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March 9th, 2013
10:00 PM ET

Chris Tomlin, king of the sing-along

By Eric Marrapodi and Tom Foreman, CNN
[twitter-follow screen_name='EricCNNBelief'] [twitter-follow screen_name='tomforemancnn']

Baltimore (CNN) - The capacity crowd at the 1st Mariner Arena in Baltimore is bouncing in unison to the most widely sung music on the planet today. The catwalk above the arena is shaking.

Chris Tomlin grabs the microphone and asks the crowd if they’re ready.

"I feel alive, on God's great dance floor!" He leads the packed venue in singing and jumping.

Tomlin is out touring the country with his latest studio album, “Burning Lights.” In January, it topped the Billboard 200 charts. But unlike those who've enjoyed performances by Beyonce, Johnny Cash and a host of others who've played this Baltimore hall, after these fans stream out the doors they will have ample opportunity to sing Tomlin's songs again, as one.

That is the secret to Tomlin’s success – the stage, the lights, the band - aren’t about him. As lively as his shows are, the point is not to get you inside the doors. The point is to get you singing in church.

“I strive for trying to write something that people can sing, that people want to sing, and that people need to sing,” Tomlin explained before the show.

Tomlin is the undisputed king of worship music, a genre of Christian music sung on Sunday mornings all across the world and increasingly played on Christian radio stations. The music is simple, devotional and easy on the ears.

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“We would say that Chris is the most prolific songwriter in the United States now, in this past decade,” said Howard Rachinski, CEO of Christian Copyright Licensing International, the company that tracks what music is used in churches around the world.

In 2012, CCLI paid out $40 million to artists and musicians, and Tomlin got a healthy slice of that pie. Churches around the world used 128 songs he wrote or co-wrote last year, Rachinski said.

CCLI estimates that every Sunday in the United States, between 60,000 and 120,000 churches are singing Tomlin’s songs. By extrapolating that data, Rachinski says, “our best guess would be in the United States on any given Sunday, 20 to 30 million people would be singing Chris Tomlin's songs.”

In their last two reporting periods, Tomlin had the No. 1 most-sung song and five of the top 25.

Search YouTube for "How Great is Our God" or "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)." Black, white, Asian, big churches, small ones are all belting out Tomlin songs. A lot.

For perspective, consider Tomlin’s musical success against one secular counterpart. In 2012, Katy Perry's record sales dwarfed Tomlin’s, but Billboard reported her songs were played 1.4 million times on the radio. Using CCLI’s low-end calculation, Tomlin’s songs were played 3.12 million times in churches.

Growing up Tomlin

Chris Tomlin was reared in Grand Saline, Texas, heavily influenced by country music. His dad taught him to play the guitar.

“I learned all country music - Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash, all those kind of guys. Those are what my dad played and I played. And I played at my church as well,” Tomlin said.

Tomlin went to college to study sports medicine. “I just didn't know the music would take me here. I loved it and I was getting opportunities to go play, and when I say go play I was starting to write songs of worship even (as) a young kid. I didn't know really what worship music was, what a worship leader was, any of that. I didn't know any of those terms,” he said.

Today, at 40 years old, he is the artist most associated with worship music.

While in college he began singing and writing in earnest. As a senior, he said, he was getting invitations to lead the music for Christian conferences with 10,000 students.

He knew his music was resonating with crowds when he got a call from EMI Publishing after his song “We Fall Down,” which was released in 1998, starting being  played in churches.

“I was just writing songs for the church and from there they just started taking off.”

The compositions are considerably different from pop music. They are simpler, and he takes pains to write them that way.

“I'm thinking as that comes out of my heart as a song of response, I'm trying to think, how can I form this so that everybody, people who are tone deaf, who can't clap on two and four, how can I form this song so they can sing it, so that it is singable?”

Part of that process comes from his love of country music, the simplicity of that music and the stories those songs tell. His goal is to write songs that communicate what people would like to say to God.

“Now, that doesn't happen all the time. I mean, I write so many songs that you never hear because they are not any good.”

Tomlin is the worship pastor at Passion City Church in Atlanta. He leads worship there twice a month and beta tests all his new songs on the congregation. Tomlin is also a major draw as the worship leader of the Passion Conferences, a series of Christian conferences around the world. In January, the conference packed out the Georgia Dome in Atlanta with 60,000 college-age students. Billboard magazine noted the conference helped push up pre-sales of Tomlin’s latest CD.

