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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. pk

    men write. man interprets. mostly man is confused.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  2. SHAIARRA

    RELIGIOUS LIBERTY (aka JIM CROW) vs CITIZEN CIVIL LIBERTIES AND BILL OF RIGHTS

    “Religion has caused more harm than any other idea since the beginning of time. There's nothing good I can say about it. People use it as a crutch.”

    Larry Flynt quotes

    February 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • Atheist #1

      They bring up some goo questions> http://www.movie2k.to/The-God-Who-Wasn-t-There-watch-movie-1070359.html

      February 26, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  3. no1aries

    Uh-huh. Thank you for speaking it as it is. This is why while reading the Bible as a young child I got disgusted, saw right through all the "stuff" the adults were trying to tell me, closed the covers of the book, and never looked at it again. That's the clear uncluttered thinking of a child that hasn't yet been brainwashed. That's the thinking of a child who had already developed good values without needing this book to do it.

    I've never heard anyone examine in-depth WHO wrote these stories. Perhaps it's not possible? And if that's the case, how can anyone possibly know the basis of any of these stories? While we're talking about BELIEF here, I describe them this way because that's what I believe these are - stories in a book published by people in power as a means of social control. I believe that's the same purpose for all religions. And look what we're STILL using this book for ... social control ...

    How extraordinarily effective it is, huh? Scary, frankly.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      Thank you. The world needs more people like you. Hopefully you will bring your children up the same way.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  4. theTruth

    when christians try to bash atheist, remember one thing –> you created the atheist. Without religion 'atheist' wouldn't exist.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  5. hippypoet

    🙂

    February 26, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  6. JL

    Alot of art depicts Jesus as having long redish hair and redish beard. This is sugar coated renaissance art. Some say he didn't have red hair but did have furrows and perhaps sun damaged skin.
    Also, where in the bible is heaven vs hell mentioned?

    February 26, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • theTruth

      he also had a turban.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      Personal hygiene was also an issue.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • theTruth

      and ran into the streets saying 'ya yaya yayay ya aya' in a loud, high pitched, voice. And the christains thought they were different than their muslim look-a-likes.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  7. theTruth

    I suggest they just say what it is -> the bible is mans concoction. Ends there.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • pk

      amen

      February 26, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  8. RiHughes

    Does anyone on here believer, atheist or indifferent truly believe that if we eradicated religion that we would also eradicate war, violence, child molesters, etc. Honestly? No snarky responses, no hateful remarks, hold the sarcasm. Do you truly believe that?

    February 26, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • momoya

      No, atheists don't believe that. Although, atheists know that people will do horrible evil for "god" when they would do it for no other reason. It's harder to get people to blow themselves up when they don't believe they are going on to eternal bliss.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      Is that a real question? 100% the world would be a better place. It wouldn't eradicate every problem, there would always be problems, but they would be for different, more logical reason other than, "I don't like you made up, mythological creature, I'm going to kill you" type of wars.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • J

      I am an atheist. To answer your question, no I do not think that eliminating religion will eliminate war etc. Greed and tribalism/nationalism play more important roles in war than religion does. But to deny that wars are fought over religion, that religion isn't used in almost Every war as a rallying cry, that religion doesn't add lighter fluid to the fires of war...I believe that that is willful ignorance.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  9. Steven Oliver

    I find it so disturbing that educated christians are more hypocrates compared to the illiterates. They always go around the world to full people more and promote the devils agenda through softening of the indigenous hearts although they know some of the things they say is wrong . All I can say is that, religion is a real curse , and christianity is hypocrisy that we live daily in it !.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  10. Puzzled in Peoria

    Yoiks these comments on any kind of religion story are getting tedious.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  11. Atheism=evil and amoral

    "blah blah atheism blah blah no god blah blah anger blah blah hate blah blah my life is irrelevant and nobody will miss me when I'm in hell blah blah"

    This is all I read from you hateful bigots.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Reason vs Faith

      Atheists don't go to hell.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      First off your post shows your intelligence. Second, I feel bad for you. Lastly, I honestly don't know where to start with you. You are a spitting image of what's wrong with todays world. Give me your address, I'd love to send you meaning, scientifically oriented books. But I'm sure you're not interested in any of them you already know you're right. Even when I have the proof that you're wrong.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      Bigots? Where did that one come from?

