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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. AngryClown

    I like my Jesus to party......... Mike Honcho.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  2. stevie68a

    Someone once said " the fastest way to become an atheist, is to read the bible". So true! Keep your buy bull away
    from me.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • Susan Martin

      Nothings for sale. Free bibles abound.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  3. 2skipjunkman

    skipjunkman-try prayer, i you'll find your reason

    February 26, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  4. Name*Robert

    On target. People of the world learning to be people of God. Not always pretty for a moment but desiring even more His presence daily life is a refreshing.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:55 am |
  5. leslee

    Its so disappointing to read some of these comment. "Could God write a book?" What kind. Of idiotic question is that? Of course he could; he's God! What most of you dont realize is that the bible is supposed to be read with the guidance and the leadership of the holy spirit; otherwise it's just a regular book. If you pray and ask God to give you wisdom He will, and much is contained in the Bible. The thing we all have in common is the need to submit to a loving God, who is ready, willing, and able to accept us (we don't accept him, like many people teach), filthy rags and all!

    February 26, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Codepwned

      Interesting, so a book written 2000 year ago by monks taking second hand accounting's from known criminals (murderers, thieves, rapists and child molesters to name a few crimes) is supposed to be read using the 'holy spirit' as guidance. oooookay. You take your book. I'll lean on common sense. Thanks!

      February 26, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • MissusPowell

      Codepwned–I agree, Our Creator gave us a brain to use...

      February 26, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  6. scott

    Pull your head out people. The bible was written by the same people tearing up Afghanistan. It's a wonder they could write. The fact that people have used this book as a life guide, explains the state of the world. WAKE UP!

    February 26, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • MissusPowell

      It is easy to take a stand on something you don't want to understand because if you did you would not think you know so much...so keep it beyond you and you need to just chatter your human brain into oblivia...your choice. Just curious why you are even on this blog or even reading, writing, about that which you don't want to know or already know?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  7. Susan Martin

    God IS real. Pray. That part of my life is the only part that has depth. I believe.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • Mirosal

      ok.. your turn to amaze and astound us. You claim 'god' IS real ... ok, show us your concrete irrefutible evidence. Or just does it appear real in YOUR mind?

      February 26, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Susan Martin

      You don't have enough time to hear my story. He will bring you out of dark places and stand you on a rock. I have witnessed miracles. Premonitions. Blessings. In my own life. I should be dead. What you don't understand is that it adds another dimension to your life. I can not explain it to you, for you are deaf. Take your own personal journey into the light. He rescued me from those who walk in darkness. Time and time again.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • CFS Facts

      17 million patients have been praying for nearly 30 years for a treatment or a cure, and have gotten only verbal abuse in response to their prayers. Many of us have lost faith as a result. If God is so powerful, why doesn't He show the love to these 17 million, a quarter of whom are so sick they are permanently bedridden.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      Susan, he didn't rescue you! You did it. Part of the issue with christians is that they like to pass off the credit...the only person who can change you is you. As for premonitions...if they can't be demonstrated outside of your own personal experiences they have no validity in the world. Miracles have been proven time and time again to be false.

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

      Susan, do you blame 'god' when BAD things happen to you as well?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • Susan Martin

      I was too weak to save myself. My body was crushed. My brain infected. I was pursued by people that practice witchcraft. Do you believe in evil? Have you seen it, felt it? If there is evil and you can believe that why can't you believe in God? When you read the bible, it will not hurt you. Because it is good. Let me give you one example of what was MY personal journey. A man in my home was raging for hours in the middle of the night. In a meek voice I said, in the name of Jesus Christ I command you to leave my presence. His mouth dropped open, he never said another word, not one and walked out the door. Yes, I do believe. Worst moment of my life turned into my best. I believe with my whole heart and soul.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      Susan: My worst moments in life probably outweigh anything you could imagine (abuse in every sense of the word; the death of my Mother, the death of my infant daughter). I didn't need god to save me...I did it! Don't sit here and pretend your god had anything to with saving people....your god condones murder and child abuse. Religion provided an escape for you, nothing more and it's a pathetic escape. The buybull, which obviously you have never read, condones so much violence...supporting that proves you are not fully recovered from whatever horrible thing affected you. (witchcraft? are you speaking of Pagans? if so, your good christards took most of their beliefs from pagans who existed long before your god did). You just passed off one bad thing for another, nothing more...it's like the cocaine addict trying to curb the addiction by using alcohol...no difference in the end.
      You're using excuses and they're not valid and they are extremely poor at best.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @Mirosal: Susan is delusional and in need of psychiatric as.sistance, nothing more.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Susan Martin

