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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. A in Pa

    They do give a prescription for peace, if you join them, agree with them, subordinate yourself in every way to their every demand you'll be loved and accepted, if not you can shut up and die.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  2. LiberalNN

    Dude man Jesus smoked weed

    February 26, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  3. SHAIARRA

    @ YARAH ,

    THE FREEDOM OF RELIGION ALSO COVERS THE FREEDOM TO QUESTION AND CRITICIZE RELIGION, ONLY THE BRAINWASH HAS BLIND OBEDIENCE AND BOTH WILL FALL INTO THE PIT

    February 26, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  4. Don

    Religions are erect due to authority figures who sell infants hungry to hear fallacious arguments that require double standards to purchase. The minions of religions support the idea that the rules of logic do not apply if one has studied the pertinent fairy tales extensively. Additionally, when evil and good are blatantly revealed by the universality of many accepted values in different religions, many minions believe that humans are inherently evil and that religion is necessary to guide humanity towards the light.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  5. me

    My Take: The bible was written by humans not god or a human guided by god. It was written to control stupid people and that's exactly what it is still doing.

    Anyone who think's they know anything at all about God is a egotistical idiot.

    The Pope doesn't know anymore about god than any other person on this planet.

    It's all BS and you're all idiots.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Don'tBelieveTheLiesOfReligion

      "The" Bible (a complilation of writings put together about 300 years after the life of Jesus from a large group of disparate, often contradictory tracts) is purely a human endeavor, written in the patois of the day. People in high living-standards, Western societies today who still believe this book has any validity are changing it to make themselves feel better about its content, just as they are changing the religion itself – witness the proliferation of all the "god is love", "god wants you to be rich" – as they continue to parrot the incongruent argument that it's all unchanging "God's word". Hah!

      February 26, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  6. Pious

    Christianity is essentially New Testament... Christ used it as the basis for a context of change, but had to avoid offending the existing religious structure of the time. It makes no sense to try to compare the violent aspects of other religions to Christianity. Such comparisons are doomed to fail.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  7. Herne

    FEAR and HATE.
    Organized religion was designed by old world leaders as a means to more easily control the mostly UN-educated masses....(amazing the sheer numbers of sheep in the U.S. today)
    You can kill a king but not a god. Ancient Egyptians went a step further....Organized religion and sports are the PERFECT manipulation tools. (via mass media's help)
    It just amazes me how ANY human being claiming to be intelligent, can still believe in that fairy tale nonsense. I suppose after a couple thousand years of brainwashing... D.N.A. could be affected.
    Albert Einstein proved energy cannot be destroyed...it only changes form...(that's plenty of religion for me.). George Lucas's version of religion is more believable.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  8. Allison

    Amen.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  9. Yarah

    CNN = Communist News Network. I'm done with CNN, They are Christ and Bible haters..

    February 26, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      Obviously you don't positively to society, nor took any relevant science classes. Thanks for your illogical and un scientifically backed opinion! Now, let me tell you how we can make all 20 amino acids without the help of your so called mythological creature. Can you explain that. Or how about the fact that we can create matter from nothing. Just don't understand why people don't educate themselves before becoming religious. Is it because the slander if thrown down your throats before your able to learn for ourselves? I thank my parents every day for not taking me to church and shoving science books down my throat. I will do the same with my kids.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      Obviously you don't positively contribute to society, nor took any relevant science classes. Thanks for your illogical and un scientifically backed opinion! Now, let me tell you how we can make all 20 amino acids without the help of your so called mythological creature. Can you explain that. Or how about the fact that we can create matter from nothing. Just don't understand why people don't educate themselves before becoming religious. Is it because the slander if thrown down your throats before your able to learn for ourselves? I thank my parents every day for not taking me to church and shoving science books down my throat. I will do the same with my kids.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Inglourious

      If you are done with CNN with did you post the same message twice? Weren't you done the first time?