      Oh, and there is no Hell and no scary demon who hates people. Grow up.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Atheism=evil and amoral

      Yes you do, yes, you will, and oh yes, I will laugh.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Atheism=evil and amoral

      @NVRRGHT: Actually, I love science, especially biology. I also love history, but I hate math. I love computers. I'm probably more scientifically sophisticated than you could ever dream of being, not to mention being roughly 10 trillion times more intelligent than everyone you've ever known put together. I also happen to believe in God, and know I'm right beyond a shadow of a doubt.

      I'm the jurist Lawyers hate, because it takes actual proof and reality to get me to believe anything.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      I'm sure you "believe" you are smarter than me. While I KNOW that is impossible to prove. I will whole-heartedly disagree that I have 10x more scientific background than you ever will at a young age. Considering the schooling and medical school I have been through. Anyways, what if I told you that through the collider we have developed matter and that have PROVED that we need not a mythological creature to create matter. We have already proven we don't need someone to create matter. Or how about the fact that we can create all 20 amino acids and essential life containing molecules from scratch has well? I just don't know how you could ever think what you do. Only the non educated believe. I have never met anyone who is on my intelligence level that believe in a god.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Atheism=evil and amoral

      @NVRRGHT: We haven't "created" anything, you idiot. what humanity has done is take the existing blueprint and copy it, no more, no less. Humanity has not created a new lifeform, humanity has not created anything that was not already blueprinted for it. Until we do, you have no proof. Now go hang yourself and start your sojourn in hell.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      Well considering we have accomplished the feat of making matter from nothing, I will just end this discussion since you aren't worth my time. I hope I never have to meet you and make you feel bad about your intelligence. Have a blessed day!

      February 26, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Here's The Proof

      ReasonvsFaith, if you don't believe that atheists go to Hell, then here is Confirmation that unless they repent and accept Jesus Christ into their life, they in fact, do. *He that believeth on Him is not condemned but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the ONLY begotten Son of God.* - JOHN 3:18 (KJV)

      February 26, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      Wow at ^ post

      February 26, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Reason vs Faith

      @Here's the Proof –

      No disrespect, but WOW, just WOW. Somebody missed the bus to logic school!

      February 26, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Atheism=evil and amoral

      @NVRRGHT: So basically, since I'm right and you're wrong, and you can't handle it, you're going to weasel out of the conversation. We haven't "created matter from nothing." You can keep trying to convince yourself, but you'll always fail because you know you're an idiot. Now go enjoy your sojourn in Hell.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      I'm not running away I'm right here. But however we have created matter from nothing. Read some modern science journals relating to the LHC. If you know what that is.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Atheism=evil and amoral

      Collider's don't create matter "from nothing." Particles are created by kinetic energy, just extremely high levels of it.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  12. Skyler

    Not long ago, my mother-in-law, who is a Catholic and became a "lay minister" so she can believe in a god even harder, questioned why my 4-year-old, Andy, was allowed to watch my 7-year-old play Super Mario Sunshine, a little kid's video game rated E. (Apparently, she had an issue with an animated plumber who had an Italian-American accent and tossed lame fireballs at mushrooms.)

    One day, it was planned that she would be caring for Andy over the weekend so my wife and I could essentially get a room. We dropped Andy off Saturday evening. My mother-in-law (who liked to be called Meme) said that they would be going to church in the morning. "What's 'turch?'" Andy asked. Andy had never been to a church before because mom and dad don't believe in that kind of stuff. "It's where god lives," said Meme.

    We explained to Andy that he will be visiting a building like a big stone castle with a sharp point on top, that there were candles and people sang, and they said the same words at the same time. "It's something Meme likes to do."

    Sunday morning, about 9:30, Meme woke my wife and me up way too early and said it might be a good idea to come get Andy – that he had a little trouble in church that morning. "Nothing serious," she said. "He just got a little upset."

    When I got to Meme's, Andy seemed pretty calm. Meme said, "He's okay now, but in church he got a little upset when I left him in the pew to go get communion."

