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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. barry

    it's all pretend, children!

    February 26, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  2. JESUS2020 DOT COM

    AMEN AMEN understand depths of sin. if you were like me i saw bible verses but no one explained to me what it meant, what were key pts to understanding how to be saved. if only someone had i coulda been saved earlier.

    romans 3:23- for all have sinned and fallen short of glory of God: means we are sinners. sin is breaking of Gods commandments such as lieing stealing listing
    romans 6:23 Wage of sin is death but gift of God is eternal life in Christ: shows payment for sin is hell
    romans 5;8 God demonstrated his love ot us in yet while we were sinners Christ died for us. Christ shed his blood on corss and rose on third day to show you can have a new life in Christ. be forgiven by blood of christ
    "Lord Jesus, I believe you are the Son of God. Thank you for dying on the cross for my sins. Please forgive my sins and give me the gift of eternal life. I ask you in to my life and heart to be my Lord and Savior. I want to serve you always."

    then preach away, read bible, pray, ask God where he would have you to learn in a church setting or hone setting or whatever. be filled with Holy Spirit, confess sins (james 5:16)
    not good works or being good person. understanding ultimate sin in our herats and depths of it and our greatest need for salvation that is found only thru jesus christ and his blood shed on cross and only way we can overcome sin is by receiving Holy Spirit in our hearts to overcome sin and be washed clean amen!

    February 26, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • justme

      wages of sin: death or hell? can't have both

      February 26, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  3. NVRWRNG

    @Rich – Give me one scientifically backed explanation of prayer leading to a change.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things
      Proven

      February 26, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      I'm sure that is about all they have to offer as an explanation.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      And the immediate response, so typical of True Believers, is "I don't have to prove it, I just have to keep saying it over and over."
       
      This is a perfect illustration of the basic dichotomy: Science says "I believe it because it's true." Religion says "It's true because I believe it."

      February 26, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      @russel – it is why when I have intelligent conversations with the people how are "educated" on the bible and truly worship the bible and god, can't have a conversation with me. When they say things like god knows all and I ask "how do you know" and they responds with "i believe" I literally just laugh. I want proof scientific proof. I hope one day it is proven, either way, so we can get this religion thing out of the way. It is slowing down the good of man. We should be way more advanced than we are right now.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  4. Observer2

    Notwithstanding the "noises that reasonable people make", the Bible and believers will be here tomorrow, the next day and on to the end of history.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      lets hope not.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      I'm sure the followers of Zeus, Osiris, Odin, and Ahura Mazda deluded themselves likewise.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Justice

      As well as the non believers, they will be here too. lol

      February 26, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  5. JESUS2020 DOT COM

    understand depths of sin. if you were like me i saw bible verses but no one explained to me what it meant, what were key pts to understanding how to be saved. if only someone had i coulda been saved earlier. AMEN

    romans 3:23- for all have sinned and fallen short of glory of God: means we are sinners. sin is breaking of Gods commandments such as lieing stealing listing
    romans 6:23 Wage of sin is death but gift of God is eternal life in Christ: shows payment for sin is hell
    romans 5;8 God demonstrated his love ot us in yet while we were sinners Christ died for us. Christ shed his blood on corss and rose on third day to show you can have a new life in Christ. be forgiven by blood of christ
    "Lord Jesus, I believe you are the Son of God. Thank you for dying on the cross for my sins. Please forgive my sins and give me the gift of eternal life. I ask you in to my life and heart to be my Lord and Savior. I want to serve you always."

    then preach away, read bible, pray, ask God where he would have you to learn in a church setting or hone setting or whatever. be filled with Holy Spirit, confess sins (james 5:16)
    not good works or being good person. understanding ultimate sin in our herats and depths of it and our greatest need for salvation that is found only thru jesus christ and his blood shed on cross and only way we can overcome sin is by receiving Holy Spirit in our hearts to overcome sin and be washed clean amen!

    February 26, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      So, have you also read the Bhagavad Gita, Book of Mormon, Koran, Hindu Vedas, and collected sayings of Confucius, so that you have a sound basis for saying that your preferred brand is superior to all of those?

      February 26, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • justme

      why do you contradict yourself so much? just one; Rom.6:23. the wages sin pays is death. no need for a burning hell to keep punishing, not God's idea ; Jer. 7 :31

      February 26, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  6. SHAIARRA

    2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

    3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15:19- 24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

    4. Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

    5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath.. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

    6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than murder. I don't agree. Can you settle this?

    7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

    February 26, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • guest

      hahaha! those are funny, just hope other religious people have sense of humor =)

      February 26, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Nick

      When you take quotes from sources other than your own, you must include its author.

      Even if it's the West Wing...

