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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. ruemorgue

    so a book of fairy tales has been tidied up for current consumption? need more proof that it was written by man, for man, create by man (replace man with woman if it bothers you).

    February 26, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  2. Kristy

    Mr. James, I loved the majority of your article. Great work & very true. I don't believe we should ever give potential Christian's the idea that the Christian life is easy at all or that "if you do good, you'll get good things in return." That is not taught anywhere in the Bible. In fact, quite the opposite is taught (John 15:18, Matthew 10:16-23).

    The only part that I reacted harshly to was your statement, "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)." I get what you are trying to say but reading that passage in context, I would never have said that it conveyed a message that Christ "partied so much." In fact, Jesus was talking about how he & John the Baptist were being falsely accused. Otherwise, excellent article. We need more writers like you. 😀

    February 26, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • pastmorm

      Dang Kristy, you are scary. People like you have made the world the nasty place it is today. You actually believe that you shouldn't do good things to people to have good things happen to you? You don't believe in the Golden rule? You think you and other people should run amok with anger and hatred and no good deeds? You are the christian that most other christians are scared of.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Paul

      I am sure what Kristy is saying is that we as Christians do good deeds not for selfish reasons to hope things are better for us, but for selfless reasons, doing good because that is what God would like us to do even if we do not have good done to us in return, that is truly sacrificial giving and is one of the things being a Christian is about.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  3. pastmorm

    I'd like to point out that the "extreme" acts that are getting watered down in the bible are in the Old Testement. That would be the book of the Jewish people and for the life of me, I've never understood why Christians follow it. I mean, if this author really wants to get back to taking the bible literally then we need to do a lot more "stonings" of a whole slew of people according to Leviticus...
    But most importantly, I'd like to point out that contrary to the belief of the ever clever Steven James (his anthem is probably, "Let's bring back the Burning Times!" the bible was written by men. It was translated recently by men (ok 1600's by a gay KIng James) and it is the word of man. Until someone comes down like the supposed story of the ten commandments and says, "Hey ya'll you really need to heed my BOOK" I'm not going to be silly enough to put my entire life and faith into a simple book.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Jesucrisco

      Well said.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Paul

      "Stoning" and worse is what we ALL deserve if we do evil, a simple statement of fact, but both the Old and New Testaments speak of how God desires mercy over the law, and how He wants to forgive rather than punish. Remember Hosea 6:6 and how Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery?

      February 26, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  4. DocD

    I agree. Stop cherry picking only the sweet parts of this book, and discover what a horrid tale of greed, lust, vengefulness, hatred, and pettiness is contained within. Those who "Believe in the bible" are those who've never read it.

    Grow up. The are no gods. There is no supernatural. There is no after-life. This is your one life. Deal with it.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Kristy

      Have you read it?

      I'm a Christian & I've read it many times. All the places where the Bible talks about "greed, lust, vengefulness, hatred, and pettiness" are teaching against such things. Saying that these are the lessons of the world not of God.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Yarah

      And how do you know this?

      February 26, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • sargeanton

      Wrong - the VAST majority of people who do not believe the Bible have never read it...because of people like you who pretend they have read it when they have only skimmed over it and missed the entire cohesive message.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • popeye47

      @sargeanton- I have read the bible thru countless times during 40 years of going to church and holding different positions in the church. I have finally decided after studying the bible and reading countless books, pro and con about the bible, that I was wrong. There are so many countless mistakes and tales that can't be believed. In one scripture Paul says females not to be heard in church. Another scriptures says let them be heard. Too many inconsistencies in the bible. Is god a god of love or hate and killing. Jesus was the direct opposite.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  5. 666*~SaTaN_RuLeZ~*666

    Who needs the filthy, disgusting bible anyhow?

    February 26, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Yarah

      I feel sorry for you.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  6. Will

    if someone today says they literally talk to god they are crazy but for some reason if it happens in a book thousands of years ago by relatively primitive people, you believe it

    February 26, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • pastmorm

      Totally agree Will..and why don't people sit back and thing about that? Or now, say you go to a shrink and say you beileve in ghosts...well you're mental, but you believe in god? That's still ok somehow...

      February 26, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • Mike

      The peyote was really good back then.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      you forgot to mention that it's important that it be written decades and centuries after it "happened", that's what makes it so believable LOL

      February 26, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  7. Common man

    He's got it right ! The Bible shows us the fallen state of man , that God loved us so much that He redeemed us, and that we can't live without Him. Both the books of Daniel and Revelations make it clear , you atheist should also consider Ezekiel 37-39 it light of our current headlines. The bottom line is Man needs God !

    February 26, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Yarah

      Well said sir.

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

      Perhaps man needs God and not a tax-exempt organized religion!

      February 26, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  8. Listener

    To the non-believers......go back to a time before we had microscopes. If someone had told you there were such a thing as atoms, bacteria, etc....would you have believed them? No, you would say they're crazy b/c there is no visual proof. God is no different. Do you believe in wind? Yes, you do. Can you see it? No, but you can feel it. God is no different. You will see God if you look hard enough. Do you have kids? How much do you love them??? Why? Because they are blood....you created them. God is no differnet. He loves you just as much. Would you be hurt if your son or daughter wanted nothing to do with you? You would be destroyed. God is no different.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • Mike

      Do you have kids? How much do you love them? Are you willing to kill them if your god orders it? No?

