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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. Jeff Williams

    """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."""

    This is quite a stretch.

    I think the writing is gritty and ignorant because it reflects the people who wrote this stuff. They were hardly the sophisticated and/or skeptical sort.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • James Hawk III

      As if sophistication is some sort of blessing.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  2. Sharon Marie

    Can I get an Amen! Thank you for writing this, Steven. Beautiful truth. Sharing this. Love & Blessings, Sharon Marie

    February 26, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  3. Jonah

    Wow, this man has no understanding of scripture what-so-ever. This article was simply written and hosted to malign and undermine the word of God. Please read the quoted scriptures yourselves and context yourselves and you will see how off base his statements truly are. He is the one being crass!

    February 26, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • son

      Ummm..I think you missed the point entirely. He is trying to tell you what the 'LITERAL' and 'REAL' translated words are and mean. They dumbed it down and made them more politically correct. For example the menstrual thing, back in the day no-one discussed a woman's period...are u getting it?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • jackenstien

      I read the Old and New testament Scriptures for an hour every week. I thought the article was realistic.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  4. Cat

    AMEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    February 26, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  5. Frank

    Moving away from the original language of the Bible demonstrates how "Political Correctness" denys the truth.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  6. Gerry Daley

    Would also be nice if the bigots would not cherry pick the passages they believe back up their own prejudices against others but ignore the utterly inconvenient stuff that might apply to themselves.
    At the end of the day, it's a book. Period. Some people subscribe to it, yet many do not. To turn it into the basis of our national life is exactly the same dung/crap/sh** (choose your translation) as imposing Sharia law on people.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  7. Rachel

    Someone finally wrote what I have been saying for years. Great article!

    February 26, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  8. Buddy Kowalski

    And the people who wrote it? Well I keep reading that the apostles Jesus recruited were fisherman, and that they were the lowest of the economic totem pole for the times. Given the extremely low literacy rates for those times, it is very unlikely that the apostles actually get credit for writing the new testament.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • Art

      Peter at least was a middle-class owner of a fishing company. Excavations have undercovered his house, and it is larger than other around it. Jewish boys were bar mitzvahed, which meant that had to read at least something. Certainly the NT book had several authors and editors, but there is a core of original material on which others built.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • Buddy Kowalski

      Thanks Art

      February 26, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • jackenstien

      Paul the Apostile was highly literate, (much more than you, based on what you have said so far).

      February 26, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  9. LuisWu

    Why supposedly intelligent adults still cling to ancient mythology is beyond me. It's just ancient mythology people! It has no resemblance whatever to reality. It's fairy tales. Grow a brain people.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • Silviu Gavriliuc

      Luis,
      The Bible is the Book that changed my life and I would challenge you to read it. It actual and reveals God's plan for humanity from the beginning to the end. God bless you!

      February 26, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • Buddy Kowalski

      Since you have read the Bible Silviu, what is god's plan?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • LuisWu

      I've read both the old and new testaments cover to cover. Ancient mythology, nothing more.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Buddy Kowalski

      I have read the latest testament and revelations, and started the old, but only got thru Leviticus. Couldn't get past it. I am wating to hear from someone who thinks it hold god's plan, and to explain it to me.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  10. Tim

    I think the whole idea of monotheism was a gift from the gods

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

      Brilliant! Lolololol

      February 26, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  11. ch

    good luck with this when you stand in front of God, if that is what you get from reading you miss the point

    February 26, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  12. One one

    People created gods and scripture to reflect their fears, uncertainties, wants, and needs. The author of this article continues that tradition.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  13. dontbow

    Sugercoating? lol VERY lame attack on the Bible and religion. I hope you have something better to write next time or better yet nothing at all. You could write about how obamya keeps sugercoating his 'so-called' economic recovery. Your attacks on the conservatives in this country just to play up your furor in cheif obamaya really get old.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • Crystal Moon

      How in the world did you turn a conversation on religion into politics? If there was separation of church and state in Jesus' day he might have lived longer. Maybe everyone back then prayed to God to deliver them from an oppressed life under the political regime of the Romans. Then again, since we haven't been able to take politics out of God, or God out of politics, we're as doomed today as they were back then.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  14. ZECHARIAH14