His songs are so sought-after that, even before they're released on CD, they start showing up in CCLI’s online database.

“His songs have probably had the most immediate impact on churches that we have seen in history,” Rachinski said. “Even before you get to street release [of a CD], churches are already networked and engaged with his songs.”

Don’t look for a crossover

Other contemporary Christian musicians, as the music industry designates them, have crossed over to mainstream pop with some success. Tomlin said he has no designs on making that leap.

He also doesn’t need the money. Over the course of his career he’s sold 4.2 million albums, had 6 million digital downloads, a number of sold-out tours, and of course, the copyright royalties.

Tomlin said money isn't what motivates him to write and perform.

“I feel like I have a responsibility,  that God has given me a gift to write songs for his church that people listen to and that people are coming to expect now,” he said. “When I make a record I feel that responsibility that worship leaders, churches are going to say, 'Hey, are these some new songs we can sing in our church?' And I don't take that lightly, and I don't go, ‘Oh let's go do something else fun.’”

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“I haven't invented any new instruments, I haven't created new chords that no one has ever played. I play the same chord that every band plays, we play the same instruments up there, the melodies are melodies. The difference to me in the music is that I ask that God's presence be on it and that people, when they sing these songs, sense that God does something.”

The spotlight is on Tomlin even more than ever after starting the year a top the Billboard charts. As he tours the country at bigger and bigger venues, he would prefer to step out of the spotlight, away from the microphone, and let everyone else sing.

“People would be mad that they paid for a ticket for that. So I do that just occasionally, but that is what I love.”

He said the night before, at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, he took as much time as he could to step back and let everyone else sing.

“It was just so beautiful, because I feel like it says something. It's not just like, ‘Hey, listen to me sing.’ This is all of us together. I think when you step back from the mic and it is not about you - and yeah, the light may be on you, but this is about all of us singing. This is about a bigger story, it's about a greater story. It's about a greater name than my name. My name is on the ticket, but this is about a greater name.”

CNN's Oliver Janney, Chris Turner, and Dan Merica contributed to this post.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Music

soundoff (1,754 Responses)
  1. scarshapedstar1

    never heard of any of these songs

    March 10, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
  2. kevobx

    *Acts 26:15 And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. *Acts 26:18 To open their eyes, and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me. *Isaiah 35:5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the death shall be unstopped. *Isaiah 43:8 Bring forth the blind people that have eyes, and the deaf that have ears. (*Mark 8:25)

    March 10, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
    • I wonder

      kev,

      Thing pretty boring on the Outer Banks this time of year...?

      March 10, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
    • Science

      kevobx TOO You might have a y gene

      Hey Bobie and As-stin Chad/rachel l4h fred Robert Brown loony bethany etc etc All creationists !!!

      Was the bible around back then ?

      Human Y Chromosome Much Older Than Previously Thought

      Mar. 4, 2013 — The discovery and analysis of an extremely rare African American Y chromosome pushes back the time of the most recent common ancestor for the Y chromosome lineage tree to 338,000 years ago. This time predates the age of the oldest known anatomically modern human fossils.

      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130305145821.htm

      No god(s) needed or required to graduate from public schools in the US

      Remember : Adam had to POKE himself hard with his OWN BONE to create Eve.

      Peace

      March 10, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
    • Tony

      Guess little keviebox won't dare quote Leviticus. How many poor sheep have you smoked like your bible says you shud, little kevvie?

      March 10, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
  3. Phil

    A lot of good people in those crowds. But the truly sad and tragic thing about it is that all those people believe a lie. And I am not talking about Religion or the existence of God. No, if you were to ask those people about World Politics and the state of our planet they would spew the same propaganda you hear every day in the corporate/ state run media. They would tell you that 9/11 was Terrorism byExtremist Muslims, Bin Laden was to blame, and there is no New World Order. They would tell you the reason they are not as free as they were 20 years ago is because it is necessary, to protect them from Al Qaeda and the Muslim boogeymen. They have been lied to, and have bought it hook, line and sinker. Now,understand this- these are the good people that the side of Good will need to defeat the forces of Evil, but they will not be there to help us. They will be cowering like scared animals, once their guns have been confiscated and the "War on Terrorism" script is flipped onto the American People, which was the plan all along.