      Otherwise, it's called stealing and an offense not only under biblical but also secular law. You get to decide which you would rather be tried under... 😉

      February 26, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  7. FEAR AND LOVE OF GOD

    JESUS2020.COM WANNA GET SAVED VISIT HERE.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  8. robert plante

    The God from the old testament is a very narrow minded, cruel, creepy. grumpy old phantom. Jesus was a gay (which is not a bad thing off course) , although no Christian will admit it. But both were the results of the human mind. Both are paper tigers. And the humans who created them both would be astonished by the fact that nowadays millions take there moral words so seriously that they even fly into building for them. Religion? So sad.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Justice

      The problem with you in which you seem to enjoy the back bottom hole quite often is the fact that God and Jesus scares you, just because they both banned every single desire and disgusting orientations that you have makes you angry, you don't feel free of doing what you want and you don't like it.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  9. sigh

    "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven." Luke 6:37.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      Sounds like a load of crap to me.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • Justice

      NVRWRNG what would like to hear instead?. I bet what you like is to listen to rap and hip hop and you wear your pants down to your knees and you're calling your girlfriend a hoe isn't it? Oh i forgot about wearing a bling bling around your neck and have about 25 tattoos and piercings in many places right?

      February 26, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      @Justice – that's insanely racist. Also most Afican Americans believe in God, so your statements are insanely wrong and corrupt. I am a whole-hearted american. I love all types of music, I wear my pants on my waist and my fiancé is the best thing that has ever happened to me. Before you mistaken someone as not being educated (4 years of HS, 3 1/2 college, 4 Med+) when they have shown nothing besides educational remarks, just close your mouth so you don't look dumb. It is you who is obviously uneducated. I really, truly don't hope you think that someone put you on earth has a full human being.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  10. Paul

    CRYINGTOGOD, u are doing masturbation to the idea of God, really masturbation, u probably have orgasms as well
    Isn't that ironic that you are committing mortal sin to your own God?

    February 26, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Do you masturbate, Paul?

      February 26, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • Justice

      Ha Ha Ha

      February 26, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  11. SHAIARRA

    ANY TYPE OF RELIGIOUSE EXTREMISM ALWAYS BRINGS ABOUT MURDER
    Taliban publicly flog, execute pregnant woman for alleged adultery
    The Taliban publicly flogged and then executed a pregnant Afghan widow by firing three shots into her head for alleged adultery, police said on Monday. Bibi Sanubar, 35, was kept in captivity for three days before she …Ethiopian Review · 3 hours ago
    Taliban publicly flog, then execute pregnant woman in Afghanistan
    Raw Story
    Taliban executes pregnant woman
    Asian Age
    More stories
    [Taliban executes pregnant widow accused of adultery] CNN
    Taliban Executes a Pregnant Widow
    The Taliban executed a pregnant widow. She was a widow but accused of becoming pregnant after her husband's death. Sanam Gul was accused of adultery in western Afghanistan, and shot in the head for her alleged …Gather.com · 1 day ago
    Man who impregnated widow in Taliban detention
    CNN (blog)

    February 26, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  12. Remnant of God

    WARNING to all!
    The "antichrist" is the Pope and the "mark of the beast" will be enforced when the "powers to be" pass "Sunday" laws.

    You will be ordered to worship on "Sunday" and you will not be able to work on that day. It is proven that the Vatican changed the "TRUE" Sabbath from the seventh day of the week to the first day of the week and they even admit that you can not find one bible verse in God's Word from Genesis to Revelation that states God ever changed the Sabbath Day (seventh day Saturday) to the first day of the week (Sunday).

    As prophesied in God's Word ~ Daniel 7:25 ~ And he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      I'll see you in the rapture capsule with the unicorns. Don't forget to wear your nose ring – the big steel one that I padlocked the chain onto when we were practising for the uplifting.

      But this time, close your mouth when I pull the chain and the downward swirling starts, so you don't swallow the brown floaters like the last time you took the dive.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  13. TheTruth

    You are all thrown about like sheep without a shepherd. I sincerely pity everyone here. It seems that the majority of both sides have no idea what the Bible really teaches. Some of the comments here show that this world is worse than Sodom an Gomorrah. God will not tolerate this foolishness for much longer. One day, the majority of people that have posted a blasphemous comment will call to mind the scripture at Ezekiel 38:18-23.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      I'll see you in the rapture capsule with the unicorns. Don't forget to wear your nose ring – the big steel one that I padlocked the chain onto when we were practising for the uplifting.

      But this time, close your mouth when I pull the chain and the downward swirling starts, so you don't swallow the brown chunks like the last time you took the dive.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Oh Yeah

      Shepherds are only interested in "protecting" sheep for their own use, either fleecing them or consuming them, right?

      February 26, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Yada yada yada, blah blah blah, threats threats threats. Never ONCE does any of this stuff ever come true. And yet the supply of gullible suckers seems bottomless.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Bobby

      Lot's of Christians commenting here. I guess there's lots of pews empty this Sunday, or are they texting during the sermon?

