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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. Jehoshaphat

    His songs are OK, but I find them somewhat annoying–too bubble-gum and extremely repetetive.

    March 10, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • End Religion

      Shallow and repetitive is what pop is all about. That is the sweet spot for sales.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • Commenter

      Jehoshaphat,

      Have you ever heard "When the Saints Go Marching In"? Repet'itive and catchy rakes them in...

      March 10, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :)

      Look at who his main audience is...he might as well be singing to a bunch of pre-teen kids.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  2. Nietodarwin

    “You don’t have to be brave or a saint, a martyr, or even very smart to be an atheist. All you have to be able to say is “I don’t know”.”
    _ Penn Jillette, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales

    March 10, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      "I don't know" is what everyone should say, believers and non-believers alike.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • End Religion

      I don't know if I agree.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • Pitdownman

      "I don't know" is an agnostic. There is no God is an atheist.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • TurtleChurch

      It is a common fallacy that agnosticism is on a continuum between theism and atheism. It is quite logical, and very common to be an agnostic atheist.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  3. tony

    I don't want to get into a "slamming the Christian music" contest, but I have to say that everything I have heard from this sector of the music industry is really not very good. It is based more on a formula and sounds more or less generic to me. The only rock Christian songs I really like include many by U2, "Spirit in the Sky" by Norman Greenbaum, and "One Toke Over the Line" by Brewer and Shipley, None of these groups were part of the Christian music genre, but their songs are classics. The same cannot and will not ever be said by the so-called Christian music genre.

    March 10, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • pam

      "I don't want to get into a "slamming the Christian music" contest"

      Oh please, let's do. I think of this guy as the "Yawnni" of Xtian country.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • End Religion

      He's not trying to make classic rock. He's trying to make inoffensive, easily swallowed pap, and he's very good at it. He's raking the cash in. The folks who love to buy snake oil have plenty of money and he's basically farming them.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • TurtleChurch

      As a friend of mine recently complained to me; "with centuries of amazing compositions to draw from, why do we insist on using jingles for music worship?"

      March 10, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • thought

      Have you listened to all Christian music?

      March 10, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
  4. froSTed

    That's nice but is he furthering humanity's cause? Faith is pretending to know something that you don't know. This is destructive. Demanding that people wallow in ignorance and worse, telling them that they are SHEEP, well... it's like lambs to the slaughter. Here's a simple history lesson that seems to be forgotten: you tend the sheep in order to keep them alive, away from predators, when they grow more, you take their only possessions off their backs, and eventually slaughter them for dinner. Remember that when your high and mighty clergy tends their "flock".
    Critical thinking skills please.

    March 10, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  5. Nietodarwin

    Come all ye "faithful" Joyful and triumphant into REASON. I was a xstian who threw away a silly belief in "god" and found happiness in knowledge, enlightenment in science. Nobody has ever risen from the dead. There is NO evidence of a 'god"
    Life is much better as an atheist, pulling the wool OFF your eyes.

    “We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.”
    _ Christopher Hitchens

    March 10, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
    • Savedlikeothers

      I find it fascinating that a non-Christian would make it such a point to click on a cleary Christian article just to negatively comment about it. I'm going to pray for you. Maybe you're looking for something. If you choose not to believe, that's your business, but please don't come here and try to sway us from our beliefs. Good luck to you.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • End Religion

      Savedlikeothers, what I'm "looking for" is for religion to die. It's happening, and I'm helping kill it off. Waddya think about them apples?

      March 10, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
  6. GAW

    Personally I don't care for most 'pop' music whether it be secular or religious. Most of the music written for churches by artists like this have been characterized as 711 songs......Seven words sung eleven times. Plus most churches that have worship bands up in front have the music up so loud it doesn't even pay to have anyone sing. It's more of a performance.

    March 10, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I agree. There is an incredible body of sacred music that is beautiful, whether one believes in a god or not. The pop stuff–blech.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • Damocles

      I like the occasional monk chant.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      "Bring out yer dead!" "I'm not dead yet!"

      March 10, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • JMEF

      Carmina Burana by Orff, nothing like chants do get the old belief system going or the third Reich for that matter.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • Commenter

      Yes, Tom, Tom, some hymns are quite stirring - and we can suspend disbelief to enjoy them, as we do with many fantasies. Who could get a thing out of the story of "Charlotte's Web", for example, without suspending our disbelief that spiders and pigs, etc. can talk?

      March 10, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Pie lesu domine
      Dona eis requiem

      March 10, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  7. TruthBeTold

    “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That's my religion.”
    ― Abraham Lincoln

    March 10, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
  8. The_Scoo

    Visitor,
    I never said I called. I do go straight over there and found him unconscious. I had never had another experience like that before. That marks the one and only time I went to check on my Dad, but that's not the point and you can chose to believe it or not. The point was, as Christians, we do have active experiences that are meaningful – as apposed to being told something when we were children and holding on to it forever.