    March 10, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
    • GAW

      You are due to take your meds at 6. And don't forget to put another layer of tin foil on your hat.

      March 10, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
    • End Religion

      citations for all your ridiculous assertions, please, loser.

      March 10, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
    • GAW

      @ End Religion Never ask a conspiracy theorist for facts and citations they will drown you in a myriad of hundreds of them. Confusing, bewildering and countless facts.

      March 10, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • Akira

      Sounds like an Alex Jones/infowars fanatic to moi.
      Anyone who starts talking about the NWO is one step away from Medicationland.

      March 10, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • End Religion

      GAW, thank you. I play matador sometimes because it is a good way for me to stay on top of the conspiracy stuff. There's so much to know about it all, and I enjoy going down the rabbit hole because it is all fascinating to me. The madness of it is interesting to me even if I can't quite understand it all.

      March 10, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
    • lol??

      ER, for bein' a collectivist you sure like to throw yer weight around. Commie mommmmmmie luv, bigot

      March 10, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
  4. Follix

    Far away
    Across the field
    Tolling on the iron bell
    Calls the faithful to their knees
    To hear the softly spoken magic spell...

    – Roger Waters (Now we are talking about good lyrics)

    March 10, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things,

    March 10, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
    • Follix

      Than make yourself a favor, go in an hungry tiger cage, pray and let's see if it changes thing.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
    • The Devil

      As the SH-IT hits the Fan

      March 10, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
    • GAW

      Will prayer change my furnace filter?

      March 10, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
    • Akira

      Okay, GAW, that literally made me laugh out loud!

      March 10, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
    • Austin

      Cheeky monkey? Bum looker!

      March 10, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
  6. kevobx

    Hitler, did what he wanted to do. Hitler hung out with Martin Luther, and for some strange reason Martin Luther King Jr. was named after Martin Luther! Is that a lie? The Most High is revealing all things. (1st Peter 4:7)

    March 10, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • Facts

      Martin Luther lived from 1483-1546.
      Adolf Hitler lived from 1889-1945.

      Secondly, for you to assert that Adolf Hitler was a Christian is baffling. He (like many others) may have publicly declared himself as a Christian, but his unregenerate heart clearly depicted otherwise.

      March 10, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • Owen

      There are No True Scotsmen.

      March 10, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • lol??

      Prove it, Owen.

      March 10, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
  7. John P. Tarver

    Jesus was not persecuted, he was a trouble maker.

    March 10, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • John Traver Jr

      As is my dad

      March 10, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
  8. We praise you!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlA5IDnpGhc&feature=player_detailpage

    March 10, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • End Religion

      http://youtu.be/cQ1LgAm7ipo

      March 10, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
    • God is love

      Love this song!

      March 10, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
    • God is love

      Earlier response was directed to the root post

      March 10, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
    • Science

      Oops says the fairy in the sky

      March 10, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • God is love

      By "root post" I mean End Religion's. I can't stand that other religious bull-ticky.

      March 10, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
    • Rachel

      Our God is greater is awesome! love the song; well deserved win! Wishing you many more!

      March 10, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
    • Bob

      Too funny, Rachel-Chad, to see you using "Our". How are the two/one of you today? Tired from all the workouts, and still no thigh gap?

      March 10, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
  9. kevobx

    How have you increased? *Luke 17:5 And apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith. *Romans 10:17 So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. *Revelation 3:22 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. *John 3:30 He must increase, but I must decrease. (*1st Corinthians 4:9*)

    March 10, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • End Religion

      "The truth is that the [Flying Spaghetti Monster] is hidden all around us. And He's left clues like Italian-style bread crumbs to show us the path to His Eternal Noodliness. He's in our language—every time someone tells you to use your "noodle" they're unknowingly directing you to turn to Him for guidance. And whenever someone talks about a "consPiracy," they're just invoking the mischievous nature of Him and His Chosen People, the Pirates."
      – Gospel of FSM

      March 10, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
  10. Chad

    Chris Tomlin is awesome!

