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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. SHAIARRA

    “If tyranny and oppression come to this land it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.”
    ― James Madison

    “The problem with writing about religion is that you run the risk of offending sincerely religious people, and then they come after you with machetes.”

    Dave Barry quotes

    February 26, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  2. Mom of 4

    I find it interesting how many non-Christians think that they know about the Bible and how it came to be and who wrote it and what it really means. That's like having the manager of a McDonald's interpret the NASA space shuttle manual.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Godfrey

      What an idiotic comparison. In general, in the U.S. at least, non-believers have arrived at their faith in spite of a vast amount of cultural resistance. I personally have studied the Bible and its origins much, much, MUCH more than any Christian I know.

      It's more like having a NASA engineer flip burgers at McDonalds. He could do it with his eyes closed.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Godfrey

      "Faith" was supposed to be in quotation marks.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  3. faith

    God..Forgive them ...for they know not what they do.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Orso

      I forgive them my son, I forgive them.
      You on the other hand, I'm not so sure.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • tmb

      beautiful response to all the hatred expressed

      February 26, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  4. ShacCooper

    For the most part, I was in agreement with this article until your interpretation "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)." That is a gross and misleading interpretation of Matthew 11:19, especially misleading to anyone reading this article who doesn't understand the context of the passage. Jesus was explaining how people of that time embraced religion but rejected God, by rejecting every true prophet ever sent to them. In the scripture before Jesus explains that John, (the prophet/baptist), whom God sent, lived ascetic life, always fasting, lips never touching wine, living uncomfortably (as far as materially), but the people of that time said that he was possessed by a demon. Then, in the scripture in reference, Jesus goes on to explain how he has not placed restrictions on his (Jesus) life, such as not enjoying foods or not ever drinking or being exiled from sinners. But, because Jesus lived this way, the religious people of that time called him a drunk and a friend of sinners. Now, look at the context. Jesus first pointed out how strict John lived, but they said he had demons. Obviously, Jesus is denying that John had demons, and he is also denying that he was a drunk and friends to sinners in the way that they are accusing him of being. As you are doing in your blog, Jesus is explaining how the religious people of his time was taking his actions out of context in order to reject God's prophet. These religious people were often looking to discredit Jesus. Therefore, just by seeing him drink or being in the midst of sinners on one occasion was enough to make these accusation. When in fact, Jesus did not live in excess of anything. He did not party so much, but that is what they were accusing him of doing. When Jesus was around sinners, He was influencing them. There is a difference. That's why your interpretation is gross and out of context. The sinners were not influencing Him. They were the ones He came to reach, and often times they were the only ones who would listen. Moreover, you have to really understand how religious these people were at the time to understand the context. Just look to some of these very religious Muslim countries to understand the context of this passage. Just like in these Muslim countries a person who does anything in a Western manner are attacked with exaggerated accusations, Jesus and all the other prophets were also. Jesus did come across as pietistic and He was not accused of being a drunkard because He "partied so much," but He was accused of being a drunkard because they were jealous of Him and wanted to discredit Him.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  5. The Purpose

    The purpose in mankind's existence is for us to be tested in many ways. God gave each and every person free will to choose whether to do good or to do bad. But there are consequences to their actions due to the Universal Law of Cause and Effect. Realizing the sins of mankind throughout the ages, as discussed in the Old and New Testaments, is designed to help make us become Better People and to wake-up fully to embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus Is All About LOVE. But where there is love hate is it's negative counterpart which must be also discussed so that the difference may be fully brought out brutal as it may be. When we pass on from this life unto the next in spirit we will be held accountable for every thought, feeling, deed, and action that transpired in this life. Those who do not believe this are certainly most welcome to put it to the test. But the fact remains that only a fool with a very small and limited mind would do bad to others while having the opportunity to do good and remain in God's grace.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Eric G

      What about the "divine plan"?

      February 26, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  6. SHAIARRA

    “I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”

    ― James Madison

    “In no instance have . . . the churches been guardians of the liberties of the people.”
    faery13

    James Madison quote

    February 26, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Eric G

      "Our Zingers and Donut Gems are fine enough to serve at the White House."
      -Dolly Madison

      February 26, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  7. SHAIARRA

    “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.”

    ― James Madison

    Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.”

    ― James Madison

    February 26, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • LiberalNN

      So you like James Madison eh?

