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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. NorEaster TC 6

    AGAIN AND AGAIN,

    YOU HAVE THOSE WHO THINK THERE DOING SOMETHING GREAT MY DISCREDITING THE HOLY SCRIPTURES, HISTORICAL FACTS MEANS NOTHING TO THESE TYPES OF PEOPLE.

    THE ONLY THING THAT WILL WAKE UP A FOOL IS JUDGMENT, KNOW THAT EVERY IDLE WORD SPOKEN YOU WILL BE ACCOUNTABLE FOR.

    BARBARIAN DO YOU THINK YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO TRASH TALK AND THREATEN AND NOT BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE?

    I KNOW DOCTORS, ATTORNEYS, SOME COLLEGE PROFESSORS, AND OTHER PROFESSIONALS WHO DO BELIEVE IN GOD AND UNDERSTAND TO A DEGREE THE COMPLEXITY OF A PHYSICAL UNIVERSE MADE OUT OF NOTHING.

    FOOLISH OF HEART, EVEN MATHEMATICIANS WILL ACKNOWLEDGE MATHEMATICALLY THAT THE UNIVERSE AND WORLD ARE TO COMPLEX TO HAVE COME FROM RANDOM CHANCE.

    RANDOM CHANCE SHOULD CONTINUALLY CREATE MUTATIONS IN EVERYTHING, SINCE THERE IS NO LOGICAL ORDER JUST CHANCE.

    (POP QUIZ WHAT CREATED THE MATERIALS FOR THE SO- CALLED BIG BANG THEORY ? WHAT CREATED ANYTHING PHYSICALLY PERIOD). RANDOM CHANCE !! HA,HA,HA,HA,HA,HA

    YOU DON'T HAVE THE ANSWERS JUST THEORIES!! AND RANDOM CHANCE.

    THE HOLY BIBLE GIVES CLEAR INSIGHT ABOUT MAN, HOW OUR WICKEDNESS HAS BEEN PAST TO EVERY LIVING PERSON.

    WHO GOD IS, WHAT HE EXPECTS FROM US, WHAT DIFFERENTIATE A MAN FROM ANY BEAST, ITS ALL THERE IF YOU REALLY WHAT THE WHOLE TRUTH.

    I WON"T BEG YOU TO READ THE BIBLE I CHALLENGE YOU TO READ IT.

    WE WILL ALL BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE FOR OUR LIVES AND ACTIONS THE SAVED AND UNSAVED, WHAT AWAITS YOU IN THAT DAY! ONLY PURE SORROW, SHAME, AND REJECTION (PUNISHMENT) WILL AWAIT YOU.

    WHAT ARE YOU WILLING TO HOLD ON TOO RANDOM CHANCE AND THEORIES, AND THROW AWAY GOD OFFER OF FORGIVENESS. THERE IS A SAYING WHEN IT COMES TO THE LAWS OF THE UNITED STATES.

    THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR THE IGNORANCE OF THE LAW (ITS UP TO YOUR TO KNOW IT) SO YOU WON'T COMMIT A CRIME. HOW MUCH MORE WILL THE CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE HOLD YOU RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR CRIMES AGAINST HIS HOLINESS.

    GOD MAKES IT PLAIN AND SIMPLE READ THE BIBLE FOR YOURSELF START WITH THE BOOK OF JOHN.

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

      How about, start at the beginning?

      February 26, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      Don't talk about science when your holy book is full of magic apples and magic gardens with magic boats and magic virgin babies. Grow up and face the unknown with dignity instead of hiding behind a magic book. Your fear of the unknown has turned you into a fool.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  2. Jim McDonald

    There is an argument that man got much of the Old Testament wrong. This is why Jesus came and gave us better instructions.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  3. Bumble Stiltkens

    well anyway the short of my opinion: opinions sell and will get you paid in something avoidance of facts and causation will get you black balled in preschool and set for a wonderful life poverty and servitude to the humble bestesters of gad at yale (all western education) for though are indeed Canadians.-\?/ pff find a new trick.-) err sumin = disclaimer: I don't care what you think or what comes of what you think, for I need not one repeated mathematical mistake that toddlers could solve if and only if psychological science didn't or did give us the answers, confused on that one I sure amz? yaym down with Canadians err sumin?

