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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. Marius

    I agree in part. But Noah a drunk? Abraham a liar? Jesus partying a lot? Now, the writer of this article is going to the other extreme by exaggerating.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • God

      it's sounds like exaggeration, but when you've been blinded by one translation, what he says would sound like an exaggeration. open your mind to the possibilities of everything. the whole world believed the world was flat at one point.. it was common knowledge and 'fact'. it's only a matter of time before we ALL will know whats real and what isn't

      February 26, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  2. Mike Cook

    Why don't you just go ahead and burn Bibles!
    At least it does not promote killings of others like Islam. So it's ok to bash the bible, no threat their. What is your synopsis of the Koran?

    February 26, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • ohnugget001

      It doesn't promote the killing of others!?

      Perhaps we haven't read the same book. I suggest you go learn about the fate of the Canaanites, or several other tribes the Israelites supposedly ran into. Look into what that good book says to do with a disobedient child, or a witch, or a woman who is not a virgin on her wedding night. Don't gloss over the realy violent commands, not suggestions, from the deity of this holy book. Do as the author recommends – read it and understand that your god is a jealous god, a wrathful god – you shall have no other gods before him – and you are to kill in his name when numerous situations occur.

      Read the book – it saved me from this perverse religion.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  3. maggie

    I like your take and I agree with much of what you say. I think many "Christians" would disagree with you and that is too bad because none of them seem able to grow spiritually.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  4. In Reason I Trust

    Remember when god killed the first born chikdren of Egypt? Does that sound like something a "good" god would do? Does that sound like a god worthy of being worshipped? No it does not, no matter which way you spin it, so stop believing in ancient desert gods and be brave enough to face reality.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • gman

      it's sounds like a God who as the bible says is slow to anger and wanting that any should acutally perish. But
      after 400 years of slavery and countless prophets fortelling that God would send a deliverer, the Pharaoh's still
      would not listen. even when Moses performed the miracles with his staff Pharoahs heart was hardened. He still
      would not let the people go. Even the egyptians who believed in this desert God were saved by painting lambs blood
      on their door the night before the angel of death came.

      It sounds like a God who got tired of telling the egyptians to let his people go or else he would personaly see to it
      that they were freed. They had more than ample opportunity to let his people go.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      Stop. Killing children is wrong, and If any leader in any country ordered the slaughter of his enemy's children he would be labeled a war criminal. Is god above such clear right and wrongs? Why because he "made" those children, he has the right to murder them? No. The god of the old testament is evil, he is it worthy of worship by any decent person. If people want to worship fictional characters let's at least pick one we know is truly good, like Superman lol.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • gman

      once again you are LESS THAN UP ON YOUR HISTORICAL FACTS. if you ever watched the movie the ten
      commandments you would know that pharaoh decreed his own judgment by issueing an order to kill the first born
      israelites and Moses had already warned him that his own words would condem him. He mocked god and went
      ahead and order the execution of the first born of israel and god wouldn't allow it and thus the first born of egypt
      were killed instead. and again only those who would not paint lambs blood on their door ways. so if someone
      comes to you and says 2 great powers are battleing and one says paint lambs blood on your door as an offering
      to the LORD YOUR GOD , and you are too proud to do it. Who's fault is that. and as we all know the final lambs
      blood was Jesus on the cross once and for all. If your too proud to accept that humbling fact then it's obvious
      you would rather believe in your human mind than the creator of the universe.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      This is god right, all powerful? Why did he use his magic to kill children instead of magically making his people appear in Israel? I'm his all powerful right, this shouldn't be a problem for him. He's already using magic in public, might as well go all the way. If you were all powerful don't you think there was a better option that killing children?

      February 26, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  5. kd

    The Bible is completely made up. It was written to control scared, vulnerable and primitive peoples. It still does.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      Amen, lol

      February 26, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Angel

      Or what if its not? Have you read it? Do you really know? Just what if your wrong and u find yourself on your knees at Gods feet on judgement day? Read it I PROMISE You'll cahnge your thinking....God Bless friend

      February 26, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Tw

      You're right, God made it up to help guide very stupid, weak and easily frightened people.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • ohnugget001

      @Angel

      I read it. It saved me from staying in that perverse religion. I recommend more people read it so they too can make an informed decision on whether it is a moral foundation to build one's life upon. Hint: It definately isn't.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  6. gman

    it's true that we should feel the freedom in christ and that satan robs us from it. But would you actually go and tell
    Job when he was suffering that he should lighten up ? , Who would dare to make an accusation like his 3 friends did.
    And as far as him lusting i don't know that what's scripture says. The lord himself said " Have you considered my
    Servant Job ? There is none like him. Fears God and shuns Evil. That doesn't sound like a man who's struggling
    with lust. And also we know the fate of Jobs 3 friends. God threatened to punish them serverly unless they asked
    Job to sacrifice for them. Sounds like a righteous man to me. You might want to back track before you accuse Job
    of anything lest you suffer the same fate as his 3 friends. Now would you still dare to accuse. Theres only one
    accuser in heaven that i know of that's doesn't fear hell and that's where he's going for eternity.

