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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. ratiionality-is-the-only-way

    Why is everything within the context of some mythical god? It is possible to have a conversation that talks about personal responsibility without a discussion of god? When we can be honest to ourselves and to each other without involving God is used an excuse. Take a hold of your own life instead of making excuses....GOD WILLING 🙂

    February 26, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Liberals Are Stupid

      What about your ETERNAL afterlife? Seventy or so years on earth is nothing compared to eternity. People spend more time making plans for a one week vacation than they do for their permanent vacation after death.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • gizmoduck

      LIberals are Stupid: you are thoroughly brainwashed. And Jesus (who is clearly "Liberal") would be ashamed of your name and politics.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • rationality-is-the-only-way

      How about focusing on living for today? So much time is spent on concern for this afterlife instead of focusing on today. Maybe today is yesterday's afterlife?

      February 26, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  2. Jeremiah W

    I do agree and disagree.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  3. logicnothuff

    After studying this book, the Holy Bible is absolute truth; it is God's Word, written by God through the hands of the prophets. There are 66 books written by 40 authors, woven into an incredibly complex book which perfectly corroborates itself, accomplished over a period of about 3000 years of writing. Since it is God's Word, and God is the author of all science and math and biology and nuclear physics and astrophysics, it gets it perfectly right. Such as, men say earth is billions of years old but Saturn's rings are expanding and dissipating at such a pace that Saturn's creation matches that of the young earth as specified by the Bible. Man said kill the baby when it's in the womb, but Bible says God knows us when we are in the womb, and now we see that the heart is beating at about a week and ultrasound shows fetuses pre-abortion writhing in pain and running to the other side to get away from the abortion doctors instruments of death. Bible is 100% true.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Liberals Are Stupid

      Amen!

      February 26, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • gizmoduck

      You are brainwashed. You have no evidence that anything you read is fact or divine. The book as been edited, reedited, reinterpreted dozens if not hundreds of times throughout history. Entire books of this "divine word" have been removed and added. You have no clue about the real history of the Bible, you are just a gullible sheep that believes whatever he's told to.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • sybaris

      Uh, your information is wrong and delusional. I know the truth would cause you much anguish and deconversion is a lengthy and painful process but believe me, once the blinders are off you'll thank us.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • BioHzrd

      You're understanding of science is beyond dillusional and grossly incorrect.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Bryan

      I disagree
      I agree with the Article

      February 26, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Pause and Think

      Gizmoduck,

      Please keep in mind that good arguments could also be made that atheists are brainwashed. For instance, you disregard the striking point about Saturn's rings, which is just one of innumerable pieces of evidence promoting a young earth.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • For Eternity

      Absolutely, logicnothuff! Amen! There are many lost souls here who espouse the only thing they know, darkness from within. They do not know the Light of God in their heart and in their life so they cannot speak from that perspective. It is sad to see those who simply choose to destroy their soul and join darkness instead of Light. But it is their individual choice to make and that choice is ultimately for Eternity. If they do not believe that, they can simply put it to the test. But know that once that test has begun, after they pass on, there is no turning back and they must go all the way with their choice to a place of darkness where God cannot ever be to save them. But after all, they are already living, to a certain extent, in that kind of place right now in their heart so it should come as little shock to them when they live in that permanent darkness for Eternity later on.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • rationality-is-the-only-way

      God killed the Egyptian's first born – so therefore god is an abortionist.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  4. gizmoduck

    "He intended the Bible to speak to people where they’re at, caught up in the stark reality of life on a fractured planet." Putting aside the FACT that no one has any evidence that the Bible and it's many, many edits and variances are divinely inspired... how do YOU know what "God intended"?!? There are literally thousands of different views on what "God intended" and everyone thinks they know what was really on his mind and feel fit to tell everyone else what the deal is. It's SICK, wrongheaded, backwards, and leads to the kind of impossible situations we find ourselves in today. These aren't the stone ages, let's leave the "Spirit Gods" and their holy relics in the past where they belong.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Liberals Are Stupid