    February 26, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  4. Sam Rao

    Looking at the number of comments you can just say religion gets to people and it applies to all the religions. And what Afghans are doing looks more brutal because they don't have no law and order and we have law and order. Just take the law and order out of and we will be just as brutal.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  5. DJ MCFLY

    AND, ACCORDING TO THE LEFTIE MEDIA, The Quran Is A "Holy Book"

    February 26, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  6. Richard Jam

    Let me tell you all you wise guys out there that is putting the bible down, with out any knowledge, according to the Bible the wisdom of the world (1Cor3:19)(like people yourself) are foolishness in God's eye, and the real Truth about the Bible or to even understand the Right way is hidden from People like you, (Matt11:25) To really understand the Bible you needs Gos Holly spirit which the world (people like you don't have it) the real issue or the big picture is that soon God will destroy all wicked Man on earth (Psalm 37:29) and only the righteous will will live forever upon it and that was only possible true Christ sacrificed precious Blood. And all of those who defies god's holly word will recognize who the true Creator is JEHOVAH GOD, when its to late.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Kal

      You're words are true. The bible has been watered down and has even removed YAWEH (Jehovah) out of the bible thus creating more confusion. You don't need to have a degree in a religion to be able to Preach either. I live in Texas bible belt and this town has more churches than you can count with your two hands and feet. There is a University that people from different religions go to become Preachers. When in the Bible God took the most humble of men. Jesus also said we needed to be humble like children to be able to get close to his father. I am studying with an open heart and ask Jehovah for a humble heart so that his word can reach my heart. To be honest with myself and to ignore Traditions and pagan beliefs that were set by False Religion and not set by the Bible itself. Not to read the Holy Scriptures ready to Hate on it because then my heart and mind will close itself. To be able to admit that I may be wrong and let Jehovah God guide my heart.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      According to Superman #12 page 8, "Lex Luther is bad.". See, we can both quote fiction.

      February 26, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  7. Abraham

    A true believer in christianity might be able to disregard the "earthiness" of the bible but a new convert whos belief is still skin deep will not be able to get that. So that is why sugarcoating is neccessary, to get converts into strong, deep belief first then one by one show them the true face.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Steve101

      So you basically admit it. It's all a scam. You sound like your selling time shares.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  8. Uncle Dave

    This is a very well done article. It is so true too. I've been a pastor for nearly three decades and have tried to make the Bible relevant to so many congregations, that I wish I had read this article thirty years ago. The challenge for most pastors is to make the Bible real and relevant to each new generation. Thanks Steven James !

    February 26, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  9. .

    Bigotry is alive and well at CNN. As long as the target is Christianity.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  10. kim jackson

    preach. it. (this article was my church for today)

    February 26, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  11. TJ

    I think the author missed the point. In Isaiah, where it refers to "filty rags" refers to OUR own rightnessous. Not God's..

    February 26, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Try again

      Umm, actually it seems that you missed the point. Read it again.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Try again

      And I mean what the author wrote about Isaiah, not Isaiah itself.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  12. tellthetruth1

    I've heard about a couple of the verses you mentioned, quoted 'properly'! Makes me wonder what my Jewish version of the Bible has to say. Only just got it so have to wait to find out:)

    February 26, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  13. Rainer Braendlein

    David, Noah, St. Peter, etc. made mistakes, but usually they were faithful believers. We should not assume that they lived a sinful life. It is only that they stumbled sometimes.

    Mr. James said:

    "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 agree with Mr. James that the believers both of the Old Testament and the New Testament made mistakes. Nevertheless Mr. James abuses the verses above by implying that they constantly lived a sinful life.

    How does he abuse them?

    First, David:

    Yes, David murdered Uria, the husband of his lover Batseba by the hands of Joab his field marshal.

    However, it was a stumple. David did not always take the wifes of his soldiers and commit adultry with them and then murder them. As fas as we know, David commited such a crime only once in his life.

