Targeting 'Les Miserables' to Christians pays off at the box office
Actor Hugh Jackman plays the role of Jean Valjean in the cinematic version of 'Les Misérables'
January 3rd, 2013
02:42 PM ET

Targeting 'Les Miserables' to Christians pays off at the box office

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Editor
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(CNN)—In spite of tepid reviews from some film critics, "Les Miserables" is booming at the box office, and that financial success can in part be traced to a group of its biggest boosters: Christians, particularly evangelicals whom NBC Universal went after with a microtargeted marketing strategy.

The story in "Les Miserables" is heavy with Christian themes of grace, mercy and redemption. The line everyone seems to remember is "to love another person is to see the face of God.”

NBC Universal looked to capitalize on those components and promoted the film to pastors, Christian radio hosts and influence-makers in the Christian community.

The latest film adaptation of the musical is raking in the cash. As of Wednesday, NBC Universal reported, it had pulled in $80.57 million in 2,814 theaters. After winning Christmas Day, the film finished third in the box office totals over the weekend, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, narrowly losing out to "The Hobbit" and "Django Unchained" despite being on significantly fewer screens.

“If you’re a Christian and you’re seeing this film, you can’t help but see these themes,” said Jonathan Bock, founder and president of Grace Hill Media, the firm hired for the targeted marketing campaign.

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“We were targeting specifically people who had a bully pulpit,” Bock said. His company’s goal was to draw Christians who would “be impacted by it and then tell anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of people what they just saw.”

Screenings set up across the country in advance of the film’s release filled up fast, he said.

Bock’s firm has worked on marketing campaigns in the faith community for hundreds of television and film releases, and normally, the screening invite-to-attendee ratio is 4-to-1. “This movie, we booked at 1.4-to-1, and we had turn-aways in every single market. Almost everyone who signed up showed up for the movie,” he said.

“There’s a great deal of awareness about the movie itself, and the great thing is that the movie itself delivers,” added Bock, ever the marketer.

My Take: The challenge of hope in 'Les Misérables'

Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family was one of the groups that partnered with Grace Hill Media for a special screening. For the event, Focus on the Family brought in partners from across Colorado, adoption agencies, child welfare officials and church leaders.

“We’re trying to raise awareness for the needs of kids, particularly in the foster care system who don’t have any families. We love to come alongside them and welcome them home, and for that reason, we loved the movie,” said Kelly Rosati, vice president of community outreach for Focus on the Family. She oversees their adoption and orphan care initiative.

A movie like "Les Miserables," she said, “is able to engage the heart in a way straight facts and calls to action can never do.”

“I think that’s something the movie did in a beautiful way: It stirred the heart without ever having to directly issue a call to action,” she added.

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Another coup for marketers was getting young evangelical leaders like the leaders of Catalyst, the hip conference for young evangelicals, out to see the film. Brad Lomenick, executive director of Catalyst, called it “Epic film. Powerful" on Twitter and suggested that Hugh Jackman’s performance was Oscar-worthy.

Mainstream movie critics have not been as glowing. The Los Angeles Times movie critic, Kenneth Turan, wrote in his review, “Because it is so shameless and so popular, ‘Les Miserables’ and its ‘to love another person is to see the face of God’ theme are tailor-made for mockery.” (Turan did give the movie a favorable review overall.)

Ann Hornaday in her review in the Washington Post said it was “less a fully realized film than a strung-together series of set pieces, showstoppers, diva moments and production numbers.”

Lisa Schwarzbaum asked in Entertainment Weekly, “Shall I go on about all the ways in which this fake-opulent 'Les Miz' made me long for guillotines while millions of viewers who have softer, more generous hearts than I may swoon with money's-worth contentment?”

“Christian film critics who view themselves primarily as film critics generally pointed out the same flaws in the movie that everybody else did, which is (director Tom) Hooper’s insistence on closeups and going for the easy emotional cues instead of visual storytelling,” said Greg Wright, managing editor of HollywoodJesus.com.

That seeming inattention to the artistry of the cinematic endeavor is probably lost on most Christians who have seen the film, Wright said.

“I always felt, looking at the success of the musical, you couldn’t explain it any other way than it was resonating with people on a spiritual level, not just on a musical level,” Wright said. It carried over in the film too, he said.

His site had four reviewers take a stab the film. “The response was overwhelmingly positive,” Wright said. “The point for us is not what the art is but what the art does from a spiritual point of view.