      Congratulations! You are more moral than anything in the bible! (Genesis 21-22 the sacrifice of Isaac).

      February 26, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      God(s) are a very different thing since they were created by Man and only exist in the mind of man. God is a psychological concept not a physical reality & as such is very different from the things you explained. If you want to say God(s) are real in the same sense as an emotion then I'd agree with you.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Dutch Small

      The profound difference between your feeble example and Science is that atoms were discovered through a methodical, observable, verifiable, repeatable, process. Additionally and a little off-point but still seems relevant, in the fifteenth century asserting that atoms existed would have gotten you killed by the church for heresy. Christianity is allergic to any inconvenient Truth. If there were a "God", we'd know it. You may go on believing the unbelievable if you want but trying to make an analogy between Truth and "Truth" really does nothing but comfort your fears of death and completely fails to explain away the total gap between what Christians are willing to accept blindly and the Truth.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • skeptrick

      No one "believes" in wind. We can measure wind. No one "believes" in atoms We can observe atoms. Wind and atoms have been scientifically proven. There is no scientific proof for any god, ever. By the way, which god do you believe in? There have been thousands of gods since humans walked the earth. Do you believe in Ra? How about Zeus? Egyptian kids, thousands of years ago, grew up learning about Ra, the sun god, just like you grew up learning about your god. What makes them wrong and you right?

      February 26, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • popeye47

      @Listener- You are only describing NATURE. Nature is what it is. You mentioned microscopes. I can see the germs and atoms in a microscopes. HAve you seen the face of god. The wind is no proof of god. The wind is the wind, nothing else. The water is water, nothing else.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  9. Phil

    Interesting article. This definitely reminded me of that desperate housewives episode when Bri is quoting the violent parts of the bible to justify being mean. Her reverend on the otherhand quoted the more pleasant aspects.
    Keep up the good work .

    February 26, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  10. BigJohn4USA

    CNN is correct the Bible is brutal indeed. PLEASE give an equally brutal description of the Koran. Lefty media would never do it.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • tired of it all

      Does anybody know which version of the bible is the most direct translation? I really liked this article and I'd like to read the version the "least sugarcoated" without having to learn an ancient language.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • tmb

      In response to "tired of it all" – King James version is considered to be the accurate to the original texts (Bible was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic). I would suggest you read the KJV along with a more modern language as some of the terminology is no longer used and it can be confusing. I highly recommend the "Life Application Bible" which has notes on the background of the writer of the book, notes on history, how it applies to life then and now, etc.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  11. JR

    2 Corinthians 4:4-6 NIV

    The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness, made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

    Who or What is your god of this age? Let your light shine. You must seek Him to know Him. If you haven't sought God with the best of intentions, felt His love and grace its not too late Not all Christians are great Christians we are human and fallen men/women. Those of us who call ourselves Christians are at various places in our walk and at different level of maturity. If you haven't tried you can't image how hard it is to try to overcome or refrain from stocking up the idols of this world. None of us are perfect but I believe it is our mission to try to rise above these worldly temptations.

    If you are looking for Christians to be perfect, you will never see it, because we aren't. We only try to do better and often times we fail.

    I love you regardless of your beliefs and I pray that one day you can feel the love, grace and comfort that only God can provide through his son Jesus Christ.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • A new start

      This is strange. Why would a loving God make blind the unbelievers? They need help more than the believers. This doesn't sound loving, and is part of why I became a non-believer.

      As a non-believer, I believe:

      1. Do no harm to others.
      2. Help those who are harmed.
      3. Help those who have harmed.

      This is based on "The Golden Rule."

      Life is truly simple. Love is for all to have and to give.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • tired of it all

      Understand the difference between the old testament and the new testament for a start. The old testament is a list of stories and a history of the hebrew people. Most of the stories have been passed via word of mouth for centuries before there was any written language. The new testament, on the other hand, was recorded directly by those people who knew Jesus Christ. Most of the "wrath" and "macabre" type stuff is in the old testament. I remember my first read through Genesis when I read about the supernatural beings being hybrids of aliens and people I called my minister and said "huh?" This was basically the answer.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • popeye47

      @JR- You can quote the bible all day but that proves nothing. First of all you have to prove the bible is the word of god, not just some tales and stories by men a long time ago. Muslims who read the Koran would say the same thing about their book. The Mormons say the same thing about their bible. Who is correct. No one can proof which is true or false. Just an opinion.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  12. mourningcoffee

    Reblogged this on mourningcoffee and commented:
    Commentary to be posted later.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  13. DJP

    This article is right on the mark. The Bibl ewas written to address the issues of every age and will continue to address the issues of every age. With all we humans have learned and changed our social interaction, our technology, etc. we still struggle with the same base issues. Through all we do as humans the fact we were created in God's image comes through in every age. We have but to love and have faith in Jesus Christ to begin to improve our lives yet we cannot do this easily. As humans we want things to be easy and given to us and there is one of many difficult contradictions we must overcome to enjoy this life to the fullest by have Jeus as our savior.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  14. jskal

    Much agreed with the author, however, there is such a dramatic difference between the OT (Torah) and the NT. The Gospel is all about love for one another and forgiveness, whereas the OT is full of stoning, chopping off hands, etc. Hmm, the Old Testament is ironically starting to sound like another popular religious book.