    After that God sent the prophet Nathan to him, which admonished him strictly. David became very remorseful and confessed his heavy sin. Although God forgave David he had to harvest the fruits of his misbehaviour. What David had done privatly was repeated by his sons publically on the roofs and beneath the sun of Israel with the wifes of David. David was chastised by God.

    2. Sam. 16:

    Then said Absalom to Ahithophel, Give counsel among you what we shall do. 21 And Ahithophel said unto Absalom, Go in unto thy father' concubines, which he hath left to keep the house; and all Israel shall hear that thou art abhorred of thy father: then shall the hands of all that are with thee be strong. 22 So they spread Absalom a tent upon the top of the house; and Absalom went in unto his father' concubines in the sight of all Israel. 23 And the counsel of Ahithophel, which he counselled in those days, was as if a man had enquired at the oracle of God: so was all the counsel of Ahithophel both with David and with Absalom.

    David's adultry with Batseba and the murder of her husband was a stumble (of course a heavy one).

    Read 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel of the Old Testament and you will notice that he usually was a faithful believer. For example, he was the legitimate new King of Israel and Saul had lost his kingship. Nevertheless, Saul persecuted David and tried to kill him. David had several opportunities to kill his enemy Saul without any effort, but he did not. He could wait for God's judgement, whereby he never hated Saul, but always forgave him his assaults. David became a model for all believers (even after Christ) not to take revenge, but to wait for God's revenge.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • moebar

      I agree with you that all people stumble every know and then but what David did wasn't some stumble. David is a prophet of the bible which makes it even worse because prophets are supposed to be the best people around. He committed adultery and tried to cover it up and when he failed to do that he murdered his friend so that he could take his wife so that he would make sure no one found out about his adulterous ways. How could a prophet do this....Im 100% sure a prophet of God would know that this was wrong from the get go....

      February 26, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • It was a stumble

      A stumble? He has a man killed so he can bang his wife and you call it a stumble? I'm not even going to bother addressing your other idiotic comments. You fools and your Bible are like battered wives making excuses for abusive husbands. It's sick and it's wrong and you should seek non-religious help.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      @moebar

      I have the same faith like David. The problem is that according to the doctrine of St. Paul the sin doesn't die, when someone becomes a believer in Jesus, but the "old man of sin" dies. This is a difference. The difference between a believer and a disbeliever is merely the fact that the sin is dethroned.

      Although the sin is dethroned, a believer has still his old body (just the biological body), which is used to sin. Thus, also a believer has received a new life from God, the body still wants to sin.

      A Christian needs to exersice daily prayers and other contemplation, in order to receive again and again the faith and the Holy Spirit from God in heaven to overcome his personal sinfulness. Day by Day a Christian has to keep the life or faith, which God gave him.

      At the day, when David sinned so terrible, he had failed to encounter his God in prayer (he woke up in the evening). Satan used this opportunity to strike David by a heavy temptation (a naked woman).

      February 26, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • moebar

      this isnt some small time sin that David did. And again hes a prophet of the bible and should of known that adultery and murder were wrong from the get go because they are in the 10 commandments. Also he could not accept Jesus because Jesus wasn't alive at that time period....

      February 26, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  14. Tarun

    Thanks for the article. The greatest service that these holy books deliver, is an idea that there is a better way to live life. One must understand that to bridge the ideas between the higher realms and our grounded selves, we have to operate in the highest good. The creation energy, that which brings all beings together to reproduce, which is unconditional amongst family, is the love that is necessary to sustain and create life. That electromagnetic spark in our hearts beats for this reason. If you have ever felt in love or being loved, you know there is no greater bliss.

    Jesus, or any ascended master, was here to show the people of their time, there there is a balance that must be maintained, between earthly pleasures and religious piety. If we can co-exist in an environment of mutual respect, we will survive and thrive. If we continue down the path of selfishness and materialism, these same things await us. We are creating the reality we want to see. As above, so below.

    Everything in the universe was built on simplicity, so don't waste your energy with complexities and semantics. If you remember only one thing from this book it is this: As we are built in the image of our creator, YOU = GOD, GOD = LOVE, thus YOU must embody LOVE in order to be one with GOD. Then we can truly ceIebrate each other and live in bliss as a species.

