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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 • Opinion

soundoff (5,744 Responses)
  1. Mike

    If only people would just have basic decency toward others, and respect and obey secular laws, we wouldn't even need a book of fairy tales to guide us. There's been enough science over the last 200-300 years to prove that we're just a species living for a very brief time on this Earth (like other creatures). In other words, we're no better than all other living creatures, and when it's our time to die, that's the end of it – no glorious hereafter and all of the other hokum.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:38 am |
  2. Mr.Bumbles

    No, the Bible was written that way because it is true. CNN is written that way because it is aimed at "real' aka lower class people...

    February 26, 2012 at 7:38 am |
  3. Scalrtn

    The author should read Bart D. Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus." No one really knows what's in the original scriptures. What we have is a succession of mistranslations (many often deliberate) over earlier centuries by scribes, and later centuries by the truly uninspired.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Ehrman has some good videos on youtube.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  4. WellWrittenMr.James

    Well done piece.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  5. PastorChuck

    Great article CNN. I normally steer away from your material but might hang out for a while if you keep publishing stuff like this. People don't like to be told the truth about themselves but like bitter medicine, it's good for them.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • SRain71

      If you're the Pastor Chuck who recently retired, We miss you. If not, good name.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  6. ufadoof

    Why does "god" need a book again?

    Certainly he? could have imprinted "it" in everyones collective memories from the start and be done with it.
    Ahh right. I remember now. We have free will and what not. That is "god's?" cop out.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • trav

      no more excuses for you jack. Repent and be saved!!

      February 26, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • Transplanted58

      I suspect you're not a parent. If you are, do you force your children to love you? Do you require they believe exactly as you do, live exactly as you tell them, and are so controlling they never waver from the path you've set for them? Love doesn't force. I may not understand why many things happen in my life, but after becoming a parent, I fully understood a father's love.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  7. jmcolwill

    Jesus was a 'mans man', the first 'muscular' christian; would have to have been 'real' in the meaning of today's sense otherwise the people would never have taken to him.

    He had a temper we know that from his actions in tossing the money lenders of the temple (history repeating itself there then).

    The mystification and deificatioin of Christ came some two hundred seventy years later, for without it the church was unable to 'control' the faithful sufficiently enough to stop them from ripping Rome apart from the inside, so sickened were they at the moral excesses of the Romans. Ultimately this control did nothing to stop the eventual downfall of the Roman Empire, but once control has been seized it is given up with great reluctance.

    Aren't miracles only miracles when you don't undertand how they were done?

    How many times did Jesus state "I am the son of Man"?

    February 26, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • SRain71

      Umm, facts are off. 70 A.D. Within the lifetime of actual eye witnesses.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:01 am |
      • jmcolwill

        You are quite correct, the council of Nicea met in 325 AD, dates aren;t really my best suit.

        Does it import anything to the meaing of what I wrote though?

        February 27, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  8. John P

    Come on do you really believe God wrote a book Poor people

    February 26, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • ufadoof

      "god" also represents the 1%. Or so we are told. They must have read a different edition that I have. Yeah that's it.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  9. SRain71

    Thank you, Mr. James, for saying what needs to be said every once in awhile. Careful though. Could end up labeled a heretic. After all, we still have an enormous divide over sprinkling or submersion, pre trib or mid trib (or any trib) and saved or not saved if you haven't been baptised. Love the article.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:30 am |
  10. Enoch

    This is very funny. I got to the point where the author said "God's message" and collapsed in laughter.

    Did a god write this book?

    Very funny. Every novel has myriad interpretations for the motivations of its characters.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • trav

      no a god did not write this book. The true God inspired men to write it for you and me. Its time o stop laughing and weep for His return is near and you need tobe saved..

