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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. Hayley

    I can't believe in this day and age that religion of any sort still factors into people's lives at all, let alone this intensely. I completeyl agree wth the "take your meds" comment posted above. The bible (and all "holy" books, btw) are no dfferent than fairy tales or ficton. They were created by powerful people to gain yet more power. Sad that they have caused so much misery, fighting and suffering and somehow contnue to do so. Guess we haven't evolved in 2000 years. Shame on us then.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • Faith-Isn't-A-Preacher

      For many. The Bible is an alternative to taking meds.
      It has anchored the lives of many people and brought many cluster's of humans out of the animal kingdom. Most all the leisure and comforts we have today are because people have asked questions that give meaning to their existence and inspired them to reach for the heavens; figuratively and literally.
      To discount it can turn us back to our animal instincts. Apparently that is already happening.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Al Dale

      As someone smater than I has written, the Bible is the greatest recruiter of atheists of all. Read it and cringe and go on without it. Religion...all of them...are based on belief (faith is simply belief without proof), fear of death, control of others. Religion is the problem, not the solution, for society's ills.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Faith-Isn't-A-Preacher

      Al Dale – There will always be religion. Whether it be like one of the traditionally known ones based upon the Bible, Koran, etc ... or the modern day one known as Obama Care which has the full weight and force of the Federal Government.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  2. DXing

    THANK YOU CNN! EXCELLENT ARTICLE!

    February 26, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  3. 4commonsensenow

    There is room in Gods kingdom for all. Its really simple too, acknowledge your sins, repent...in otherwords change your ways...not just say sorry and do it again. God is about perfection and holyness. We are his children, not his equal. Not too complicated. Its all about making your own choice, thats what creator has given us. The ones that organize for power and control using God is what Jesus couldnt stand.There are no favorites, just a choice. Have a nice day.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  4. dan25

    Life doesn't make sense without recognizing the spiritual struggle. Everyone's is unique and that is evident from the variety of struggles we see with these characters in the Bible. Without a foundation of truth to stand on, there is no hope to find our balance. When I surrendered, at 31, to the fact that God was active in my life, that the Bible was his story and then gave up my rebellious skepticism, my struggle began to make sense. Ssuccess in life materialized in unexpected ways. It was not my wisdom, but his grace that made all of the difference. 25 years later, I know that each day has its challenges but God is ultimately working things out to his plan and I just have to be responsive to do my part.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  5. JohnF

    Why do people..of all faiths..claim to know what God wants..that if he exists at all? The author does not know what God wants nor do the people the author is critical of know what God wants. It is beyond arrogance to assume otherwise. None of us will know what God's plan is until we stand before him.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • SouthCoastSkeptic

      Thank you.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • Dan

      That's a pretty stupid thought, John. None of us will know God's plan until we stand before Him? Who would trust in a God who would not reveal Himself, and His plan, BEFORE we stood before Him? God has done just that in the pages of the Bible. You should read it. Just like the author has done.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  6. truthfulster

    It always astonishes me how writers can quote the Bible or the Koran for that matter, never mentioning how many times this book has been re-written over and over. How about all the jokes out there that make fun of the fact that humans can stretch a story in every direction sometimes for miles and miles. Just think how a book called the Bible has changed since the men who wrote it walked this earth, I wonder how much of the same book still is re-printed. I can't be a Catholic anymore since how they handled the molestation of children a few years back. Now I read about what I can read myself from someone that I don't know about a book he doesn't know or for that matter none but the Pope and he's not talking.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  7. Wake up, People

    Multiple translations to suit those in power at the time, "scripture" written hundreds of years after events..... Has anyone here ever played "Telephone"? Just sayin'....

    February 26, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • mcrunner34

      The way we know about the stories of any culture is through multiple translations, this is how history was passed from one generation to the next. This is how the story of people and God was preserved, before that, it was through song and word of mouth. Not just with scripture but will all manuscripts of great importance. The earlier the translation, the more reliable the history. That is what makes the Bible reliable, we have transcripts that date back close to the age of Christ and his followers. Those who created transcriptions would've heard about the ministry of Christ prior to his resurrection, or from a relative. That's the importance of the Dead Sea scrolls.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Jen

      I so agree with you...

