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

My Take: Stop sugarcoating the Bible

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

By Steven James, Special to CNN

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

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

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

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

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

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The point?

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

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

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

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

God is much more interested in honesty than pietism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s why we miss out.

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

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

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

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

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

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Christianity • My Take • Opinion

soundoff (5,743 Responses)
  1. Clamor

    "You're obviously speaking to Christians when you say this because there are many people like myself who believe the Bible was written by man and NOT inspired by the loving presence in the universe that we refer to as God"
    Your unbelief in something doesn't make it false.

    "We believe the Bible is NOT relevant;"
    Calling something "not relevant" doesn't make it irrelevant.

    "some of the characters in the Bible existed, some DID NOT, that would include the main character behind the Christian story – Jesus –"
    Your opinions do not change facts.

    "because if you believe Jesus existed, you'd also have to believe that Horus, Mithras, Khrishna. Dionysus, Attis, and many other "Saviors" existed as well, since their identical stories were told centuries before the Jesus story"
    False stories don't make true stories false.

    "As for the "message of redemption", "being saved from sin, error, or evil", look around you in the world today, Christians commit sins (or break moral and legal laws) every single day; Christians are in error from time to time, just like anyone else; and Christians commit evil acts just like everyone else; so this whole "redemption" thing is NONSENSE"
    The Bible doesn't claim anyone will ever be perfect here on earth (to the contrary) we will be made perfect in heaven through Christ. We are all still sinners, we all still hate, we all still cheat, we all still lie, etc. The difference isn't that we've changed, the difference is that we've been forgiven.

    "I've read the Bible at least 3 times, was raised in the Christian faith, but as I got older, and the more serious study and research I did, I realized that most of the allegorical tales in the Bible are as believable as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy."
    Your unbelief in the possible doesn't make it impossible.

    "Your Holy Book was not written to be taken literally"
    It was written to be taken in context.

    "it was written for an illiterate group of primitive people, which is why it is replete with anthropomorphism, allegory, and fables."
    You don't explain complex ideas with complex things.

    "It's past time you guys put that 2600-year-old book on the book shelf where it belongs."
    Books are written to be read.

    "Your Bible is NOT the word of the loving presence in the universe that we so haphazardly call, God."
    You don't have to believe truth for it to be true.

    November 20, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
  2. AmazingUniverse

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

    You're obviously speaking to Christians when you say this because there are many people like myself who believe the Bible was written by man and NOT inspired by the loving presence in the universe that we refer to as God. We believe the Bible is NOT relevant; some of the characters in the Bible existed, some DID NOT, that would include the main character behind the Christian story – Jesus – because if you believe Jesus existed, you'd also have to believe that Horus, Mithras, Khrishna. Dionysus, Attis, and many other "Saviors" existed as well, since their identical stories were told centuries before the Jesus story. As for the "message of redemption", "being saved from sin, error, or evil", look around you in the world today, Christians commit sins (or break moral and legal laws) every single day; Christians are in error from time to time, just like anyone else; and Christians commit evil acts just like everyone else; so this whole "redemption" thing is NONSENSE.

    And please, don't try to "explain" anything to me with your scriptures and your canonical rhetoric, I've read the Bible at least 3 times, was raised in the Christian faith, but as I got older, and the more serious study and research I did, I realized that most of the allegorical tales in the Bible are as believable as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

    Your Holy Book was not written to be taken literally, and it was written for an illiterate group of primitive people, which is why it is replete with anthropomorphism, allegory, and fables. It's past time you guys put that 2600-year-old book on the book shelf where it belongs. Your Bible is NOT the word of the loving presence in the universe that we so haphazardly call, God.

    June 11, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
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  4. Troy "FireSpeaks" Pearsall

    When I speak on the passages you used in your example I do get very dirty and try to let the translation become real and personal. I am in complete agreement with you, there is no need to tidy up God. More importantly when the message is watered down it is not nearly as effective.

    If we can't be real in how we accept the word of God, how can we expect those with whom we proselyte to be real in their conversion? an honest man of God disciples honest men of God.

    January 2, 2013 at 10:39 am |
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  20. Susan K Rowland, author

    Just discovered this blog entry by Steve James (who is to be a speaker at the Writers Digest Conference West in October). Wonderful points. God really does want us to be honest with ourselves and with God. That's the starting point. And I loved that you described God as one 'who would rather die than spend eternity without [us].' All the unbelief in the world cannot negate God's existence or God's love. [Maybe I'll see in in L.A., Steven!].

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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.