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

      Several religions are based on the chapters of the Bible, OT and/or NT. Religions attempt the explanation of ethics to control anarchy. Whether theological volunteerism, divine command, relativism, determinism, libertarianism, or utilitarianism, the reasoning of morality is a free will exercise. The error of recent religious fatalism is our destiny can be decided and chosen by us. Do the right thing and chose a future of peace and plenty. Empower to fulfill, not fetter. Wake up, humanity!

      February 26, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  15. Andrea

    I like this article and I think that it is really thought provoking. I agree with what the author has written and as much as sugarcoating helps us feel more comfortable- I don't think the Bible was written to help us to be comfy. We are meant to read it and be inspired to change. We are meant to read it and become more willing to follow the example that Jesus set for us. Life is raw just as it is described in the Bible.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  16. Chip

    Christianity would be great, if it werent for all the "Christians"... 🙂

    February 26, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • pastmorm

      Or actually practiced what Jesus taught...

      February 26, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • sempervmarine

      Well said. --The Muslim Taliban and the Christian Taliban, i.e., the religious nuts, are clear proof that God can make mistakes.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • vla815

      Awesome comment!

      February 26, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  17. Paul

    I dare say we are all flapping our gums and exercising our jaw muscles here in a totally useless fashion... all are nothing but opinions and theories. The story of Trinity will continue to baffle us... we cannot prove it not to be and we cannot prove it to be. It is nothing but theories and opinions.
    People will believe... people wont. Believing is based on faith .... non believing is based on opinions and rumors. When all the dust settles... some will believe... some wont.
    I believe it is our struggle with faith and belief that haunts us. Our battle in life is to get beyond this.... then, perhaps our petty lives make take on a source of nourishment and refineness that may stagger us all in our tracks.
    And that would be fun and exciting.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Paul, not believing is NOT based on opinions or rumors. Not believing is based on probability. It is infinitely unlikely that a God(s) exist in any form. Just like it is equally infinitely unlikely that a purple horse made of electromagnatism is floating in space between Murcury & Venus.

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

      right...whatever people want to beLIEve in their own brain is up to them.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • KidZoloft

      I feel it nessesary to point out that Faith demands no proof, if it did, Faith would be something else.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  18. sweetgabrown

    This was a well written opinoin and take on the bible. I appreciate how you simplified the truth. The truth is none of us knows what really went on back in those times. We can only hope that what was written and re written is the truth. And any time you have to re write someting more than once somebody is going to add their own truths in there and thats when it all becomes one big lie! seek the truth...

    February 26, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • popeye47

      @sweetgabrown- You hit the nail on the head concerning how sciptures were rewritten. There have been many factual cases where a church clerk(back in the dark ages) would change change some words when he was copying a book for someone. We have no idea what the first real true words of the new testament are. In the 300 to 400 years after Christ's death there was a battle to see which sect's belief won. There were at least 3 different strong beliefs at that time. Finally in Emperor Constantine time there was meeting at Nicea to establish guidelines and rules. These people are who determined what was going to be in the bible and what path in religion we would follow. Were they correct. My opinion is no. The church took over religion and ruled over mankind with a iron fist. If you didn't believe in what the church believed than you could be put to death or imprisoned. Not exactly what Christ taught, is it???

      February 26, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  19. scott

    Jesus love me this I know for the bible tells me so.........This is a children song. In the East they will kill you if you stop singing it. In the West you're just naive and silly if you let it keep you from growing up.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Paul

      I actually heard of a little girl who sang that very song to herself in a Muslim dominated country in the "East", and her Muslim teacher told her that she was evil and her classmates that she was a devil. She was harrased on all sides and told to shut-up or something "bad" would happen to her and her family. Luckily she was pulled out of the "school" before something did.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  20. Observer

    I particularly enjoy the account where the god "Yahweh" commands Abraham to kill his son and burn him as a pleasing human sacrifice to Yahweh, basically just to make Abraham squirm, and Abraham says "but of course I will sir, right away sir!" Such perfect morality, goodness kindness and love this god and the the biblical heroes exhibit. You could swap the character"Satan" into this tale instead of Yahweh, and it would be a perfectly consistent account of the way an evil being behaves. No wonder believers' moral compasses and human values are so askew – they've embraced bronze age mythology as reality, and they've accepted the resulting severe cognitive dissonance as some sort of higher state of being called "faith." It's insanity in action and it's inflicted upon children practically from birth in our culture..

    February 26, 2012 at 10:35 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.