July 20th, 2013
10:00 PM ET

Reza Aslan: Why I write about Jesus

Opinion by Reza Aslan, special to CNN

(CNN) - When I was 15 years old, I found Jesus.

I spent the summer of my sophomore year at an evangelical youth camp in Northern California, a place of timbered fields and boundless blue skies, where, given enough time and stillness and soft-spoken encouragement, one could not help but hear the voice of God.

Amid the man-made lakes and majestic pines my friends and I sang songs, played games and swapped secrets, rollicking in our freedom from the pressures of home and school.

In the evenings, we gathered in a fire-lit assembly hall at the center of the camp. It was there that I heard a remarkable story that would change my life forever.

Two thousand years ago, I was told, in an ancient land called Galilee, the God of heaven and Earth was born in the form of a helpless child. The child grew into a blameless man. The man became the Christ, the savior of humanity.

Through his words and miraculous deeds, he challenged the Jews who thought they were the chosen of God, and in return he was nailed to a cross. Though Jesus could have saved himself from that gruesome death, he freely chose to die.

Indeed, his death was the point of it all, for his sacrifice freed us all from the burden of our sins.

But the story did not end there, because three days later, he rose again, exalted and divine, so that now, all who believe in him and accept him into their hearts will also never die, but have eternal life.

For a kid raised in a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists, this was truly the greatest story ever told. Never before had I felt so intimately the pull of God.

In Iran, the place of my birth, I was Muslim in much the way I was Persian. My religion and my ethnicity were mutual and linked. Like most people born into a religious tradition, my faith was as familiar to me as my skin, and just as disregardable.

After the Iranian revolution forced my family to flee our home, religion in general, and Islam in particular, became taboo in our household. Islam was shorthand for everything we had lost to the mullahs who now ruled Iran.

My mother still prayed when no one was looking, and you could still find a stray Quran or two hidden in a closet or a drawer somewhere. But, for the most part, our lives were scrubbed of all trace of God.

That was just fine with me. After all, in the America of the 1980s, being Muslim was like being from Mars. My faith was a bruise, the most obvious symbol of my otherness; it needed to be concealed.

Jesus, on the other hand, was America. He was the central figure in America’s national drama. Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American.

I do not mean to say that mine was a conversion of convenience. On the contrary, I burned with absolute devotion to my newfound faith.

I was presented with a Jesus who was less “Lord and Savior” than he was a best friend, someone with whom I could have a deep and personal relationship. As a teenager trying to make sense of an indeterminate world I had only just become aware of, this was an invitation I could not refuse.

The moment I returned home from camp, I began eagerly to share the good news of Jesus Christ with my friends and family, my neighbors and classmates, with people I’d just met and with strangers on the street: those who heard it gladly, and those who threw it back in my face.

Yet something unexpected happened in my quest to save the souls of the world.

The more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unbelievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of history – between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth.

In college, where I began my formal study of the history of religions, that initial discomfort soon ballooned into full-blown doubts.

The bedrock of evangelical Christianity, at least as it was taught to me, is the unconditional belief that every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant.

The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions — just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of different hands across thousands of years — left me confused and spiritually unmoored.

And so, like many people in my situation, I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying.

I began to rethink the faith and culture of my forefathers, finding in them a deeper, more intimate familiarity than I ever had as a child, the kind that comes from reconnecting with an old friend after many years apart.

Meanwhile, I continued my academic work in religious studies, delving back into the Bible not as an unquestioning believer but as an inquisitive scholar. No longer chained to the assumption that the stories I read were literally true, I became aware of a more meaningful truth in the text.

Ironically, the more I learned about the life of the historical Jesus, the turbulent world in which he lived, and the brutality of the Roman occupation that he defied, the more I was drawn to him.

The Jewish peasant and revolutionary who challenged the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever known became so much more real to me than the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church.

Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.

I have modeled my life not after the celestial spirit whom many Christians believe sacrificed himself for our sins, but rather after the illiterate, marginal Jew who gave his life fighting an unwinnable battle against the religious and political powers of his day on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed – those his society deemed unworthy of saving.

I wrote my newest book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" in order to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ.

Because I am convinced that one can be a devoted follower of Jesus without being a Christian, just as I know that one can be a Christian without being a follower of Jesus.