      February 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  8. roger

    ha- the late alan watts spoke of an uncle who believed everything in the bible was true including the marginal notes until he ran across what he considered a vulgar word – and then he was through with it. The book didn't descend with the angel in 1611 but was written over a period of time. Though it is referred to as the word of god, one has yet to bear a consensus that it was dictated by god himself. The text is said to be "inspired" – and there is a big difference between inspiration and dictation. Inspiration is like feeling you love someone, but look at the products of inspiration depicted in the movie Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind and we find a sculptor rendering a different version of the same inspiration as a painter.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  9. The Beagle

    The author suggests that I "let God be the author of my new life." I was an evangelical Christian for 40 years. I finally realized that the God of the Bible is a monster, and I ran away screaming.

    See, for example, "Are God's Ways Higher than Our Ways?" here: http://pathofthebeagle.com/2011/10/30/biblical-slavery-are-gods-ways-higher-than-our-ways/

    I also invite you to read "Did God Command Slavery, or Merely Tolerate It?" here: http://pathofthebeagle.com/2011/09/21/did-god-command-slavery-or-merely-tolerate-it/

    February 26, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Wes

      Kudos... I only wish children could run from their unasked for indoctrination. Society is facing huge and tragic consequences in the future from overpopulation, religions (spawned by all ministers, priests, and rabbis) are stifling any attempt to correct this by deafening the reasoning powers of their flocks.

      Tough questions are ahead... can we legalize the implementation of prevention of parents indoctrinating their youth with harmful religion? I feel personally we need much research and quickly into the harms of indoctrination. After all, we have laws against abusing children and slavery. Why can't we have laws against indoctrination?

      Yes, we will still have greed, disease, and other human ills... but we can remove the blanket of bronze aged brainwashing that prevents humanity from having a chance at future survival. The process of discovery we call science has brought us out of the dark ages and into a world of amazing comfort and discoveries. Surely... through this process we can also cure the ills of greed and genetic defects.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • IrishHeart

      In response to The Beagle: I agree with what you have said. Organized religion scares me and I am grateful my parents provided resources for me to find my own answers. What concerns me, however,is I have a beagle who I affectionally call "The Beagle", and I have always thought he was wise beyond his years. Now that I realize he is much smarter than I even knew, I will have to start monitoring his internet access.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • mrrp25

      Put your shoes on and head to the library.Look for DAWKINS ,'The god delusion" and fill your boots!!

      February 26, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  10. heartofawanderlust5

    Reblogged this on heartofawanderlust.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  11. Orso

    Very nicely written article. I only disagree with one part; the Bible was not written by God, it was written by humans. If God is omnipotent, then he does not need to write a book, he would have embeded the knowledge and will to follow in our DNA. The Bible is a good book for those that need a little more help and guidance, so are all other religious books. They all serve a purpose, but unfortunately after so many erroneous interpretations, absurd filters, and distorted versions, they all can also be used for nefarious purposes. (Crusades, Taliban, etc)

    February 26, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  12. Daydreamer

    Yes, God wants us to party. And so I shall.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  13. Andy

    Numbers 31 says genocide is okay. Stop sugarcoating it!

    February 26, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Godfrey

      Genocide is the least of it – in it, God also orders Moses and his men to keep the little girls (virgins) "for themselves".

      What a sick, sad religion.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • The Beagle

      Not only does it say genocide is OK, but when Moses distributed 32,000 virgins as the plunder of war, Numbers 31 says (4 times!) that Moses did as God commanded. See my blog post that ends with a discussion of Numbers 31 here: http://pathofthebeagle.com/2011/10/07/was-slavery-gods-righteous-judgment/

      February 26, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  14. The Beagle

    As long as we're removing the sugar coating, how about 'fessing up to the abominable deeds of God himself in the Bible? For example, check out my blog series on biblical slavery, introduced here: http://pathofthebeagle.com/2011/09/10/invitation-to-a-dialog-on-biblical-slavery/

    As for wonderful Jesus, why not check out what he said about slavery, here? http://pathofthebeagle.com/2011/10/20/what-did-jesus-say-about-slavery/

    Christian, I invite you to comment on those posts.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  15. Scott

    CNN stop cowardness, dare the cnn post something like this about Quraan and say "stop Sugarcoating Quraan"?, certainly not because they are scared to anger moslems, they know if they did they will receive death threats and many riots will be all over the world to buoycut cnn. So why do you cowards do it to christians?, just because you are sure and know how peaceful are the christians and they will never threaten who insult them but instead pray for them and love them. what a contradiction you accuse the bible of being brutal and you know for certain that those who follow the bible will never hurt you or even raise their voices in anger like moslems.This is nothing more than cowardness. Second why this now following the Quran burning incident, is just to appease moslems?? CNN you have to review your policy and apologize to christians like the President of this country apologized to moslems.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • no name

      Remember when Yoko Ono ripped up a bible on stage? There weren't any riots or murders over it.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Eric G

      Islam is just as valid and based in just as much fact as Christianity. None.