      February 26, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  8. Bill Ruth

    My Parents always said if the Bible was made into a movie it would be rated X. This made me actually go and read the Bible. All that murder and laying with...Yeah...it's all in there...

    February 26, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  9. Mark

    WOW I'm so sick of CNN posting biblical opinion pieces by atheists who don't understand or likely read the bible.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • DXing

      BS simpleton! There are many Christians who feel this article is correct, and brings up valid points.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • Jon O

      I've read the bible. Numerous times. Front to back.

      Care to debate biblical fact with me, Christian?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • tom LINY

      Mark – its that we actually read it, cover to cover...that we should comment, and oh wait...are free to comment!

      February 26, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • Mark

      You want to engage in a biblical debate for debates sake? That sounds like it's going to be a very productive discussion with an open minded well intentioned human being.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Mike1949

      Religion has a history, a history that I would not be proud of. Considering that, as a Christian, Religion has become a personal experience. Most organizations of religion seems to be power hungry. Control of their own people, in addition to trying to control other people to their beliefs. That is where religion looses me. So the next time any religious person speaks about their faith, I tell them to take it else where. Their religion is their religion, not mine.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Me

      Yes. It's a relief to read an article by someone who seems to have actually read the Bible.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Why do i doubt that you have read the bible ?

      February 26, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  10. NHAZman

    A serious problem across America is untold numbers of 'born-again' Bible preachers, who along with their followers, believe they've specially been anointed with God-given abilities such as; prophetic words, meetings with Jesus, visions, gold dust, blood manifest on their hands, etc. Put it all together and you have a bunch of very dangerous men and women, who not only lead uncountable numbers astray but, do much serious harm to unsuspecting people. This is a Great Fleecing of America!

    February 26, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • Faith-Isn't-A-Preacher

      Astray from what?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • NHAZman

      That's a tough question to answer; that is: "astray from what". In personal terms; having me, my wife and children held captive by a literal cult for 23 years, where murders, other violent deaths, etc, were blamed on God 'dealing' with the individual(s) due to their 'sins', took what good was thought to be found in a church and thereby, surrounded our lives (and many others, too) within a Compound of Fear. Truthfully, Jim Jones' people had it good – they got to drink poison. Dang, we still have to live with the wicked effects of being held-captive and led astray, which are endless.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  11. Tim

    An undeniable desperation – bordering on hysteria – can be seen in the angry and frantic comments of religious people. The idea that proof exists to prop up religious beliefs (such as an infallible bible) is sheer nonsense. The bible has been edited many times. Many chapters (even more outlandish than what remains) were culled long ago. Since then, it has continually been re-translated and re-interpreted to suite the times. It is no wonder that modern religious people find the original source material unpalatable, but this dodges the central issue – the texts have a very human and flawed origin.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  12. Faith-Isn't-A-Preacher

    Sugarcoating?
    Is it pro-life if someone kills a home-invasion criminal to save their family's life?
    At some point the survival of a culture is challenged to preserve itself and to reaffirm its faith.
    Does that reaffirmation mean that the act is wrong? Not necessarily. It is no more wrong to annihilate a culture of barbarianism to establish or preserve a civil society. Whether that be a society based upon faith to preserve civil order or simply for the sake of civility.
    So, is it sugarcoating the killing of a murder to preserve a family or a 'civilization'. Perhaps, but it is a necessity whether executed through 'natural disaster accredited to divine intervention' or an act of war like WWII.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  13. Valmaggiore

    If you look at the deeply rooted problems with the Middle East today, the pockets of extremists are really promoting a culture that stems back to biblical times. Their treatment of women, eye for an eye, mentality has never evolved. So, if anybody wants to study the topic of this article, it's a "reality" show called: "Islam Gone Wild".

