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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. CM

    "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."

    Hobbits truly exist and THEY are our salvation by destroying Satan's evil ring of fire. I just proved it by quoting from a book, and if it's in a book I believe it's factually true right?

    February 26, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  2. BL

    Question everything.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  3. chris

    Raging Christians wrote their bible to justify invading and ruling the world at the barrel of a gun. Bible and Quran should not be books for normal intelligent people

    February 26, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Tom

      GENESIS 6: THE GIANTS

      February 26, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • NoMoreTyranny

      Atheist's rule by tyranny. Stalin, Mao etc etc.

      Atheism is illogical.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  4. Cathy

    Josh.....you presume to know this for a fact? Really? Because the Bible tells you it's true? That's a nice piece of circular reasoning there.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  5. BL

    Let's not forget about the great chapter with the "Dementors."

    February 26, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  6. alfranken

    re: " it seems like Christians are uncomfortable with how earthy the Bible really is. They feel the need to tidy up God."

    The extremist have what psychology describes as a gross case of cognitive distortion which is another way to say they only see things in black or white - " you are either full of the Holy spirit or you're full of demons's...
    G.W. Bush solicited them in his strategy to gain support with the right wing christian coalition for going to war in Iraq with statements like "you're either with us or against us" and stating that this is a Christian crusade against the devils religion thus demonizing war protesters and thus by polarizing the most extremist in a group amplifies the rhetoric and thus pulls the forces of us on their side of the argument or be accused of treason. - pretty much why congressmen like John Kerry had to vote for it due to his polarized position in " patriotism vs. unnecessary wars" and this is why Congressman Ron Paul is the most viable candidate - he understands this better than the candidates that would definitely exploit the own part of their mental illness. Both Santurom and Gingrich have a very serious mental case called cognitive distortion and any voter who would vote for them surely sees the world through the same prism thus you would have to be nuts to vote for either one of them.

    So bringing the uncomfortable side of Bible makes it very difficult for these extremists to balance in their minds that the Bible is either very Holy and cleansed or has the demon side as well where in reality it is just a book with a lot of vivid information.

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

      Ya just couldnt help but bring up Bush. You libs ar hillarious

      February 26, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • alfranken

      See folks. Wow just my point - according to Wow, I'm a liberal but yet I clearly stated my support for Ron Paul - for who there is no such thing a moderate. You either are a liberal or conservative or for us or against us. Wow has the illness I described above.LOL

      February 26, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      He also mentioned John Kerry, and he supports Ron Paul,
      You are a moron.

      -Wow

      Ya just couldnt help but bring up Bush. You libs ar hillarious

      -----------------------------–

      February 26, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  7. NoMoreTyranny

    This article is full of broad generalizations and personal interpretations. I have wasted 2 minutes of my life reading it.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  8. Wcatholic

    It could be that we are all really post-moderns under the skin?

    February 26, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  9. shan22044

    Author – you lost me when you referred to Jesus as "God", and when you basically agreed with the misogynistic notion that menstruation is filth "too crass".

    February 26, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Aharown

      You must decorate your house with beautiful, great smelling, bloody menstrual rags. You are ridiculous.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Brian Hartman

      How is menstruation *not* filthy? Sure, it's a biological process, and there's nothing wrong with it, but defecating is a biological process, too.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  10. Calm Dog

    You: I'd like to buy a Holy Bible.
    Clerk: You mean the true and actual word of God?
    You: Yes. That's the one.
    Clerk: What version?

