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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. Charles

    What a joke. When was the last time a good article was written about Christians, God, the Bible..etc? The media only slams it at every chance they get and never a article about all the Good that God, Christians or the Bible does and prometes.

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

      Horse c.rap is great fertilizer and makes methane, however, when there is a big steaming pile of it in your driveway, none of that matters.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • Edzspace

      Save your pearls Charles, this CNN the heart of the swine's play pen.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  2. gospyro

    Good article... but once again, although I thought I couldn't be surprised any more, there are 'Christians' that see this as an attack on them and on Christianity. NO IT'S NOT... it's just taking the sugar coating off and taking the Bible as a WHOLE, not just the nice sweet verses that so many people latch onto. Thank you for pointing out that the Bible is a WHOLE BOOK, with LOTS of different teachings and lessons to be learned.

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

      Exactly. "Moderate" Christians want to cherry pick certain verses and say "See the bible is awesome!" Either you believe all of it or you don't. The problem is, to believe all of it, is to believe that genocide is ok (if you have the right god), slavery is ok (period), slaying anyone who doesn't believe in Jesus is ok ...etc etc

      February 26, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  3. Arran Webb

    Darwin and dinosaurs are the opiate of the masses.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • joel palmer

      opium is the religion of the people

      February 26, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • IronDitka

      STFU Jesus freak.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • Dumb and dumber

      And all those fossils are fakes, and a huge conspiracy.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Jesus didnt ride on a donkey, it was a rapture.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  4. Jackson

    The sooner people accept the fact that the bible, the quran, torah, etc. are the writings of human beings and not of some pie in the sky deity, the better off mankind will be.

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

      History is emphatic that no other book has come remotely close to fighting constant eradication like the Bible and yet it continues to endure...hmmmm I wonder why that is?!? Is it possible that the genius of mankind (that was capable of landing on the moon) is incapable of destroying a simple book containing the "words of man" as you claim it is?? Any reasoning mind can clearly see that the Creator of the universe has overruled the situation since day one to protect His words contained in the Bible.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  5. Neo

    The writer of this article in his first statement betrays a lack of REAL understanding of the Bible by the statement "A God who would rather die than spend eternity without them." Jesus in the Bible is NOT God and consistently refers to himself as God's Son, also saying that God is greater than he is. The writer is simply stating Church dogma. I hesitate to continue reading an article supposedly examining the Bible's contents when this simple fact is not even correct. Even the New Catholic Encyclopedia writes that "nowhere in the NT or OT is the concept of a trinitarian God conceived of, or believed in."

    February 26, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • joel palmer

      Ther is NO god; and anyone who believes in one is simply deluded

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

      Oh so your interpretation of the special invisible friends book is different than someone elses, but you know the REAL meaning...of course you do! lol

      Give up this nonsense and FREE YOUR MIND FROM THE BONDAGE OF RELIGION!

      February 26, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Neo

      Not stating my beliefs but simply the accuracy of his statements. If your writing on a novel at least understand the content

      February 26, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • Neo

      These two posts show how hatred of religion can become a religion in itself. Read literature. FREE your mind by reading. The Bible is great literature. You don't have to believe its content to see that.

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

      You should read the Bible before making such erroneous remarks. I can think of dozens of places where it says Jesus is God the Father made flesh and manifest before man, both from the testimony of the disciples and even from Jesus own mouth. But maybe your really not that ignorant of the Word and only seek to deceive those that are.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      He believes one thing.
      You believe another.
      He is wrong.
      You are right.

      God told you so, right ?

      February 26, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  6. LuisWu

    Christianity, like all religions, is nothing more than ancient mythology, written thousands of years ago by members of a primitive society in an effort to explain existence and comfort people in the face of their mortality. I've read both the old and new testaments cover to cover. I've read many other religious texts as well. They're all just ancient mythology from primitive cultures, nothing more.
    When I look around, I don't see a god flying around in a cloud or pillar of fire, I don't see sticks turning into snakes, I don't see rivers turning to wine, etc. etc. If that stuff was real and happened then, it would be happening now. I don't see miracles happening, all I see is a lot of ignorant people blindly accepting ancient mythology as fact, while rejecting modern scientific knowledge. If people would use their brains for a change, THINK about it using logic, reason and objectivity, then they would understand that it's just old myths. It's just so utterly obvious.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  7. MormonChristian

    I see it more this way: the Bible was written to show real people with real problems and how they managed to live a life of faith and forgiveness in the real world. Loving your enemy requires more strength than killing him. Sadly, many of us fail to live up to that ideal, but it remains the goal nonetheless.

