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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. Susan

    Here here, this is lovely. It's funny how organized Christianity just flies in the face of so much of what Jesus believed, lived, and taught. I feel much better for my decision to not be active in the Catholic church in which I was raised, nor to place much emphasis on it with my children. I simply taught them intuitively to be good people, and now that they are basically grown, I am pleased with how they turned out. I bet Jesus is, too.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  2. Middle America

    "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 agree. I have been a christian since a child of 14. I am now 56. I once sought to be righteous or holy by work. I only found frustration with my failures. I then discovered grace and the freedom that implies. I do not have to work for forgiveness of my sins, God gives His forgiveness freely. Right living will flow out from love for God and desire to please a loving father. I do not have to work for Gods love.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  3. Dana

    Good article! thanks,, its the truth, lets tell it like it really is

    February 26, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  4. one12

    In arab media today there is talk about a newly discovered copy of bible that has a reference to Islam's prophet and that jesus is human not God. God is one and only one sending many HUMAN prophets with a final message in Islam. Quran was never rewritten or changed since it was revealed and the words of God are never too graphic and they reach deep into the soul. WAKE UP. Look for truth and ask God for guidance. A message from a human loving muslim.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • Susan

      Oh that's just mean spirited. Why don't we just agree that a lot of prophets have tapped in to what God wants, and have carried the message to many different people? Except the Native Americans, who I guess were living just fine without God having to tell them much. Maybe we should study them a little more, they may just have it down pat.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • MormonChristian

      Interesting, but what really is needed in Arab media is outrage at the killing of human life in the name of Islam. I've defended my Muslim friends wherever I've seen prejudice but am appalled at the lack of outrage over "Jihad" from 9-11 to the current murders over burning the Koran. Why is it that not one single Muslim ever seems to speak up over the evil done in the name of your religion???

      February 26, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • Angel

      The bible is the same as it always has been it has never changed....Jesus is the son of the one true God "YHWH"....the bible explains the split between Muslims and Christians its when Abraham had 2 and Ishmael (became the muslims (mohamed))and Isaac became the christians(Jesus)) reasearch it...Jesus is the son of God and he's coming to judge us so make sure u get it right

      February 26, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • one12

      I'm comfortable answering anyone of you, no doubt in my soul that Author keeps talking about. That makes me strong.
      Susan: I aplogize that you thought I'm mean spirited, but I will never be. Do you want me to read and not say what I believe? You think people without God's guidance were just living fine, I can't live without knowing that God is my provider and protectant. When asked about people who did not get the message, our answer is that it is up to God to decide their fate, in all cases.

      MormonChristian: I'm outraged and can give you millions that are outraged just like me. Again, please look hard enough. All I say is we are too weak to spread and message. We are overrun by corrupt media. That is changing soon. We'll be all living in peace God willing.

      Angel: The current Bible is not in its entirely words of God, it has some stories like the author said that God would never tell. I feel outraged when I read what he said about the prophets. They were the best people that walked on earth. Then their followers then the next that carried the true message.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • Wade

      Hahaha, your first mistake was believing in Arab news. Your second mistake was not reading the Bible for yourself and just regurgitating what you hear and your third mistake was waking up this morning and posting a stupid comment.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • one12

      Really! As a muslim, I went to school in a catholic private school. I'm not asking you to ditch your faith or trying to ditch mine. I would say the same to you, did you study the Quran? Am I not allowed to ask fellow humans to look for truth. Ask for guidance from God, not me. Is that hard? Once you throw words like stupid in your conversation, I get out. Thanks,

      February 26, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Media

      @One12: 9-11 has devestated lives of million of muslims all over the world. No matter how much or how often Muslim condemn 9-11, it does not get media coverage. Show any middleeastern beared guy, their rating goes up 9-11 was against everything muslim believes. In fact Muslims are the real victim of 9-11, a lot of muslim got arrested, and locked up for minor infringments. It is almost impossible for Muslim to win a jury trial... Only an enemy of Muslim... could have committed 9-11!!!

      February 26, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
  5. RW

    The author is right the bible it is a gritty and raw book geared towards common people. It was written by and for the wealthy and powerful to scare and control the masses. Great news if you join my army and happen to die you will be brought back to life, oh and also you need have any no guilt about anyone you happen to kill in battle because if they are worthy in the eyes of God they too will be brought back to life as well. This is very convenient if you are a king looking to build an army to kill and steal for you. The bible is one controlling cautionary tale after another. What intelligent person could actually take this stuff literally? Religion gives people peace of mind because it takes all of their difficult decisions away, but this is a false peace of mind. Your problems are still there when you wake up on Monday morning. Leaving the devout to conclude that it is God's will that they be miserable and have these horrific problems. Belief in God is not the problem. Belief in men acting as God is the problem, like the wealthy and powerful men that wrote the bible. If you fill the need to pray, pray on your own or with your friends and family. You don’t need a book, a fancy church, a minister or a group of strangers to sit in judgment of you. If you believe in God, all you need is God. If you are prosperous and feel the need to give, give to someone in person, or to a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, not to a church or minister that is going to misuse your money on anything but the needy, like gaining more followers to get even more money.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Wade

