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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. Ivan

    So, how soon we will see similar article on Koran? My guess is never.

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

    The Bible is bunk. If we followed it literally, we'd look like Afghanistan.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • 21k

      you won't have long to wait. after santorum gets in due to poor turnout by democratic voters, we'll be in the same boat, only a different flavor.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Steve

      Pointing out all of the random stuff in Leviticus without any apparent understanding of the religion or the context does not make you smart, or a hero.

      It makes you an ignorant jerk. Sorry.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • sargeanton

      You're deluded. If we followed the New Testament (the literal "end" of the Old Testament), we'd look like heaven on earth. It is where the New Testament is NOT heeded that Afghanistan looks like Afghanistan.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • 21k

      lighten-up stevie-boy! you have to admit his comments are entertaining. that is, IF you are true to yourself.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • 21k

      so sarge, let's hear your plan to eliminate all the non-xtians in afg so we can make it look like heaven.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Steve

      If they were jokes and not verbal drive-by shootings, I might be entertained. I've quoted some of those passages myself and gotten some laughs. But he's not joking, he's just being a jerk.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  3. a disgrace

    the ridiculous bible is the book that every copy should have been burned!

    February 26, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • sargeanton

      Thank you for the well-thought-out input, Adolph.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  4. Lol religion

    Seems like this article, and a lot of ignorant commenters, are forgetting that the Bible is a work of fiction.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • Mike

      You're an idiot.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • Lol religion

      It would appear that you're the idiot. Seems I'm better educated than you. 🙂

      February 26, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  5. Vanderwolff

    Regarding the article's header painting: the book of Judith is non-canonical; the point the author is conveying might be better served with an illustration depicting a scene from true scriptural canon, i.e. Jael beheading Sisera (Judges 4: 17-24), from which the Judith myth is derived.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  6. Alex

    This article is an effective reminder to me that the religion that people call "Christianity" is nothing like what is depicted in the Bible. The behavior and beliefs of even the most revered and "holy" characters in the Bible have more in common with Hugh Hefner than Rick Santorum.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  7. Steve

    I thought this was a great article. I'm not Christian, but I find it detestable how people want to make Jesus into what they want, rather than what he was.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  8. Sue

    The Bible is scary. 😦

    February 26, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • 21k

      the bible itself is just a book of made up stories. the people who use it to gain power in society are the scary part.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • sargeanton

      So is God...get used to it. The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. Those who do NOT fear the ONE who made them are fools indeed. Jesus said: ...FEAR the one who has the power to cast you into hell.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • tekateka

      The core moral value of the Bible is Love... everything else is invented, i.e. heaven, hell, angels, blah blah blah

      February 26, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • 21k

      i'm thinking sarge here lives in a compound somewhere, dresses like a puritan in black hat, cloak, beats his wife and kids if they don't follow his exact orders.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  9. pcooper

    Thank you for a very interesting read. I appreciate being informed on new information.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  10. Rainer Braendlein

    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 11:10 am |
  11. martog

    Ah yes, another morning where millions of people get together out of self-righteousness and waste mass amounts of resources, and time, somehow convinced they are doing something good in the world. ....Hhmmmm? It would be amazing if someday we all chose ONE DAY out of the week to get together and actually do something beneficial for mankind, and the earth. Just think of what we may accomplish if religion was NOT the reason for these gatherings........

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

      That is a cool plan but you will never get Christians to participate in that.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • RiHughes

      Ya, the Churh doesn't feed hungry kids, build water purifying stations, treat disease, provide shelter and food to the homeless, etc.etc. They just sit in church and collect gold by the handful. Just roll around in it like Scrooge McDuck. How about we don't lump all Christians together in one big pot. There are a lot of people out in the world right now doing good things for men and women regardless of their religion. What have you done today?

      February 26, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • martog

      @RiHughes....yea 'the church' does so many wonderful things.....molest boys, denegrate women, the dark ages, the crusades, religious wars, intolerance, the vatican is the RICHEST city on the planet. Doesn't look like the POPE is too eager to contribute to charity......And what have you done today? Seems like you're sitting in front of a computer rather than out doing 'good works'. Hmm,,,,,,,not practicing what you preach?(pun intended)

      February 26, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • R

      These religious gatherings are very beneficial. They are not wasted time or resources. Do you not gather with friends and enjoy their company and take part in a common goal or activity? Why be so negative toward people that do the same thing? Tolerance and acceptance are 2 way streets ... respect should be universal.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • martog

      @R...no one automatically 'deserves' respect. Common courtesy, yes, respect no. Respect is something you earn, it is NOT given. I'd 'respect' your beliefs a lot easier if you just kept them to yourself.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  12. Terri

    Very good article and very true. People still lie in the name of God today, spread gossip, and fear monger. Jesus was the prince of peace. It's no wonder that so many people followed him to try to escape the chaos of a brutal government. That's one of the main reasons I won't vote for anyone who's too ultra-conservative. I don't want our modern day politicians sending America to hell because most people are not as pious and rich as they are.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  13. Real Jew

    On the button

    February 26, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • 21k

      hey, wait a minute! who says you are qualified to comment on xtianity? actually roman catholicism, since the pope himself has written that catholics are the only ones getting into heaven, because while other faiths are nice, they all have fatal flaws. and you call your self real, but which version are you? there are so many that all say they are the one true version of judaism.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  14. Margarita1964

    I agree, good article in that it addresses some the inaccuracies of the Bible...unfortunately, the author forgot to mention that the Bible was not written by God, but by man....and again edited by man to control the masses. Considering that most of the population of that time was illiterate, a good raw story with a moral slant would have been highly entertaining. Let's stop pretending God had anything to do with this story.....

