruelty is still here to be replanted with each generation. Killing and being killed was common practice and even after great soothsayers over the generations have tried to pull us from this it still persists, it is not God's heart, but the heart of man (as a whole) is continually evil.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      Evil is an adjective.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  11. Dave

    Haha!! It figures that CNN writes these kind of insubordinate articles on the Bible. Problem is, it glumps both the OT and NT together in it's analysis relative to the objective of demonstrating "violence". It's silly.

    This is just another step towards CNN, owned & operated by the NWO, an ungodly group of people, to diss Christianity.

    It's a sign of times, my friends.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Playjojo

      And yet it seems you're a faithful reader. Makes you not very bright yourself.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:18 pm |


      February 26, 2012 at 12:19 pm |

      You unbelievably mislead if you think the world is a better place with religion at all in it. Why do you think we aren't more scientifically advanced right now? Because we don't have the knowledge? People would be living longer and healthier if it wasn't for religion. If there was no religion, we would be using stem cell research to save lives, when it has been proven to do so, but religion says it isn't right. People like you need to die out. I'll be bringing my family up the right way. With a science book in hand instead of a book of fables. Thanks for contributing though.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Richard

      Haha... typical nonsense from a believer who wears sugar coated glasses and doesn't see anything wrong with their religion... Violence in the bible? Oh no!!! there isn't any.. Bears killing children because they laughed at a bold man? Oh no! You are lying. Where is it? 2nd Kings 2:23-25 ? OH I see, well , these children really weren't children they were DEVIL POSSESSED murderers and he was afraid for his life!!! HAHAHAHA you crazy lunatics will excuse every evil story in this book..

      February 26, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      No, I"M Dave man, let me in!

      February 26, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Skegeeace

      Did you read the article? He was actually supporting the reading and interpreting of the Bible without any outside influence or political correctness. He's saying we NEED the Bible in all of its raw, original intent. Go back and re-read what he said.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  12. crixus79

    Take the time to learn a little about it first. I am not religious by any means but definatley not an Atheist. I fall somehere in between. For many years I thought the Bible to be nonsense, irrelevant, hippocritical and an overall waste of time. After learning and reading more about it my opinion has changed. There's good and there's not so good and sometimes unvelbable stories and passages found throughout. Take what you feel applies to your life and apply that to your own beliefs ans spirituality. I feel religion holds no relevance anymore in today's society but the Bible still teaches.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      Non-religious is ok. Enjoy.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:25 pm |


    February 26, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  14. Liberals Are Stupid

    Steven James – Stick to what you know; the Bible is evidently not your area of expertise. While I agree the Bible is not all warm and fuzzy, the common theme throughout the Bible is that man is a sinner and needs a Savior. That Savior, Jesus Christ, is perfect as opposed to men. He did not party and get drunk (that would have been a sin) and Jesus was sinless. The Bible says not to be drunk with wine. Although He was accused of being drunk, He wasn't. Learn how to read. To say that Jesus was never accused of being too religious is comical being that He was crucified for claiming to be God; something that was considered blasphemy. God is Holy, Holy, Holy and cannot accept sinful individuals into heaven. The Bible examples of sinful men you mentioned were to show that even those who murder, etc. can go to heaven IF they repent and accept Jesus as their Savior. The animal sacrifices throughout the Bible were to show that sin requires a blood sacrifice in order to wash that sin away. The animals were a foretelling of our Savior (The Lamb of God) The ultimate sacrifice Who shed His blood to take away our sins.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:14 pm |

      You need your head checked.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • YeahItsMe72

      People like you should not be able to vote or play with sharp instruments.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      You can't make a case for religion when your name already reveals that you are an intolerant prik.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • IamTheway

      Actually LAS you really need to learn to read other languages...Greek or Latin would be a good start. A lot has been lost in translation for example, the sacrifices are not in reference to Jesus, but actually mean animal sacrifices. Here's your homework: man did not make a covenant with God he cut a covenant. Go find out how this was done. It's due on my desk by 9AM Monday.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:30 pm |

      Men created gods. Then they created religions to structure their faith in their gods/God/Trinity. Trangressors against the people of the faith were punished or killed in the name/s of God/gods. Apostates received similar treatment.

      Religion has caused more misery and death on this earth than anything else. Both sides (believers and non-believers) have haters who justify killing in the name of their God/s.

      This blog is amazing in its responses. If you truly believe in your personal convictions, why would you care what anyone else thinks?

      February 26, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • blogwriter

      Obviously you don't practice what you preach! (Stick with what you know) Maybe if you had read the Greek translation of the bible you might know a little more. Also consider reading other writings of the period and you'll get the correct perspective on what was going on on what the writings were intended to convey. The liberal translations by King James and all others corrupt the true intent and meaning of "God's word".

      February 26, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Alphaman

      AMEN, Brother.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  15. tony

    The bible is about about the evils caused by religious belief. A good read to stimulate atheism.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Kevin Clark

      you got it Tony

      February 26, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  16. cnnsucks

    Speak for yourself s c um bag...we know what the bible is and how real it is...it is you liberal terrorists who don't like it in the first place...now that is rich a terrorist organization like cnn telling us about the bible...LOL!

    February 26, 2012 at 12:13 pm |

      English please

      February 26, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • JM

      My copy of the Bible says: love your neighbors and love your "enemies" as yourself.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer


      February 26, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  17. matthew2262

    Reblogged this on Matthew2262's Blog and commented:
    Dead on. Agreed.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  18. Butters

    The bible , A Roman rellic . Put this rellic in box and send it back to Rome with a note attached .

    Eoli Eloi Lama Sabachthani .

    February 26, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • JM

      And if it's true, saying that it is a relic doesn't change reality.

      I can say that the world is flat...

      February 26, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      Butters. boy oh boy is the Pope ever gonna be sore. You are grounded mister!

      February 26, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  19. Allah

    The bible is a pack of lies manipulated by man... ALL organized religion is a pox on humanity!

    February 26, 2012 at 12:12 pm |


    February 26, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • ViperGuy

      And proof of that is where?

      Thought so.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:15 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.