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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. Ken

    How do you know there's a god? How do you know there's a Christian type God? How do you know which writings in the Bible are the inspired word of your concept of God? How do you know your interpretation of God's supposed "word" is correct?

    The Bible is like a Ouija board, subject to every possible random, extreme and subjective interpretation, every twitch of mind and quirk of personality leading to one conclusion or another.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Liberals Are Stupid

      You have a lot of good questions with no answers except to condemn the Bible in the end, comparing it to witchcraft. It's evident you haven't taken the time to honestly seek out the Truth. If you are serious about wanting answers, rather than mocking it, then read it with an open mind and seek answers with an open heart.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Conservatives Are Stupid................

      Sorry, had to fix that.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • doughnuts

      Let's just call it what it is: Another popular bunch of mythology with no more of a connection to reality that any other mythos has. God and Jesus and the rest are functionally equivalent to Babylonian, Greek, Roman, or Norse pantheons.

      One of the worst days for Humankind was when morality was co-opted by religion.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Ken

      Sorry if you misunderstood LAStupid, but I'm not comparing it to witchcraft. I'm comparing it to a board game.

      February 26, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  2. Jerome Pittman

    Outstanding !!

    February 26, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  3. rationality-is-the-only-way

    god killed the Egyptian's first born – so therefore god must be in favor of abortion

    February 26, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Liberals Are Stupid

      The Bible specifically condemns abortion. Blame Pharaoh for the first-born deaths. They had nine chances to free the Israelites and refused.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Someone

      "Thou shalt not kill, except after warning them 9 times. Then you can hack their babies to pieces. After all, 'they made you do it!' ".

      February 26, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Carlito Swagger

      When God killed Egypt's first born those children were already out of the womb

      February 26, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  4. The Central Scrutinizer

    Even more fun with Bible Inconsistencies!

    Genesis

    God makes the animals and parades them before Adam to see if any would
    strike his fancy. But none seem to have what it takes to please him.
    (Although he was tempted to go for the sheep.) After making the animals,
    God has Adam name them all. The naming of several million species must
    have kept Adam busy for a while. 2:18-20

    God's clever, talking serpent. 3:1

    God walks and talks (to himself?) in the garden, and plays a little hide
    and seek with Adam and Eve. 3:8-11

    God curses the serpent. From now on the serpent will crawl on his belly
    and eat dust. One wonders how he got around before - by hopping on his
    tail, perhaps? But snakes don't eat dust, do they? 3:14

    God curses the ground and causes thorns and thistles to grow. 3:17-18

    God kills some animals and makes some skin coats for Adam and Eve. 3:21

    Cain is worried after killing Abel and says, "Every one who finds me
    shall slay me." This is a strange concern since there were only two
    other humans alive at the time - his parents! 4:14

    "And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD." 4:16

    "And Cain knew his wife." That's nice, but where the hell did she come
    from? 4:17

    February 26, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Incest.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  5. Franco

    I never understood why humanity believed in so many forms of God ? it is God our invention? Let me asking a question: let us assume .for argument sake,that a monkey was able to think of a God what do you tthink would look like? naturally a monkey whith the best quality possible, The same line of thinking would apply for any living creature.Since we are human beings we make our God according to our imagination and culture.History tell us how many Gods were worshipped ,too many to describe and also how many wars were fought for religion.Remember the phrase God is on our side?????? Too many bad thinks have happened in this world of ours to JUSTIFY the presence of a supreme power,SO many whys have not been answered. I think we have the power inborn in us to knowledge the spirit of our God.There is a lot of good in us.we are capable of fantastic expression of love,charity,self sacrifices.compassion and affection for nature,animals.and for the beauty of the world that surroundus.(sorry for my english)

    February 26, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Liberals Are Stupid

      Jesus didn’t say we’d never be sick, but He promised we could be healed (James 5:15). He said we would have troubles in this world, then told us to take heart because He’s overcome the world (John 16:33). He also said He is working all things together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).

      So what are these other factors? Well, first of all there’s our fallen creation which is currently under the control of the evil one (1 John 5:19). Because of this we live in an evil and arbitrary world, where even the innocent are often attacked. But it’s worse than that. According to 1 Peter 5:8 the devil is always prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

      Then there’s our sin nature that can place us outside of God’s protective power without us even being aware of it until it’s too late. And sometimes our faith is so weak that even in asking for help we make it obvious we don’t believe we’ll get it. James called this being double minded and said we shouldn’t expect anything when we pray like that (James 1:6-8). Put all this together and it’s a wonder God is able to intervene as often as He does.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  6. Pause and Think

    I want to clear up an issue that seems a little cloudy in this article: Christianity is, in fact, concerned with religion, but not as its primary facet. Religion–defined here as following Christ's commands and example–comes as a result of being saved. Most people talk about religion as the lifestyle of hypocrites, and sometimes this seems to be true. But religion truly ought to be the result of salvation, what happens when people love Christ so dearly they want nothing more than to serve him and emulate him.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  7. RickBangkok