“We don’t care as much if this is the best movie ever, but are people responding to it, and if so, why?” Wright said.

Like others, marketers heavily targeted HollywoodJesus.com.

“We’re probably the strongest skeptics as anybody when it comes to this stuff because we see so much of it. When you smell a rat, it’s pretty clear that it’s a rat, and 'Les Mis' was not that,” Wright said.

The microtargeting campaign aimed at the faith community included the bully pulpit model and traditional advertising in Christian periodicals, on radio stations and on websites.

Flashback: 'Soul Surfer' opens after fights over depicting faith

“Studios have been well aware of the size and strength of the faith market,” Bock said. “On particular films, it really helps move the needle.”

For a film of this size, Bock said, it isn’t uncommon for studios to spend anywhere from $30 million to $130 million on a worldwide marketing campaign.

Though he was unwilling to get into specifics on what his company earned for this job, he said that for a job like this one, it would not be uncommon for a studio to spend upward of seven figures for a marketing campaign targeting the faith community, including ad buys in traditional and digital media.

At the end of the day, most marketers won’t say what specifically got viewers to get off their couches and buy tickets to the movie. Christians see the same ads in mainstream newspapers and same trailers at movie theaters as everyone else. Bock says it’s more of an art and less of a science.

Bock is himself an elder at his Presbyterian church in Los Angeles. While that gives him an edge in marketing to the faith community for certain, he said, the best tool any marketer can have is a great product.

“You can put a turd in a Tiffany box, but in the case of this film, there was a Tiffany ring in the Tiffany box,” he said with a chuckle.

CNN's David Daniel contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Movies

soundoff (127 Responses)

    visualize a shoe size 16 coming from behind

    January 5, 2013 at 9:45 pm |
    • Pam

      Weird that you like to get it that way.

      January 5, 2013 at 9:50 pm |
  2. KRG

    I find it hilarious that everyone is so offended that a story, written 150 years ago would have a Christian theme. And worse...it is doing well in the box office!!! The horrors. You want everyone to respect your lack of belief in God, while condemning anyone who does believe as morons. Bigotry is a strong , but appropriate word for those who are hateful because others believe in "Christian themes of grace, mercy and redemption".

    January 5, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
    • Stephen Lang

      Christians are NOT promoting grace,mercy,OR redomption when it comes to the People that belong to Non-Christian Religions!!Christians are very intolorant,narrow minded,and BIGOTED toward all non Christians.They somehow believe that People are going to Hell if they don't accept this Jesus Person as there "Lord and saveiour"even thouth there is absolutelly NO evidence that Jesus was actually God in Human form.If Jesus was God,He would have been Born knowing EVERYTHING and there is absolutelly NO EVIDENCE that He was!So it is blatently obvious the Jesus was NOT GOD!Christianity promotes Hatred and Bigotry and Christians do NOT believe in a Loving God!! Personally,I believe that the Christian God is fake and that only the HINDU Gods are real.

      January 5, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
  3. tom smith

    How interesting that " Les Miz' is perceived to be pro-Christian, when the revolutionary theme is so flagrantly pro-liberal. The young people dying on the barricade were precursors to the same socialists and communists of 20th Century Europe whom American Christians so despise. Then again, our own revolutionaries- Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Tom Paine, et al, were just as ragingly liberal (and anti religion), and American Christians praise them every 4th of July. Go figure....

    January 5, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • Bayou_Disqus

      It's only interesting because you are conflating enlightened liberalism with modern socialism and communism (which we know are separate systems as well). Is it hard to conceive that modern conservatives in the US are in fact liberals who love liberty and equality under the law? No Kings for us in this the land of the free.

      January 5, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • Saraswati

      In many countries the left has long been a Christian movement.

      January 6, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
  4. Nanbawan

    Hugo was mainly being a humanist. It may somewhat come from a Catholic upbringing and such values and themes are probably close to Christian values but I don't think it was on the author's agenda.

    January 4, 2013 at 9:20 pm |
    • najania


      January 4, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
    • MashaSobaka

      The author's agenda doesn't matter. Ever.

      January 5, 2013 at 12:56 am |
  5. Angel Moronic

    Silver pieces is the preferred method of payment.

    January 4, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
  6. Michael Barnes

    I highly, highly resent the fact that your drama reviewer is now insinuating that "Les Miserables' – one of French literature's enduring classics is a religious manifesto. No more so than Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice is an attack on the Jews!
    This kind of ignorant, uninformed, divisive, cultural revisionism is one reason why USA is falling apart at the assault rifle seams.