    March 10, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • .

      Do you have a scroo loose? Who are you talking to? Are you mentally ill?

      March 10, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • visitor

      As humans, we all have experiences. They aren't limited to Christians. If you ascribe g-dly meaning to your experience that is your business. I am only saying that was not particularly inspirational to anyone but perhaps yourself, and others who want to use it to bolster their own beliefs. That doesn't mean your story doesn't mean any thing to you. It does and that is your business but don't take this the wrong way but it's not exactly walking on water is it. Glad you visited your dad. Good timing.

      March 10, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • visitor

      Context is everything isn't it?

      March 10, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  9. Reality

    The only lyrics that matter in the 21st century:

    The Apostles' / Agnostics’ Creed 2013 (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (References used are available upon request.)

    March 10, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • GAW

      I would prefer lyrics that could be sung to Bohemian Rhapsody.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  10. Kristin

    I have listened to Chris's music for years and it has been extremely inspirational to me. I'm glad that he is getting some well deserved recognition!

    March 10, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
    • Nietodarwin

      “Shake off all fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God, because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”
      _ Thomas Jefferson
      “I believe the simplest explanation is, there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization that there probably is no heaven and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe and for that, I am extremely grateful.”
      _ Stephen Hawking

      March 10, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • DAn

      @Nietodarwin, I see that you are quoting other people. Do you have your own thoughts?

      March 10, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  11. Wallace

    God bless Chris Tomlin. A live event with Chris is amazing! So many people post the most ugly comments on here, maybe they should go enjoy some Chris Tomlin on Rhapsody this morning and learn to enjoy some life on earth!!! To all my fellow christians out there God Bless you all!!!

    March 10, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
    • TruthBeTold

      Christian or not, everyone deserves a peaceful and happy life!

      March 10, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
    • Nietodarwin

      “We have a choice. We have two options as human beings. We have a choice between conversation and war. That's it. Conversation and violence. And faith is a conversation stopper.”
      _ Sam Harris

      March 10, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
  12. Charles

    How could you write such nonsense. Just because this guy is successful – religious or not – makes him a bad guy? No one man can save world hunger or any of the worlds problems. Get off your high horse.

    March 10, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
    • pam

      It's not about being bad. It's about being so mediocre that it hurts like arthritis of the brain.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  13. TruthBeTold

    I believe all men and women are born equal, regardless race or religion. No one race is better than another. No one religion is better than another.

    March 10, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
    • Nietodarwin

      No religion at all is better than any religion

      March 10, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
  14. Nietodarwin

    “The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession.”
    _ Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858

    March 10, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • Chris

      And the Nazi's chose Darwinism as one of their main belief systems, and we see how that ended up.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • Tom

      @Chris

      Is that really the best you can come up with???? I guess you really do need help...

      March 10, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • .

      It would be best to actually have some knowledge of both Nazism and Darwin before spouting off uneduscated rhetoric to try and bolster your position, Chris, mmmkayandthankyou. Everyone knows that Hitler's idea was firmly based in Christianity.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • hmf

      Hitler was a Christian.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • visitor

      Yeah cuz the Nazi's invented genocidal actions toward cities and villages (never read the Bible? The first couple of books?) and Nazi's invented a 1500-year European hatred of Jews. Darwin made Hitler repeatedly profess his Christianity.; Darwin made Hitler move millions of people around and make them factory and farm slaves. Slavery was invented by Darwin. That was all Darwin.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
  15. palintwit

    Tea Party Patriots believe that the movie Deliverance is an accurate depiction of conservative christian life in America.

    March 10, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  16. tony

    They do say the Devil has the best tunes.

    March 10, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
    • Tom

      Even the devil has left the building...

      March 10, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
    • Chris

      I think that atheists have the best Christmas music...it is just so inspirational.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
    • .

      Yeah, that "Jingle Bells" inspires awe in everyone.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
  17. Maleficent

    He's dancing all the way to the bank. Meanwhile people are starving in the world, but this guy's "god-given" mission is to "get people to sing".

    March 10, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • Tom

      It kind of reminds me of the ant and a grasshopper fable.... Christians are the most self serving group in society...

      March 10, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • Damocles

      Well yeah, I mean the more people you get singing the less likely you are to hear the cries for help. What's wrong with that?

