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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. NVRWRNG

    This is great. Just the laugh I needed to start my day. I have an idea though. Instead of reading the Bible, pick up a science book. You're time would be better spend. At least you would ACTUALLY be learning something real.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Tony Leon

      Real like something exploded out of nowhere and created life? hahahahahahaha. My friend, I would better die thinking of God, than live a life where I pretend I only have to obey human rules. Your science doesn't know why we sleep, why we get tired, why we eat, and for your science, the human race is just "Lucky." hahahaha! Funnier is that Atheism, Satanism, Occultism, Humanism, and Oprahnism share the same view.
      Don't worry thou, according to the Bible, you have less that 125 years to find out who was right. if science is right, all you know will be forgotten and you are just a dead body. If I am right, you will suffer eternally for not repenting. Just sit, relax and wait 🙂

      February 26, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Chris

      Tony... science does know why we need to sleep and why we need to eat.

      You are free to believe what you want but please don't tell me you know what god [if (s)he indeed exists] wants because you read it in a book written and modified many times by humans.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Dennis

      So you're a god of gaps worshiper. Anything you don't understand must be worthy of worship.

      You're not a rung higher than the primitives that trembled before a solar eclipse.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • NVRWRNG

      Tony, my friend I don't even know what to say.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  2. across12

    Just that Steven James went a little extreme on it. They did replaced some words with mellow ones, but that's part of the evolutionary stage, with no evasion' purposes. In my opinion it's no big deal with that, the real wonder is when this book was written exactly and the validity of it. We always can take it as a source of inspiration left from people who cared to share their experience of a full life, with ups and downs, and the morals of it, but the book is not claimed as a harmless perusal, hence the speculation that emerged from that. Ultimately it comes down to whatever everyone's willing to believe, and this will is still free of charge in US. The only filter that applies is your mind, thus keep smart and take everything with a grain of salt.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  3. Gumball

    We don't need to edit God. We need to reject the whole pile of menstrual rags!

    February 26, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  4. JustTrustMe

    You are a Christian -–ONLY---because you weren't born in Thailand, Iran or Cambodia.
    Or you'd be preaching Allah or Buddha.
    Indoctrinated from a young age by location and culture.

    Undeniable.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • RiHughes

      There are Christians in all of those countries, just as there are Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists in the West.

      Reality

      February 26, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Chris

      People, for the most part, follow the religion they were born into without giving it any thought and without knowing details about their or others' religions.

      Fact.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  5. Carol

    WOW I find your article very interesting and very true! The bibles they are putting out are surgarcoated. It is a shame that so many people are so afraid to face the truth in todays world. I really enjoyed reading what you had to say and would like to know of anything else you may have to say. In the bible God loves us and only wants what is best for us. It is such a great feeling when you find Him and try to live your life acccording to His plan.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • mrrp25

      Warm and fuzzy?

      February 26, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  6. joe smith

    I continue to be amazed at all the mindless sheep who still believe that (1) the bible is the literal word of god and (2) that it's not full of contradictions, idiocies, and vile passages.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      I couldn't agree more. It really is sad. Maybe if they were to browse the following website, they'd clue in to why we dismiss their book....http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/says_about/index.htm

      February 26, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Aya

      Awesome Keith and Teddie! This morning was the first LIVE TV badorcast we've done. We've been airing over our internet Radio channel for close to a year but this TV badorcast was a venture in to new territory. We're estatic that you joined us for the badorcast!! God Bless you and please do join us again Bill Gillespie (CHBC Media Team)P.S I'll be sure to let Pastor Jim know that you were with us

      May 18, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  7. roger

    fable and lore

    February 26, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  8. Joe Moran

    Sure, pick on the Bible, but show ultimate respect to the Koran. Typical biased, CNN trash

    February 26, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Dennis

      What a perfect response. Ignore the truth.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • A_Man

      The truth: there is no God.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  9. XX

    Physics has demonstrated that energy can never be destroyed but only transforms. Therefore there is no point in history in which something came from nothing. So if the universe is beginningless, then there is no one to create it.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  10. Rolph

    There was no god until there was Moses
    Hint Hint

    February 26, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • RiHughes

      You do know that Abraham came before Moses right? Of course you do because you have read the Bible and don't just comment on things at random.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  11. Dennis

    You can even see this with fairy tales. Whether the wolf eats the grandmother or locks her in the closet.
    So it is true with all the mythologies.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  12. David

    Hey, I looked up the Isaiah 64:6 in my collection of modern English Bible versions, including the NIV, NKJV, NWT, Darby's, TNIV, GNB, RSV, Modern Language Bible, etc...The only version that translated it literally in its main text, instead of just "filthy rag" or "polluted garment (RSV)", was the New World Translation. The NWT reads "...our acts of righteousness are like a garment for periods of menstruation..." The Darby version says "filthy rags" in the main text of its translation, but includes a footnote that says "or like a menstruous garment."

