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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. Matt

    The heroes of the bible were messed up people, just like us. They tried to git it right, but seemed to fail too much. It's called Sin.God loved us so much that He sent Jesus to absolve that Sin. Amazing Grace.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  2. Name*Andrew Owen

    I am not speaking for everyone, but for myself. When I read God's word it encourages me to behave to the highest standards possible – the Word holds me accountable and when I fail, the Word of God encourages me.
    The Word of God is real – the Bible is packed full of man's miserable attempts to ingratiate God, when in reality – according to the Bible – God is the only one able to redeem mankind.

    May God richly bless you sir for encouraging us all, to dust off the prejudices of this Great Book. "God's Word which has endured the tests of time."

    February 26, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • LuisWu

      You live in a delusional fantasy world. It's just ancient mythology, nothing more. Period. End of story.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  3. GaryD3

    And there's another part of the Bible that's a little too much for people to handle–the part where Jesus tells his disciples that they fed Him when He was hungry, clothed Him when He was naked, visited Him in prison. When the disciples heard him, they asked, "When did we do that?"

    HIs answer? When you did that to the least of my people, you did it to Me.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  4. lastofall

    Come now, you ought not to suppose that scholastic achievement is the mediator between God and men. In your conceit for recognition you fail the only point that actually does matter, namely, that without having received the Holy Spirit of Truth you can in no wise rightly divide the Word of Truth, though you do so desperately suppose that you do. And since you delight in quoting scripture, you could also include: "Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God". But then such a thing said would not exalt you.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • daggertoungeomega

      completely destroy the servers of hackers who have violated my privacy and are toying with my business accounts, lauch y2k to spread to the infiltrator of my privacy.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  5. Alan

    Made up stories by ancient people who were ignorant of facts.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • pamelahaley

      Magnets... How do they work? MIRACLES!

      February 26, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • Guest

      I don't quite understand why there is so much hostility every time there is an article about faith on CNN. If you don't believe, that's fine, but why the need to make an insulting statement?

      February 26, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • AGuest9

      Maybe they are tired of people preaching religious dogma in their childrens' science classes, rather than science?

      February 26, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  6. pamelahaley

    Call this unrelated but, I find it interesting that the bible gets rewritten to suit the needs of the one who has it rewritten. I find it ironic that the separation of church and state only applies when birth control is mandated to be provided by a religious instution's insurance plan yet, it doesn't apply to education and gay marriage. You know what God? You need to come back and smite your followers with a vengance like you did in the good ole days. Bring the flood, fire, shake the earth and melt down nuclear reactors... Oh, wait it's been done and only proved that the American Government doesn't care about black people and you don't seem to like Asians very much. Oh, I forgot about the scathing winters in Europe and Iran/ Russia playing with their heating the past couple years. I guess God is getting all mad and stuff again... It's a shame insurance companies don't protect against acts of God. Is that why nobody in New Orleans got their houses fixed and it still looks like a post apocalyptic nightmare?

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

      Why do you seem so angry? I think you'd be happier as a believer in Christ but I'm not angry if you aren't. What's up with you?

      February 26, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      No use talking to Pamela, she is too far gone.
      She not only has religion, but she drank the republican kool aid.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • pamelahaley

      Where do you get that from? Is my blatantly unrealistic world view making me look right wing? I was going for mad liberal but ::shrugs::

      February 26, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  7. Me

    The Bible is just a book if you have not received the gifts of wisdom, understanding, discernment. Ask and you will receive but ask with sincerity. Jesus spoke in parables so that those who were wise would understand but those who were insincere (fools) would remain ignorant. One cannot fool God, only themselves. But even a fool can become wise through God. Although I am flawed, I am now not a fool.

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

      This one time in America, the fools imagined they were holier than thou and totally took literally the parables of the bible. "Spare the rod and spoil the child." Literally I read that as "Spare the rod" (I think spare means don't beat your kid while some people think it does) and "spoil the child" (means caudle your child with video games, pizza bites and Adderal so they never have to cope with life like a normal human being) I think that's how society is working these days. Perhaps sparing the rod means you are spoiling the child by not beating the ever loving normalcy out of their brain. If they hide and shudder in a corner; you never have to worry about them speaking to kids who don't believe in God, right?