      Are you serious? Name one rich 1st century disciple of Christ. In fact Christianity is just the opposite. A King gave up His kingdom to become a servant and asked us to do the same. You judge what you do not know. Read the bible for yourself instead of regurgitating what you hear. By the way, you were speaking of Islam so I forgive you for not getting the facts right.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • Bill

      Spot on Wade ..... explain what part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus own words, are scary and meant to intimdate.
      The new testament is all about the poor and oppressed being freed and relieved of their burden. It speaks of love and forgiveness and mercy and grace.
      If you are talking about "Sinners in the hnads of an angry God" yes, that was written by a man, Jonathan Edwards, and is not rooted in scripture..... the Bible has nothing in it about people needing to "behave" and "fall in line" or else they will burn in hell.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
  6. Name*A.F

    One book makes more sense then anything that was taught trying to brainwash me IS CHARIOTS OF THE GODS.......

    February 26, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  7. WD

    I have taken college level classes in theology and world religions, and I can honestly say that the more I learn about the historical origins of The BIble, the less I believe in it.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • Veritas

      Duh, why would you ever believe that ridiculous nonsense? We are all adults aren't we?

      February 26, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • lolwut

      The bible itself is the best evidence against christianity.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • plucky

      That's typical. The more your learn about sociology, physics, history, and life – the less you believe in these religions, and god.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  8. lefty avenger

    Stop with ancient backwards religions and TV and start with human evolution.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  9. redtapehater111

    Yet another attack on Christians by CNN! Notice how the Koran is cast by CNN as a Utopian work of perfection! I visit this website strictly to keep an eye on what the liberal propaganda machine is going to try and "push onto us" next.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • lolwut

      No, they're both pretty stilted and barbaric even by the lowest standards.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • lefty avenger

      all religions are made up to placate people with a stolen present. religion is the opiate of the masses to go along with all the other Big Pharma dope opiates.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • Veritas

      I am always perplexed as to how this liberal-muslim connection is made by the tea baggers and christan zealots? Mind boggling and makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Most true liberals are not subscribing to any religious delusion at all.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • Mennoknight

      Read the article, this was not an attack but a defense of Bible.
      Why do we show only the good things King David did? He was an adulterer, a murderer, a terrible parent, willfully disobedient to God, and still after God's own heart.
      Sampson was the biggest twit in the Bible yet God still used him.
      I am a twit (not a big of one as Sampson) and God still uses me.
      You can and will be used by God all you have to do is let Him.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • malacoda

      Haha! Yeah keep an eye on it for what purpose again? This is an op-ed piece. Look up the verses he quotes. They vary a little bit between translations but are right on.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Is that you, Rick Santorum ?

      February 26, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  10. peick

    I agree with most of this article, but I have to counter his point by saying that ours is a culture that needs to clean up its act, so some "tidying" is in order. Paul even wrote in the NT that it was shameful to speak of things done in secret by the godless. Our present culture is the most irreligious, prurient, foolish lot of humanity that I think the world has seen. Maybe not. I wasn't around the whole time. But people love to glorify the things that the author has described. The difference is that in the Bible they are not glorified but condemned or just presented matter-of-factly. Not like a movie where we are asked to enjoy the evil acts depicted.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Susan

      Paul though tended to be very stuffy and clearly had some hang ups, Jesus is the one you should listen to.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  11. Jon

    God didn't write the bible, humans did. We can't "edit" God (how do you edit the unreal?) but we should edit the "Good Book". It was written by the 1st century mind and should only be understood by the 1st century mind, not a 21st century one.

    Jesus also taught to follow only him and forget everyone else in your family, which is not a very moral message.

    "For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." Matthew 10:35-37

    February 26, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Beleiver

      God doesn't tell you to leave your family. He is only referring to the persecution you may face from following Him. Even your family may not accept it, and so you MAY have to leave them if they refuse to follow the Lord.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • Brett

      Jesus would occasionally employ some hyperbole as a story telling device to teach people the how to order their relationships. Let's people careful to understand what Jesus is teaching here. Our spiritual family is more important than our human family. We are to love and honor our father and mother, and also love and respect our human familiy. However, we are not to honor them above our creator, especially when there is a conflict between God's desire for us and a family member's desire for us. For example, I grew up in a family where my father does not want me to seek Jesus, but I want to know the truth about God, I should obey God first, before the wishes of my father.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Ed

      Jon you have hit on the very crux of it all in my opinion. This is a passage I review with my kids very frequently and your reaction of saying this is not very moral is precisely a refusal to accept the "unsweetened" truth of the Bible that Steven is referencing. This is the very point of this article.

      Indeed what Jesus is saying is that you need to Love God above all things which more specifically does mean that you should love Him before all of your family just like was demanded of Abraham, because if you didn't then that means you would not be able to follow Him. You would follow your family first effectively making them more important than God.