    I asked Andy about church on the way home. He told me he was scared of the guy. "You mean, the Priest... the guy walking around and doing all the talking?" "No, the guy hanging up. Meme sat next to it and I sat next to Meme. He wasn't moving... he died. There were cuts on his head and his belly got stuck and they pinned him up so he wouldn't fall. It made me scared like in the movie (Harry Potter) but Meme said we can't leave like a movie." He then went on to explain that Meme got up, and other people got up to go to the front of the church under the man, where they all got cookies. Meme made him stay put, that he couldn't get a cookie.

    So here is my 4-year-old, sitting under a life-size, sliced up, bloody figure of an emaciated dead man nailed up on some big pieces of wood. He was, understandably, traumatized by it, as any un-indoctrinated 4-year-old would be. He was left near it, all alone... not knowing when Meme was coming back. And to top it all off... everybody got a f...king cookie and he didn't.

    I thought of Meme taking issue with Super Mario Sunshine. Go figure.

    "Andy, that hanging man was a statue... he isn't real. Ok? I'm sorry you got scared, buddy. You don't have to go again."

    "I like Meme, but I don't like 'turch,'" he said.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Atheist #1

      "Any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be true"- Thomas Paine

      February 26, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Nick

      Sometimes, religious folks mean no harm but do harm unintentionally. I remember a time where my young niece's grandma forced her to kiss her dead grandpa's forehead and for days, the little girl was quite. I think the incident traumatized her.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Atheism=evil and amoral

      enjoy condemning your kid to eternity of suffering and hellfire, loser.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • no1aries

      Love this story. I now realize it must have been hard for my parents when I started rejecting their beliefs at a very young age, but I thank them for letting me believe what I needed to believe, and not believe what I couldn't believe. Maybe they saw a kernel of truth in a child's mind? I should ask sometime. I had a hard time believing in Santa too. Just didn't make sense, these adult stories.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • gman

      i think she's being a little hard on him with mario. kids will be kids. But it's kind of cool about the Jesus on the cross
      thing because when he gets older and realizes the meaning of the cross he'll always remember that and the price
      paid by Jesus. It's hard to see him hanging there and it convicts us of our own sin but on the other hand it's final
      and theres nothing satan can do about it. Jesus said on the cross , IT IS FINISHED ONCE AND FOR ALL.

      Let's all go down to the river, Yeah, there's a man, walkin on the water!

      Come along with me! All I wanna see is this man walking on the water!

      He can raise the dead from the grave,and take the water,and turn it into wine!

      He can make the lame walk, he can make the dumb talk-

      and open up the eyes of the blind!

      So,let's all go down to the river, Yeah there's a man walkin on the water!

      Come along with me, all I wanna see is that man walking on the water!

      Jesus is this man at the river! And he's washin people's sins away!

      He can save your soul! You can feel control!

      And get ready for that Judgment day!

      So, let's all go down by the river,there's a man, walkin on the water!

      Come along with me! All I wanna see is that man walkin on the water!

      To see the sea walker! The blind man healer!

      That leaper cleansing man from Galilee! To see the soul saver!

      The one who died for me- take my hand and follow me!

      So, let's all go down by the river!

      There's a man, he's walkin on the water! Come along with me!

      All I wanna see is this man walkin on the water!

      Man walkin on the wateeeeeeeeerrrrr!

      February 26, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • The Facts

      Skyler, if you wanted to be truly unbiased, one thing that you evidently did not point out on that which should have been pointed out by meme to the child is that the poor body of Jesus who lay nailed to the cross was done to bring the child eternal Life and everyone else who believes in Jesus! That was the Ultimate Sacrifice paid by One who loves mankind so much, God, that He would send His Son to lay down His life for it. The communion wafer is a representation of Christ's body which was given up for mankind during His crucifixion. But the Wonderful NEWS is that Jesus Resurrected and lives and reigns over Heaven and Earth to correct that which is bad by the punishment that is well deserved by those who do not believe.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Nuh

      @The Facts: and you're saying that your statement was "truly unbiased"? Andy didn't see the "Son of God" making the ulitmate sacrifice. He saw a scary looking homeless dude, cut up and nailed onto a cross. He didn't think of missing out on a representation of Christ' body, he saw a cookie which he got no part of. Devastating for a 4 yr. old.