    IF YOU DARE MAKE THAT ACCUSATION AGAINST JOB THEN STATE IT PUBLICLY THAT'S WHAT YOU ARE SAYING
    AND I'LL STAND BACK AND WATCH FOR THE LIGHTNIG BOLTS.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      Satan? You mean the talking snake in the magic garden that had the magic apple in it? You my friend are afraid of a Disney character, lol. Please do try and grow up.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • gman

      you keep on trusting in your reason , i'll keep trusting my salvation to christ in spite of the sinner that i am.

      When we die we'll see who's where and what's a dream.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      Yeah silly reason, bringing us technology and medicine and the Internet that you are using right now. Unless your typing on a holy rock that magically sends your message to my screen, I'm pretty sure reason has won this debate. So next time you pray for god to heal your cancer, realize god had nothing to do with the science that makes your medicine, reason does. Face the unknown with some dignity instead of believing ridiculous stories about evil snakes, lol.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • gman

      i would rather worry about prayiing for your salvation and where you'll spend eternity than a few years added to
      or taken from my life. your going to die anyway , or hasn't all your reason taught you anything real.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      Yes, I'm going to die, so? Just because I don't want to die doesn't mean I have to believe the first religion that promises an afterlife. Who's going to win the Superbowl next year? I don't know. Who's going to win the election in November? I don't know. What's wrong with saying I don't know? What happens when I die? I don't know, and neither does any religion.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • gman

      TRUE, but since your speaking from your heart , I'll answer you thoughtfuly.

      I can't prove JESUS CHRIST IS GOD to you anymore than anyone else can. But he did say in scripture ,

      Matthes 7:7 – "Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find.
      Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you.

      Romans 3:23 – " For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God".

      John 3:16 – "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not
      perish but have eternal life

      THAT'S ONE OF THE MOST QUOTED SCRIPTURES IN THE BIBLE. i'd like to think that satan isn't real but
      it's because i see what you do every day in the news that makes me understand that there is an author
      of evil that causes human cruelty as much as there is an author of Good that meant us for so much more than this.

      Death came as even christ told eve " THE DAY YOU EAT OF THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE FROM THE GARDEN ,
      YOU WILL SURELY DIE" .

      Look at the world now.

      JESUS PAYED THE PRICE FOR ALL THE DESPAIR AND FEAR OF DEATH AND EVERY OTHER OBSTICLE WE FACE.
      it's our way back to the throne of grace when we die. every christian wants to see people who are seeking
      find the truth. SATAN WILL DO EVERYTHING HE CAN TO DESTROY THIS.

      if you pick up a bilbe and read through , sincerely ask god to open your eyes while your reading. it's what
      happened to me when i got out of the navy. i couldn't understand one word of the old english. and then i asked
      god to help me and it was like scales fell off my eyes and i could see.

      i believe he will do that for you also. and i will pray you find your way to eternal life. GLEN.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  7. elenore

    As a red letter Christian I am only really interested in the 4 gospels,Mathew,Mark,Luke ,and John.And than I mostly try to follow the Jesus passages.The rest is just a recap of history of the Jews(old testament) and Christians(book that aren't 4 gospels).i follow Jesus as a philosophy more than a dogma.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      I like the part when Jesus told his mother Mary to "shut up woman", that's some real advanced philosophy right there worthy of being followed. Better yet how about you follow Superman's philosophy – he's just as real as Jesus but kinder to his mother.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • MAVERICK

      Hmmmmm....isn't that the practice of the "cafeteria" christian? Just take what you like and leave the rest?

      February 26, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  8. David Weihnacht

    How about including all of the material that the Catholic Church omitted? Then you might have the complete picture even if it challenges the concepts you now believe.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  9. anne

    What worries me most about religious fanatics is that their intents when shoving the bible down your throat is always self-serving. I am not religious by any means and I haven't decided if there is a higher power but in these instances where someone forces religion on you, it always makes me think that this person is probably from the "other" side than what they are preaching, if there is one.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Angel

      Or maybe they just love you Anne and want to be with you for eternity

      February 26, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Geoff

      I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. James. In agreement with his message is not to alter the original text to 'God' from the original 'Jehovah' (7000 times). God wanted us to know and use His name.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • anne

      Please, even though I'm undecided, I am really not naïve enough to believe that someone trying to force their belief on me through fear (because that's what is usually used) would want what's best for me. Someone who truly believes in what they say would explain and accept that I feel differently

      February 26, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  10. TheAnswer

    Wow! I've never seen a CNN OpEd this well worded. Usually the religious pieces tow the company line. To all the haters out there (who in reality are broken people just like myself who desperately need grace from a mighty savior) I leave you with a line from the punk band MxPx, "Have you truly studied this historically?"