    I got mixed messages from this article – it seems the author wants to bring religion down to the level of our lowest deeds rather than use it to elevate us to a higher level, closer to God. But this article fits with popular culture which seems determined to ram filth down our throats every day. God is accessible no matter how low we have sunk. Even murderers can find forgiveness in Christ.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  8. 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 not have any 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 feel 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 9:37 am |
    • MormonChristian

      I challenge you to list one wealthy prophet or apostle in the Bible. It has been misused, yes, by the powerful. But if you read the core messages of Jesus, he is saying whoever is greatest shall be the servant, etc. If we really lived by Jesus' teachings, there would be no abuse of power, no poverty (the early Christians shared everything).

      Don't be confused by the misuse of religion. Ideologies of all kinds can be hijacked. Would there really be no crime, no war if there were no religion? I challenge you to find those who are doing tremendous good in the name of God. They're out there...

      February 26, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  9. SWcommen1

    The author *almost* gets to an important point, esp. in the first paragraph. Then he avoids it by talking about the Bible's "earthy" language. The real sugarcoating comes with the core message of the Bible: that from the Fall of man to Matthew Ch. 1, God was preparing mankind for He Himself becoming incarnate, making a particular people holy because He will become incarnate in this lineage, and establishing covenants with them to show that God always keeps his promises and we, as utter helpless sinners by our nature, never do. After Matthew Ch. 1, the Bible tells the story of the incarnation, including that the incarnate God was 1) sinless and 2) God, showing both by miracles and teachings. God, as a perfect and holy God, expects perfection from us. No sin is allowed; none, nada, zero. He gives us many commandments THAT WE CANNOT FULFILL to show us our helplessness and then pays the price for our helpless sin on the cross so that in the Father's eyes we are utterly sinless and Christ himself was the biggest sinner of all time because he took upon himself all sin. This message, both about who we are and who God is, is the real message that the world cannot stand to hear – it ticks us off and we hate the Bible because of it (1Cor 1:18); the real sugarcoating is avoiding discussion of this message. Thanks be to God that He opens the eyes of the spiritually blind and raises from death the spiritually dead so that we can believe His promises even against our desire to do so and even while we remain in these filthy sinful bodies.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  10. TownC

    We don't need to edit God, but the author is editorializing. He makes it sound as if Jesus was alright with people sinning. Jesus was the same one who physically drove the money changers from the temple and who told the woman taken in adultery to sin no more. The author's accusations against Moses, Abraham and others seem grim. However, Moses killed the Egyptian when defending a fellow Israelite. Abraham was related to his wife. While they did not have the same parents, back then calling her his sister would not be thought of as inaccurate. These are just a few examples where the author got it wrong. God is loving, kind, and encouraging and sees the best in us, but he does not tolerate sin. He encourages us to do better through his tender mercies.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • joel palmer

      uh,, this is arguing about nothing; no god no satan. Re;ligion is a mix of myth, fantasy, fiction, lies and brainwashing

      February 26, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  11. h202000000

    Also, stop cherry-picking the bible.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Peter

      You mean the way so many cherry pick the Koran?

      February 26, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  12. Eric

    Nothing to say but to say well said. The world is not looking for religion it is looking for relationship with a God who understands them. Religion wants to tell you that you need to be right before God will accept you and God says I will accept you as you are and make you right. I commend CNN for allowing this article to be published, not something you see the liberal media doing now a days.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • joel palmer

      There is NO god; religion is phony; stop believing the unbelievable

      February 26, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  13. Live Love

    " Jesus saves us from the dry, dusty duties of religion and frees us to cut loose and celebrate."