      February 26, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • ShortTimeLeft

      The rapture is not a Bible teaching and that is not what he's referring to. Jesus never fleeced his Spiritual Flock but cared for them.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  14. J Brouillette

    First Letter of Peter 3:18-22.
    Beloved: Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit.
    In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison,
    who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water.
    This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
    who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  15. J Brouillette

    Book of Genesis 9:8-15.
    God said to Noah and to his sons with him :
    "See, I am now establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you
    and with every living creature that was with you: all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals that were with you and came out of the ark.
    I will establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood; there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth."
    God added: "This is the sign that I am giving for all ages to come, of the covenant between me and you and every living creature with you:
    I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
    When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds,
    I will recall the covenant I have made between me and you and all living beings, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all mortal beings.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • In Reason I Trust

      And while god was saying that to Noah he was also busy killing every man woman and child in the planet. Yeah that sounds like a "good" god, lol. People you worship a psychopath!!! How can the devil possibly be more evil than God?!

      February 26, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  16. Jesus

    Hey guys, the Bible is a mythical book, just as I am a mythical person. I thought you would realize that by 2012.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Liberals Are Stupid

      John Lennon and many others got struck down after mocking God. Better watch your step.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Paul

      Oh, I don't know about that. The bible in my hand seems pretty real to me.....

      February 26, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • In Reason I Trust

      Lol, watch your step! Grow up. God didn't bother stopping Hitler but He will go out of his way to kill some guy that said something bad about him on a blog?! Lol, idiot.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Jaime

      the Bible is mot mythical, it is metaphorical.. but it is real.. try asking God, and he will tell you... if you are worth the truth.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • In Reason I Trust

      Sorry, but what you said is just nonsense.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  17. MatterOfFact

    "Is god willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?" – Epicurus, 341-270 BCE

    February 26, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Jesus

      Hey! SHHH! You are supposed to ignore rationality, logic, and anything else that makes religion obviously a load of crap.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Justice

      Sorry but you will need quite a big brain cells transplantation to understand just half of the questions you're asking.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      @Justice – actually you need a small amount of brain cells to not see the flaws. It is you who is blind. Show me one factual piece that religion or praying has ever accomplished (besides wars and destruction.)

      February 26, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  18. J Brouillette

    Today's Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Mark 1:12-15 (proclaimed in all places every hour of the day today).

    The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
    and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.
    After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
    This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      J Brouillette, I'll see you in the rapture capsule with the unicorns. Don't forget to wear your nose ring – the big steel one that I padlocked the chain onto when we were practising for the uplifting.

      But this time, close your mouth when I pull the chain and the downward swirling starts, so you don't swallow the brown floaters like the last time you took the dive.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Yup, Jesus is due back any minute now — a statement that Christians have been deluding themselves with for 2 millennia!
       
      The very people promoting this idea are apparently incapable of reading their own holy book (Matthew 24:30-34), where Jesus clearly says he’ll be returning during the lifetime of his own disciples. But guess what? He didn’t! Didn’t come back then, hasn’t come back since, isn’t back now, and won’t be coming back in the future.
       
      And why not? Because he’s DEAD, you fools! Dead, dead, dead! Dead and gone. Dead and buried. Dead as a doornail. Dead as a rock. Dead as a dodo. Flatlined like Kansas. Belly-up like a dynamited carp. Dead and never coming back!
       
      It’s been TWO THOUSAND YEARS, people. Time to get over it. I’ve heard of slow learners, but this is ridiculous. Sheesh. Grow up and face reality.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  19. HONESTLY

    Who cares what the bible says other than folks who find themselves drawn to a lot of contradiction, fantasy, and mind-wasting mumbo-jumbo. The only thing any worst is the koran or maybe the wacko book of mormon. Get a life!

    February 26, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • MatterOfFact

      Hallejuhah!

      February 26, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Liberals Are Stupid

      And I say unto you, Every one who shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God: but he that denieth me in the presence of men shall be denied in the presence of the angels of God.

      But I will warn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, who after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.

      (Jesus)

      February 26, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      All I hope is if there really is a hell, I hope I go there, because I know I'd at least get along with my fellow people there. You do realize that under your beliefs, there is only ONE heaven right? So everyone who believes in a god, goes to heaven. There must be a lot of war going on up there. I'll take my peace pipe and chill with my fellow educated people and chill with hitler and his crew. I bet he has better stories anyways.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Justice

      NVRWRNG don't worry i already bought you a one way ticket to hell, Hope you enjoy the trip.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  20. Who is?

    Steven James is a story teller-Got it! We need such people writing articles about the Bible as it makes perfect sense. NOT!

    February 26, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • Solomon

      It just cautions us to be wary of false teachings and writers. Stephen's take on Matthew 11:19 is so unbelievable and so false. In that passage Jesus very clearly talks about Godly wisdom that is manifested by the fruits a person produces.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • A very poor take on the Bible

      This does not reflect the truth about the gospels, the Bible or the message that Christ came to deliver.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:52 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.