      @Skyler: Thanks for sharing the story. It made me chuckle and think of my neice. 🙂

      February 26, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Atheism=evil and amoral

      @Nuh: Perhaps if the kid's parents had 2 brain cells to rub together (combined, which they don't), then they would have explained reality of the situation to the kid. Of course, since both parents are incredibly stupid, they don't have faith of their own to begin with.

      February 26, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  13. Atheist #1

    Jesus was the Biggest stinking lying Jew of Them All!

    February 26, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  14. kevin

    God never said anything. Only men said things on behalf of god, and usually those men idiots.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  15. I believe-because I've witnessed God

    Hi Godfrey- Before you say that Fr. Ralph O'rio is a run-of -the-mill Faith healer, do your research. He has had a Charismatic Healing Ministry since 1976 and is still being faithfully used by God. I gave you his full name, If you care to look him up. Leo's healing that day, was one of the most amazing healings ever recorded, so much so, "That's incredible" the TV show, I believe in the 70's did a story on Leo Paris.
    Sorry, I may not be as sophisticated as you, but I feel I must tell others what I've witness.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      There is a sucker born every minute.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      If I cut my leg off and go to him can he heal me? No? Oh yea, that's why people actually have to go to medical school. You know, learn factual information instead of hocus pocus. I can pretend a demon came out of me too if you gave me a couple bucks. *fake-seizing* Oh I'm cured!

      February 26, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  16. SHAIARRA

    “For seventeen hundred years the Christian sect has done nothing but harm”

    Voltaire quotes

    PASTE THIS IN GOOGLE SEARCH:( CHURCH INVOLVEMENT IN US AND EUROPE'S SLAVE TRADE )

    February 26, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Nuh

      No.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  17. Reality

    Conservative Jews in the USA have rewritten the Torah/NT to reflect the myths therein basically making it a doc-ument of peace.

    Thomas Jefferson did an analogous rewrite of the NT. Ditto for the rewrite of the NT by the Jesus Seminarians, Professor JD Crossan in his over 20 books on the historical Jesus and related subjects and Professor Gerd Ludeman in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 694-695.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  18. SHAIARRA

    “The church is always trying to get other people to reform; it might not be a bad idea to reform itself a little, by way of example”

    Mark Twain quotes (American Humorist, Writer and Lecturer. 1835-1910)

    February 26, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  19. SHAIARRA

    “No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means”

    George Bernard Shaw quotes

    February 26, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  20. James

    "We don’t need to edit God. We need to let him be the author of our new lives."

    You've got to be joking. Perhaps you want a mythological superbeing to be the 'author' of your life, but I don't. Certainly not one who's vengeful, childish and selfish.

    Although I agree that more people should either accept the Bible literally or acknowledge that it's full of hypocracy, contradictions and dated material and GIVE IT UP. It's truly distubring how many people pick and choose what to interpret figuratively vs literally (not not mention all the things the totally disregard because they know the book is dated), yet criticize others for doing the same because the other people chose 'the wrong things' to interpret/disregard.

    It's a book written by people. It's not infallible, it's not some 'truth' inspired by a higher power. You can be a perfectly moral person without it. The day people begin accepting this about the Bible, the Quran, and all the other 'holy' books out there is the day the world becomes a safer, saner place.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Reason vs Faith

      The day you remove religion, the world will be come a safer place.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Your Master

      Reason vs Faith, you truly echo the words of your master, Satan. He has taught you and others well.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Reason vs Faith

      @Your Master – I am my own master. I'm not guided by anything more than my reason. Who is your master? God? Does you faith lead you to His light? What else does His faith lead you to? Adultry, greed, lust? Come on – let's have it. No one is that pious.

      Morality is more at risk with those that follow religion that not. Don't believe me? What about the Crusades? What about the Spanish Inquisition, Salem? Looking for something more recent? Waco, Mormon fundamentalism, the Northern Irish Conflict, pedophilia within the Catholic Church. Let's not forget all those in prison who are now better people because they have accepted Jesus as their savior, or those that have already accepted Jesus as their savior, but are asking forgiveness to insure their place in Heaven.

      Religion is a crutch. Although many do right by their faith, so many do wrong with the promise of forgiveness afterwards.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:35 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.