      February 26, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • Enoch

      You are a silly man.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • George

      Poor Trav, you need to go somewhere, sit and wait for your messiah. God just informed of this and I am jotting it down for your edumacation. You must heed my words, for they are directly from god itself. It told me to tell you to go paddle a raft into the middle of the ocean and your messiah will walk out to get you soon.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  11. Metal

    God's Word is the only source of information about Man's Origin, History and what the earth will like a 1,000 years from now, it has dates and times when events occurred, and many have been confirmed by archeology and many of things written that speak hygiene have been confirmed by science, it is truthful and blunt when it has to be, man has been living worse than animals for thousands of years, which was not what God intended, Jesus said he would save those that do God's will and destroy those that don't at Armageddon, it is up to people to search for God and do his will, no one will force anyone to choose something they must choose for themselves if they want God's favor and survive

    February 26, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • Mirosal

      Give us an example of a specific date and time that something occured.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • givemeabreak

      You are deluded and delusional.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Mirosal

      Armageddon already happened. Bruce Willis blew up the asteroid with a nuke and the Earth was saved.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • Eric G

      Sorry Metal, but you must provide verifiable evidence to support your claims. Without this evidence, your claims are no more valid than any other myth.

      If you would like others to take your position seriously, your position must be subjected to the same level of scrutiny as any other.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Chris

      And please cite the archeological finds that "prove" they happened.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Try the Summerians.
      Those clay tablets told me more about our origins
      than the bible did.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  12. The_Mick

    As someone who has studied the Judeo-Christian texts, including the apocryphal ones, traveled the length and breadth of the Holy Land, and studied the results of modern archeology, Steven James is more on the mark than modern Churches. On the other hand, there are so many mistakes in the old testament, from who was living in the Holy Land when to what clothing or armor they wore, to the archeology that shows no disruption in the population patterns at the time of the alleged Exodus, it's clear that modern Jewish theology was constructed to give King Josiah, the ruler of Judah at Jerusalem, an excuse to claim the remnants of the much larger state of Israel his north.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:29 am |
  13. martog

    Top Ten Signs You're a Fundamentalist Christian
    10 – You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.
    9 – You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.
    8 – You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.
    7 – Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Allah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees!
    6 – You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.
    5 – You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.
    4 – You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs – though excluding those in all rival sects – will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving."
    3 – While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to "prove" Christianity.
    2 – You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.
    1 – You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history – but still call yourself a Christian.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • Travis

      The autistic atheist has arrived

      February 26, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • ufadoof

      Travis apparently talks with "god". Cause, you know, wink wink, he says so.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • SRain71

      Hmm. While I would label myself a Fundamentalist Christian, none of your top ten seems to apply. Maybe your understanding of a Fundamentalist Christian, is as narrow- minded as you would have everyone believe, we are. It's all good though. For all of us, a religious (or non-religious) label can't possibly encapsulate who we are.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • M

      wow! I didn't know much of what you describe here but very impressive intellectual honesty..

      February 26, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • givemeabreak

      Spot on! Thank you for posting.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • Eric G

      @Travis: I understand the "atheist" label was meant as a slam, but what is the "autism" label?

      February 26, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • Blackbear701

      Absolutely awesome! You've summed it up perfectly. Thank you for posting. As someone recently wrote, when asked by a Christian what it is like to be an atheist, he replied "do you believe in Islam'? When the questioner replied "no", the atheist responded "like that". Brilliant, if you ask me. I have no problem with people who believe, who are a part of organized religion. That's wonderful; I have a problem with people trying for force their beliefs on me. That's all.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • martog

      @TRAVIS...Gee.....name calling. Isn't that the way of the 'good christian'. Your response is SO well thought out! But it's not surprisng. Religion is nothing but emotion, and so there for all you can respond with is emotion. No facts, no logic, just delusion. It never fails to amaze me how some seemingly intellegent people can be so logical and practical in most aspects of their lives and then behave like Cavemen when it comes to religion. Travis,,,,do you grunt a lot?

      February 26, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  14. Larry Moniz

    Just which Steven James is this. There are several listed as authors, film producers, etc. I tried to learn more about him and other than his name posted as a byline, there was no way to discern which one he is-if any of them. Is this a one-time pseudonym, sloppy clarification by CNN or what?

    February 26, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • joel palmer

      WHY is CNN pushing religion through its idiotic Belief blog? Religion is pure evil and brainwashing; who is paying for this and why

      February 26, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • Suitearia

      Hey Larry ... click on the link under the Editor's note for "Flirting for the Forbidden" – that will take you Amazon and then click on the authors name and his biograhy.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • Transplanted58

      LMAO @ joel....I often think the same thing about the Entertainment section...