Reza Aslan is a bestselling author and a scholar of religion. This article was adapted from his newest book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." The views expressed in this column are Aslan's alone.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Christianity • Church • Jesus • Opinion

soundoff (4,311 Responses)
  1. EdL

    One can be what one wants to be. I can believe in anything I want to believe in. Somebody can tell me I am wrong, but what if they are wrong?

    July 21, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      "Everyone is ent¡tled to their own opinions, but not their own facts."
      —Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

      July 21, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      We can believe ANYTHING? Excellent! I believe I'll have a beer!

      July 21, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
  2. Elmer Tuggles

    The Bible is clear that there will be many false teachers and that we are to be on guard of our hearts. This is just another of those who have come before and who will come after this one.

    Jesus is the living Son of the living God and only through Him can we be saved. Though we are sinful by nature when God The Father looks upon us He sees the righteousness of Jesus when we accept Him as our savior.

    Some will never believe for to them Holy things are foolish. One day He will return to earth. But this time in power and glory. Not as a helpless child. There will be those who will believe when they see Him but they will suffer mightily for their belief as when He walked the earth the first time.

    July 21, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Step away from the magic mushrooms!

      July 21, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
    • KneonKnight

      And you are able to present proof of these claims... correct? Enlighten us then.

      July 21, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
    • yikesboy

      Hey Elmer, I surely would welcome his arrival...any kind of physical proof would be great as a matter of fact. I think most non-believers would agree that though they can't say with surety that God doesn't exist, the overwhelming lack of evidence, and the complete incompatibility between scientific explanation vs the scriptural explanations for our world's beginning and development definitely makes the Biblical case all but completely implausible. Come and tell us oh great man of the sky why you ignore our cares and suffering for millennia and then choose to become extremely involved with us for a very limited time, in an ignorant part of the world? Sorry but we really need to know before we accept anything on faith.

      July 21, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
  3. ThereIsNoGod

    Religion is the absolute perfect lie.
    Anything good happens; It's the Lord's miracle.
    Anything bad happens; It's the devil's work.
    No evidence of God; Only the FAITHFUL will be saved.
    There are other Gods/Religions; Yours is the only true religion/God
    Evidence of Evolution/round Earth/Earth more than 6,000 years etc..; The devil went back in time to place fossils or Science is wrong.
    Pastors and Priests involved in immoral behavior; Well there are always a few bad apples.
    You question God's existence; YOUR'RE GOING TO HELL!

    You can't win with these people!

    July 21, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
    • Joe

      This is probably the best straw-man argument I've seen on the internet yet.

      July 21, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
      • tundexxdisu

        Whatever God does..even though it may seem bad , always has a good motive. Any thing the devil even considers, ALWAYS has a sinister motive. One is Holy and loves you unconditionally, and the other...is demonic and incapable of loving you.

        July 21, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
    • Elmer Tuggles

      Christianity is the only religion that is a faith of the heart not the head. Every other religion has a central figure who died and never promised to return. Jesus is the only figure who returned from the dead. Sighted by hundreds after His death. That defies intellect and only by the arrogance of sinful man do some believe they are more knowledgeable than God.

      There are many prophecies in the Bible that were fulfilled and there are many left to be fulfilled. Hold on to your hat we're in for a wild, wonderful ride. Unless we defy the truth.

      July 21, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
  4. sybaris

    Jesus, a spirit that came to earth, rented some flesh and poofed itself back to where it came from........ so the myth goes.

    Some sacrifice

    July 21, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
  5. happyfrenchman

    Christ was probably a good fellow... a bit naive... a revolutionary... if what I read about him is true, By the same token, I think he would be pretty disgusted with what modern christianity wreaks in his name.

    July 21, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
  6. Betsy Phillips

    Read CS LEWIS!

    July 21, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Narnia's not bad, if you can skip the eye-rolling at the deus ex machina every time Aslan shows up.
      The Space Trilogy is just wordy and badly paced.
      His contemporary, J. R. R. Tolkien, wove MUCH better fantasies.

      July 21, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
  7. Linny Bee

    FYI, Jesus was not illiterate. He knew the scriptures of the Old Testament better than anyone else, and used it like law to make his points.

    I agree with the author, the Bible must not be taken fundamentally, but the parts that bring us light and understanding should be the guideline when reading.