      John 14:6 Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

      Read more: http://www.whatchristianswanttoknow.com/words-of-jesus-15-amazing-bible-quotes/#ixzz1nVxllRhl

      February 26, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • gizmoduck

      Liberals are Stupid, you do realize Jesus would easily be defined as a liberal in today's society, right? Ignorant.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  5. SHAIARRA

    * THE RIGHTS OF THE CITIZEN OUT WEIGHTS RELIGION (A FOREIGN POWER) SEE FEDERALIST PAPERS
    +The Federalist Papers #10 Factions: How to Destroy a Republic COUP ETAT VIA RELIGION
    +PAPERS2-5 Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence

    February 26, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  6. Daniel

    And this even furthers my doubt as to HOW CAN PEOPLE BELIEVE THIS CRAP?!

    February 26, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Liberals Are Stupid

      John 10:10, 11 The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • John

      You spew out an irrelevant-to-the-comment quote; thereby, demonstrating you're incapable of formulating your own thought. And you're saying by your username that Liberals are stupid? Wow.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Chuck

      (Liberals Are Stupid) Studies have shown that the more educated you are the more liberal you tend d to be. Look at the difference in education between red and blue states. How can you be a christian and not lean liberal? What about helping your fellow man and caring what happens to poor and sick? I bet you would take the vote away from women and minorities if you were in charge.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Bizarre

      Liberals Are Stupid,

      The shepherd tends his sheep for 2 main reasons:

      1. Profit
      2. Dinner

      February 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  7. Butters

    Christians today are the same as 2000yrs ago .
    Ignorance is Bliss

    February 26, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • John

      Not blissful at all when that ignorance affects the rest of us in such a damaging way (see all wars and angry, condescending conservatives who hate non-Christians).

      February 26, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • GauisCaesar

      Did this guy say "see all wars?" Anyone who says all wars (or MOST wars) are caused by religion is completely ingnorant. Even athiestic historians could disprove that in a matter of seconds. if you don't know history, stay away from making misrepresentations about them. Others aren't so ignorant!

      February 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      @caeser

      Anyone who believes MOST wars WEREN't over religious strife is ignorant. Name me 15 wars out the 1000's that have happened to back up your claims.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • GauisCaesar

      WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Korea, Conflict Desert Storm, Russian Civil War 1 (Feb rev), Russian Civil War 2 (oct rev), virtually any Roman war, War of 1812, French-indian War, English Civil War...you can stop me anytime. i am basically just writing down virtually every war to ever be fought. Educated historians agree with this. You can't name 5 wars in history that were actually faught principly over religion. (Obviously, the only ones that come to mind are the Crusades and the Muslim conquests of the middle ages. Any ones you can name besides these?

      February 26, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      @caseer, my man. About 85% of the one you listed were religion based. Roman wars? WOW. WWI and WWII? Wrong again, pretty sure the holocaust was religious based. French-Indian war? Religion/Social! War of 1812, directly religious. Are you blind or dumb. Did you go to high school?

      February 26, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  8. Michael O'Flahavan

    As a species, we need to realize that books like the Bible and the Qur'an were written as a description of culture and not universal truth; for purely comedic pursuit, read Leviticus in the Old Testament!

    There is no scientific evidence of a "Creator" other than the process of the genesis of organic molecules throughout the universe. Theses organic molecules are the basis of what we are and all that we know and all that we shall ever know. Let us hope that life, other than on Earth, will be discovered in the cosmos soon. Then once and for all we can finally throw off the yoke of organized religion and return to the cosmos as we are destined to do.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  9. Steven

    Christianity needs more outside the box thinkers like the author of this piece.

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

      Christians think outside-the-box all the time. They just have a tendency to leave the faith shortly after.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  10. GauisCaesar

    To all of you reading this article that don't know much about Christianity....this article is garbage and doesn't actually represent what most Christians believe. Jesus was not a drunkard, and was never considered one (if you read the whole chapter of that verse he cites above, you will easily see that). This is a very liberal, non-biblical Christian pastor. Obvious to most Christians, CNN never puts on conservative Christian pastor stories unless the story is to insult and scorn them.