    January 4, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • najania

      Exactly, again.

      January 4, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
    • MashaSobaka

      Oh, give me a freaking break. Like it or not, religion is a huge part of any culture. Anyone with even a modest education can see the Judeo-Christian themes of the musical, particularly the Old Testament "justice" of Javert as contrasted with the "forgive and forget" nature of Valjean. Whether this represents Christianity as it is actually practiced is another matter (I have yet to meet a Christian who is as good a person as Valjean – probably because Valjean is, you know, a fictional character), but it's part of the faith's doctrine. Get over it, and leave the dramatics at home where only your own family has to suffer.

      PS – using religions themes does not mean that any cultural artifact is a "religious manifesto." Seriously.

      January 5, 2013 at 1:00 am |
  7. realoldguy

    "It stirred the heart without ever having to directly issue a call to action.” Kelly Rosati, vice president of community outreach for Focus on the Family. Now doesn't that say it all about nice white people!

    January 4, 2013 at 10:07 am |
  8. Debbie

    Christianity may be giving Les Mis a slight boost, but the biggest reason its doing so well comes down to the die hard fans of the musical, who are seeing it 2, 3 or 4 times. I myself, have now seen it twice, and plan to see it again.

    January 4, 2013 at 9:58 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Seen it twice and may go again. Anne Hathaway is entrancing.

      January 4, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
    • MashaSobaka

      My mom cried just watching the "making of" special on HBO. She's gonna be a mess when she sees it in the theater. 🙂

      January 5, 2013 at 1:02 am |
  9. Reality

    The following disclaimer should be shown at the start of all such movies:

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    For added details go to http://religion.blogs.cnn.com

    January 4, 2013 at 8:30 am |
    • ???????

      Or this:
      But they can't seem to understand this....
      Stephen Hawking: God didn't create universe

      January 4, 2013 at 9:30 am |
    • okkk

      in a world where money talks, you sure say little for all your words.

      seriously, no one cares about your opinion. The entire point of the article is that if the movie did indeed show what you just wrote, they would make 50% less money.

      maybe if you had something insightful to share besides the usual atheist blabber it would be more meaningful.

      January 4, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • Saraswati

      Oh for goodness sake, it's just a movie from an old book. If I had to see a disclaimer every time I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer I'd be annoyed.

      January 4, 2013 at 10:00 am |
    • Reality

      As requested, added details:

      Saving Christians from the Infamous Resurrection Con/

      From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul reasoned, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

      Even now Catholic/Christian professors of theology are questioning the bodily resurrection of the simple, preacher man aka Jesus.

      To wit;

      From a major Catholic university's theology professor’s grad school white-board notes:

      "Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly – earth bound distractions.
      Jesus and Mary's bodies are therefore not in Heaven.

      Most believe that it to mean that the personal spiritual self that survives death is in continuity with the self we were while living on earth as an embodied person.

      Again, the physical Resurrection (meaning a resuscitated corpse returning to life), Ascension (of Jesus' crucified corpse), and Assumption (Mary's corpse) into heaven did not take place.

      The Ascension symbolizes the end of Jesus' earthly ministry and the beginning of the Church.

      Only Luke records it. (Luke mentions it in his gospel and Acts, i.e. a single attestation and therefore historically untenable). The Ascension ties Jesus' mission to Pentecost and missionary activity of Jesus' followers.

      The Assumption has multiple layers of symbolism, some are related to Mary's special role as "Christ bearer" (theotokos). It does not seem fitting that Mary, the body of Jesus' Virgin-Mother (another biblically based symbol found in Luke 1) would be derived by worms upon her death. Mary's assumption also shows God's positive regard, not only for Christ's male body, but also for female bodies." "

      "In three controversial Wednesday Audiences, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequate to describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in which this world and we exist. In this he is applying the philosophical categories used by the Church in her theology and saying what St. Thomas Aquinas said long before him."

      The Vatican quickly embellished this story with a lot CYAP.

      With respect to rising from the dead, we also have this account:

      An added note: As per R.B. Stewart in his introduction to the recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Crossan and Wright in Dialogue,


      "Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God's hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus' failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing."

      p.168. by Ted Peters:

      Even so, asking historical questions is our responsibility. Did Jesus really rise from the tomb? Is it necessary to have been raised from the tomb and to appear to his disciples in order to explain the rise of early church and the transcription of the bible? Crossan answers no, Wright answers, yes. "

      So where are the bones"? As per Professor Crossan's analyses in his many books, the body of Jesus would have ended up in the mass graves of the crucified, eaten by wild dogs, covered with lime in a shallow grave, or under a pile of stones.