      There ya go. Happy now?

      February 26, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Orso

      You missed the part where it says "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steven James."
      CNN contributors have posted opinions about what's wrong with the Quran before, search it.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • starwhite

      CNN is the voice of the Devil, of course they're going to attack the bible! The Devil himself is a coward! He hides in the dark. Muslims justify violence and hatred through the quaran, even threatening to kill. You are right, CNN is cowardly and won't fairly report it. Its easier to attack Christians.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • The Reason

      No Name, if there weren't any riots or murders over it there, it is because there were those of like mind and mentality present who supported that heinous action. But God is not amused thus, is John still alive?

      February 26, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  16. Sam R

    This is a very interesting point about the bible, as modern translation goes many people stick the exact wording of the bible as a pretext for their everyday life despite the fact that the translations they read are wildly inaccurate in today's vernacular. I must point out though that ancient Christianity was a end of the world cult, and thus did not care about long term religion or consequences. That's why you see the shift starting the the Council in Nicaea in the 325 in which they started to figure out that they might be around for a while and needed to adapt their teachings and practices to a more holistic approach rather than the apocalyptic tone that Jesus and his followers take in the original bible.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  17. Roy

    I can't see why a lot of the people blogging here even read the article. Just to get yourself all worked up andwrapped around an axle?

    February 26, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  18. Kirk

    Steven James should take a good look at the New World Translation. Not all too bad...It has a correct translation of Isaiah 64:6 for example.
    Concerning forgiveness and grace: That will only partain to those who do repent...?

    February 26, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  19. I believe-because I've witnessed God

    Wow, Pastmorn, you just love to insult people...nice.
    Popeye47 – I give God the credit because when Fr. D'Orio, said in the "Name of Jesus" rise and walk with me, and Leo Paris did, I can't see giving anyone else the credit. Do you have any theories?

    Hey, everyone has a free will, to believe or not believe.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • Godfrey

      Do you really have the "free will" to believe / disbelieve when you lack the sophistication to question the miracles of a run-of-the-mill faith healer?

      "Free will" is an interesting term.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  20. E. Caballero

    The Old Testament is a religious compilation written by priestly hands in Hebrew (a dialect of the Canaanite) and some parts in Aramaic. It has been dated between 1000 and 500 BC and puts together the traditions of a tribal, late sedentary society, which had been almost always subjected (Assyrians, Chaldeans, Persians, Lagids, Seleucids, Romans). This subjection is associated with the worship of the god Baal which is eventually deserted when Hebrews manage to give shape on their minds a God fitting their long-awaited status of chosen people, and legal real estate owners of all the land in Israel; a collective psychological projection of their idealized kingdom of David.

    It’s a stern society, with the yoke always around the neck, and He is a stern God, who enjoys exercising authority, and doesn’t hesitate at a certain point, to exterminate humanity except for Noah and family (Genesis); to spread discord among men in Babel, jealous of seeing their progress when united; or at an unspeakable biblical moment, to send two bears in order to shatter forty-two children who were making fun of Elisha’s baldness (Kings 2). He is not a “centrist”, moderate, dispassionate, democratic god. His literal behavior clearly states He doesn’t give a dam about emotional intelligence, self-knowledge, progress, human rights, women’s liberation, gay pride, and such things.

    Having said that, the Old Testament is always a book of recommended reading, and in spite of the fact, rather generally acknowledged, of it not being a piece of remarkable literary beauty (thus pointing to not very divine origins), or some of its passages particularly edifying in moral terms, its mythological and historical interest is undoubted and its reference place in western culture is well deserved.

    The New Testament wasn’t written by Jesus, neither by people he ever met, not in the language he may have spoken on a daily basis (Aramaic). It was written in Greek between 100 and 200 years after his death. With this dating, it couldn’t possibly have been the work of any of the alleged gospel authors Matthew, John, Luke, and Mark, all of them contemporaries of Jesus, but of later and unknown authors; whose aim was to set on paper the oral tradition of the stories told by early Christians and invest them with authority by attributing the work to Jesus closest comrades.

    http://www.areasubliminal.com

    February 26, 2012 at 11:51 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.