      This is indeed a tough thing to accept and one thing that while growing up no Church that I know focuses too much on because if they did a lot of followers that are not prepared for the "unsweetened" version of the Bible would probably leave. It seems to me the various Christian churches are more concerned with keeping or growing their numbers than making sure they communicate the true inherently tough message of God to us: He loves us infinitely but demands the same thing in return.

      I rather see a much smaller church but focused on the "unsweetened" message of God than a Church like mine who has millions of followers but where only 20% actually practices and mind you that is with the "sweetened" version ! wouldn't want to think if they tried the "unsweetened" focus :0

      February 26, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Bill

      Jon, what that pasage means is that within a family, the message of the Gospel will be accepted by some members of a family and rejected by other members o the same family.
      Sounds like Jesus knew exactly what He was talking about.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
  12. macho

    true

    February 26, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  13. plucky

    What's more likely... Immaculate conception or a teenage girl told a lie. You figure it out.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • Bill

      What's more likely ... that the universe and all the matter in it spontaneously appeared out of nothing .... or that a supernatural God, more powerful than anything we can imagine, played a role in creating it? You tell me.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
  14. BKM

    Stop sugarcoating what we are and what is within all of us.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  15. Joel

    The OT is where most of the brutality and intolerance resides.

    There is a thing called the New Covenant that Jesus made possible by His grace. The NT is not sordid or brutal. Believers focus on or should be focused on the NT or Gospels which reveal the life and times and wishes of Jesus Christ.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • lolwut

      So we should throw out 90% of your holy book?

      February 26, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Melnibonean

      Ah, but it is not until the NT that the idea of Hell is first realized and fleshed out. Such a gracious and benevolent god.... Um, yeah, right.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • plucky

      cherry picker

      February 26, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • malacoda

      In that case you will have to drop your war against the gays.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • Bill

      Christians, true Bible believing Jesus' following Christians, do NOT engage in a war against gays, muslims or anyone else..... And again, the OT is absolutely true ..... and the law was given to show us that it was impossible to be "good enough". It was given to show us just how flawed we are.
      And the benovolent God you mock loved us so much and wants to spend eternity with us so much that He was willing to take human form and be killed to take the punishment that we deserve.
      Now, we dont HAVE to go to hell if we dont want to. And we don't HAVE to face punishment for any of our sins.
      Heaven is an open door to EVERYONE who desires to go there. It's a very simple path.
      However, God will never force anyone to go to heaven who doesnt want to be there. Some will decide that they dont want to serve God or worship God and so they will choose not to go.
      No one is excluded.
      Gays will be in heaven.
      I believe some Muslims will be in heaven, as they also worship the God of Abraham.

      February 27, 2012 at 12:04 am |
  16. Bumble Stiltkens

    Just my optional opinion, despite Stanford standards in literature: This is your last chance, a context of action and consequence; The Holy Bible? "God does not care about our mathematical difficulties. He integrates empirically.", what quote am I really thinking of, from same origins.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  17. Melnibonean

    Read Ingersoll, not the bible. There is more morality in that volume than all the books of the bible put together.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  18. flyskybird

    The story of Jesus… Lived with his mother and girlfriend til the age of 30. Ran around and partied with 12 of his best friends. Could even get you drunk off of water. Then one day rode a donkey sideways on the sidewalk into the market. The donkey crapping along the way and merchants throwing palm fronds from their stands to clean it up. To top it off went into the local church and knocked over their tables and threw everybody’s diner money to the floor. That night goes and has a great feast with his twelve closest friends, an all night party. The next morning having been so out of control from the following day got caught, got a whipping, and sent out walking down the scenic Dolorosa Road to go live with his father. His life was spared by the efforts of mom. The moment he could walk again, probably still in pain, found his girlfriend and left town, Mom stayed behind.

    Regardless, Mankind needs religion. No matter what it is as long as it preaches the goodness of men and condoms evil doers.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  19. Dan

    News sites that claim to be unbiased and objective should not be running propaganda pieces for Christianity (or any other religion, for that matter). This belongs on a personal blog or a church website, not here.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  20. sooner08

    Nothing new in Judaism, Christianity or Islam. They are all borrowed from earlier beliefs and religions and molded to suit one culture or another. All are a device used to control and wage war against their fellow man. What we wear, how we think, how we educate ourselves, how we vote, what we eat. Makes one wonder which god we do worship.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • lefty avenger

      Stop wondering, it's the holy money god on wall street that everyone really worships.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Veritas

      Absolutely correct. It is interesting to learn about the early Gnostics who believed in a personal relationship with god, but were struck down by the "religious" powers, i.e. the church. It would have been so much better if religion had remained a personal delusion, rather then the enormous power of greed, war, persecution and evil it became, especially in the case of the three Abrahamic religions.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Other Dan

      Actually, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have the same exact origin. The Quran, in fact, encourages Muslims to read he Bible, which it calls The Holy Books. The Quran actually also calls Jesus "The Messiah."

      I find it humorous that the "non religious" think that they are so much smarter than the rest of the world. Do you really think that the billions of believers have not done any homework on their faith whatsoever?

      February 26, 2012 at 9:32 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.