    You can all do what you want, but I, for one, want to make it to this homecoming.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  15. Thomas

    Through all the translations no wonder this author feels this way. We have lost a lot of some of the most simplistic and important truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Little do people know of a branch of the House of Israel of whom a prophet and son of the great Prophet Zedekiah – his name was Mulek, was led out of Jersaleum about the sixth century B.C. They lived in ancient America and had the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His mission was in fulfillment of the prophecy of Jesus Christ saying..."other sheep I have that are not of this fold, them also I must bring." All this can be found in The Book of Mormon. I invite you to read this other testament of Jesus Christ for it contains the fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • gman

      Thomas , i have mormon friends and grew up attending mormon churches many times. I have differences now
      with parts of their doctrine. One of the biggest is Joseph Smith calling himself a prophet in the old testament sense.
      It says int the bible that a prophet can not perish anywhere but in jerusalem and this was one of the test of
      being a prophet. another was that what he says must come to pass. But we can most reasonably assume Joseph
      Smith passed away here in america. Also the mormons claim that the holy spirit was taken from the earth for a
      period of time. That goes angainst everything the bible teaches. The veil in the temple of holies was torn in 2
      when christ was crucified opeing the door way to everyone through prayer. People would like to assume
      that they have some prophetic annointing it's only in unison with gods word that it proves true. Even Jesus when
      tempted by satan, the very son of god or GOD IN THE FLESH , rebuked satan with scripture. Not some
      prophetic vision. These are just some thoughts and not meant to be argumentative but as i said some things
      i do have issues with in doctrine. I love the people but just wonder if you have ever pondered these points.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • NorEaster TC 6

      Thomas,

      You are totally in error true Christians knows that the Later Day Saints Mormons are a christian cult. There were three basic christian cults created by the angel of light ( Satan) in America between 1830s – 1870s.

      The Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, and Seven day Adventist all have one thing in common.

      They try and take away the deity of Christ, Christ is God in the flesh John 1:1 cults try to make you believe that they are the only ones with (their) the truth I've studied christian cults these are the three main ones in America.

      March 22, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
  16. hal

    Hypocrites all!! Why doesn't the author and the above fools who support him do a similar analysis of the Koran.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Yarah

      Because the Koran is not the word of God. Never has and never will be, But God loves the Muslims and wants them to worship the true and living God. The God of the Bible.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • NorEaster TC 6

      Ok here is the analysis of the Koran,

      Simply put it is a violent religion that threatens death to anyone who insults the Koran or its own followers if that person decides to leave the Muslim faith. If Allah is all the Koran says he is why don't Allah punish the people instead of violent men and women he can just think the thought and its over.

      No the truth is he is not God so the Koran followers have to step in and try to do it.

      March 22, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
  17. H. E. Fosdick

    Anyone who grew up actually reading the Bible already knows this stuff. I learned it in Methodist Sunday School fifty years ago. So why is it suddenly news? Because modern evangelicals thump the Bible rather than actually study it.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  18. David

    Thank you, Steven James, for saying something that is so obvious to many of us who grew up in Bible-based churches and yet is almost completely surprising to most other people today. I've been waiting for someone to elegantly explain these matters to all the "devil's Bible" types who go quoting scatalogical verses in the same mindset as delinquents smoking in a school bathroom. You've done it well!

    February 26, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  19. writerscramp

    But the entire Christian religion is based on re-interpreting re-writing the bible to fit what believers want it to believe, regardless of any basis in fact .... why stop now ?????

    February 26, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • David

      Examples, please. Examples.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • .

      Another CNN sanctioned bigot.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Andrew

      Examples: Reifying the United States AS the nation of Israel in prophecy. Assuming the Covenant applies to goyim. Using Jesus as a mascot for War (Heritage Foundation) misinterpreting Jewish Law for modern-day Hate (Right to "life") and on and on and on...

      February 26, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  20. Yarah

    Weather you believe it now, or believe it later. The Bible is the very word of GOD penned in ink. God loves you and has a plan for your life. God Bless to all of those who are searching, and to all who have found HIM through His word.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Mike

      The bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true because the bible is true...

      February 26, 2012 at 10:38 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.