    ITS ABOUT TIME A REPORTER TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT THE BIBLE = BASIC INSTRUCTIONS BEFORE LEAVEING EARTH. A FOOL SAYS IN THEIR HEART THEIR IS NO GOD.IF YOU BEEN AFRAID ONE TIME IN YOUR LIFE YOU ARE CONNECTED TO GOD THAT MEANS THEIR IS SUPER NATURAL LIFE AFTER DEATH IN THE PHYSICAL EARTH SUIT AKA THE HUMAN BODY.AND BY THE WAY GOD ALMIGHTY IS GONNA KILL ALL PEOPLE WHO HAVE SET TOO DESTROY JERUSALEM YISREAL JUST READ ZECHARIAH 14. WATCH OUT IRANS LEADERS SYRIA IS DONE HAMAS YOUR GONNA DIE HEZZBULAH YOU GONNA GET WACKED JUST LOOK AT THE HISTORY OF EGYPT.WHERE ARE ALL THE PHARAOHS AT DEAD WHY HAS EGYPT BECOME SO RUN DOWN THINK ABOUT IT GENESIS 12:3 I WILL BLESS THOSE WHO BLESS YOU AND CURSE THOSE WHO CURSE YOU.EVERY COUNTRY THAT HAS SAID FORGET JERUSALEM AND THE JEWISH PEOPLE AND YISREAL.HAVE LOST IT ALL IE MILITARY POWER IE BANKING IE MEDICAL BREAKTHROUGHS IE STOCKMARKET IE HIGHWAYS SYSTEMS IE CHURCH WATER DOWN IE EDUCATION SYSTEM IE JOB MARKET IE COURT OF LAW SYSTEM IE LAW ENFORCEMENT IE FAMILYS

    February 26, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • slowdown

      You realize you sound insane, right?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      """You realize you sound insane, right?"""

      My money is on "most probably NOT".

      February 26, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • James Hawk III

      If you send me your mailing address, I will send you a keyboard with a working Caps Lock key.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  15. Charles

    Amen, tell it like it is. When we see the reality of our own need for a Savior then we can accept His loving grace and the gift of His Son we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God but He loves us so much He made the way to come back to a relationship with Him.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  16. freetime1

    It is an evil, bigoted, hate filled crazy book. Why sugar coat it too, that would just make it fattening and americans' don't need that.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  17. Michael

    Thanks for writing the article, Steven. I agree with you conclusions.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  18. JB

    And what language does god speak?
    what a bunch of nonsense, debating the translation of words from a different time and a different culture. since no one here now was there more than a thousand years ago, we would have NO IDEA how the original words affected those who wrote or listened to the passages in question. If you want spirit, then do something nice for some one today and throw away your make believe god book.

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

      Why are you so angry? What happened to you to make you so hate filled?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • W.G.

      To jb , The deadsea scrolls are a fine eample of how accurate the interpetations of the Bible are .
      I bet in a minute you would accept as authentic the writing od Homer and Julias Ceaser . Yet there
      were no original cpoies when translated . Yet because of the numbers of copies of the Bible
      when it was translated we can be assured of the accuratness . In other words , go pedal
      your evelution , we were made by crystals , atheistic B.S. somewhere else J.B.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • W.G.

      To jb , The deadsea scrolls are a fine eample of how accurate the interpetations of the Bible are .
      I bet in a minute you would accept as authentic the writing od Homer and Julias Ceaser . Yet there
      were no original cpoies when translated . Yet because of the numbers of copies of the Bible
      when it was translated we can be assured of the accuratness . In other words , go pedal
      your evelution , we were made by crystals , atheistic B.S. somewhere else

      February 26, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • slowdown

      WG – What? Why is it so hard to accept that humans wrote the Bible and then even more humans edited what would be included in said Bible? It's NOT the word of God, no matter how much you want it to be...get over it. And it's evolution, and that is slightly more logical and believable than your world view.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  19. notanapologist

    Stop the sugarcoating indeed – but once you do so what are you left with? An obviously man made book, which IF ANYTHING.....tells you that a supreme being that commends murder and absolute servitude in his name is A BAD IDEA.....a religious north Korea....which should be obvious to the slowest of minds.

    The fastest route to atheism is to read these religious texts....

    February 26, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • Ben M

      I once took a philosophy class at a private university where we were asked to explain to the class how we would argue that God existed and created the universe without using the Bible as our proof.

      If you look around at earth, the universe, humans, animals, birth, etc and can still somehow believe that this was all created by chance...? Come on... It's laughable to believe there isn't a higher being in charge of it all.

      If God created the universe and everything in it, then there is no doubt he had the ability to do everything in the Bible as well.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • Eric G

      @Ben M: Sorry, logic foul on the play. Your lack of understanding of celestial mechanics, physics and biology does not invalidate the evidence that supports those theories.

      Besides, what is laughable is that your attempt to attribute actions to something that you have not even proved to exist.

      Please have a seat with the other children and be quiet while the adults talk.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  20. Question

    I was hoping the author would provide a recommendation on the most authentic translations. Too much to ask?

    February 26, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • leslee

      Kjv gets my vote

      February 26, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • Barbara

      ESV (English Standard Version) and the NASB (New American Standard Bible) are both carefully translated as close as possible to the modern-day English for readability without watering down the truth. A good lexicon (Strong's) or study Bible is also helpful. The ESV Study Bible by Crossway is loaded with good commentary and historical notes, and the McArthur Study Bible is always a good resource as well.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • Reply

      ESV, NASB, and the KJV. The NASB is less wooden than the ESV and is easier for me to understand than the KJV.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:26 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.