    February 26, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  13. Believer

    You're right. The Bible is a book for everone who is screwed up. It should be read and studied.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  14. Jesucrisco

    My fellow Christians,

    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 11:35 am |
    • Tony Leon

      You need to pray a little. You are too obvious. May those demons let you sleep at night.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • JustTrustMe

      Funny...but inaccurate.
      Footballs are made of leather.

      But I like your style.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • awm

      I think he's doing an excellent job using humour to illustrate a point that you will NEVER get.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • shut_up

      How ignorant you muslims are! a football is made of cowhide . you muslims hate pork so much you think everything is made from pork. the wilson company makes the football from cowhides you muzzlem turd

      February 26, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  15. maryla

    Thank you Mr Stevens. Agree with you 100%. As a catholic I never did and never will read the Bible Leave this to the priest.I dont like when someone is preaching about whatever Bible says – not having a clue about it. And we dont know the true.Its only words.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Pumbaa

      maryla, you joke don't you? If you read the Bible you would find out what it actually says and find the contradictions that it contains.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  16. Jesucrisco

    My fellow Christians:

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

    February 26, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • Tony Leon

      If they are anything like you, their mouth will bring them death.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • PRISM 1234

      "If they are anything like you, their mouth will bring them death."
      Yeah, mouths of many pronounces death upon their own heads!
      Because what's in ones heart, comes out of his mouth!

      February 26, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • JustTrustMe

      Troy – He is just quoting what is written?

      Any educated answers or just snarky remarks?

      February 26, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      Excellent question. I asked God and he recommends death by a thousand bee stings for this grave offense. Also God would like to remind you to donate 10% of your wages to his church, not 9%,. God is the ultimate IRS agent.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Seriously...

      Tony, by claiming that ones mouth will bring them death by questioning ancient religious text that is obviously out of date is to shut down reasoning and the chance to expand knowledge. In order to learn, you must question. Please don't be a sheep.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • RiHughes

      You say the same thing in every post man! You are referencing Old Testament Jewish laws that the New testament abolished for exactly the reason you are suggesting, because they were irrelevant to worshipping God. PEOPLE were doing these things for their own aggrandizement and not for the reasons intended. Primarily purity and cleanliness. So no Christians do not stone or punish each other or their neighbors for not living up to Torah law. Come on man, read a book, understand your target, have you been that persecuted buy Christians that you are so filled with anger.

      Check this book out, you will like it I am sure. Its called the "Year of Living Biblically" about a guy who tries to live a year Exactly by Old Testament laws. Know your subject my friend.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  17. Kyle Burke

    I know this author is attempting to make a point that the bible was meant to show how fallen we are as people and God is still willing to forgive us but he went a little to far trying to prove his point. Claiming Jesus was a drunk is not accurate and dangerous. It's dangerous to say that because people will think that its okay to be a drunk and party all the time and God will unconditionally forgive you. The author is making claims he knows are crazy to get people excited, to get responses, and allow him to sell more books. Congratulation Steve for achieving your goal with this article but I'm afraid you'll pay a steep price for leading others astray.

    That's not what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 11:19. What Jesus is referring to is how people aren't getting God's message after God sent numerous prophets to get them to understand. In this passage Jesus is talking about John's role as being a messenger. John didn't drink and people said he was possessed by demon. Jesus did drink and they say he's a drunk. Neither case was true and the people weren't listening to God's message. That's the point of the passage of Matthew 11.

    I hope those that have little faith will see through the nonsense in this article. There are numerous erroneous statements in this article so it's clear what this author is trying to accomplish. Please don't fall for his tricks.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • Tony Leon

      He didn't say Jesus was a drunk. I think you need to read and pray a little so the demons of religion around you let you understand. He said Jesus was accused of being a drunk, which is true.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Outsideallthetime

      I think his argument was well made actually. The overarching theme is one of applying modern values and correctness to the Bible. Modern standards expose heavy drinking as consumption of 10 ounces of wine per day and binge drinking as consuming more than 25 ounces. So by contemporary standards almost everyone that lived in biblical times (if they were of means) was quite likely a drunk by that definition.
      And that type of "judgment in hindsight" illustrates his point exactly.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  18. liz48

    The Bible is the history book of the Jewish people. They today will admit their faults and how they were cleansed or chastened by God. What is often missing is that Adam and Eve the first man and woman, who rebelled against God's plan for perfection, were made in the image of God; with EQUAL power to exercise their own will. All human beings are descendants of their rebellion and their spirit that is satan; and and live with the constant choice to choose to follow their example or follow God.

