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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. Steven

    For the most unadulterated translation of the bible one must turn to the "New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures" rendered from the origional languages by the New World Bible Translation Committee and published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. and International Bible Students Association.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • James

      Very adulterated, no thank you very much. Mangled to the point that it contradicts itself. No bueno for a bible!

      February 26, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  2. Gracedandbroken

    "For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed. But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done in God." John 3:16-21

    February 26, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  3. Jesucrisco

    I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness - Lev. 15:19-24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offence.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • pastmorm

      You RULE Jesucrisco!!!! Most people that love the bible have never read it; thank you for pointing out the horrific things that it represents!!!

      February 26, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • James

      Your own wife should be telling you. With other women, you might just try staying out of their beds as a general precaution. Presumably women that care about the well-being of others will likewise take steps to not get their bodily fluids on you. Of course, if you are associating with the type of woman that don't care about that sort of thing, perhaps regularly bathing and washing your clothing would be a good precaution.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  4. Jesucrisco

    I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

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

      Fair market value. Of course, if you're planning to do that, it would require going back to the society that those civil laws were designed for, so I can only assume that you have invented time travel. I also must assume you're planning to follow the rest of the civil laws pertaining to it, including the limited duration, right? What I am confused about is why, as you have invented time travel, you would be in such a desperate financial condition that you would need to take advantage of short-term voluntary slavery to bail yourself out...

      February 26, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  5. Jesucrisco

    When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord - Lev. 1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

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

      Backwards.. It's us humans that seem to like the smell of hamburgers. God likes the smell of success (of Jesus' mission). The sacrifice is a sweet aroma for the same reason the incense is a sweet aroma. It's the smell of salvation, so to speak, and that's something God is into.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  6. Dennis Pence

    Mr. James – You are correct – about the Old Testament. God sent His Son (jesus Christ) for a reason – to offer a sacrifice once and for all for our sins – You may, or may not believe that – but much like we will take any effort to save our children – so does He. Observer on this site mentions religion as "insanity" – to live our lives with out moral principles and ethics (which is what we are now doing) is insanity. If you didn't believe in God, Jesus Christ or the New Testament – the Bible is still an excellent "moral compass" to follow – without a moral compass – we are free to go "sailing offf on any old wind that blows" – and there are many of them blowing these days. I have always felt that "if you have faith "no explanation is necessary" – if you don't have faith – No explanation (at least an acceptable on to many) is not possible". The sad part of this relates to Hitler's philosophy – If yoiu tell someone something long enough and enough times – it becomes acceptable to them – whether is is moral or ethical – they will embrace it as "their" morals and ethics" – that deceit is why evil is so prevalent in our world today.

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

      Dennis,,

      Your point about Hitler's point also applies to religion tell it, push it, print it, force it long enough it becomes real or normal and that deceit is why it is so prevalent today (good or evil or Both as the Bible is)

      Your Wrote "Hitler's philosophy – If you tell someone something long enough and enough times – it becomes acceptable to them – whether is is moral or ethical – they will embrace it as "their" morals and ethics" – that deceit is why evil is so prevalent in our world today."

      February 26, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  7. Jesucrisco

    The Bible says that you can sell your daughter into slavery if you have one too many.

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

      It says you must kill a man if he marries his brothers wife...oh and you have to kill the wife too...

      February 26, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  8. mike

    Jesus was not a drunk or a glutton, sorry but i have to correct you sir, you have taken that verse out of context. Read the first couple verses.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  9. Jesucrisco

    The bible recommends that Christians stone people who eat pork or shave their side burns.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  10. beth

    Amen to your article. What a well written article and spot on. Praise God that there are people like you willing to tell it like it is. Nothing opinion about it – the Bible is absolute truth. May He continue to bless you!

    February 26, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  11. TJRii

    A few gems on human behavior wrapped in a load of fiction – the product of men and men alone.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Dude

      Just like religion.....

      February 26, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  12. David

    Jesus Christ never existed. He's just like the Easter bunny, or Santa Claus, or Socrates - no wait!

    February 26, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • starwhite

      David, Just because you say it does not make it so. One day you will see God and repent.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  13. Joe

    More importantly, can we stop telling people that there is some magical god controlling their lives? Christianity is a joke for stupid people to follow.

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

      Joe one day you will face your creator, God the father face to face, then you will be sorry.

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

      I admit, I can't sit here and tell you what to think or believe. But I do think that to "believe" in anything (bible or not) we first need to set aside our own illusions of our own superiority and intelligence. The very first mistake us humans do is to assume that we are somehow smarter than what we are looking at...

      February 26, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • logicnothuff

      The Holy Bible is absolute truth; it is God's Word, written by God through the hands of the prophets. There are 66 books written by 40 authors, woven into an incredibly complex book which perfectly corroborates itself, accomplished over a period of about 3000 years of writing. Since it is God's Word, and God is the author of all science and math and biology and nuclear physics and astrophysics, it gets it perfectly right. Such as, men say earth is billions of years old but Saturn's rings are expanding and dissipating at such a pace that Saturn's creation matches that of the young earth as specified by the Bible. Man said kill the baby when it's in the womb, but Bible says God knows us when we are in the womb, and now we see that the heart is beating at about a week and ultrasound shows fetuses pre-abortion writhing in pain and running to the other side to get away from the abortion doctors instruments of death. Bible is 100% true.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • Name*DJ

      The Bible was never intended to be the only source of salvation. It is a collection of sacred writings inspiried by the Holy Spirit, and assembled by the original church of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church. The Bible along with when used with the sacred traditions and teachings of the church what guides us to salvation. Nothing about the Church or Bible is perfect, other than God's love for us through the sacrafice of His Beloved Son, and the Holy Spirit.

      How sad that you neither care nor believe it to be true.

      I can only hope and pray for you to be enlighted by the Spirit of God, as I have been so blessed to come to understand. As for me my own fate is not assured, but unless you come to believe before you leave this world, your fate is sealed.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  14. Jesucrisco

    The bible says that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

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

      No it doesn't.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  15. Jerry

    I DARE YOU TO SAY THIS ABOUT THE KORAN.

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

      Say what about it? That it's just as full of hate, evil, and nonsense as the Xtian Bible? It is. And your point?

      February 26, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  16. nolimits3333

    Other than the words of Jesus, the Bible is bs.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  17. Gregory

    That was fun.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  18. Apacheone

    What is with you people who have such persecution complexes. I read several posters say stuff like go CNN write more bad stuff about Christians but Muslims kill people (this incident and that incident) but no mention of that. WELL when you only look for things that validate your persecution you only see those things that do so and you miss the things that make what you want to validate look stupid.

    Example: Latest attack on Nigerian church kills 4 http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/26/world/africa/nigeria-church-bombings/index.html?hpt=hp_t3

    So there is your Muslims are bad and kill people from CNN

    February 26, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  19. RW2U

    So, is this hate speach, or is the truth too hard to hear?

    February 26, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  20. Steve

    Good article, as far as it goes. Too bad the author didn't deal with the big picture (aside from god's non-eistence...) – This "raw" god is a mass murderer. How many children (including the 'sinless' unborn) did he murder in the flood? The acceptance and regulation of the slave trade? The murder of innocent children during Passover? The examples of his barbarity are endless.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:49 am |
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About this blog

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.