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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 LISTENER

    I think James´reflection is about a "real God" that educates humanity by putting it to the test and showing it that we are unable to bargain with him for our salvation.
    We have idealized Christian values to attempt to comprehend our human experience, but nothing prepares us to be "good" men, women, parents , children. God is all about love and mercy. It is a very good article.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      god is a disgusting mass murderer. he drowned every man, woman and child but one family - which he left for inbreeding. he killed the first born children of egypt - god kills innocent babies. so how is he "good"?

      February 26, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Wes

      Why is it that those with this "God" you infer exists, commit the most horrific attrocities? I was taught as a child that "God" and "Jesus" exemplify love and that being a Christian this spirit enters you, changes you for the better, and they will know Christians by their works.

      Why then do the majority of Christians favor torture in war and the majority of free-thinkers oppose it? Why did vast numbers of Christians defend slavery using the bible for their stance? Why to vast numbers of Christians persecute and demean gay persons... throw such twisted hurt toward gay children that they commit suicide ruining entire families?

      Today, I know that truth demands the reality that humans have natural morals... WITHOUT .... a supernatural guide. I know that free-thinkers wouldn't pledge an allegiance so vile, that they would be willing to take their child up to a mountain top and pierce their heart with a sharp knife -like object. Indeed natural morals have us protect our young. The Judeo-Christian religions REMOVE our natural morals and cause humans to do the most heinous of acts and even accept the horrors in the bible as justified in some twisted attempt to circle the square of a "Loving God" committing heinous acts in the name of "Love". Only brainwashing can cause the naturally protective human mind, to accept such horrifying nonsense..... all of the brainwashing exercises of indoctrination.

      I beg of you, to listen to your morals handed down via your genetics of your being. These morals would not accept a loved one going to a place of torture because they didn't follow the rules of Christianity. Instead these morals would have you protect your loved ones from such an "Ogre". One day... if you follow John Lennon's advice, you will see what truly makes life beautiful and hopefully you can save yourself from the unsolicited indoctrination you received before you reached the age of reason.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  2. The Central Scrutinizer

    My thorns, now flies.

    Buzzing around my gruesome head and face.

    My wasted body……finally brought down. Breathe still in me, just a whisper.

    Nurtured and cleansed. Bandaged and cared for.

    Now I am risen to say my final farewell.

    Do not worship me.

    Do not mourn for me.

    Do not build churches for me or profit from me.

    I am a man, born of a woman from the seed of my father.

    I am as you are. A man and a human being.

    Learn from the sacrifices I have made. Learn from the hypocrisy.

    Bury me in good company. Remember me as a friend.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • gman

      what sacrifices have you made ? , i can punch myself in the head and say i did it for humanity. but it probably
      does nothing good for anybody. we all make mistakes and count them sacrifice but that has nothing to do with
      redemption.

      God came in the flesh to redeem his own. He didn't consider it loss. He considered it gain.

      You say don't worship me but you want people to extoll your sacrifices. how absurd is that ? Don't you know
      that when the books are opened and the dead rise and are judged that it's too late for philosophy 101. You are
      as a spec of sand on a seashore. Your cannot measure eternity the only things that will remain after Christ Return
      are the saved and unsaved. Why be a servant to Satan. Wake up and repent and seek Jesus. Eternal Life is not
      a joke. If you truly are lamenting over your life then put your destination in the hands of the SAVIOR, not satans.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      leave the cult of christianity. think for yourself. you won't regret it...

      February 26, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      gman
      Jesus was just a man. There is no eternal life. There is no satan. You are just silly.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • gman

      dude , once again i don't know if my last post came through so i'll post again. Satans real. he's the author of
      everything evil in this world. I say it with all my heart and soul in my pathetic existance on this earth. or as the
      apostle paul would say, consider me chief of all sinners, because he knew the state of the human heart.

      Don't gamble with your soul, rejoice that you have the truth and save your self and your family. Bring the Gospel
      to them. That's what Jesus gave us authority to do. We basically have greater authority than Satan because
      scripture is gods word.

      Eternity is a long time. why critisize ? seek , knock and you will find. Store up treasure for yourself and others
      doing gods work. you take a lot of rejection but when you can look and say i was once of that mind , you will
      be able to say to others , i know where you come from. But it's true. BELIEVE.

      john 3:16. for god so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that WHO SO EVER !!!!! might believe
      will not perish but have eternal life. PREACH THE GOSPEL WITH ALL YOUR HEART AND SOUL.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  3. cacique

    Yes. The bible depicts epic battles and incredible acts of violence. Kings Saul and David account for thousnads of deaths and some very unholy acts that were only able to be forgiven by a god who really loved them as the chosen sons they were. The story of the violence suffered by the Christ from his aprehension to his death on the cross was definitely terrible, only the son of the Almighty could have been able to take all that pain for us...
    At the same time, the sweetness, the peace, and the eroticisim of the Psalms really bring up the best on the reader...The wisdom of the Proverbs can never be denied, and of course the horror of the Revelations

    Why would anybody want to sugarcoat a book like the bible? If right at the beginning Cain kills his brother Abel because of his envy and jealousy...Not even Disney stories are without a heavy dose of hatred and bloodshed

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

      Yeah, god forgave the monstrosities of Saul and DAvid because they were "favorites". Today, we would view that as a morl vision that is corrupt to the core. Any book that condones such immorality is filth, no matter how much you try to sugar coat it.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  4. Arthur Paliden

    Why give so much attention to a book dictated by an admitted mass murdering terrorist?

