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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. TIM

    you really take poetic license with you say..."he partied so much..." Here is Matthew 11:19. The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

    First of all, who is "they"? Second of all, the Bible, as we Christians and Catholics belive, is inspired by God. So I am not sure where the sugarcoating takes place. Find something else to write about.

    February 26, 2012 at 3:52 am |
    • Kevin B

      "Belief" has about as much significance as a hand full of magic beans.

      February 26, 2012 at 3:54 am |
    • lukel

      He cited about 5 different scenarios. Why should he write about something else considering you can't read.

      February 26, 2012 at 4:06 am |
    • John

      The point the author is making is that the original Bible is God inspired but newer translations might not be as authentic.

      February 26, 2012 at 4:11 am |
  2. Ozzi

    Yeah. Christianity is a lovely religion until they start burning you at the stake and making you take false oaths of loyalty to survive. Christians make abuse acceptable too under the "father knows best" rule, Eph 5:23, and Prov 13:24. It is also acceptable to kill your family, Lev 20:10 and Rom 6:23. Christianity is as barbaric as Islam and Hinduism.

    I'm not interested in making Christianity a danger to me ever again.

    February 26, 2012 at 3:52 am |
  3. Kevin

    What this ultimately comes down to for me is that everyone has their own mindset of right and wrong. I feel that knowing right from wrong is the most important aspect in life. The Bible is a teaching tool to help you know right from wrong and how to find the righteous path in life. People can believe what they want but I think it is good to have faith and believe in a higher power. To me everyday is a struggle no matter where in the globe you are and if you treat everyone how you would want to be treated, stay positive and stride no matter what situation you are in and don't pass judgement on others beliefs things would be alot better in the world. The main point i'm trying to make here is that everyone is human and we all make mistakes. It is best to learn from them and not be bitter to others and blame everything but yourself. Everyone wants to be happy in one way or another and using each other as stepping stools is not the way to do it. We all have our own vices and reasons for our own personal beliefs. To me religion can be used for both good and evil. I'm pretty sure God didn't intend his word to be used for an excuse to start war based on other's differences but to live in harmony and peace with each other. I pray that peace can be found within ourselves. War to make peace? Quit pointing out each other's differences and embrace them. Peace is found within not by what others tell you to believe.

    February 26, 2012 at 3:51 am |
  4. david

    i agree 100%

    February 26, 2012 at 3:49 am |
  5. Johan S

    Question to a Republican:
    Should books that depict incest be banned from children's libraries?
    Answer: Yes

    Therefore, the Bible should be banned from children's libraries????

    February 26, 2012 at 3:48 am |
  6. Dasoldier

    While he's being honest then let's not forget how the white man egotistically portrayed God in his own image to elevate themselves and left other races out.

    February 26, 2012 at 3:48 am |
  7. Spangler

    The authors of the OT considered Him to be their personal War God who looked out only for Israel and brought devestation to it's enimies. The authors of the NT considered Him to be a loving God of all people. They are two different views from two different time periods.

    February 26, 2012 at 3:46 am |
  8. ItsMeAgain

    I've found Buddhism and Hinduism to be a much more positive way to understand the Creator than the Abrahamic religions. We need to stop feeling the guilt and shouldering blame because of what was originally written by a small Jewish cult. That's their worldview. The rest of the world doesn't need to accept it.

    February 26, 2012 at 3:46 am |
  9. J

    And to add to my last reply,

    To say this "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.

    "

    is just maniacal and hysterical. First, it was the blood of some figure of some sort (whether it was human blood or animal blood) then as times progressed forward – THATS when you became more concienscious of the world around you and started "symbolically" doing things by eating bread and drinking wine (which isnt drinking alcohol a sin?)

    Just goes to show that this has been a waste!

    February 26, 2012 at 3:43 am |
  10. Roberts The Vile

    The god of the old testament was horrifying. He was like something out of Lovecraft's mythos – even his descriptions. This isn't to mention the completely random feats of bizarre afflictions and gross destruction of human life.