      You know what will make heaven such a beautiful place? All the haters and mean people won't be there. This life is to weed out the junk. I am not delusional. You are. God is my psychiatrist. Why so much hate? It is like atheist who say God damn. Does that make any sense to you? You can not insult me. I know who I am and I was injured, not mentally ill. And do you hate the mentally ill? But by the grace of God go I.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Susan Martin

      @Truthprevails- I am sorry you have suffered. No, God didn't save me, he healed me. He protected me. No, not Pagans. Worshipers of Satan.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  8. Gregory

    Its like a virus... Written in a way so you can understand it how you like. But yeah, life is as simple as math, positive results in positive, if you add negative...well, do the math

    February 26, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • leslee

      "As simple as math"? Dude, I'm a mathematician! Math isn't simple! Its kicks my butt every day. This goes to show how little you actually know.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  9. deb

    We really don't need to be highlighting articles like this when we have a huge crisis going on in the Middle East with Qoran burnings. Why not highlight the dignity of the Quran and help calm this down a bit ? Highlighting the violence of the bible when we have Christian extremists talking so lightly about war when it's not even smart and just people spouting opinions for themselves. We are under a microscope with the Arab world right now and we need to be highlighting the more moderate people and not the people who are so ridiculous that they can sell papers. On the inside, we know that Christian extremists are not talking for the whole country. Goodness no!!!!! Especially when it looks like a few loud candidates have forgotten about the wisdom of the separation of church and state. I cringe at this headline when people are in a rush and they just look at the headline and the picture. Christians are about tolerance, respect, compassion, love, turning the other cheek, forgiveness, actually forgiveness is big. We really don't need the fringe aspects of Christianity highlighted right now. We are dealing with enough misperceptions.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • Eric G

      No, we do not have to attempt to "calm this down a bit".

      Any person who is willing to kill another because of what someone else did to a book about something that they cannot prove exists, is a threat to humanity and must be handled accordingly.

      Tell you what, we will find the soldiers who are responsible for the burned books and turn them over to the Afgan mob to do with as they please. All they have to do is first prove that their God exists.

      We are talking about death. When will humanity start to demand a little more facts when death is being discussed?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  10. Jt_flyer

    Put Lilith back in. Stop trying to make God fit YOUR beliefs. It's supported to be the other way around.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  11. Ms Winston

    I am conflicted believer who attends a liberal mainstream church a few times a year. I have struggled with the idea of religion for many years, but I find myself weary of non-believers who take every opportunity to insult those who disagree with them. The level of nastiness that has appeared in the responses amazes me - so insulting, so condesending, and so intolerant of other views. Yes, I am aware that there are far too many believers who are the same when confronted with those who disagree with them, but I always hope that the opposition shows more class. In this case, in this forum, I am sadly disappointed.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • Eric G

      Unfortunately, this blog is not the best place for you to have your questions of faith answered. While you may receive insightful responses, many will seek to mock you.

      As an atheist, I would like to explain that I only want those who believe to be subjected to the same level of scrutiny that they apply to scientific discovery. If a believer demands demonstrative evidence to support a scientific theory, they must provide demonstrative evidence to support their biblical theories.

      A problem that I see with many believers is they confuse "disagreement" with "disrespect".

      February 26, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • Ms Winston

      Eric, I am aware that the Internet is a good place for people to vent their spleen - I have done it myself. I am fairly typical of many people who belong to the Episcopal Church - I support gay marriage, I am pro-choice, I believe in evolution, I am for separation of church and state..but if I say that I am pretty sure that there is a higher power in the universe, I am scorned. Probably I am one of those who believe in Pascal's Wager - don't ever bet against the existance of God, for if you bet for the existance of God and you are wrong, you lose nothing and are no worse off than before, where if you are right you gain everything.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Eric G

      @Ms Winston: Thank you for your response. It is nice to talk to someone here who is capable of having a civil conversation.

      From your post, I would ask why you believe in a higher power? You stated that you "believe" in evolution theory. Evolution theory does not require "belief" because it is supported by verifiable evidence. It is not belief, but understanding behind your support of evolution theory.

      Is it possible that your belief in a higher power is based in a lack of knowledge rather than Pascal's wager?

      February 26, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  12. Philippe Theriault

    Very nice article. I find religion revolting. Perhaps if I simply read the Bible, I would be a better believer. I found this article touching and thought-provoking. Thanks Steven James and the editors at CNN!