    God did not write the Bible. Religions have shamelessly manipulated millions with their version of God. They still do. More and more people are educated and can think for themselves. They no longer need a religion to tell them what to believe. The actions of all religions based on belief are unholy.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Liberals Are Stupid

      The biggest mistake you can make is to assume you are smarter than God and make up your own system of beliefs that suit your lifestyle. God claims over and over again to be the Author of the Bible. Although He used human authors to pen it, He spoke His words to them and protected those words for thousands of years as promised. If you don't believe one thing in the Bible, it's logical to not believe anything in It. It's either 100% accurate or 100% false. You can't have it both ways.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Bizarre

      Liberals...

      The Bible is a book which includes *some* history of primitive Hebrew culture, and *some* good advice for practical, beneficial human behavior, but mostly it is a compilation of ancient Middle Eastern historical fiction, myth, legend, superst.ition and fantasy.

      There is not a whit of verified evidence for any of the supernatural beings and events in that book.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      Genesis

      God was angry because "the earth was filled with violence." But didn't
      God create the whole bloody system in the first place? Predator and
      prey, parasite and host - weren't they all designed by God? Oh, it's
      true that according to 1:30 God originally intended the animals to be
      vegetarian. But later (3:18) he changed all that. Still, the violence
      that angered God was of his own making. So what was he upset about? And
      how would killing everything help to make the world less violent? Did he
      think the animals would behave better after he "destroys them with the
      earth"? I guess God works in mysterious ways. 6:11-13

      February 26, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      *** God claims over and over again to be the Author of the Bible. Although He used human authors to pen it, He spoke His words to them ............................................

      Voices.
      Hearing voices is never a good sign.
      There is medical help for that.

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

      Actually, the biggest mistake you can make is to have faith in a god. Not only are your fooling yourself into a false sense of reality, you're also stopping your emotional and intellectual growth. It's quite easy to see that much of the "advise" the Bible has to offer is ridiculous. And it doesn't take genius to understand right from wrong.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • logan5

      @Liberal are stupid So then why did your god only telepathically implant his word in the minds of a tiny clan of Middle Eastern desert Bedouins (probably illiterate) while completely ignoring all the other human cultures that also existed at the time? Especially when his "word," which would later become the bible, was meant to be universally inclusive and of paramount importance to all of humanity. This is damming in that its so contradictory and illogical. So please take the time and find the courage to examine and answer these questions before you go and make up you mind you are dealing with a book inspired by a supernatural power. All evidence points to this NOT being the case.

      February 26, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  8. bettyboop33

    Great article and I also believe that you have a truly interesting point of view. It is true that "ALL men sin and fall short of the Glory of God...and I agree Jesus did not come to save the perfect but rather every single wicked one of us. God Bless You.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • logan5

      Did you ever stop to realize that the concept of Christian "salvation" is perhaps one of the most selfish ideals ever conceived. And it underscores the prime reason why Christians believe in their god in the first place. Your belief is motivated purely by fear. And this fear translates into the selfish and cowardly pursuit of personal "salvation." Clever little mechanism put in place to ensure followers have an incentive to believe. Too bad so many are incapable of or too afraid to reason this out

      February 26, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  9. Bruce

    Finally CNN.com puts out a decent article containing truth about the Bible!

    February 26, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Liberals Are Stupid

      Truth? You believe that Jesus was a drunk and that He wasn't righteous? Read the article again. It's liberal propaganda. Just enough truth in the article to overlook the falsehoods to those who aren't discerning enough to catch it. It's a dangerous article.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Where does Bruce say Jesus was a drunk ?
      Seems you are the one with a problem.
      -------------------------------------
      Liberals Are Stupid

      Truth? You believe that Jesus was a drunk and that He wasn't righteous? Read the article again. It's liberal propaganda. Just enough truth in the article to overlook the falsehoods to those who aren't discerning enough to catch it. It's a dangerous article.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  10. LetHumanityMoreForward

    @LookAndSEE – Wow. Uh, please pick up a book or two on biology – then we'll talk.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  11. SteveWard

    Plenty more such humorous verses can be found in my Kindle book:

    Holy Enigma! Bible Verses You'll Never Hear in Sunday School

    Deuteronomy 25:11-12 If two men fight and one’s wife tries to help by grabbing the testicles of the other man, her hand will be cut off without pity. (Living Bible)

    February 26, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  12. LetHumanityMoreForward

    @well – Your post *confirms* your lack of it....