    February 26, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  11. ohnugget001

    "Having read it so much I believe archaeologist (scientist) have shown that results end the same way over and over."

    What ARE you rambling about?

    February 26, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  12. Mazer9

    "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."

    Really? An all-powerful, all-knowing God creates humans for the sole purpose of being forced to commit suicide to "save them"? People believe this stuff!?

    February 26, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  13. Pat

    If God was as smart as I am, He would do things my way. Oh wait... I created God. That was back when I created singularities and atoms and molecules and all that exists.

    Can the pot ask the potter "why did you make me this way?"

    Why must the Bible be perfect or literal? If it serves God's purposes, isn't that sufficient?

    God's gift to believers is peace that passeth understanding. That makes it hard to explain.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • God is supposed to be perfect

      God is the embodiment of perfection. If his book is not literal and perfect how can you expect god to be perfect if he can't come up with a perfect book ? Ofcourse the answer is that the bible is not infallible enough to pass as a grade book textbook let alone something with enough solid foundation to base a theology on. Muslims do have a solid point when they argue that the bible is not authentic. People during jesus's time never worshipped him. He did commit acts of prophetic violence (such as his reactions to the money sellers and his unwillingness to help non israelites). The bible is written by people who never even met jesus. If you want further proof read about the revised standard version of the bible as well as such verses as john 3:16 that many denominations hold holy as the word of god (in actually it's a footnote written by a scribe more than a hundred years after jesus died).

      February 26, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  14. Julia

    Here's my take: Let's stop sugarcoating ALL religions. Let's talk about the true "stereotypes" about greedy Jews and violent Muslims and crazy Envangelicals. It's getting really old now to target Christianity when so many other religions are even worse.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Paul M.

      Julia, you are a Fkd. up anti-Semitic!!!

      February 26, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • CM

      Sure, there are others that are worse. But I don't live in Iran. Let Iranians deal with their nutty Muslims. I live in the US, so the only people trying to mess with my life on a daily basis are Christians.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • SYSPROG

      REALLY? Christians have been targeting OTHER religions for YEARS...and specifically, since 9/11 as if to show that THEY (Christians) are the TRUE religion. James is merely showing that we shouldn't blindly follow without understanding.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • Julia

      Really? The only people trying to mess with your life are Christians? I guess you don't bank or pay taxes or live in a community or have children in school or have a job.... Christianity's pressure is overt, but you're really blind if you don't see the other influences.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  15. chris

    Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism and evil ever conceived.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Angel

      Read it again!...especailly 1Corinthians....Is that what your gonna tell God when your on your knees in front of him at judgement?

      February 26, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Private

      Appropriately read and interpreted without sensationalism, it is and will always be the book of life.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • David

      Sure, chris, that's why everyone whose read it throughout history became an atheist.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  16. Jeremiah Diehl

    Steven James, this article is incredible! I'm glad you can see the Bible for what it truly is instead of attempting to cover it up with politeness, as you said.
    Thanks for writing!

    February 26, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  17. Carter Mobley

    The biggest mistake we make is that we consider the writings of our ancestors to be infallible. And each of us gets lost interpreting every phrase and we emerge with mistrust for those who hold different interpretations, even to the point of slaughtering each other over different interpretations of different writings of our ancestors. From this sad history, we can observe the universe and know that God would never give man a book of scripture. Instead, we have only to observe the creation to see that in spite of our history, God continues to give us children. Observing this overwhelming love for us we alreadyknow what is good: We must raise Gods children in truth and in love and we should begin to see each other as gifts from God and treat each other accordingly. We need no bible or quran to see this, we need only observe the love of God. I write more about this on the theamology blog.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  18. lee marsh N

    thats a good tour of the bible its well analysed...Good job

    February 26, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  19. plucky

    Nice headline picture. That's the real bible!

    February 26, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  20. Patrick

    I agree in part with the article. It is a short writing and I may be reading into your thoughts, however, it seems you've implied Jesus was not concerned with holiness. If that is true of your article, then I have to disagree. Jesus was merely accused of being a drunkard. In no way shape or form did He approve of being drunk. The main purpose that Jesus came was given in John 17:3, that they (us) may know YOU (God). At any rate, i do agree with you that many of the modern translations have softened Gods word and many pastors have preached a truncated gospel to their own detriment.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:01 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.