      February 26, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Shawn

      A thoughtful and wise response.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  8. Imagination land

    When will we all grow up and stop fighting over who has the better imaginary friend?

    February 26, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • AGuest9

      Soon, one would hope. In the Medieval parts of the world, it may take more time, though.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  9. ReligionIs4Dolts

    "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'"

    What? "god" is not there? Ooooh, BIG surprise! Why couldn't this author have written the whole bible?

    February 26, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  10. vinobianco

    this article just confirms that the god of the bible is a pretty nasty guy...nothing I'd chose to worship. glad he doesn't exist.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  11. Marianne

    I do wish that folks would stop relating or to presenting the Bible with comments like "it was written this way" ... Please try to accept that the Bible is a collection of many books written by several different people over hundreds of years gathered together for a variety of reasons , bound together and then called "it" ...there is no one purpose or meaning to the Bible. The "it" is only that "it" is bound into one book. But "it" is actually many books sometimes with not much connection to the others at all.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • Flinders the butler

      Exactly. And there were MANY texts which were left out of the canon for various reasons, and those that made it in were *voted* in, in non-unanimous votes. That alone should tell us something. The ( very human) PROCESS is extremely enlightening.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  12. Bob Ussery

    I am always amazed at how the New Testament message is almost ignored by the media.

    Grace, the New Covenant, and personal sacrifice is the New Covenant Way. The message today from God is faith in Christ's sacrifice for us where love and peace is restored.

    You want to know the what God thinks today? Read the New Testament, study Romans.

    The difference between burning the Koran and burning the Bible is this; you cannot stop God's Grace. For thousands of years the New Testament has been burned...and today, the church, His body, is as alive as it ever was...you cannot kill God.

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

      Well said Bob.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • plucky

      Maybe I can't kill god, but I certainly don't have to believe in it.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • lolwut

      You cannot kill that which does not exist.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • Flinders the butler

      "Grace, the New Covenant, and personal sacrifice is the New Covenant Way. The message today from God is faith in Christ's sacrifice for us where love and peace is restored."

      Funny, Jesus never said anything about that stuff. Paul, the founder of the new religion did.

      You want to know the what God thinks today? Read the New Testament, study Romans.

      God "thinks" ? So god has an IQ, and brain chemistry ?

      The difference between burning the Koran and burning the Bible is this; you cannot stop God's Grace. For thousands of years the New Testament has been burned...and today, the church, His body, is as alive as it ever was...you cannot kill God.

      The church is FAR different than it was in 30 AD, 90 AD, 150 AD, 300 AD, 1000 AD, 1900 AD, and continues to change and evolve. Yes there are "christians", they are all different, all 33,000 sects of them. That's hardly the "same".

      February 26, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  13. cantilever

    Well, this article will be some consolation for the late Whitney Houston. Party On. What the good reverend says is interesting, but there's rather more substance to be addressed than what's in this polemical piece of writing.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  14. Larry

    good article. But I want to push the idea even further. Not only Christians should strive to understand the real original ideas of Bible, they should also read books on Islam, Buddhism, evolution. Only after they read and compared all, they can claim to beholding a true faith. Most Christians today never studied any other faith, so they are no different from blind cult followers.

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

      I have and its very clear there is only one God his name is YHWH and one saviour his Son Jesus Christ...the bible even explains where the muslims come from Abrahams son Ishmael and if you go to Egypt they will show u were Jesus lived when he was a baby...Research it I did....I promise you'll find the same

      February 26, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  15. Mr. Myxlpylkx

    As long as people are self-centered and Narcissistic and UNABLE to think of themselves as ordinary and imperfect, articles like this one, and any faith in general will continue to attract the troll bloggers that hide in their rooms, in the darkness...TAKE THE TIME to read the Bible. Don't believe the translation? Get what used to be called a Concordance, with the original translations from the Hebrew in the Old Testament and the Aramaic and Koine Greek in the New Testament and FIND OUT what was actually being said. Heck, it's probably online by now. Do some research into what could possibly be the most important bit of reading in your life!