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

      We get it. You have a different view. He has a different view. There are literally thousands if not hundreds of thousands of different views on the Bible and what it "really means", and every single person knows they're 100% right. This should be your first clue that THE BIBLE IS NOT DIVINE. There are dozens of versions, and thousands of interpretations. It's been edited and reedited throughout the centuries. How can divine word be edited and "fixed"? Here's a hint: it's just stone age philosophy that we haven't been able to rid ourselves of. But go on, keep telling everyone what "God really meant" as if you have clue.

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

      Umm, learn some dang history guy! The dead sea scrolls discovered in 1948 disproves your point already! Please update your criticism! And this liberal pastor has claimed in the past that sin isn't real. You can claim whatever "version" of christianity you want, but if it completely contradicts 100% of the Bible, you bet it isn't 100% right!

      February 26, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • gizmoduck

      You don't realize just how many versions of "The Bible" there are do you? Or the fact that there are entire books that have been added and removed throughout history to fit the needs of the power of the time? YOU need to do some research, friend. There's no such thing as "The Bible". There are many, many versions of the Bible, and it will continue to be redone and re-purposed in the future. It's not "divine word", unless divine word can be edited. That seems like a fairly BS notion to me.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  11. geodans

    ...and so we should also not sugarcoat the context, it's authors and it's origins, and be brave enough to place the bible on the shelf with other great relics mythological works of our ancient beginnings, and be brave enough to explore all of the worlds mythologies past and present, as Joe Campbell did... so that we can better understand and define them ans ourselves to build a new ideal and mythology that is right and relevant for our times, rather then clinging to the outdated blood soaked "holy" obscenities that have served only to enslave the masses under the yokes and chains of religions that have brought us to where we find ourselves today, mired in greed, brutality, oil, blood, and indifference to the suffering that exist and continues to separate and divide man from himself, his humanity and her own godliness...

    February 26, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  12. 2/8

    Of course it's brutal, it was written by man. Anything we touch usually usually suffers in one form or another. I believe God's a fantastic and kind being, but we usually end up being the ones who do silly, violent things in God's name.

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

      Your god is a kind being?

      Ever seen a harlequin baby?

      Why do millions starve but your god enables Tim Tebow to make a touchdown?

      Because there is no god

      February 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  13. Bob Fitts

    This is such a great article......so true......love living life as a Christian, opposite of religion!

    February 26, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  14. waynebob

    The Bible is R rated.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  15. SHAIARRA

    “When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and waving a cross,”

    Sinclair Lewis

    (FASCISM ALMOST ALWAYS HAS A RELIGION ie DARK AGES/ INQUISITION/HOLOCAUST/ JIM CROW)

    February 26, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • well

      From what I've seen, Fascism is coming to America wrapped in the flag and cloaked in fear of terrorism. Religion being a non-issue.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Gorgon

      Funny because I see fascism coming in the USA and it's carrying a copy of "The Origin of the Species By Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of the Favored Races In the Struggle For Life" (the full name they conveniently shorten) and is wrapped in a Rainbow Flag ( hate crime laws)..............We need more humanists like Stalin and Mao, they only killed 80 million between them, thank goodness their minds were not clouded with that silly Christ story......