    July 21, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Jesus was a Prince of Israel with purchased Roman citizenship. Why do you slander his understanding of words.

      July 21, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
    • KneonKnight

      Jesus didn't exist – but if you want to live your life by the sermon on the mount i'm all supportive for you. just forget everything else in the silly book.

      July 21, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
    • G to the T

      Illiterate means = unable to write. 99% of the population at that time couldn't write. A somewhat higher percentage could read (which is possible in Jesus' case) but the author is probably correct that Jesus was illiterate. The 2 were totally different skill sets back in that time.

      July 23, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
  8. Shoal

    I have learned that the bible, Jesus, and the notion of a deity are all false.

    I feel better now.

    But wait...what are all those twinkling lights in the sky at night...

    July 21, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
    • RichardSRussell


      I suggest the possibility because you show some tendency toward credulity, and I'd rather steer you toward a fallacious belief system that doesn't systematically oppress people who doubt it.

      July 21, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
    • logan5

      So because we have twinkling lights in the night sky this means the Christian deity exists?

      July 21, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
  9. Emmet

    I hope to be reincarnated into a world where religion doesn't exist. Of course, I would still have the same body so I wouldn't have to buy new clothes.

    July 21, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
    • Shoal

      If you simply BELIEVED then you would get to go a to a never-ending party where you aren't allowed to leave...

      July 21, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
  10. Trinity

    Sacrilege! The Holy Trinity can never be besmirched in this manner. Bhrama, Shiva, Vishnu will take your eyeballs apart!! Just wait, you will see! You will see! I am right! You are wrong! Nah Nah Nah Nag MUUUUUUU-HAAAAAA!

    July 21, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
    • SmiteMeOhBigOne

      Oh great, here come the Polytheists....

      July 21, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
      • John P. Tarver

        They burn the Majestics as witches.

        July 21, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
  11. JesusNotReligion

    Dear Reza...I'm sure you are reading this and I will try to be concise...And let me say before I forget that I do appreciate your segment because I believe the Jesus of the Bible will use it to bring clarity to WHO He really is, in spite of your rejection of Who the Bible says He is..."What then? (asks the apostle Paul in Philippians 1:18) Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Jesus Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice."

    1) The "Jesus" of the Bible was both the "man" of Nazareth AND "Immanuel" (God with us) from "eternity" (ref. Isaiah 7:14 & Micah 5:2–"Old Testament" references-WRITTEN 750 YEARS BEFORE JESUS OF NAZARETH WALKED THE EARTH)...
    Unfortunately you must believe BOTH TRUTHS of WHO Jesus is as He is presented in the whole of Scripture in order to be "saved" or throw Him fully to the curb along with every other "earthly" self-help guru who teaches "a way" to peace with God that is essentially "works-based" religion...You've fallen from grace back into works, and instead of completely discarding Jesus, you've DOMESTICATED Him (i.e. turned Him into something/ someone He is not for your own purposes) just like every cult and false religion does...Do us all a favor an just dump Him and the New Testament completely or embrace both fully with a surrendered life that does not present a "Burger King Jesus" (i.e. "Have it your way" instead of YAHWEH)...I'm sure the Atheist's on this site would also agree with me...

    2) Since you are promoting "Jesus" as an "historical" figure in your segment above, you must still regard the New Testament as a somewhat legitimate do¢ument (an accurate/historical accounting) of His life and teachings (to one degree or another)...I applaud that! My question is: How will you now determnine what is true and what is supposedly false?–Acuurate vs. Inaccurate? Perhaps you should purchase a book called, The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, by Gleason Archer BEFORE you jump ship – though I hope you understand that if you never return to the "ship" (by grace alone through faith alone), to the "Jesus" of the Bible, then you were NEVER really on board to begin with...

    3) The Jesus of the New Testament extensively quoted the Old Testament, especially in reference to Himself as being the One (the Christ/ Messiah) by whom all things were being "fulfilled"...You do realize that this "Jesus of Nazareth" only had access to copies of copies of copies (and more "copies") of the original text and yet He quoted from them with an "authority" that you are now undermining in your segment...You are unwittingly playing the role of Satan in the garden (Genesis 3), essentially saying, "Did God really say..?"