      March 10, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • ikproductions

      @Damocles Haha you're on fire today, and I guess for all eternity! :p

      March 10, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
    • Damocles

      Since I am not currently on fire, I can not be on fire for all of eternity.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
    • Beam49

      If you knew the bible you would know even King David sang and danced in the streets for the Lord. Did this mean those hungry and orphaned were ignored? Of course not! We are commanded to take care of the 'least of these'. If you do a little searching you would find Christians give more then any other group to those in need, both here in the USA and over seas. Many sponsor orphans in other countries. Christian families adopt more also, giving home to children who have no families. Missionaries live in other countries to help those in need, bringing food and medical supplies, education and give them a chance to hear the Word of God also. The local food banks in every town and city get most of their monthly food donations from churches, who have a collection from their members every month. People who are about to have their lights shuts off, or need gas in the car, or a rent payment, can get help from a local church. The list goes on and on. You don't hear about these things because Christians aren't suppose to tell about them as it would be considered bragging about their 'good works'. If every Christians around the world suddenly stopped giving in all the many areas they do, the effect would be extreme and very drastic on the local governments who couldn't take over that load.

      And if you knew the songs Chris wrote, you might understand a little better too. His songs ARE about giving and helping others, because that is what Jesus teaches us. Its not about us, its about God and serving other people.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • End Religion

      beam: "If you knew the bible you would know even King David sang and danced in the streets for the Lord."

      This is likely because he was high on peyote.

      ***
      "If you do a little searching you would find Christians give more then any other group to those in need, both here in the USA and over seas."

      searching, as in:
      en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wealthiest_charitable_foundations
      ...which shows the top charities, and contrary to your post, secular ones are at the top. Why would you lie? Your god is not happy...

      Why are you measuring how much someone gives anyway? It's like measuring cock size, and seems a bit irreligious to be so proud. And then to just be flat out wrong about it. Must be embarrassing for you.

      ***
      "Many sponsor orphans in other countries. Christian families adopt more also, giving home to children who have no families."

      This site says adoption is less about helping children and more about big business. That seems right up religion's alley – big business:
      smartmoney.com/spend/rip-offs/10-things-your-adoption-agency-wont-tell-you-15546/

      It's also worth noting that since you religious nutters have been bashing gays for thousands of years, now that gays are gaining the right to marry they will be adopting like crazy. It's likely religious adoption will trail the gays in coming years. too bad you shunned gays all those years, eh? Now you're going to lose adoption as a source of gloating...

      ***
      "Missionaries live in other countries to help those in need, bringing food and medical supplies, education and give them a chance to hear the Word of God also. "

      And that is why you're a plague. You can't just be good because you're good. You have to spread your filthy heathen religion as a trade, just so someone can get food for the day. Disgusting...

      This Christian web site says the $5 billion you spend on missionary travel doesn't actually do much good:
      thinkchristian.net/do-church-food-pantries-do-more-harm-than-good

      ***
      "If every Christians around the world suddenly stopped giving in all the many areas they do, the effect would be extreme and very drastic on the local governments who couldn't take over that load."

      Bragging just like you're doing now. I guess you've sacrificed your eternal soul for the church, bravo. Now are you sure after you lost the last pissing match over charities that you want to continue arguing who is better?

      You don't need religion to give. You don't need religion to be a nice person. There are plenty of secular/atheist charities:
      squidoo.com/Atheist-Charities

      Look, this church closed its food bank because it attracted poor people. How fucked up is that? What is wrong with religious people?
      secularcafe.org/showthread.php?t=21712

      March 10, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
  18. JM

    He writes beautiful music.

    March 10, 2013 at 12:17 pm |

    • . . as a substitute for Lunesta

      March 10, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  19. palintwit

    Here's what the Europeans think of Sarah Palin...

    "If anything is a threat to the national security of the United States of America, it is this screaming, unrefined oaf with as much class as a searing release of flatulence followed by hysterical giggling at a state banquet. Is this what the people of the USA deserve?

    To attack the President of the country at a time when the USA needs to close ranks and stand together to consolidate the enormous strides his intelligent and respectful approach has achieved in building bridges, when her party's period in government bombed them, Sarah Palin comes across as a pitifully inadequate anachronism from the times of the Far West.

    The United States of America has evolved. She has not."

    March 10, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      i didn't know that Europeans thought of Sarah Palin.
      Why would they?

      March 10, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
    • palintwit

      Seyedibar... they also watch Honey Boo Boo. It kind of all fits together.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
    • John K

      Why are you whining about Sarah Palin in a Chris Tomlin article? Get a life.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • ME II

      @Sayeedibar,
      I didn't think American's thought about Sarah Palin anymore. @palintwit needs to update his/her trolling material.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
    • ME II

      @Seyedibar,
      sorry for butchering the name.

      March 10, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  20. palintwit

    palintwit imposter at 12:03, 12:04, 12:06

    March 10, 2013 at 12:13 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.