    March 10, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
    • i Agree

      🙂

      March 10, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
    • רחל

      There is something special about his worship songs. You can feel the presence of God as you worship.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
    • Science

      Hey Chad

      Had to post something .

      March 10, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
    • End Religion

      that special feeling is called a boner.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
    • Science

      Hey Bobie and As-stin Chad/rachel l4h fred Robert Brown loony bethany etc etc All creationists !!!

      Was the bible around back then ?

      Human Y Chromosome Much Older Than Previously Thought

      Mar. 4, 2013 — The discovery and analysis of an extremely rare African American Y chromosome pushes back the time of the most recent common ancestor for the Y chromosome lineage tree to 338,000 years ago. This time predates the age of the oldest known anatomically modern human fossils.

      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130305145821.htm

      No god(s) needed or required to graduate from public schools in the US

      Remember : Adam had to POKE himself hard with his OWN BONE to create Eve.

      Peace

      March 10, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • mistamista

      Sadly, I do not think that you understand the meaning of the word "awesome".

      awe.some =

      1: expressive of awe
      2: inspiring awe

      This A55-clown is neither of these. He's a guy who has seemingly joined up with the worst ideas in the world to perpetuate the wasteful lives that the "bible" lies to us about.

      March 10, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
    • Owen

      Chris Tomlin sucks and Christian music does too. It really stinks. Super cheesy, schmaltzy stuff without any balls -music for the stupid and the hard of smelling.

      March 10, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • Chad

      why do atheists have this compulsive need to criticize and mock everything Christian?

      March 10, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
    • Commenter

      Chad
      "why do atheists have this compulsive need to criticize and mock everything Christian?"

      Maybe because you promulgate fantasies and supersti'tions which mock reality.

      March 10, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
  11. John P. Tarver

    The notion that a mass extinction is the means to species is well developed in biology and geology and has been peer reviewed numerous times. A competing NASA notional hypothesis is that retro-viri are carried on a meteor striking the Earth.

    March 10, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      You are big on notions and hypotheses...do you have anything pertinent to say, or are you just throwing red herrings?

      March 10, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
    • John Traver Jr

      Oh dad there you go again!

      March 10, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Under the scientific method a theory must be demonstrable and repeatable, but a notional hypothesis only requires a scientific basis.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
    • John Tarver of Mars

      Life on earth is continually being challenged by viral assaults from space. Viruses are the most sophisticated weapons that can travel broadly and quickly over interstellar distances and so are the weapons of choice for pan-stellar genocide. Anyone who looks really closely at living things can see evidence of the evil activity of retroviruses, retrotransposons and other vile alien machinery blasting apart the genomes of all complex life on this good earth. We cannot hold out much longer, and our foes are implacable, hidden, and unreachable.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
    • JMEF

      To all the Tarver's and AB, I thought the greatest evil on the blog was Chad, am I as deluded as him, say it ain't so?

      March 10, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      So nothing pertinent to say, just as I thought.

      March 10, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
  12. kevobx

    Can the world let God be the I, my and we in the Bible? Nope their pride will not let them (Psalm 59:12-13 )

    March 10, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
    • IKYABWAI

      kevobx,

      And your pride won't let you see otherwise.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • Nietodarwin

      Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.
      Isaac Asimov

      March 10, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
    • Austin

      Kevobx, either are you in my opinion.

      What do you think about Hitler? Can you please answer that?

      March 10, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
  13. Bootyfunk

    he should do a cover of XTC's Dear God:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHmTqoLjlXo

    March 10, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      What an awful spiritual crisis.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
  14. Albert W. Tashetsky

    As far as science goes, the pretentious jerk going by the handle of John P. Tarver doesn't know his fat ass from an ant hill on the ground, despite his frantic attempts to present himself otherwise.

    March 10, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
    • Nietodarwin

      Like many people of "faith", he WILL NOT shut up, and can't be made to use reason. Xstians wonder why they are so persecuted. You don't see people of reason bad mouthing pagans and jews the way they do xstians and muslims. The reason is because xstians and muslims WILL NOT shut up. Enough freedom OF religion, they have it. We want freedom FROM it. Just as it's illegal to break city ordinances with regard to noise, (volume on a stereo, a car without a muffler) we need to pass such ordinances for preaching to the public. They have gone beyond the realms of free speech.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
    • lol??