    February 26, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • lolwut

      It's literally like looking back in time.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  14. Mark

    I took the slow route to atheism, as I have read many religious texts, of varied religions. In Ireland they ask Richard Dawkins if he was a Catholic Atheist or a Protestant Atheist. If I did still believe in god, he/she would be proud of me for waking up and getting an education.

    This article is a good one, because it's honest, intellectual, and historically sound. That man-made book has done enough damage. I'd rather read Huckleberry Finn. (I have read it over 10 times in my life, does that make Mark Twain (another great atheist !!!!) my diety?)

    February 26, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • Faith-Isn't-A-Preacher

      Have you read the latest religious text?
      Nancy Pelosi said we wouldn't know what is in it until the Bill was passed. Now we have the appointed DHS Clergy defining and telling us what is in our 'National Bible'. The difference with it and the 'Bible' is that the U.S. Government is the enforcer of its doctrine.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  15. shane the plumber

    Now we have radical Christians to match radical Islamist?
    take your meds

    February 26, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  16. Thomas

    Reason #791 for believing in The One True God, the most divine Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    May the sacred Tomato Sauce be dripping on our humble bowed heads.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • lolwut

      Ramen.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Pass the meatballs.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  17. simplychristian

    Excellent article – in a time when churches have become club memberships with rules on how to address worship and the test of faith being how closely an individual conforms to a set of social edicts, it is refreshing to have someone point out that the modern form of Christianity is man-made. It is time for us to return to the foundation.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  18. Canadian Jack

    The bible was written by men. It was not written by GOD. The bible numerically is filled with more names of men than of women. Adam was practice for GOD before he made the perfect human-EVE. EVE preferred a short life filled with knowledge rather than an eternity of ignorance. GOD would never create a book that would be divisive. Christians have been killing themselves for centuries over what the book really means. There battles are in the fact the authentic story of the Tower of Babble. The violence in the bible is biologically speaking is the result of the Testosterone driven authors. If women had written the bible it would be full of kindness and gentleness.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Justice

      If you're not satisfied with what's in the Bible, then why don't you write one that suit you.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      *** Justice

      If you're not satisfied with what's in the Bible, then why don't you write one that suit you.
      ------------------------------------------–

      I did.
      Its called the Smurfy bible.
      Its got great stuff in it.
      Smurf the other smurf.
      Thou shalt not smurf.
      Smurf me, as i smurf you.
      Pick me smurfberries, and i will bake you a pie.

      Works better than that other garbage.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  19. ed

    Thank you so much for this article, one way or another will drive me to do something I have never done... Read the bible.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • lolwut

      Have some popcorn ready...

      February 26, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  20. badskippy

    Oh yes, LET'S NOT SUGARCOAT IT!! Let's let the Bible, as you say a BOOK, a book I might add that was written by men and most of the parts of the New Testament were not put down on paper until over 400 years AFTER Jesus died, speak. What would it say? That slavery is okay. That judging your fellow man is okay. That oppression and forced submission is okay. But your "Good Book" would also speak the volumes of contradictions that are in it. The old arguement holds true – just read the 4 gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – the only ones the Catholic Church allowed in AD 432, I might add), and you will find that NONE of the speak of the same story in the same way – they are different. "Why is that??", an intelligent person might add? Because it was written by men. As let your Bible be heard – the more people that hear it, the more people that will come to realize it's all make-believe.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • Dave

      No theologist, I consider the Bible to be full of 'do-this' and cautionary, 'don't-do-this' history (not a roadmap) based on the NT endgame, Christianity, and the core relationship of Grace in its meanings.
      It isn't error free, but neither is scientific atheism since science is not. It turns out that some regard the same history as God's (or for atheists, the prophets') endorsements. If Atheist Hawkins and I shared the same seven base scale, from opposite ends, he is "6.9% sure there is no God," and I am 6.9% sure there is. As I understand it, it isn't supposed to be easy, sort of like PhD level economics, absent Grace.
      I hope as an atheist you won't judge me, badskippy.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:07 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.