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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. LAborn

    Great article......just like in Jesus' times, the church is lost. I hope all Christians read this and reflect on how they worship and live their lives....

    February 26, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  2. Paul M.

    The Bible was a novel, end of story. If it was written today, it probably would be on the NY Times best seller list for a few months along with James Patterson thrillers. Most of you better get a life, because our time is short at best and before you know it your gone......

    February 26, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  3. midnitejax

    It was reported a few years ago that publishers of the Bible would print them in a modern format to appeal to attract new and younger readers. Who knows what the original scriptures look and read like?Selling Bibles is a business, and like all businesses, they need to market the ware to make it attractive to the customers. Numerous so called Christian faiths have popped up over the centuries by people who claimed their version of the interpretation of the Holy Book was the right one.Murder and mayhem was imposed on "heathens" and non believers alike. All in the name of God! It continues today.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  4. RR1279

    I think the painting associated with this article is particularly appropriate and fitting when any religious topic is discussed. Religion is itself a form of "sugarcoating" upon deeper doctrines and practices. Truth be told, religion consists of nothing more than violence, hatred, fear, and an utter travesty of logic. I pity all those people who call themselves "religious" or “faithful”, as if being shackled to their primitive and intellectually vacant past was something to be proud of.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • rsutter

      I think it's interesting how so many bitter atheists read and comment on the Belief Blog!

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

      No bitterness involved in being an Atheist. We simply want your god substantiated or it falls in to the same category as Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and numerous other fictional characters. Most christians don't know anything of the history of their own book or the church. They easily dismiss all other gods that were believed in before their god was thought up by man.

      Christians are the bitter ones-they fail to accept what science says about numerous things including ho.mo.se.xuality; contraceptives; child rearing; slavery; evolution; the Big Bang; etc. All this due to it being in contradiction to a book written by primitive sheep herders who had nothing better to do with their time than to make up stories.

      "When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." – Stephen F Roberts

      February 26, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • RW2U

      Painting is somewhat appropriate. Of course protestants don't recognize the book of Judith to be canon, so many protestants will wonder what this painting is referring to? On the other hand so will many Catholics since they have probably never read Judith nor heard it mentioned in any Catholic service. So it is appropriate that those who take the time to read this article might also take the time to research and read Judith. A great OT Heroine in my opininion.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  5. CarolSong

    I'm wondering how many people know that 33 different people wrote the Bible. And also that all the references to women were removed by the Brits under King James.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • midnitejax

      I agree......and how the "reformed" church of England came about.Whenever someone of power didn't agree with the Bible, they simply altered it or made up another "christian " religous sect.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • gman

      that's funny , it speaks pretty highly of MARY , and ruth and others of great faith.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  6. Butters

    I think what the author is trying to say is that the bible needs to be outlawed .
    Ancient religious cult stories in one book . How many times has the bible changed since it's inception ?
    The bible has the ability to change for any culture all through time . This would say that who delivers the message
    of the bible need to fit the time and culture but not the bible .
    The bible and christianity would make a chameleon jealous.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  7. code0111

    Not only is God a jealous God, but he chose "A People" not all people. Christianity is not what man can do to bring themselves to God's Level, but what God did to raise people to Himself. There is nothing man can do to save himself. Only God Himself, Jesus = God has entered his creation.
    In the book of John, ... In the beginning was the Word, And the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and became flesh and dwealt among us!

    February 26, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  8. Q

    Very interesting, I agree with much of what you said. Contiune to do what you do because in many ways your truth will set others free. I agree totally that the characters in the bible lived in much conflict as we do today. The main message that I live by is that God with his grace and mercy loves us soooooooooo much, more than we can even fathom. The Only One who loves me truely loves me for just who I am.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  9. mike

    Dont let the jehovas witnesses hear about this. they celebrate nothing. there are just too many different sects of christianity and I would venture to say that none on them get the bible right.

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

      Exactly....And I would say that for most if not all religions.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Angel

      I grew up baptist was married to a Jehovah Witness most of my friends were catholic and study Muslim and Mormon and any other religions I can...But if u don't read the bible and test everything against the scriptures it would be hard to know what's true and what's false...To me after all of this the truth is in the bible and I am able 2 help people from differnt faiths sort out the lies...But remember WE ALL HAVE TO ANSWER TO GOD WHEN HE COMES BACK...do you really want to tell him there were just to many religons I didn't know which one 2 pick...Or do you want him to know your seekng and at least trying to find the truth?

      February 26, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Geoff

      We do celebrate the Memorial of Christ's death as he commanded. This year it's Thurs. April 5th after sundown...we'd love to see you at the Kingdom Hall.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  10. Norman

    I agree with the writer... as a Christian... believe we do not need to "sugarcoat" the Bible... just like a mirror let it reflect back... how we really are. The Bible is full of imperfect people... very similar to us. 🙂 I'm not here to debate on what translation is better or what a particular verse says or not... regardless of how you view the Bible... the best check really is are you being changed? Fruit of the spirit... if not then... like the writer of the article said "We don’t need to edit God. We need to let him be the author of our new lives."