      February 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • AJW3

      Thanks for proving the point. Carry on.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  10. tateman

    Who cares where JESUCRISCO got his material. Its perfect for this setting and funny to boot. I think Jesus would also agree.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  11. Eyemno Athiest

    Why is it that a man can walk down from a mountain a couple thousand years ago and say he has heard the word of God and we believe this to be a true occurrence yet we throw people in the Nut House today when that happens? That seems a bit hypocritical if you ask me.

    Religion is nothing more than brainwashing. You are MADE to believe in this craziness at your earliest stage of learing (childhood) by those around you because they were MADE to believe in this at their earliest stage of learning. Its a trend that has gone all the way back to when that first Insane, voice hearing crack pot came down off the mountain the first time.

    I BELIEVE in a higher power. Always have..Always will... But you can take ALLLLL your Religion and shove it so far up your Religious A*s that you crap blood Psalms for a year.

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

      When i told people i heard God... i got pills... not a book... very unfair.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  12. SHAIARRA

    “And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together”

    James Madison quote

    “The tendency to turn human judgments into divine commands makes religion one of the most dangerous forces in the world.”

    Georgia Harkness quotes

    February 26, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  13. Paul

    Why not just get some of the so-called "Christians" to read the book in the first place. Those who most loudly proclaim their faith and use it to point fingers obviously never touched the book.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  14. Yarah

    CNN = Communist News Network. I'm done with CNN, They are Christ and Bible haters.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Paul

      What in this article makes you think that?

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

      Seriously how DARE someone say something (true) about the bible that goes against your beliefs...BURN THE WITCHES!

      February 26, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • SHAIARRA

      @ YARAH ,

      THE FREEDOM OF RELIGION ALSO COVERS THE FREEDOM TO QUESTION AND CRITICIZE RELIGION, ONLY THE BRAINWASH HAS BLIND OBEDIENCE AND BOTH WILL FALL INTO THE PI

      February 26, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  15. paganguy

    Bible? Written by Greek travelers. It became Holly by a self-appointed priest sprinkling holly water on it. What a farce.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  16. Gary Orona

    It is refreshing to read an interpretation on the bible that reveals the truth from someone who has done their homework. My wife is legendary adult movie star Tabitha Stevens and I can't stress enough the hate and threats we receive from misguided religious zealots. Only when those who practice deep faith face the reality of what scripture really says and in effect begin to 'walk their talk' will the 'us vs. them' scenario that orthodox religions create being to crumble and perpetuate a more tolerant and less war-like world. When you sugar-coat the bible it's much easier to take on a self-righteous, judgmental view. Face reality and it's not as easy to sit up on that pedestal.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  17. SHAIARRA

    “Of all religions, Christianity is without a doubt the one that should inspire tolerance most, although, up to now, the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men”

    Voltaire quotes

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

      That is the truth. We need to be set free. http://yurconnected.blogspot.com

      February 26, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  18. Fred

    The Bible is raw because we – the human race – are raw. http://yurconnected.blogspot.com

    February 26, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  19. jackenstien

    This article is the best I have read on CNN.com about the Bible. I do not attend church much any more because services tend to take me to La La Land. I read the scriptures every week because they are realistic (as Steven James said). TV's 60 Minutes had a show where schools are cleansing Mark Twain's book "Tom Sawyer" my removing the N word. Effectively, this is the same cleansing mistake many Church Pastors/Priests are doing at Services/Mass, which is why I don't attend anymore.

    No historical record of the "Exodus" has so-far been found in Egyptian archives because the Egyptian Government only reported their successes, not their failures. Our Government does the same, but we have more insight from our News Services and Wiki Leaks.

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

      There are people who attend church who, like yourself, don't want things sugar-coated. It's high time for real church. God bless you. http://yurconnected.blogspot.com

      February 26, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  20. Dee Sanchez

    Good stuff!! I reposted on my facebook!! About time someone speaks-up! I

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

      The rebirth of real religion – it's here! http://yurconnected.blogspot.com

      February 26, 2012 at 12:05 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.