    I can actually introduce you to the Divine Jesus (the fully God/ fully man) from the Old Testament, which is how Jesus did it, along with all the New Testament writers (though the Apostolic New Testament writers were all eyewitnesses of the Jesus you are now rejecting)...

    I will continue to worship and follow hard after the Jesus of the Bible, and pray in His uniquely authoritative name for you, even you no longer do. "But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: 'The Lord knows those who are His'..." (2 Timothy 2:19)


    July 21, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
    • Neo Atheist


      Don't care, too long and don't want to read your post.

      July 21, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
      • kid

        a american kid not wanting to read...lol whats new?

        go make a cat video.

        July 21, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
        • Neo Atheist

          Actually I read, quite a bit. Just didn't want to read that commenters mindless drivel.

          July 21, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
      • JesusNotReligion

        It wasn't addressed to you, now was it?

        July 21, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      "how Jesus did it"
      "follow hard"
      "firm foundation"
      Dude, you need to get laid.

      July 21, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
      • JesusNotReligion

        Seriously? Your post speaks more of your need than mine...You revealed yourself and your need, not mine.
        JesusNotReligion saves!

        July 21, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
        • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

          JesusNotReligion saves, but Gretzky gets the rebound and puts it in the top corner!!!!!!!

          July 21, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
  12. Sara

    Gods, what a waste of time

    July 21, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
    • Really-O?

      @Sara –


      July 21, 2013 at 5:01 pm |
  13. Aria

    I was 15 when I met my very lovable nice Christian friends. Their love for Jesus was strong. I went to Jesus Camp and Jesus rap with them. However the concept of Jesus is God and God died just to save us from our sins didn't set well with me. Nice idea and great for people to feel secure. Muslims obviously believe in Jesus, but not as divinity. In Judaism Jesus was nor the messiah or a prophet. I really don't care who believes in what. Whatever floats everyone's Noah's Ark.

    July 21, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      I had much the same problem with the concept of Jesus as God until I came to understand that Word means Logos: the spell of creation. In that way I understood how the story was not a paradox.

      July 21, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
      • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

        It's not a paradox. It's a load of horse sh!t.

        July 21, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
        • John P. Tarver

          My father claimed the same thing about the church, yet his faith was stronger than any I have known. He was mad at God from the battle of Bastogne until Reagan walked through that NAZI grave yard there.

          July 21, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
        • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

          John, the fact that your father had great faith in a load of horse sh!t doesn't magically change into something divine. It just proves that your father had great faith in a load of horse sh!t.

          There are many, many people in the world who, I would surmise, have faith as strong as, or stronger than, your father's faith, but they have faith in entirely different deities. Big deal. It just shows that many people in the world and weak-minded and delusional.

          July 21, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
  14. Willie

    This fellow assumes the historicity of Jesus Christ but ten minutes of study would reveal to him that there is no evidence of his existence.

    July 21, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
    • Neo Atheist

      BUT THE BIBLE SAYS SO! (Or so I heard)

      July 21, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
    • tryagain

      I think you had better do a bit of research before making such claims.

      July 21, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
  15. Craig

    It's amazing what relief you feel when you ditch the politics and organized religion leeches that are sucking the life out of spirituality. It removes all the obstacles that get in the way of finding peace.

    July 21, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
  16. myVu

    Acts 11:26 "...And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch."
    Christianity is NOT a religion. The people began calling the disciples
    Christians because they spoke and conducted themselves just like
    Jesus did. The people saw Christ in the disciples. They heard
    the disciples speak the same words of Jesus and perform the same
    miracles. So they identified the disciples as those that had been
    with Jesus. They witnessed with their own eyes that the disciples
    were "Christ" like and so they gave them the name Christians.

    What is interesting is that the disciples did NOT name themselves
    christians. But the people named them that because they acted
    just like Jesus. THIS is true christianity. Christianity simply means
    "Life of Christ". It's not something you join. You simply live like
    Jesus lived.

    July 21, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
    • Incorrect

      Incorrect. People were called Christians originally as a derogatory term in Rome. Look it up.

      July 21, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
    • JOSE


      July 21, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
  17. joey

    what a crock. both are BS. there is no god or gods. herd mentality at its stupid human finest.

    July 21, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
    • Neo Atheist


      July 21, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
    • KneonKnight

      poor sheeple

      July 21, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
  18. Neo Atheist

    I don't acknowledge God, Jesus or the Bible. None of them have a presence in my life nor will they ever.