    February 26, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  11. ASDF

    Stop pretending like the Bible is as complex as a James Joyce novel. The Bible is really messed up and contradictory because it was written over the course of 3000 years by hundreds of different people. Most of the stories weren't even written down for hundreds of years after they supposedly took place. People would love to chalk that kind of complexity up to some kind of intent on the part of its authors, but its far more likely that the book is so crazy because they were so crazy. Is it any wonder that people can point to the bible to justify virtually any action they want?

    February 26, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  12. Satin

    Excellent article

    imsatindoll.com

    February 26, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  13. 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 10:14 am |
  14. Dillio

    Good article. Enjoyed reading it. It took me a long time to realize that God's power to us and the liberation from sin doesn't come from us not sinning anymore but from God's forgiving us and wiping the slate clean everyday. At the same time, treating us like his children, with whatever that entails in dealing with our sin. He's a perfect father and knows what each of us need to become more like him.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  15. Jand Meditz

    hi

    February 26, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  16. Read It

    While I mostly agree with what you are saying, I also don't think the pendulum should sway to the extreme opposite of the spectrum. I would not classify Noah as a "drunk" although and I wouldn't describe Jesus as a "partier". Sure, Noah was caught drunk by his son, and Jesus attended parties, but those classifications are sweeping and do not accurately describe these men.
    And lets not forget that God is a wrathful and jealous God – people certainly like to tidy that aspect of Scripture up, or just say that it is in the Old Testament – like God changed from the Old to the New. The covenants change, but God remains the same.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Jesus

      As long as we are not sugar coating the Bible, let's reveal the relationship between gay Jesus and his gay so-called brother James

      February 26, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  17. code0111

    FSM, why the hate, or perhaps the truth hurts.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  18. Pedro

    Religion = Poison

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

      Jesus = Salvation

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

      Jesus = 1st century myth OR 1st century religion huckster

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

      religion=weak minded ignorant bleeding money to dishonest clergy

      February 26, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  19. nick

    Wow, this will be the last time I read the news here, if you believe in god or jesus then you're provably not getting anything else right either .

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

      Or are you not getting anything right Nick? I hope you find out the truth that there is a God and he sent his son to die for you before he comes back and your on your knees on judgement day...God loves you and he's real! God Bless

      February 26, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • Tim Rigney

      And so of course you feel the Universe was created with The Big Bang.
      But what caused The Big Bang to happen? . . .
      I'm glad you're able to place so much Faith in your Science.

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

      It is the religion section, what did you expect?

      February 26, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Tim Rigney

      .And so of course you feel the Universe was created with The Big Bang.
      But what caused The Big Bang to happen? . . .
      I'm glad you're able to place so much Faith in your Science.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • liveimpact

      The "word" of god as written in the bible has been translated – cleaned up by "man" and "kings" to remove parts or clean up parts they "man" thinks is correct. "Man" in imperfect with many faults, etc there is no way that over time the meanings and writings would not get translated to something different than the original words. But that is what you would expect from "Man". Even in recent history – we tell our kids what we want to tell them and not the gritty details. I am christian but understand that the actual word of "god" is different than what is in the translated bible. You have to read between the lines...

      February 26, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • rsutter

      Tim, I find it interesting that your Science insists on a Cause and Effect universe. Perhaps your concept of time and space is what is limited. If the universe was created outside of time, there did not need to be a prior event to cause it.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      If everything needs a cause and a creator...who created god? At least Atheists are being honest and saying we don't know what caused the Big Bang or what happened before it. The second you plug that unknown with god, it becomes the god of the gaps argument (used to describe the tendency of believers to appeal to God as the cause for phenomena human knowledge that has not yet explained. When these gaps are filled, the believer just jumps to the next gap and the game can continue ad nauseam until human knowledge is able to explain everything. It is not a very theologically sound argument since it has the unpleasant (according to believers) effect of reducing and diminishing one's god over time. From a rational or scientific perspective it's just silly. For the truly dedicated proponent, filling an existing gap merely has the effect of creating two new gaps around it. Intellectually honest it ain't. )

      February 26, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  20. clc777

    I'm inclined to agree with what was just written , God knows everything about us from the time that we were conceived to the time we stand before him. Yes, all he wants from us to be honest with our lives.

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

      where have you heard/met/seen/witnessed/sensed that someone was standing in front of a 'god' after death.
      I am curious, how do you know that? Why do you 'believe' this?

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

      @ handy , not to be to nosey , but if you are interested in reading an amazing account of near death experience ,

      http://embracedbythelight.com/

      betty j. eadie – acount of dying and then seeing jesus and many amazing things then coming back.

      i don't claim this as fact , i go with gods word but i have been through alot and when i read through it , it really
      struck a chord.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
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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.