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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. Rainer Braendlein

    @moebar

    At the day, when David sinned so terrible, he had failed to be contemplative in the morning. He lacked an encounter with God in prayer, who had given him the strength to be holy the whole day.

    I have the same faith like David. The problem is that according to the doctrine of St. Paul (Epistle to the Romans) 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 (the believer has mortified for the sin), 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. The believer faces a daily struggle between the Holy Spirit, which God gave him, and his body, who wants to continue 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 11:03 am |
  2. Yarah

    ISA 5:20 Woe to those who call evil good
    and good evil,
    who put darkness for light
    and light for darkness,
    who put bitter for sweet
    and sweet for bitter.

    ISA 5:21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
    and clever in their own sight.

    God Bless.

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

    My Take: Stop publishing the bible. Its the #1 best selling work of fiction in history and is contributing to the brainwashing of millions of innocent children.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • Your Friend

      Like I told our friend Don, the Bible is not fiction, it just simply is not. I really encourage all of you people who do not know anything about the Bible or religion in general (not just Christianity, but all religions) to take an accredited class by a scholar who knows and has done research on sacred religious text. You will truly be amazed at how much you learn. The Bible is history, history that is included in our children's textbooks, and history that even educated Athiests will not deny. You do not have to believe in God, but do not discredit a true work of history. Instead of being concerned with a text that brings hope to people who believe in it, you should focus on the media and how THAT is brainwashing our children. The music you listen to, the TV shows you watch, those are the things that are brainwashing our nation. It is extremely vital that people do their research and become educated in the history of the world and the world as it is today before they can make statements such as the one that you have made.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  4. Dobro

    Hold on, the bible was written for "real" people? Hm, something about the bible being written in Latin rather than vernacular languages tells me that it was written for "real rich" people with access to education.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • logicnothuff

      It's available in all languages now for you to read. Jesus loves you and tells you about His love for you in His Word, The Holy Bible.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  5. JPR-Artist

    People are people, the world over... no sect or religious faction, nor any group of people-types, is exempt from the atrocities of violence one against the other... People are broken.
    We can only fix ourselves??? no, for even then I do the very thing I don't want to do, and don't do the think I intend to do.
    Hopeless??? No, there is a way..........it must be sought with every fiber of being...
    People are just people, NOT GOD.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  6. Bumble Stiltkens

    Well anyway I am going to go get chased off by some grade school teachers, for stating the obvious flawwing flows of opinion's one concerning science of psychology, and repeated systematic semantics of one over math found in faculty and con grease . If the one 99.999...% of published and verbally presented works are not your opinion then well sure I believe you Cnn just like believe every other US government funded private corporate "independent" publishing Universality and the Canadians that support them for the learned ability to never see 2+2 for four is valued as educated. Every origination of cause backed by the elite educated idea 2+2 never equaled 4,.-{ I believe brothers &! sisters, 99.999...%cannot add. Actions and consequences maybe? Nay they say again, I must be wrong it got me removed from preschool, and my last Econ Class.-) yay I know err sumin this is no fun.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  7. Jesucrisco

    I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

    February 26, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  8. Yarah

    ISA 5:20 Woe to those who call evil good
    and good evil,
    who put darkness for light
    and light for darkness,
    who put bitter for sweet
    and sweet for bitter.

    ISA 5:21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
    and clever in their own sight.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  9. Jesucrisco

    Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden and punishable by death according to Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

    February 26, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • jungerding

      By having to watch 48 hours of Howard the Duck!

      February 26, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  10. Butters

    What gave christianity or christos it's boost from the start is giving Roman slaves and women the same equality .
    Paul or Saul was someone with foresight . The apsotles did not want gentiles in their little cult . Paul changed that.
    At that time era where only 3% of the population could read and write and those who could were the leaders .
    People had no choice but to follow their leaders .
    2000 yrs ago, 3% of population could read and write so I doubt there was very much deep thought going on about
    life and meaning of . They were just looking for their next meal and giving thanks to their God .

    February 26, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  11. Jesucrisco

    Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

    February 26, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  12. Tim

    Thank you for your hatred of Christ and the bible. It has been said people vote not because they are for something -but against something. If you demonstrate being against something like sacred tradition, values, and goodness then people will leave the church. Thank you very much at giving us that example. It is truly a blessing for your hatred and disdain for my religion. Bless each and everyone of you and thank you.