    "And it came to pass, that at midnight the LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead." (Exodus 12:29-30)

    February 26, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Steve

      The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Jerrod

      Don't forget about the flood there Arthur. He's a wonderful God, who giveth life and TAKETH it away. Come on Arthur don't go picking and choosing on me!

      February 26, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  5. SHAIARRA

    THIS JESUS PREACHED AND BELIEVED IN THE SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE,
    HE SAID "...GIVE UNTO CEASER THE THINGS THAT ARE CEASERS, AND TO GOD THE THINGS THAT ARE GOD'S..." THEY WANTED HIM TO OVER TURN THE SECULAR ROMAN ARMY/ GOVERNMENT, "JESUS" REFUSED TO GET INVOLVE IN ROMAN SECULAR(STATE) BUSINESS PERIOD. UNLIKE THE MODERN DAY XTIAN ATTEMPTED COUP ETAT OF THE US GOV.TO ENFORCE BIBLICAL LAWS, "JESUS" RESPECTED THE ESTABLISH SECULAR STATE GOVERNMENT OF ROME PERIOD, HE DID NOT ATTACK IT AS HE TOLD POTIUS PILOT 12 LEGIONS OF ANGELS WOULD COME AT HIS CALL, THE RELIGIOUS ARE INTO $$$,"JESUS" CAST OUT THE MONEY CHANGERS, WHY CHURCHES HAVE ATM's ONSIGHT???, "...IT'S FOR THE SECULAR LOVE MONEY EVIL ROOT..."

    February 26, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Arty

      Read the chapter 2 in the book of Daniel. Jesus is coming to OVERTHROW the kingdoms of the world. Don't tell us He will not involve Himself in governmental affairs!

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

      MAY 23, 2011.......OK

      February 26, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  6. goddog

    You know who doesn't sugercoat the Bible? Roman Catholics. What's at the front of every Catholic Church behind the altar? A crucifix, that's what. A visceral image of Jesus Christ's act of martyrdom right there for every parishioner, man woman and child to see. I have to say, that's integrity. You'll think about that when you have an ordeal in life, that Jesus suffered too, and hopefully that will bring some consolation. Mortality never seems too distant or far removed or clinical in a Catholic church. Just seems more honest to me.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Commandrea

      Great article- I agree that the Bible should be read as close to the original translation as possible to get any good out of it. As a child, I saw right through the Sunday school teachers and left the church to explore religion and God on my own. I simply couldn't believe than anyone who didn't know about Jesus or who had been born before Jesus or didn't believe in Jesus would burn in Hell for all eternity. But I was told that's what Christians believed so I knew I could no longer call myself a Christian.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  7. Brian

    What an outstanding article.. Great job... its nice to see someone expressing themselve and saying it like it is..

    February 26, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  8. Someone

    Good start, but completely wrong conclusion.

    I fully support reading the Bible in its entirety, in original language, and not cherry-picking only the parts that people can stomach easier and sterilizing the wording to make it more palatable (and disguise many things in there that the average person today would find abominable). In that sense, the author's start is a good one.

    But the conclusion is totally wrong. Here's a much simpler, much more likely explanation for why the Bible is written the way it is: It is written by *men*, for *men*, to serve *men's* puposes, and it incorporates men's desires, fears, motivations, hatred, and a little bit of kindness.

    Read the Bible in any context other than religious, and anyone can plainly see that it was written pretty much my men, and has nothing to do with being the "infallible work od God".

    February 26, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  9. SHAIARRA

    THOMAS JEFFERSON A DEIST
    BILL OF RIGHTS SUPPORTER/ SEPARATION BETWEEN CHURCH AND STATE ie RELIGION AND GOVERNMENT/ AGNOSTIC/ ABOLITIONIST /ANTI-FEDERALIST AND FOUNDER OF THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLICAN (DEIST NOT XTIAN) PARTY "THE PRICE OF FREEDOM IS ETERNAL VIGILANCE"

    February 26, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  10. Crad

    What i dont undstand is this. The bible itself says to not add or subtract a word from the text. And yet they print the "amplified bible".. So where something might say ".. And god so loves you" the amplified will say "..and god so loves you, with every ounce of being, and all your worries"... I never understood that. I never liked the amplified bible for this. Translation to english and minor discrepancies are fine, but taking english and "amplifying" it is wrong, and i always thought so...