      January 4, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
  10. New humans cast

    The singing APES
    Neanderthals and hobbits aren't the only species that may have coexisted with modern humans. Scientists in southwest China have discovered the bizarrely shaped skulls of a possible new human species called the Red Deer Cave People that existed until the end of the ice age, about 11,000 years ago. The odd skeletons had prominent jaws and jutting cheekbones, and middling-sized brains more commonly seen in human ancestors from hundreds of thousands of years ago.

    January 4, 2013 at 8:01 am |
    • Akira

      Hobbits? Lol.

      January 4, 2013 at 10:45 am |
  11. Barry Sikes

    Les Miserables (the movie musical) is a one of a kind experience. There is nothing else like it. Virtually the entire dialogue/script is SUNG, not spoken. It is the only musical I've ever seen that is like this. In all other musicals, the plot/storyline/important details are always spoken, with the songs merely emphasizing what we've already learned from the spoken script. Les Mis is truly unbelievable in this unique aspect. I don't know they did it. I saw the stage version and really enjoyed it, but I believe the movie is better mainly because the intimacy of seeing the actors up-close resulted in a better understanding of the meaning of every song, providing even more understanding and appreciation of the story. The music itself is beautiful and moving, but when you combine it with the powerful storyline of love, sacrifice, redemption, etc. then your heart just kind of wells up into your throat and tears of empathetic longing leaves you thankful for the experience.

    January 4, 2013 at 2:32 am |
    • Jay

      Barry, if you were impressed by "Les Mis" because it's a sung-through musical, you should try most of Andrew Lloyd Webber as well. "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Evita," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," etc. - most of his work has almost no spoken dialogue. Other sung-through musicals not by ALW are "Rent," "Miss Saigon," and "Tommy," to name a few. "Les Mis" is wonderful but it's not unique.

      January 4, 2013 at 6:18 am |
    • Akira

      Agreed, Jay.
      Not the first by a long shot.

      January 4, 2013 at 6:12 pm |
    • Dave

      I thought that the term for a sung-through work was 'opera', which is different from the combined spoken and sung projects called musicals.

      January 4, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
    • Jay

      Dave, there's some overlap between opera and sung-through musicals. Some pieces can legitimately be called either. For instance, the creators of "Jesus Christ Superstar" refer to it as a rock opera.
      http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2011/may/04/difference-between-opera-and-musical has some funny answers as to the difference...

      January 5, 2013 at 5:01 am |
  12. Bob

    Jesus is Satan.

    January 4, 2013 at 1:49 am |
  13. JR

    I thought that the directing was outstanding, the closeups worked amazingly well, and the story was updated to make a needed distinction between rigid fundamentalism (the Inspector) and Catholicism in its best iteration (Valjean). I have never seen a more Catholic film.

    The theme of self-sacrifice is one we really need to pay attention to in our hyper-rmaterialistic and egotistic century. My only criticism is of the screenplay and Hugo in that the theme of the poor, the seemingly failed French Revolution, the Paris Commune was overtaken by the fairy tale ending in the rich man's house. Otherwise, Les Mis is a classic story by a classic author and the film was an outstanding cinematic experience. (And I am at least as trained in literary criticism as the reviewers.)

    January 3, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      "I have never seen a more Catholic film. "

      It's a movie about child abuse?

      January 4, 2013 at 2:21 am |
  14. Sean C.

    Not really surprising, since it's a very Christan story with very explicit religious themes.

    I do find it somewhat ironic that it's being marketed especially to evangelical Protestants, because it really could hardly be more Catholic.

    January 3, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
    • End Religion

      Sean, just a note to let you know I enjoyed your work in Highlander and The Name of The Rose.

      January 4, 2013 at 7:31 am |
  15. Billy Graham

    I always have fun taking money from Christians. It's so easy. They are stupid and easily conned.

    January 3, 2013 at 7:29 pm |
    • Bishop Long

      Hi Billy. Yes, easy pickins'. I've been having sex with boys forever and my flock still worships and gives me money. Brother Warren Jeffs out there in Utah rules his flock from a life sentence in prison. Now how's that for control!