      Prohibition all over again.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
  15. Sshollie

    Why do those of you who don't like Christian music spend so much time commenting on this article? I am not partial to monster trucks but I am not going to spend my time looking for articles on monster trucks so I can bash them and the people that do like them.

    March 10, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
    • Bill

      Because morons like you also get to vote.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      christianity is a religious cult, like any other cult. atheists worry about the spread of a cult that tells people to turn their brains off. this kind of music is there to reinforce the brainwashing so you will be a good christ-bot. it's in the belief blog - this isn't the christians only blog. QQ.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • Nietodarwin

      Because monster trucks don't psychologically terrify children with the concept of eternal damnation. Because monster trucks don't prey upon the young and weak minded, ( well not with such evil intent as religion) Because monster trucks don't lie about science and impede the academic progress of our country.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • Sshollie

      Nietodarwin, you are so wrong. Great response Bill. Very well thought out.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
    • Chad

      @Sshollie "Why do those of you who don't like Christian music spend so much time commenting on this article?"
      =>because they have this compulsive need to mock and criticize Christians for anything and everything.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
  16. kevobx

    Mark those who casts stones at us? (*1st Kings 18:31*)

    March 10, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
    • Angie

      What, your vicious god being violent yet again? No thanks.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      "Some are just the children of Satan and there is nothing you can do ..."

      March 10, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • Denise

      You mean your god didn't create everything? But I thought your holey book said he did...

      March 10, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • sam stone

      kevobx illustrates the vaunted Christian Persecution Complex.

      it makes him feel like jeebus

      March 10, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
    • mistamista

      ..and then, some are blindly led to their own slaughter under the guise of salvation. Jesus Christ was a good man, but he was no more great than my dog, who is named God. Faith is a crutch to the souls of otherwise strong men.

      March 10, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
  17. Bennett X. Wentworth

    As far as science goes, the pretentious jerk going by the handle of John P. Tarver doesn't know his fat ass from an ant hill on the ground, despite his frantic attempts to present himself otherwise.

    March 10, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
    • JMEF

      Quite right, we noticed, carry on.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Is not a Wentworth some sort of screwy English wrench sizing?

      March 10, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
    • Colin

      Tarver is certainly a wingnut. His output is fairly common stuff from pseudo-scientists, but that superficial view is often basically transparent varnish on top of misunderstandings and wrong conclusions that have no acceptance in openly peer-reviewed work. That sure is his case.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
  18. allenwoll

    .
    In the news once again this morning : Peiople murdered over organized religion ! !

    March 10, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
    • Nietodarwin

      You are basically killing each other to see who has got the better imaginary friend.
      Richard Jeni

      March 10, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
  19. Peter, Paul, and Mary

    No Santa Claus. No Easter Bunny. No God.

    March 10, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      If it makes you happy, why the hell are you so sad?

      March 10, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • End Religion

      I see, I forgot JPT is another Apple Bush. AB, how do you keep all these characters straight?

      March 10, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
    • JMEF

      Puff the Magic Dragon isn't real and that fundie up in the hills thay says he has a pet dinasour is lying, who can you trust these days?

      March 10, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Only 66.6% correct.

      March 10, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
    • Science

      Hey Santa

      Numbers work (good 1) ..... how are ya ?

      Peace

      March 10, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
  20. John P. Tarver

    The notional hypothesis that Genesis is translated to Day instead of Era, that would be consistent with the hard physical evidence of Geological time, would be the same as modern origin science. We know today that the mechanism triggering species is a mass extinction and that does make the Ark story apealing.

    March 10, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
    • Bennett X. Wentworth

      As far as science goes, the pretentious jerk going by the handle of John P. Tarver doesn't know his own fat ass from an ant hill on the ground, despite his frantic attempts to present himself otherwise.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
    • End Religion

      Just more random insanity. Why are religious people so stupid, insane or both? Insane post after insane post. One would think a moderately religious person would simply realize that the sheer number of loonies involved tells you something about religion.

      March 10, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • G to the T

      Even trying to stretch each creation "day" into an "era" (a rationality invented by Paul to explain why ressurection hand't happened yet as Jesus promised) doesn't jive with geology or biolgoy. 6K years is still several orders of magnitude wrong...

      March 11, 2013 at 2:57 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.