    February 26, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  11. SHAIARRA

    "Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one-half the world fools and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth."

    - Thomas Jefferson (A DEIST ADVOCATED SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE)

    February 26, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Crad

      Man will always take something beautiful and pervert it and weaponize it for his own good. We split the atom and first thing we did was destroy people with a bomb. Just because people have weaponized religion does not make god evil. So, religion has killed people and caused problems. So what? We all know that. What have you brought to the table woth your comment?

      February 26, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • SHAIARRA

      CHAD STOP COVERING UP FOR IT OK

      February 26, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      sounds like what is brought to the table is that religion is poisonous and we would so better without it.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • momoya

      @Crad

      Good point. Religion is like any other collection of ideas; you can use it for good or evil, instead of just for good. You might as well do with out it, then.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  12. Craig

    I agree. Stop sugar-coating the Bible. That will expose it... and organized religion... for the frauds that they are.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  13. gman

    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 12:55 pm |
  14. SHAIARRA

    SCOTUS 367US488,489 ( SEE ALSO THE CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT CLAUSE )
    " In the exercise of one's religion one, CANNOT INSIST ON CONDUCT WHICH THREATENS important interest on the society in an UNREASONABLE MANNER. The courts must, therefore, BALANCE the Importance of a religious exercise claim against the State interest involved in a rule or practice which prevents or hinders the exercise SCOTUS 367US488,489.

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

      I'm hoping that the future can use rulings like this to find that indoctrination is harming our society by preventing society from curing its own ills. ie: overpopulation, global warming, pollution of the oceans... etc...

      Somehow, we must discover that we cannot allow parents to bring their children to churches to indoctrinate anymore. We don't allow parents to give their children alcohol, drugs, nor abuse them... so why do we allow them to bring their children to the priest, pastors, and rabbis in sheep's clothing? It is a form of child molestation of the brain.

      After 18.... after they child reaches the age of reason... then let them get suckered in by the church leaders if they choose.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • SHAIARRA

      WES

      I AGREE

      February 26, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  15. ChrkeePrde

    Steven James reads the bible as if it were a novel. You're missing the whole point Steven James.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • james

      I know. Your only supossed to take out specific lines and apply them to what ever issue your trying to force down the throats of others. You know, Bibble Thumpers.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  16. clarke

    Well it was an interesting article. My father read the bible about 5 or 6 times. He said it was a great story and that we are no different and not much has changed.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  17. momoya

    @ Atheism =

    Exactly the sort of response I expect from those who worship a god who sustains and eternal pit of torture. Maybe you should kill atheists, the muslims do. Because you're a christian, that killing would be "god's will" and not at all "evil and amoral, vicious or bitter."

    February 26, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      Isn't that what religion has grown to be, population control? It's doing a HELL of a job.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  18. tokencode

    The reason the bible is so "gritty and raw" is because it was wriiten by people explaining their view of life, not some sky fairy god.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Crad

      Only athiests came up with the idea of a "sky fairy". God never represented himself as a genie, or a fairy. So you arent offering anything other than the concept that you are following a manmade idea of god. Which sounds religious to me.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Wes

      @ Crad You make claims that you cannot possibly know. It is okay to admit you do not know anything about "God". You only know what you have read, or what other humans have told you. You make claims about science and its ills, but science discoveries have also given us electricity, computers that you are writing on now, indoor lighting, washing machines and dishwashers.

      I challenge you to live a primitive life such as those in Papua New Guinea and I would make the assumption, you would be back in a science filled world in a snap. Science is a concept of how to discover the natural world around us. Religion only gives supernatural explanations, most of which prove the most ignorant of guesses. For instance curing leprosy in the bible is by cutting the head off a chicken and shaking the blood around a room seven times. Do you really in the depths of your reasoning believe a "god" that knows everything would prescribe this? If so.... you might wish to question the indoctrination that you yourself have gone through.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  19. Barbara

    Thank you Steven for a really refreshing and re-grounding perspective. We all need redirecting occasionally and can get it from the most unexpected places.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  20. Name*Chedar

    Look at the mirror and see who God really is. The action of all evil and good comes from nowhere except the guy you see from the mirror. No God created the vice and the virtue except the guy you see on the mirror.

    February 26, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Crad

      Wrong. There is a very real concept of good and evil born from something deeper and greater than us. Most people know this. Yu may not believe in it but its real.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Sports Fan

      Crad
      Huh? You believe their is people hating demon it a burning cave that makes us do bad things? Are you 5 years old?

      February 26, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      You are correct Crad, the concept of good & evil is inborn .. however your conclusion is incorrect. This is called instinct & it is born from natural selection and evolution, it's a survival instinct. Not understanding something doesn't mean it comes from a God(s).

      February 26, 2012 at 1:09 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.