    February 26, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  11. BellaTerra66

    Well done, Mr. James. Thank you for this piece.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  12. herb

    Want to hear some more shocking news – NOT ONCE did Jesus preach religion! (read the gospels in Matthew, Mark, Luke & John). He actually cussed out religious leaders and accused them of being from satan. Chew on that one for a while! No surprise then that today satan comes as an angel of light – dressed as ministers who pretend to be from Jesus, but are from satan – and are saying a lot of things that Jesus never said! Jesus is a person, just like you, and NOT a religion. It is up to everyone that knows this truth to keep telling this truth everyday. That is why I wrote the book Here Comes Jesus! – to let everyone know that Jesus is a person and He will accept you just the way you are, and He will be your everything.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • bscasc

      You complete me

      February 26, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • John

      In response to Herb's comment, Jesus will not accept you just the way you are. You make him sound like Billy Joel.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  13. Rabid Doug

    RELIGION = BRAINWASHING

    ATHEISM = FREEDOM

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

      Ramen.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • JoxertheMighty

      Many atheists are brainwashed just like religious people. Just listen to yourself, bashing what you don't understand and what opposes your doctrine.

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

      @Jxer

      Quit pulling that tired excuse. This atheist knows plenty about Christianity via firsthand experience. In fact, CNN published an article a few months ago about a study that showed atheists know FAR more about the Bible than the average believer does. Say what you will about their motives or goals, but the atheists do know exactly what they are talking about.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • DAT67

      JoxertheMighty – What is it, exactly, that you think he doesn't "understand?"

      February 26, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Aharown

      if you cannot understand books written for grown-ups, you should not talk about them.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Rabid Doug

      I have many texts on may iPhone I keep handy for reading. Sun Tzu's "Art of War". Thomas Paine's "Common Sense". The Koran. And the KJ and American Standard versions of the Bible. They all make for interesting reading.

      My favorite of all is Richard Dawkin's "The Blind Watchmaker". It is a seminal, landmark text in human history, and should be required reading.

      All you Christians out there, I present you with a dare: read "The Blind Watchmaker", front to back, if you think your "faith" is up to the challenge.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • NoMoreTyranny

      There is no logic in atheism.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Rabid Doug

      NoMoreTyranny,

      Atheism is really nothing more or less than an exercise in logic. It is a result of the relentless and impersonal application of logic (i.e. TRUTH) to life, the universe, and everything. If you clear your mind of all preconceptions and brainwashing, and rebuild your awareness and knowledge step-by-step based purely on logic (experience, observation, empirical data), you will eventually arrive at an understanding of life, the universe, and everything that will amaze, astound, and sustain you, and that is blissfully void of religion, God, or other such illogical nonsense.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  14. mikel@shaw.ca

    Amen brother. Most people think that the English version is the original text. English is a terrible translator and we have to continuously refer to the original language to get the true meaning.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  15. Rabid Doug

    The Bible is a collection of the historical and archeological writings of human civilizations and human writers of the Judeo-Christian sects. It is doubtless fascinating and remarkable, as are many similar writings. It is not the "word of God" because there is no God, and only stupid sheep use such a flawed and primitive text as a moral compass.

    GET OUT OF THE DARK AGES, YOU BRAINLESS MASSES!

    February 26, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • mikel@shaw.ca

      You are simply regurgitating the atheist mantra without looking into it yourself – just like the sheep that you are...

      February 26, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • JoxertheMighty

      I guess you are just one of the brainless masses that follows the religion of atheism.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • GetReal

      Agreed. And it wouldnt matter if the delusional had their delusions, except for things like the damage it does to the world. You know, little things, like wars, and terrorism, stuff like that. And it revolves around the premise: "My imaginary sky friend is more real than your imaginary sky friend...MY sky friend is the ONE and ONLY TRUE imgainary sky friend."