    But, as things went on it (well, He, I am sure they use now) was warped into some sort of altruistic, human-loving father figure. Even had a child... What the Hell, Bible?

    February 26, 2012 at 3:41 am |
  11. truthispain

    I read it every day. The problem is my mind and intellect and get in the way. It is just another book. I know non-fiction when I read it and I understand the ancient history of the bible and how it has come together and how it has taken on its present form. Maybe, you should try expanding your library too and let yourself discover how the book became, who wrote it, why they wrote it and get with the program. There actually WERE dinasours. They too, are extinct.

    February 26, 2012 at 3:40 am |
  12. Kevin

    the belief blog is an apologists paradise.... one more reason to go to BBC... this is pathetic.

    February 26, 2012 at 3:39 am |
  13. ron mcloughlin

    In fact Christianity is one gory story after another that begins with the Crucifixion. Not only did the Romans nail Him to the cross(How did He manage to sustain himself for three hours like that?) but they first put a crown of thorns on his head to mock him as king of the Jews (see INRI) but for good measure they stuck a sword in his side. Can a story get more gory than that? And when He cried out, "I thirst!" they threw a sponge at Him dipped in gall. It's sadism at its maximum.

    February 26, 2012 at 3:37 am |
  14. Kendyl

    I Love this article. I Love Jesus. I Love you people. Love love love.

    February 26, 2012 at 3:35 am |
    • tbuno

      Religion=war so go kill youself or someone else.

      February 26, 2012 at 3:38 am |
    • Kendyl

      Why post such a hateful comment? I still Love you! And Im not religious, friend, what God and I have is a relationship. Im sorry for the way religious culture has tainted that truth. Truly, I am. It's sad. Donald Miller, my favorite author, wrote a book called Blue Like Jazz that completely changed my view of God and spirituality. If you like to read, check it out 🙂

      February 26, 2012 at 3:42 am |
  15. Kathleen

    Oh, please. The Bible is filled with primitive barbarism, absurdities and inanities. The author's lame attempt to make the Bible real and edgy doesn't address the fact that the Bible is morally bankrupt, the backward product of an ignorant time.

    February 26, 2012 at 3:35 am |
    • Ozzi

      So true!

      February 26, 2012 at 3:53 am |
    • EdNv

      Well said

      February 26, 2012 at 4:03 am |
  16. EdNv

    Um and Lott offered his virgin daughters to villagers, then took them for himself, all with your gods blessing....a great lesson for fathers, eh Jews, Muslims, and Christians - this story is in the Books common to all these religions...

    February 26, 2012 at 3:34 am |
    • Bob Smith

      Actually, Lot did offer his daughters to the crowd as you mention. A deplorable action – yes, but in many places today, women are still treated as property, let alone 2,000 years ago when this was written. Lot did try to bring his daughter's fiancées with them to the wilderness, but they refused to go with them thinking it was a joke (Genesis 19:14). His daughters later got him drunk and slept with him in order to have children (Genesis 30 – 36). He didn't take them for himself, with our God's blessing, as you say. Do I think it's a wonderful story? No. But if you're going to paraphrase the Bible, do it right.

      February 26, 2012 at 4:06 am |
    • EdNv

      Wow, you are really sticking with the 'he was drunk' excuse - your god and its prophets are into incest plain and simple.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  17. Dave

    How about we just ignore the entire Bible and use our own sense of reason and empathy to craft a better morality. If there is anyone here who thinks they *can't* write a better Ten Commandments, please step forward.

    February 26, 2012 at 3:33 am |
  18. Wisdom4u2

    Why do the ‘atheist’ seek out and comment on a deity that they don’t believe in? I would think if you don’t believe in something you’d have nothing to say about it; so what gives? All their comments sounds pretty stupid to me… I’m just saying…..