    February 26, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  15. MapsofWorld.com

    We're having a User Poll on our website about – Should Religion Be Separate From State. Along with In-depth review & Infographic on the subject, the ongoing discussion is quite stimulating. The Religious State Vs Secular State Debate, What's your vote? http://www.mapsofworld.com/poll/

    February 26, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Jesucrisco

      Combining church and state has always corrupted both.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Don

      Fiction should never be mixed with reality so your poll is pointless

      February 26, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • J in FL

      Definitely separate!! Government is to represent all the people and church represents that particular person's religion. Too many different religions to make it part of the government. If you want religion, go to church, but leave it out of government.

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

    My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? - Lev.24:10-16. Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

    February 26, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • Jesucrisco

      Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • logicnothuff

      The New Testament scripture is called "New" because it is the New Covenant which God gives us. Read the New Testament to get the whole picture.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • KeithTexas

      Thank you for showing those that don't know how ridicules Abrahamic Religion can be. What amazes me is that a collection of Bronze age writings by some middle Eastern Goat Herders have caused centuries of death and destruction and people still defend it as a reasonable way to live.

      You can't cure stupid.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • sargeanton

      If you knew anything, you'd be dangerous. Only the "laws" repeated in the New Testament are binding. The Old Testament laws served a purpose for their time, but are no longer relative. Jesus Christ was the "end" and "fulfillment" of Old Testament law. Today, since Christ, we live under grace...not law.

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

      Regardless of which so called testament you read they are both nothing but fables and myths so each is definitely usable for the most good, toilet paper

      February 26, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Craig

      why didn't you just post the youtube link to the "west wing" scene you stole that from?
      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1-ip47WYWc&w=640&h=390]

      February 26, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  17. sargeanton

    True Christians already know these things - it is the false, the skeptical, the humanists, and those who have never read the Bible who may need to know these facts. I only take issue with "Jesus partied". Having lunch, dinner, or spending time with riff raff. outcasts, sinners, and the downtrodden can hardly be translated as "partying." I have, on occasion, mingled with skid row inhabitants in order to help, financially support, provide a meal and uplift them. I never "partied" with them.

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

      If I ever run across a 'True' christian as you call them I will let them know what you said, however in America there is NOT ONE true christian, in this country all you have are hypocrites trying to pretend to be christians

      February 26, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • Todd Beaucoudray

      That's BS! The far majority of self-claimed Christians know very little of what is in the Bible. Hence why they use common expressions they think is in the Bible, but truly aren't, e.g., God helps those who help themselves. Not to mention the gross misunderstanding of the concepts of heaven and hell. The Bible never mentions either. Before you quote your English translation, I implore you to find out which proper nouns Jesus actually used that have been translated to "Hell," for none of them are places of eternal torment.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  18. 21k

    i think more xtians need to do a cost-benefit analysis on their faith, in this free-market world that their leaders espouse. every day, we compare price versus performance of dish detergent, cars, phone service. but they never compare the amount of time and money they sink into god compared to his performance. he didn't stop hitler, the tsunami, 911, cancer, even with all the prayers and donations made. i say it's time for a new market leader. god's just not getting the job done.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • nobody

      proof this infinitely benevolent god described by the western holy texts doesn't exist:

      innocent children with painful/deadly cancer.

      there is absolutely nothing these morons can say to me that will convince me that an infinitely good god would make that happen. the standard answer christians provide is "god works in mysterious ways". children with cancer isn't a mystery. it's a *horrible* thing. period. no part of that is confusing or mysterious.

      so a god that *makes* something horrible happen or at the very least has the power to stop it from happening in the first place and *chooses* not to cannot be infinitely good. i don't need some moron pastor/priest/cleric/rabbi to explain it to me. it's horrible....and if you (a mere mortal that arguably cannot be held to the same perfect standards as the creator of the universe) had the power to stop it and chose not to -> that makes you horrible person/creator.

      an infinitely good god simply does not exist. doesn't require a genius IQ and loads of thought. fairly straight forward logic.
      that means one of two things: god ain't so good or god doesn't exist. take your pick.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  19. Johnnnn

    Son of man, thou dwellest in the midst of a provoking house: who have eyes to see, and see not: and ears to hear, and hear not: for they are a provoking house. I think Santorum counts as a provocateur and he certainly has eyes but cannot see 6 inches in front of himself

    February 26, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  20. unknown

    bible: what a load of crap. nt and off course ot.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • A Place That Awaits You

      Unknown, assuming you are even coherent enough to understand, the crap that you speak of is what awaits those who do not believe. And not only is it crap-filled but totally devoid of light. But if that be your Chosen destination, you have free will to pursue your journey there and put it to the test. But be fully ready to confront the consequences.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:39 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.