      February 26, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  15. John

    Saying that Jesus "partied so much that he was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton" is definitely taking it overboard. Nowhere do we read of Jesus being a drunk or behaving as such. On the contrary Jesus warned sternly about the dangers of drunkenness (Luke 21:34). The derogatory names given to Jesus were given to him by the same people who later falsely indicted him and had him crucified. The blog author's statement would be the same as calling the President of the U.S. Satan simply because some people call him that. Jesus was called this and other names simply for the fact that he was willing to dine with, and thus to receive and welcome a class of people who did not follow the Jewish ritual and purity laws and were thus considered unclean.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • Enoch

      Looks like you missed the point of his tale.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  16. Rod

    Great article which articulates a truth we need to be reminded of regularly. Let's stop being afraid of what the Bible really says.
    BTW thank you CNN for great articles on faith and life. I keep being surprised and pleased at their quality and frequency.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  17. MissusPowell

    RELIGIONS ARE MAN MADE. I believe Religions can be both a pathway to God and a barrier to God. RELIGIONS remind me of clubs, and all clubs have a reason, a mission, to exist. However, they are created by human beings. I think the Bible is an amazing book of stories but due to the age of the writings and the translations, of which there are many, it cannot be read literally. It is funny because the writer complains that we have cleaned it up and yet the translation he uses still tells me one thing–WE HAVE EVOLVED AND WE ARE THE SAME. Amazingly, that would be only one of many paradoxes to be found in the Bible. I have, after many years, come to like Chopra's words most re: this subject: "We are Spiritual Beings having a Human Experience." In our lives we receive alot of information and mis-information, and we seek
    because we know we do not know all we want to know. We will all die without all the answers and a part of us, our human part really wants the answers. I think the answers, all that we need, are within us, Spirit if you will. Sometimes a poet reminds us, sometimes a mystic, a philosopher, an artist, a child, a sunset, fresh air, and when we are quiet within, our Spirit. I don't believe RELIGIONs, not any of them, KNOW IT ALL. much less can claim to be THE RIGHT ONE! I find it both frustrating and amusing. I believe in a CREATOR, a POWER GREATER THAN OURSELVES, WHO HAS GREAT LOVE. AND THAT SAME CREATOR CREATED US ALL. It is for me, the bottom line and the most important element of my belief ie: my faith. Again, "WE ARE SPIRITUAL BEINGS HAVING A HUMAN EXPERIENCE" Chopra .

    February 26, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  18. Peter

    Religion or not, human beings, by simple makeup are prone to violence towards each other and ruthless acts of greed.

    How do I know this? Why just yesterday I was walking in a store and commented to this nice woman "I just love the way your ass lifts side to side as you walk".

    She turned around and kicked me right in the nuts. See? This is just pure cold heartedness in action.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  19. The Half Baked Lunatic

    I wish CNN would highlight Frank Herbert's "Dune" on the front page as often as it does the bible. Dune is a much more compelling story, has better characters, and is far more believable.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • joel palmer

      The bible is fantasy fiction; there is no god or satan; religion is phony. Next...

      February 26, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      The sleeper has awakened.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  20. z

    "Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar." Proverbs 30:5-6
    "You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you." Deuteronomy 4:2

    February 26, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • The Half Baked Lunatic

      'god' is an idiotic idea promoted by immoral people to control and pacify the weak minded.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • amused123

      Hey Half Baked: You missed one; to irritate people like you.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • Suitearia

      Here is my problem. We do not have the original word of God. Every bible in print today is someone's "translation"; hence the word has been added too and subtracted from for hundreds of years. The question for this author is this: how does he KNOW that the words he claims have been edited are not the actual language of the original scrollls? I think God wants us to use our brains ... to question ... to seek ... and to find the truth. When we find the truth, we find him.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • Transplanted58

      Actually, suiteria, there is a literary science called Textual Criticism. Google it. You'll find there's more validity for believing many portions of the bible are unaltered that there is for believing that Plato's "Republic" is original in it's present form.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • MAVERICK

      @Z.......ZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.....zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...zzzzzzz

      February 26, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Thou shalt pick more smurfberries.

      Pappa Smurf.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:30 am |
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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.