    February 26, 2012 at 3:32 am |
    • Dave

      It is because religion is doing a lot of harm throughout the world. You guys keep believing in dangerous nonsense and we'll keep calling you out it.

      February 26, 2012 at 3:34 am |
    • notheism

      I discuss about the validity of belief, and specifically about religious belief. How "stupid" is that? It's called philosophizing, something that your religion asks you to avoid.

      February 26, 2012 at 3:37 am |
    • Rennes11

      I don't have to use drugs to have an opinion about them, just as I don't have to have experienced a religion to have an opinion. This is why they call it a debate or lively discussion.

      February 26, 2012 at 3:40 am |
    • Wisdom4u2

      What's with 'you guys', 'your religion' ????

      February 26, 2012 at 3:44 am |
    • Wisdom4u2

      What's with the 'you guys' and 'your religion' ????
      You're not addressing to me....I'm not 'religious'
      and to *Rennes11* You are so totally clueless...you'd be wasting your time trying to 'debate' anything. You’re like a Priest conducting ‘marriage counseling’. Duhhh

      February 26, 2012 at 3:49 am |
    • Kendyl

      Friendly Recommendations: Google Video- "Case For A Creator" is brilliant and beautiful. Most of my atheist friends loved it! And "Blue Like Jazz" by Donald Miller literally changed my life. In the end, we're all seeking truth and we all obviously yearn to discuss it. It just breaks my heart, some of the hateful comments here. No one has to agree with anyone; everyone's spiritual walk is their own personal journey. But have the human decency to show a little respect for people's faith. If it changes their life for the better, and makes them a more decent, loving human being, why pick a bone with that? The way to make the world a better place is by starting with the man in the mirror.

      February 26, 2012 at 3:59 am |
    • notheism

      "everyone's spiritual walk is their own personal journey" No idea what you mean by "spiritual walk"...
      Our responsibility, if there ever was one, is to respect people and not their beliefs necessarily. For example, if you believed that, to use Dr. Harris' example, every third child must walk in darkness, so every third child in such a culture has their eyes removed – do you not think that we have a duty to fix that? Shouldn't we at least challenge the reasoning behind such beliefs?
      "If it changes their life for the better, and makes them a more decent, loving human being, why pick a bone with that? The way to make the world a better place is by starting with the man in the mirror." That's a lot of ifs, but I wouldn't make it an issue. As far as your last sentence goes, I agree, we should all examine ourselves and the reason behind what we believe to make sure that we are good human beings.

      February 26, 2012 at 4:12 am |
  19. Josh

    Good article. Different take on religion and some of its shortcomings today. I think he has a good point though. Church service is always about being prim and proper and a lot of preachers do make the characters of the Bible out to be somewhat legendary. I like where the author of this article points. It points out that even someone like David, who was a man after God's own heart, was flawed. People need to remember that and not have it whitewashed out of the sermon. It points out that pretty much any of the sins of today were around then, and while there was punishment and consequences, there was still love as well.

    February 26, 2012 at 3:32 am |
  20. Blah, blah, blah.

    Interesting and all, but I don't follow any religion. I reject every one of them. But I have no business to criticize the religions of others, unless they become a danger to me. Christianity and Judaism represent no threat to me nor the peace and security of the world. Islam on the other hand, is a constant menace to the world peace and to the Muslims themselves who are capable to sacrifice their own lives in order to kill the "enemies" of Islam.

    February 26, 2012 at 3:32 am |
    • Roger

      Less than 1% of the prison population are atheists. The other 99% believe in some sort of God, and I would think that the majority believe in the Christian interpretation of God. My point is that religion has failed. Centuries ago when people were largely illiterate and limited in their ability to make rational decisions, religion may have had a role. But nowadays it is contributing to our inability to evolve as a society. That is the danger that it presents.

      February 26, 2012 at 3:59 am |
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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.