    While Jesus does give us freedom from sin and death, we cannot forget:

    Ephesians 4:1
    "I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,"

    February 26, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • joel palmer

      Why is CNN pushing religious garbage on a news website?? and all religion is baloney

      February 26, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  14. Pat

    I've always felt the Bible was intended to help man to develop a conscience and to consider the difference between right and wrong. Man has twisted the wording to make it BE what man wants it to be. Many religions will use it to create a following submissive to their own beliefs – particularly the Old Testament. I have always felt the New Testament intended to show that there is a softer, gentler, more humane side to people – but modern man has managed to screw that up too. Apparently, we haven't progressed to the point of being able to accept it for what it is. A writing of what people were like at the time – and (particularly in the Old Testament) what we don't want to emulate.

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

      I agree completely! Knowing what Jesus taught, we should know then that anything that doesn't follow the law of love is not God's plan.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • joel palmer

      all gods and all religions are without foundation; scinece and reality are fact based I choose truth

      February 26, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  15. Jesus Is Lord

    It's good to see different points of view on the Bible. I truly believe that if we could understand the original manuscripts, we would have a better understanding of who God really is. In any case, I am very grateful for what the Lord has given me. Thank you Jesus.

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

      How bout this point of view; you are all a bunch of wackos, living according to a 1st century world view written by people who did not even know why it rained. FREE YOUR MIND!

      February 26, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Wcatholic

      This is what genuine scholarship is all about..closest to the original meaning as we can get.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  16. Carol

    Excellent article!

    February 26, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  17. msclair

    The scribes and priests changed the verses with their own hands.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  18. Robert

    Keep in mind, "...for we preach Christ crucified a stumbling block to the Jews and an absurdity to the Gentiles." For the anti-Christianity crowd your article is just another chance to post that Christians are stupid to justify their own lack of belief. But it's not a matter of education or intellect – it's a matter of the heart with both the educated and uneducated divided on the things of God. (I have a major university doctorate, an engineering degree, a liberal arts degree and I would put my academic credentials and professional licenses up against any of the critics calling stupid us or the word of God. Yet many of my colleagues reject God.) The unbeliever's heart is simply closed and so they attack God to comfort themselves and make themselves feel OK. It's not a matter of intellect. It's a matter of the heart.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • John M.

      I have no idea what you are trying to say. I re-read your comment several times, and I could not figure out how it relates to the article or what your thought is in that regard. It might help if got off your rhetorical high horse and specifically stated your views on the author's commentary.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  19. Bobby Williston

    To anyone who wishes to explore Christianity and what it's all about, as well as any Christian looking for good Christian literature, I would recommend reading only material which was written more than 20 years ago. In the last two decades Christianity has gone commercial. There are even retail chains devoted exclusively to selling Christian books, music and other nonsensical schwag. With a few exceptions, Christian books these days are written and published primarily with marketability in mind.

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

      Don't read biased "christian" books. Read history, sociology and science books written by accredited authors that are accepted by the mainstream public. This will lead to to the real truth.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  20. Big Bob

    Gee wiz, you're right! Let's ditch this brutal religion that got the west where it is today. Then we can fill our spirtual void with Islam. That's what you're trying to sell, right?

    February 26, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Phil

      Or we can fill our "spiritual void" with facts and logic instead of religious dogma.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Peter

      Big Bob:

      Are you sure that you read the article? Take a look at this important quote:

      "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."

      And where on earth did you get that the author is suggesting people drop Christianity for Islam?!?

      February 26, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • MadNola

      Bob, could you keep your ignorance to a minimum....this article tells the truth and your only reponse as defense is to say he is trying to sell Islam?? One: check your insecurities. Two: your defense is weak. Three.) you need to learn more about the reiligion you so adementlypraise and uphold...now... go learn a lesson or two...

      February 26, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Jamie K

      Where did you get that from this article/ Did you even read it?? All the author is saying is that the original bible was written in such a way that it would relate and really hit home with people everywhere, but that now it's been censored and edited as to not offend our sensibilities so much, which basically defeats its entire purpose. The author wants the Bible left the way it is. How is that an attack on Christianity in favor of instilling Islam?

      February 26, 2012 at 9:56 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.