    Jesus cleansed the earth of the dominion of Adam's spirit (satan) but humans still have to choose. When God had the Jews kill their enemies and wipe out their idols it was because there was no other way for them to live a life free of satan influence. They paid the price too when they messed up with worshiping idols, probably not knowing that it was submission to satan and all he stood for. Thousands of Jews died through plagues and war, when they were in disobedience to God. This is why the rules of God though they seem harsh and unrelenting, were necessary.

    Today the rules have not changed – the only difference is that Jesus paid the price for all submissions to satan of all humanity. We do not have to pay the price; He did. However in our choosing, we can still follow satan and will end up in destruction. This is why there is a cry to ask for forgiveness and choose Jesus, and to live a Holy life. Going to a "church" or claiming to be something does not work. satan is a slick legalist; he knows the real from the fake; and he will take his portion from you if you are faking it! Thus the messes among the so called "christians."

    February 26, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • joe smith

      Blah, blah, blah, blah. Do you really believe all the nonsense you spout?

      February 26, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • PRISM 1234

      @ blah, blah
      I find it absolutely great that it is not YOU or any other HUMAN who decides what sense and what nonsense is!
      BUT it is God, the creator of all that exists, whose wisdom surpasses anything our finite human mind can comprehend, it is HE WHO HAS SETS THE STANDARD. HE defines what is TRUTH and what is FALSE, what sense and what nonsense is!
      Apart from Him man is a lame, blind, desti'tute creature crawling in the dust of the earth, susceptible to every deception and scheme thrown at him by the enemy of his soul. If you think that's a nonsense, you ar already in the his grip and being lead by the nose by him, till he brings you to the end of your early life allotted to you, and is permitted by God to take you to that place of the damned called Hell, because you did not have the covering of righteousness of Christ God's Son who came and died so that you may live, BUT you rejected Him. Now, can you conclude whose fault it will be, the destination of your eternity?!

      February 26, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Aesop

      PRISM 1234,

      Aesop
      “An Ass put on a Lion's skin and went
      About the forest with much merriment,
      Scaring the foolish beasts by brooks and rocks,
      Till at last he tried to scare the Fox.
      But Reynard, hearing from beneath the mane
      That Raucous voice so petulant and vain,
      Remarked. O' Ass, I too would run away,
      But that I know your old familiar bray'.
      That's just the way with asses, just the way.”
      ― Aesop(620-560 BC)

      February 26, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      @ "aesop"
      Aesop taught the children lessons of life by entertaining them by stories involving animals.
      But Jesus Christ came into the world as a humble man, teaching as none ever thought, healing the sick and delivering those opressed by evil spirits. HE rose from the dead, ans no man ever did, because Death itself could not hold Him.
      He changed lives of most violent villains and gave newness of life to lowest sinners. And you can't discern the difference between Aesop and fables and Christ Jesus?
      You are truly to be pitied!

      February 26, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Sarah

      I'm sorry, my goal is to make our blog as user friendly as polsibse.If you click on Blog and scroll down to Monthly Newsletters the last two months are there.Just click and the newsletter comes up with all the sales & specialsIs there anything I can do to be more helpful?Thank you,Maria

      May 19, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  19. Charlie from the North

    I have held for a long time that the best way to decide how to behave is to observe what made Jesus mad and to listen to what he said we should do. Of all the people who ever lived Jesus is the only one who was also fully God. Of all the founders of any religion He has that distinction; ;fully God and fully human. That means that he has knowledge of human nature and knows God's purpose for us. Can you think of anything more important than emulating his behavior? So what made Jesus the angriest during his time on earth? The way the crowd chose Barabus over him to be freed? Nope, That his best freind Peter denied even knowing him? No. Te betrayal of Judas?, The Religious leaders and their pesky questions (that would have gotten me) No. What ticked of the almighty was the money changers at the temple. He actually flipped over their tables full of cash. So he was mad that a place of worship was being used to make a profit. Something to thing about huh.

    Well that's what made him mad. What does he want us to do? When asked which commandment was the most important he said "Love God and love your neighbor" Love. Pretty simple folks. Jesus knew that humans were not all that smart and we have horrible memories. He knew that there were a lot of rules in the old testament and ( sorry folks) some of them contradict each other, so he told us straight up the two biggies. Love God,love each other. If that does not fit with how you live your life, Good News, he is all about forgiveness as well.

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

      So Jesus is also God, and God gets angry, so Jesus gets angry. But surely anger is a low emotion. An emotion of an imperfect being, an animal emotion. So neither Jesus nor God are perfect. So if they are imperfect, how do we know what parts of what they tell us are true, and what parts are simply petulant outbursts?

      February 26, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  20. marye725

    As an active Christian – I can say – I loved this article and I may even answer one simple question – What was Jesus up to from the age of 12 to 30? Living like us? Learning what is right and wrong by living it – I'd love to know, but reading this article helps me understand and appreciate him even more.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:33 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.