    February 26, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  16. Mike

    You lost me back in the first paragraph at "very real."

    Yeah. Talking snakes, talking burning bush, zombie uprising (Matthew 27: 53-55), people rising from the dead, blood sacrifice, being willing to kill your own child (is somehow good...)....

    yeah very "real."

    February 26, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Mr. Myxlpylkx

      You seem to be a shallow unthinking idiot who probably thinks himself clever most of the time...

      February 26, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • Melnibonean

      Mr. Myxlpylkx's reply shows typical xian response.... Attack the person, not the argument.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  17. Eric G

    The Abrahamic god is no different than any other god created by man is our history. All gods have the same faults as ourselves.

    The Abrahamic god is a jealous, insecure, vicious and violent toolbag. The evidence that supports these claims is in the bible.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Justice

      What about you Eric, are you a God too? Do you think you are better than God, cause if you do then just go at the nearest grocery store near you to pick up your prize, you just won nice big Turkey. Come today and pick it up. Before 5pm please.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  18. JJ

    He is right about Bible. Here is what it surprises me about the Bible. If Christian believes this is God’s word why they keep changing it every hundred or two? If it is God’s word it should stay they way it was revile, b/c God knows the past, present and future. So I believe Bible is not God’s word. I encourage all of you to read Quran and compare it with the Bible.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Keith

      I disagree, JJ. It is God's Word-inspired by the Holy Spririt to the men who wrote it. The many versions of today have corrupted the Bible in some ways. Zondervan has got to be one of the worst offenders. They're in it for the $$$. I would advise using a KJV and a tool like the blue letter bible online. Then you can back to the original Hebrew and Greek to study it out. It's very interesting.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Justice

      No JJ don't ask people to read the Quran, if it's what makes your life better than so be it, let others believe in what they want to. That is what respect is all about.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Really??

      Read some of it. It's a book of lies and was written by a fraud. Its extremely violent and I don't think there's anything to learn from it. I'll keep reading my bible. We don't make people pay a tax for their head because they didn't convert, and never have.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • AGuest9

      "Its extremely violent and I don't think there's anything to learn from it." And this is different from the bible how?

      February 26, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • Yeah... right

      I already did a compare... the koran has so, SO many times and dates wrong with respect to the birth of people, how long they lived, and such. They think the tower of babel was built by pharoh. Wrong. The bible, as it is agreed by the majority of the archaeological community, came before the koran. And if the koran is a direct utterance of God, why does it have so many errors? Over 100 grammatical errors.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • Yeah... right

      @guest9, read it for yourself and find out. The bible preaches peace and forgiveness, not death and destruction for people who don't believe. If you follow what the bible lays out, you'd be amazed how many values that modern society holds in high regard and how many of those same values are in the bible.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • stephen douglas

      I am not religious. However, the Bible invites you, whereas the Qur'an demands you be a part of it.

      Furthermore, Islam is classic brainwashing. The Qur'an is page after page of threat followed by promises of reward, threat followed by promises of reward, threat followed by promises of reward – and you are expected to memorize every bit of it. That is brainwashing, pure and simple.

      As I said, I am not religious, but I will take Christianity any day over Islam.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  19. Brandon Comer

    Christian's sugarcoat the bible because they recognize it's actually morally disgusting; and that hurts their little fantasy of morality coming from religion. Society has evolved to the point that even the religious recognize the so-called "reason" for their morality is actually morally bankrupt.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  20. JusticeForAll

    The Koran takes a bit of Judism and christianity as they existed at the time before Islam and simply makes a more violent version. Oh you really need to read the Arabic version since many of the most veil passages have been toned down in the english version for naive westerners. Today as a population as a whole only Muslim take their "religion seriously enough to kill in its name". That is why Islamic countries are so pathetic and they cannot waite to immigrate to the west. They also want Islam to be everywhere. What idiots where will they run to if that really happens? People make a country not the land. All countries without resources will look like Pakistan. Who will want to immigrate there?

    February 26, 2012 at 8:54 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.