    July 21, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Tempting God is a really good idea. 🙂

      July 21, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
      • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

        How about farting in God's general direction? Good idea?

        July 21, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
        • SmiteMeOhBigOne

          I do that often, but I'm beginning to suspect it likes it

          July 21, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
        • John P. Tarver

          Your's is a demonstration of faith.

          July 21, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
        • Bad Zut! Bad, bad Zut!

          "I fart in your general direction" was one of the funniest insults to old King Arthur and gang...as well as "your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries..."

          July 21, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
      • Neo Atheist

        Not tempting anything, because there isn't anything there.

        July 21, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
      • joey

        doesn't exist. i wont waste my sauerkraut on meaningless mental masturbation

        July 21, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
    • Ernie franco

      I beg you to please reconsider. Your eternal life depends on it. You have a conscious and know what is wrong and right. Where do you get that from. Nothing created everything is a scientifically impossibility. Only Jesus can save you from the consequence of your sins.

      July 21, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
      • yikesboy

        Ernie, I really do appreciate your concern for my post-life being. However, I consider it the epitome of hubris to think that you or anyone else knows what happens after death. I think that all probability points to nothing...no cloud top harp playing, no mansions with swimming pools and certainly no eternal fire for non-believers. I think this: what if people all examined the evidence and came to the same conclusion as I and many others have, and that there's no afterlife? I think that life would be very highly cherished then...it would sure be hard to find idiots willing to do heinous acts for martyrdom then.

        July 21, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
      • Shoal

        That my fellow Human is the VERY HEART OF CHRISTIANITY......Ignorance. You can't explain so you make up. This is the absolute core of Monotheism. You can't explain jack of who/what/when/where/why are we here so you invent a god replete with tales and fluff that answers all of your questions perfectly and completely. The only questions left are the exact same ones but this time pertaining to the god you created to answer the first set of questions, and since we all know its heresy to question a god, the questions evaporate and faith is left. Have faith son. Faith. Just believe. Just believe. Talk to yourself, I mean god, talk to god by talking to yourself and remember all the key points.
        1. He loves you!
        2. You get to live in bliss forever!
        3. Your enemies will burn in pain forever!

        ah, Deists and Theists, what a bunch 🙂 My children are just beginning to learn about theology – good fun teaching them all of the insane things ignorant/selfish/sad little Man comes up with

        July 21, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
      • KneonKnight

        ernie – threatening someone with imaginary eternal pain is not a compelling argument

        July 21, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
    • kid

      just a kid letting everyone know about his secret atheism while noones home...ignore it.

      July 21, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
  19. Richard

    This is very poorly written article with absolutely no content. Poor job by aslan.

    July 21, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      A critique of poor writing by someone who doesn't understand the use of the indefinite article or capitalizing proper nouns.

      Yeah, REAL cedible!

      July 21, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
    • Bruce

      Shoddy work by this writer.

      July 21, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
  20. Voice of reason

    These sort of articles always strike me as amusing. Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. If you don't believe He is, then you are a hypocrite for "modeling your life" after a liar. Either you believe him or you don't. And if you don't you are being hypocritical. Period. At least the so-called evangelicals at your "Jesus camp" were being consistent about what Jesus claimed concerning himself by believing it themselves.

    July 21, 2013 at 4:44 pm |
    • Akira

      I'm curious: how does not believing in Jesus make one a hypocrite?

      July 21, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
      • jazzguitarman

        Good question. As for this author, I believe his main goal here is to make money by selling books to those I call confused Christians. People that still say they are Christians but have 'issues' with the devine parts of the faith. I don't think it is wise to be a devote follower of anyone.

        July 21, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
    • MagicPanties

      If you don't believe in my invisible pink unicorn, you are a hypocrite.

      Now do you believe?
      Yeah, I thought that would do it.

      July 21, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      You call yourself Voice of reason, but there is no logic behind your reason...all that is coming through is voice, with no content.

      July 21, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      A hypocrite is a person who SAYS one thing while SIMULTANEOUSLY actually believing (or behaving as if he believed) something else. Someone who says "I used to believe that but now I believe this" is not a hypocrite, simply somebody who's changed his mind, something that EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US has done by the time we reach the age of about 18 months.

      July 21, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.