      February 26, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • doug

      What, I believe, Lewis meant was that fascism would come to America wrapped in words and transported in vehicles that appeal to the masses. Since matters of faith no longer appeal to the majority of Americans, we might want to begin looking for it in things that appeal to the masses today. As for the charge that the Bible and Christians are the root cause of Jim Crow and slavery, check the facts of history – it was, by a vast majority, Christians that were the force behind great movements like Abolition of slavery or hiding Jews in Nazi Germany because of their right understanding of the Bible, and their obligation to follow the Biblical mandate that "..we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free" all are equal in the eyes of God.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  16. Jason Sewell

    I agree with this easy wholeheartedly. Let's take the bible for what it really is : one of the most violent, misogynistic, depraved works of literature ever written. Any one who follows a religion based on this book is at best terribly misguided, and at worst a delusional psychopath.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  17. SHAIARRA

    ON SYRIA'S KING, IT'S AN EXAMPLE OF SHARIA RELIGIOUS LAW
    THE INHUMANE AND SHOCKING TREATMENT AND KILLINGS GOING ON BY THE KING/IMAMS, AS SHOCKING AS IT IS, IS PERMITTED AND CONDONED BY SHARIA LAWS OK AND THE BIBLE ALSO, REMEMBER THE INQUISITION AND THE HOLOCAUST WERE ALL RELIGIOUSLY BACKED AND PROMOTED AS "GOD" APPROVED, BY THE "GOOD BOOKS"...."HOLY BOOKS" PROMOTE SLAVERY STILL IN THIS MODERN DAY AND AGE, AS IT HAS ALWAYS DONE SO DON'T LIKE WHAT THE KING OF SYRIA IS DOING, OH WELL, THAT'S WHAT TO EXPECT FROM RELIGION, LET THE UNITED ARAB LEAGUE USE THEIR OWN $$$ AND ARMIES, BUT THEY WON'T BECAUSE EACH LEADER/ KING THERE KNOWS SHARIA LAWS PERMITS THE KING OF SYRIA TO DO WHATS HE'S DOING,SO WHY HAVE RELIGIOUS LAWS (BIBLE/ SHARIA)IN THE US GOVERNMENT, AS YOU SEE IT IS CAUSING A LOT OF (R.SANTORUM'S AND J.OLSTEEN'S MOLE AGITATIONS)OVER THERE

    February 26, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  18. SHAIARRA

    * "Freedom is the recognition that no single person, no single authority or government has a monopoly on the truth, but that every individual life is infinitely precious, that every one of us put in this world has been put there for a reason and has something to offer."

    THOMAS JEFFERSON A DEIST FOUNDING FATHER

    February 26, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  19. melena

    we have turned into a greedy, selfish, uncaring pride filled people. We have tons of clothing, shoes, cars, food and we hoard hoard hoard, we do not share. We see our brothers and sisters suffering and we give them crumbs and stay with the best cut. Then we thump our chest and scream out that we helped, that we gave. But you gave so all may see, God sees your heart your intentions and He has to take you to the radical so you may understand what being humble is all about. You have your Joel Olsteins a d Creflo Dollars screaming about prosperity, greed greed greed. Jesus died for us He a King lived a humble life and we are so pride filled, How can you speak of prosperity whan your brother is suffering so??????????????????

    February 26, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  20. LetHumanityMoreForward

    God is Not Great – Religion DOES poison everything.

    We are not Neanderthals (compared to 10,000 years ago), we are not clueless, uneducated mammals with untethered, rampant unguided imaginative forces rooted in unanswered questions. We are a young species still. However, let go of the chains – the "Achilles heal" of mankind ... let go of religion. Forget fairytale nonsense, live in the real world and knowledge we have....looking forward to advancing it and expanding it.

    Love your family and friends Live life with the pursut of your personal & professional dreams, in the best physical and mental health you can. Peace to all.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • LookAndSEE

      And u believe we came from a rock?

      February 26, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • well

      The rampant factual, punctuation and spelling errors make me question you wisdom.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Stephen

      Yeoch! Some of these posts are so toxic the fumes seep out of my computer screen. Doesn't anyone believe in live and let live any more? And a day is rapidly approaching when you will see that all you thought to be so real and lasting turns out to be like morning mist carried away by a breeze. Do you want to be left with your own bitterness or a majestic light that has shone for milennia and will not dim one bit, no matter how much people rage on against it.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • LetHumanityMoreForward

      @LookAndSEE + @well – Go pick up a bible (Koran or whatever), drink some tea and calm the hell down.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
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About this blog

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.