    February 26, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  13. Deb

    Nice article and for the most part I agree with the writer. But translations are tricky. As long as a modern translation of the Bible carry the same intent and intensity of God's Word, I have no problem with it.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  14. Stein

    As I began to read your piece I initailly thought you were heading toward a common sense conclusion: throw out that irrelevant book! I was later disappointed.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  15. Devaha

    Most of these comments are inane. Religion's value is not in its ultimate truth or incorruptibility, it rests in its affective and spiritual quality. People are to concerned with "Truth." The value of Truth is overrated. Zealots are too consumed with the infallibility of their faith and defending it that they loose sight of its true inner power. Arrogant atheists only see faith as a relic of a backwards time since they have replaced it with a modernist morality (which is, in fact, still ultimately derived from Christianity in the west and ultimately still defined by arbitrary notions of "Good" and "Bad" which boil down to an a-personal god). Both approaches ignore the fundamental aspect of religion which allows one to feel and experience something outside oneself. Jesus was trying to get back to this because, as the author points out, much of Judaism at the time was over concerned with ritual and tradition (which is more important for the social rather than spiritual aspects of religion). This aspect of religion is all too overlooked nowadays. People focus on petty scriptural quarrels or disagreements on orthodoxy/orthopraxy, which is exactly what Jesus rejected and pervaded. God, Buddha, Allah, Yaweh, Vishnu, Shiva, Zeus, whatever you want, all these have the same power, but to realize it you must embrace it spiritually not just nominally or practically.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  16. Tina

    You are right . This Book is awesome revealing and full of love
    Jim keep reading.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:47 am |
  17. Kebos

    The bible was written by men, for men. Hardly an inspirational work. Many books since have been written by men and women with far more beauty, far more teaching, far more knowledge within made available to the reader.

    The bible is a book. Nothing inspired through some divine calling. Just a book. Nothing more.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  18. woodrow

    I find it ironic you say this: "We don’t need to edit God" and you write that. Your interpretation of the bible is only that.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      Interpretations of the books of the Bible that are not based on studying the text and the context in which it was written (Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament) is a waste of time. Whenever you read a translation, you are accepting that translator's bias. Considering that a little over a hundred years ago, high school students in the United States were required to study Greek and Latin (and Hebrew in some schools) those people were better prepared to provide interpretations of the Bible than the followers of the guys wearing $1000 suits with $300 haircuts.
      And much to the shock of some out there, the writers of the Bible did not sit down and start with the opening of Genesis and finish with the final verse of the Revelations of John. There were many councils and synods in the first four centuries of Christianity before the final acceptance of the book we know as the Bible came to be. Some books for the New Testament were not accepted because they were considered too radical in their concepts, or did not precisely follow Orthodox thought. There was also much debate as to whether any of the Apocolyptic works should be included. For whatever reason, John's made the cut. Add to that the difference in acceptance of what books are Canonical for the Old Testament. Many Protestant denominations do not accept some works that the Catholic Church does.
      What it comes down to is most interpretations are subject to questioning.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  19. A new start

    As a non-believer, I believe:

    1. Do no harm to others.
    2. Help those who are harmed.
    3. Help those who have harmed.

    This is based on "The Golden Rule."

    Life is truly simple. Love is for all to have and to give.

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

      Yes, I agree. And this needs no god or one to belong to any club.

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

      THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF RATIONAL HUMANISM §

      The ten rules of living and of social behavior of rational humanism for a more harmonious and just world

      1- Proclaim the natural dignity and inherent worth of all human beings, in all places and in all circu.mstances.

      2- Respect the life and property of others at all times.

      3- Practice tolerance and open-mindedness towards the choices and life styles of others.

      4- Share with those who are less fortunate and mutually as.sist those who are in need of help.

      5- Use neither lies, nor spiritual power, nor temporal power to dominate and exploit others.

      6- Rely on reason and science to understand the Universe and to solve life's problems, avoiding religious and supernatural superst.itions which numb the mind and are an obstacle to thinking by oneself.

      7- Conserve and improve the earth's natural environment —land, water, air and space—as humankind's common heritage.

      8- Resolve differences and conflicts cooperatively without resorting to violence or to wars.

      9- Organize public affairs according to individual freedom and responsibility, through political and economic democracy.

      10- Develop one's intelligence and talents through education and effort, in order to reach fulfillment and happiness, for the betterment of humanity and of future generations.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • studdmuffins

      All hail Hammurabi!

      February 26, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • DPCFOH

      Agreed, that's what any religion should aspire to boil down to, those three simple rules. Yet many thousands of people have been killed by those who thought their religion/God was right. How ironic.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • DPCFOH

      @Truthprevails. I was making my earlier comment as you posted yours. The simple rules that both you and A new start propose should be simple enough to follow that people don't need to attend church every week for their entire lives to be able to understand and follow.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  20. jim

    I have a better idea, stop reading it!

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

      I agree - stop reading about your religion and start living it!

      February 26, 2012 at 7:58 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.