      February 26, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • doodlerbug

      I remember growing up when the TV was new. If someone had told me about the technology we had now, I would of deemed them increibly gullible. If it was 20 years earlier, or even 100 years earlier – insane. But, we need to, even if we do not agree, let people find comforts in their own ideas, hopes and dreams. Or we should then ask ourselves, why are we so flawed as a person that we sincerely care and shout out against these ideas, every time they speak of them? Surely, we must be glad most never listened and kept the whispers of home, moving from lips to mouth through these years. Hope, love, empathy, humility and of course, humbleness. I think, it does not harm – so why do we fuss so? Let me believe in something, least my heart belong to .. nothing.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Kara

      Don't worry about your eternal soul ... I hear hell is a dry heat. I'll pray for you even though you're arrogant, condescending, smug and rude, as it's people like you who need it, and as a Christian, I try to be compassionate to others even when it's really hard to do so, like now.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • Patrick

      You say "there is no god", what do you believe then?

      February 26, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • Rabid Doug

      Actually, I went to a Roman Catholic grade school, St. Augustine in Covington, KY, where we went to Mass every single day before school, and an all boys Catholic High School, Covington Catholic. I have read the Bible and other religious texts thoroughly, and studied evolution, religions, and atheism thoroughly.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Rabid Doug

      So interesting, and so very telling, that religious people think that if you don't believe in God, what else could you possibly believe in? They have never looked beyond this. The sum total of "things that they don't understand" (because they have not taken the time and effort to) becomes the reasons that they believe in God. They say "I don't understand how something as complex and specific as the human eye could have evolved, therefore, there must be a God who did it". Of course, what they are really saying is "because of my ignorance and laziness, I choose 'God' as an easy and convenient explanation". Because there are many, many scientists and doctors who HAVE studied eyes and the process of vision, and who CAN give you an answer.

      There are an endless array of "things to believe in". I believe in things that can be measured and experienced. I believe in things that can be learned, through long research and effort. I believe in keeping an open mind and searching for truth, while at the same time exercising critical judgment. I believe in compassion and kindness. I believe in the value of hard work and goal setting. I believe that we each must make our own meaning in life. I believe the universe holds endless amazement and possibility.

      I have never encountered anything remotely suggesting the existence of God.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Rabid Doug

      Kara, than you for your concern. I would pray for an end to your ignorance and close-mindedness if I thought it would do any good.

      There is no hell, just as there is no heaven. Confronting the gut-wrenchingly cold reality that one day we will all simply cease to be and rot into worm food is another of the primary reasons for the creation of religions – belief in an afterlife. A belief system that permits denial of death is extremely comforting.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Rabid Doug

      Hello Doodlerbug,

      You sound like a compassionate, live-and-let-live person, which is wonderful. But please examine your very flawed argument. You are saying that the justification for religion is that it provides positive emotional experiences and comfort for believers. In other words, your justification for the origin of the universe, the development of the human species, and the very nature of all existence, is because it makes you feel good. May I humbly suggest you re-examine your reasoning. For emotional comfort, a teddy bear or box of chocolates presents a more appropriately scaled response.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  16. JoxertheMighty

    @ joel palmer I find it amusing that just like the religious people you slam who state the existence of God as fact, you state the nonexistence of God as fact. Because of that, you are just as stupid as you claim they are.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Rabid Doug

      JoxerTheMighty,

      If someone claims to believe in a Supreme Being, who lives in heaven, surrounded by seraphim and cherubim, and who exists in the form of a Trinity, one third of which was born to a virgin via Immaculate Conception, and who's crucifixion somehow equals Salvation, and then that virgin was assumed bodily into Heaven, where she still lives today as a flesh and blood human being, and all this is celebrated in a religious ceremony wherein wine and bread are Transubstantiated into the ACTUAL FLESH AND BLOOD of this crucified man, then GUESS WHAT??

      THE BURDEN OF PROOF IS ON YOU, NOT ME.

      I can comfortably say that none of this exists, and no one can present me with evidence to the contrary. Not a single shred.

      You say it does exist, to which I say: PROVE IT.