    February 26, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  13. SHAIARRA

    RELIGIOUS LIBERTY vs CITIZEN CIVIL LIBERTIES AND BILL OF RIGHTS
    SINCE ALL RELIGIONS ARE IMF IRS 501(c)(3)LLC LIMITED LIABILITY CORPORATIONS, IF THE WOMAN NOR "PAIS" CONSENT TO THEIR INVOLVEMENT, THEN THEY HAVE TO LEAVE THESE CITIZEN LIBERTY STATE SUBJECTS ALONE, FOR THEM TO CONTINUE VIOLATES THE U.C.C. CONSENT/ CONTRACT CLAUSES, AND GRANT THE AGGRIEVED PARTIES U,C.C. RECOURSE REMEDIES FOR THIS RELIGIOUS INTRUSION

    February 26, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  14. Steven

    This message board is yet another kneejerk war between militant atheists and militant religious people. I see no reason to make any distinction between you guys.

    What happened to live & let live?

    February 26, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • CN

      steven–can you be morally and ethically serious and say something so fatuous? EVERY day you can read about theocratic encroachment on free society. pogroms of violence following book burning. ultrasounds in the va-gi-nas for any woman who wants an abortion. once a spe-rm and o-va fuse, the fetus has rights. g-ay people can't get married. women getting stoned in iran on trumped on charges of adultery. women getting stoned for blasphemy. get the religious to stop doing that, and see if the "militant atheists" have a word to say.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Art dude

      Steven- the militant "christians" started forcing their version of faith on everyone else- forcing it into public schools, secular government, now into healthcare, and everywhere else they can. It's never been live and let live with religious psychos. Just ask any teen who's been bullied to the point of suicide because bullies think they have the "right" because they think their religion gives them freel license to be complete, psychotic as sholes. Then they turn around and try to play the victim. They're sickening excuses for human beings.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Steven

      CN- In no way am I blind to those terrible things. It's just frustrating to see the user comments on this Belief blog. I think it's usually 98% kneejerk posturing & trolling. And about 2% honestly discussing the topic specifically related to the article.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  15. SHAIARRA

    " I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute–where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote–where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference–and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him"

    John F. Kennedy September 12, 1960, address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association:

    February 26, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  16. Bryan

    Respect each other and forget this chosen people crab. You will find out that peace will return to eart.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  17. MatterOfFact

    Forget about the Bible. It causes more trouble than it's worth.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • logan5

      You bring up a good point. The Bible has been the source of much strife and death over the centuries. All of it centered on biblical interpretation. This fact is very damming and clearly demonstrates how unlikely it is that this compilation of works was inspired by a "higher power." Why would a higher power go out of his way to ensure that his followers divide, fracture, and hate each other due to the lack of universal interpretation of his word? The only reason Christianity stubbornly endures is because it is forced on us at birth. Terrorized into believing, an impressionable child doesn't stand a chance. That's the secret of this belief system's success.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  18. Onlyone

    First off all, all praises to YAH the creator of life. I do thank you for my life even through the trying times that must and truly do come to give me the opportunity to show my character in life whether good or bad and I also realize the grace you have given me by being blessed with the breath of life to take the next breath to write the next line. In saying all that if I have it wrong I have a chance to make it right and repent from the things that offend you. I give all praise to YAH in the name of YAHSHUA

    Shalom Mankind

    February 26, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  19. John Hillman

    Merely press agent cleanup. They are merchandising a product. They have to change the truth to make it acceptable. "The truth will set you free". Free from a religion totally misrepresented for 2000 years.

    Check the history. Terrible things have been done in the name of Christianity. "Political correctness = social terrorism". The snake oil salesmen of Christianity have been PC from the beginning. Using the "Bible" to control the masses. Until the Gutenberg Bible only the elite of the Catholic Church could own and read a Bible. 1500 years of "interpreting" the Bible according to "doctrine".

    February 26, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  20. Sugarmama,, NC

    Wow! I could not have said it better. This article is so very very true of God and how He really is. Thanks to you for writing the truth. This so hard for people and even devout followers of Christ to follow but EVERYTHING IN THE HOLY BIBLE IS TRUE. I agree that God put extra attention when describing unfavorable behaviors and concepts that He wants us to avoid in our life.

    So many non believers view christianity as boring and dull and they also view christians as being easy going, quite, push overs but this is farthest from the truth. God created indiviuals for a reasons, He loves the variety in us all and He wants us to live and be as happy as possible.

    People who have accepted Christ into their lives have not been called to just lay down and take crap. We have all right and authority to speak up and out and yes even fight if necessary.

    February 26, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • sybaris

      Wow! You don't know many non-believers.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • John Hillman

      Why do you go to church on SUNday? The Catholic Church admits it is NOT Biblical. They did it because they COULD. The first "Christian" emperor (Constantine) was a converted SUN WORSHIPER. Coincidence???

      February 26, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • logan5

      LOL...would you listen to yourself! You are claiming you have the right to defend and "fight" for your god. I'll say it again, a "god" as in a supernatural being capable of unlimited feats of supernatural prowess. Please take a moment and reflect on how absurd and illogical that is.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
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