      January 3, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
  16. Colin

    Well, let's face it, it wouldn't be the first time evangelicals were enamoured with soemthing the rest of the country thought was shallow, simple and tasteless. About 80% of them think the entire Universe began about 10,000 years ago because they believe Bronze Age Palestinian mythology.

    January 3, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
    • Saraswati

      I went to see this with a group containing no Christians and we all enjoyed it. I haven't read the original book, but would assume from its publication date that it was likely fairly Christian, so the religious elements didn't seem shocking. I had a few issues with things like why a man would risk his life for some rebelious kid his daughter had met one day earlier, but most musicals have that kind of loony behaviour.

      January 3, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
    • GodFreeNow

      Yeah, I'm thinking about the Chronicle of Narnia movies. I remember a lady yelling on Fox that couldn't understand why the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe wasn't nominated for an Oscar.

      January 3, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Sara, Valjeans motivation is to free Cosette from his life as an aging fugitive. It is briefly noted in the bedroom scene between them.

      January 4, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • Saraswati

      @Bill, Thanks for the info. I've got to think the book explains it much better.

      January 4, 2013 at 6:19 pm |
  17. The_Pacifist

    "The line everyone seems to remember is 'to love another person is to see the face of God.' "

    It should be "to love another person, no matter what their religion, is to see the face of God."

    Or maybe "to love another person, even non-Christians, is to see the face of God."

    Other religions, besides Christianity, have themes related to grace, mercy and redemption.

    January 3, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
    • han solo

      “You pose the question, ‘Is God a Christian?’ That is to say, do we Christians have a special hold on God?” Lloyd probes.

      Gomes responds that congregations are always shocked when he says, “God is not a Christian…If God is what we claim,…the creator of everything, not just a local, private deity, then somehow God has taken on board areas of the world of which we know next to nothing.” God must have a plan in mind not only for Christians and Jews, but also for Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and others. “To proclaim that is to magnify the greatness of the Lord…the universal ident-ity of the creator…That’s something worth worshiping.” He adds, “God is not a celebrity” or a tribal deity.

      “Jesus manifests God to us. He may not manifest God to others,” Gomes states. “God speaks many more languages than we do.”

      January 3, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
    • JJ

      When in reality, to love another person is well, to love another person.

      January 3, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
    • Greedo

      Solo, if I were across the table from you I would laser your ass!

      January 3, 2013 at 8:00 pm |
    • Robotdog

      Agree. BTW, this entire article is asinine.

      January 3, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
  18. RooMcGoo

    An Incomplete History of Les Miserables: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-vCwLY8DWg

    January 3, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
  19. genold

    Ok. Having read Les Miserables in both French and English I absolutely do no see any sort of evangelical message in the books.

    January 3, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      My first exposure was in the early 1960's when I saw the 1935 version starring Frederic March and Charles Laughton. The scene that informs the entire movie for me is when the priest offers Valjean the candlesticks. I knew I had just witnessed a sermon on Christianity

      January 4, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • MashaSobaka

      When I first read it at the age of fifteen I didn't see any religious theme either. After I got a bit more educated it was plain as day. I don't know why people are so threatened by the idea that a book written in the late 1800s would have religious elements. First of all, you'd be hard-pressed to find a work of literature from that period that didn't have some sort of religious under/overtone; second, a book having religious elements doesn't make it a "religious book." Religion is part of culture and its themes are ready-made to be incorporated into any other cultural artifact. It's a collection of folklore. Why not use it? Beautiful things can happen when you do.

      January 5, 2013 at 1:08 am |
  20. MagicPanties

    Thanks for the heads-up. Can definitely skip this one.

    January 3, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
    • JJ

      Same here. Should we expect to see church busses out in the parking lot of the theater?

      January 3, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
    • zack1973vt

      The story in "Les Miserables" is heavy with Christian themes of grace, mercy and redemption. Now, i think that we can all agree that everyone universally thinks grace, mercy and redemption are good things. But the fact that these themes are said to be "Christian" makes you upset. I am assuming that you are a liberal, and liberals typically are more tolerant than conservatives. Don't you think that you are being intolerant against Christians, even if you perceive Christians to be intolerant of others? Doesn't that make you hypocritical?

      January 4, 2013 at 1:43 am |
    • MashaSobaka

      Anyone who chooses to represent him/herself with the name "MagicPanties" probably doesn't have the stamina to appreciate nuanced art anyway. Stick with railing fruitlessly against "the machine," hon.

      January 5, 2013 at 1:09 am |
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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.