      Can't be done. Because its all nonsense. A fairy tale. You might as well build a religion around the Easter Bunny or Peter Pan, there's just as much proof for them.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  17. Guido

    I'm confused. Would someone here please explain why atheists are better-behaved people than religious people? If I am choosing a neighborhood to raise my young children, should I look for a large percentage of atheists? Do they make safer neighbors than Buddhists, etc?
    What percentage of incarcerated violent criminals were truely religious at the time of committing their crime? Is this a high number? Which religions are the most violent? Are any religions peaceful? How about some facts to support the opinions. presented.

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

      I cannot answer your question, even as an atheist myself. I can tell you that we don't live our lives much differently than those who have faith...we just don't believe.

      I was raised Catholic. I went to private schools until 5th grade. I didn't go to church very often outside of those years spent in private school...and even then - I wasn't paying much attention to what the nuns were saying. I stopped believing all together about 20 years ago.

      All I can say on behalf of atheists is that we question everything - even our existence and look for an answer that satisfies us. A simple "god did it" is not enough because that explains nothing.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • malacoda

      I am not sure if there are any data to support those claims. In general, I think it is good to be around people who can think for themselves, and are well educated. People who will suspend logic and ignore proven science because a dusty book of fairy tales tells them to, cannot be fully trusted to make wise decisions.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • NoMoreTyranny

      There aren't any facts to support it. Apparently all of the religious schools, hospitals, orphanages and food banks aren't enough to hide the inherent evil that lurks at it core. (Completely sarcastic)

      February 26, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • doodlerbug

      There is a very big difference between saying you are, and sincerely being. Being – touches the depths of your heart, soul and spirit. Saying merely touches your lips and others ears and is... empty. Dividing people out because of their differences, separting them and pushing them to the other side while pointing accusing finger is the fuel for hate. Why go there? And what you said is incorrect, even colors have millions of gradients and even in the same light – are very different.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • bo

      all religions have some violent elements, specially those dominated by male. men like to fight and revenge. men kill in the name of regilion because they think they are doing for god.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  18. Juanita

    The only thing wrong with the bible is modern fundamentalist Christian. Fundamentalist slap that bible, ram it down people's throat as the inerrant Word of God. When in fact, the bible is simply a beautiful testament of faith when examined in both historical and social context. People, by and large, aren't interested in a book that a whole group of people used to choke others with hate and intolerance.

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

      Juanita, you are my new best friend. Thank you.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  19. MaryM

    Religion is a useful tool to the wise, to keep the masses in line and from killing the Rich

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

      Atheism worked pretty well for Stalin.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • mikel@shaw.ca

      And don't forget the North Koreans....atheism has built a fantastic atheist utopia there....

      February 26, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Jai

      Yea, look at Hitler. look at Timothy Mcveigh.. look at the guy in Finland... Manson..all christians.... No thanks... Believinga book that was written over200 years after what's his name died.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Bill

      Mike, north korea is certainly not atheistic. They worship their "Dear leader", believe he can perform miracles, amongst other savior-y type things. Which is just as much a religion as Christianity is.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Bob

      Joe, and Mike are you saying that a "christian nation" has never been bad for it's people. More people have been killed and tortured in the name of religon than in the name of Athiesim.

      Religon is not evil, it is a great tool to improve yourself. But we are Human and pervert anything we can including the Bible

      February 26, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  20. Lindalou

    People forget that the bible was written by Jesus's followers, not him. It was written from their point of view, not God's.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • mikel@shaw.ca

      It was inspired by God....

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

      Correct it was written by the disciples, but it was inspired by God Himself (the Holy Spirit.) Therefore it was written by Him and from His point of view.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Cathy

      Yes, Lindalou, yes. Thank you.

      And Mike? Whatever helps you sleep at night, buddy.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Bob

      If the Bible was written by MEN who were all inspired by the same GOD, why were the accounts different? was it GOD who told man to not include some gospels but put these in. of which passages we "enforce" and which we ignore

      At best this is a game of telephone, where a message is passed verbally from one person to another. its almost never the same as it begins. just allow others to worship as they believe or not worship at all.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:28 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.