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

    We are not obedient because we are blind, we are obedient because we can see.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  14. Don

    The bible is no more than any other myth, fable or moral story, it is fiction, made up by man but claimed to be from a divine source. It is from the dark ages when these types of fiction were used to control and keep order in a group of uncivilized beings. The trouble is the less educated and ignorant amongst us have taken them up as literal and real and try and ram them down the throats of anyone else who is intelligent and enlightened enough to see them for what they are, mere stories, nothing more. The truly sad part is that so many wars are started and people killed in the name of something they do not understand and that is not real. When you look back through history more people have been killed in the name of god than for any other reason. Even the catholic church has hands dripping in blood as they stand forth and try and pretend they are the moral way. When will the ignorant among us realize these are nothing more than instruments to control and offer no safety nor salvation in any manner. They are merely a means for a person or small group of individuals to control a tribe or group of people and to give those in control authority over the masses and they are NOT one thing more than an instrument of man to control his fellow men.

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

      Well spoken.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Your Friend

      @Don For you to claim that people who believe in scripture are ignorant, in fact makes you ignorant. There have been several dark ages in many different places all over the world throughout history. The Canon (original written text of the Old and New Testament) is said to have been put together in 400 B.C (the Tanakh, or Jewish scripture) and 200 A.D. Most of the dark ages that you are referring to were in Europe, the canon was not written in Europe. I really think that you should go back to school and take a few classes about religious literature and text and really understand the history of the people in that area of the world before and during the time of Christ. The Bible is not fiction, these people are in our history books, taught in higher education all over the world. I take it that you may not have had the opportunity to educate yourself on this matter, considering you seem to know nothing about it. You do not have to believe in God, or that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, however, you cannot deny the existence of Jesus Christ and the realness of the Bible. The Bible is full of real history that actually happened, whether you like it or not. Jesus Christ was an actual, living, breathing man, whether you believe in him as God or not. I realize that bitter people of this world like to come up with excuses for why they don't believe in God, but saying the Bible is fiction is just not true at all. Has the Bible been changed by Kings and their advisaries to please themselves and to control the masses by THEIR OWN words? Yes. Was it originally written to control people? No. Please do some research and sit in a classroom before you make false accusations.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  15. Jesucrisco

    I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

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

      No you are morally controlled to take your own life and rid humanity of your ignorance.

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

      Anyone who has studied the bible knows that the Old Testament ceremonial law has passed away under the new covenant.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • pastmorm

      Don, you're the typical, evil christian that needs to be educated. You're threatening Jesucrisco because you don't like that he's pointing out what your bible says? Hypocrite!

      February 26, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Max Khan

      I will have to find anti-laughing pill. Keep it coming!

      February 26, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  16. ComeOnMan9

    I have seen so many people carry and quote from the bible like a professional and wont lift a simple finger to help people around them in need. Live it, don't just read it.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  17. Johnnnn

    Yes and how quickly the right-wing dismisses the fact that Jesus himself called out old Jewish rabbis for their intransigence and out-dated laws (i.e saving a life not permitted on the sabbath)...So now we have this whole army of Leviticusians who want to believe that his archaic 'death to gays" is more relevant than Jesus's "love one another"....

    February 26, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  18. Jesucrisco

    Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

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

      You can according to Leviticus...Enjoy!

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

      You can own Canadians as well as fellow Americans, I would suggest you take ownership of all the fools in your churhc including the pastor, priet or whatever, it is about time they had to do some real work rather than destroy someones mind with guilt just so they will never have to get their hands dirty doing real work.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  19. ejhowe

    When you take things out of the Bible it no longer represents the FULL TRUTH, Half stories "Half Truths" are lies!!!

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

      And when you take anything out of a fairy tale or fable or myth it is nothing more than a fictional story so it gives you no authority nor truth in any manner, it is FALSE nothing but and NOTHING more.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  20. Arthur Paliden

    If the same standards were applied to the Bible as every other book it would never be permitted on the library shelves of our schools.

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

      They don't have Bibles in public schools!!!!!!!!

      February 26, 2012 at 11:01 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.