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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. NVRWRNG

    Hispanic Man – We are all waiting for the proof that you have the a god exists.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      dammit NVRWRNG, he does exist. He is HispanicMan!!! Isn't it obvious? Jesus never came to central America as the Mormons claim, he came to Santa Ana, CA in the year of our lord 2012. Or maybe he came to central America first, and then slowly made his way to Santa Ana. Why don' jew come to Cheezus, bro?

      February 26, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      @Dwight – Did he migrate legally or illegally. He better have went through all the necessary paper work!

      February 26, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      @NVRWRNG: Unfortunately he failed to get in on an EB-1 visa. They said he didn't really qualify under the category for "extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics," or any other scholarly field. We're working on getting his Labor Certification cleared. Hard working little guy. We'll get him in somehow.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      @Dwight – Damn illegal, stealing our jobs that no American wants to do anyways but they will complain about the jobs being stolen anyways!

      February 26, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      @NVRWRNG: yup. Everyone knows the real Jesus is an American, dammit, and he DONT outsource his job.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
  2. PREACH AND GIVE OUT JESUS2020.COM ON YOUR FACEBOOK ASAP

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    February 26, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      I confess the world would be better without you.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      and then, and only then, a true Jedi will you be.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • Lisa K.

      Nvrwrng, I second that.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • Syman Pons

      The whole of real and effective religion, is to shape one’s spiritual character during life on planet Earth, so as not to give offense to the Creator, when we eventually find our self in the Creator’s presence. Every human body is a vessel designed by the Creator to be filled with the Holy Spirit. This is why a human body is called a temple of the Holy Spirit. We have all been commanded to practice loving all other spiritual beings, starting with the Creator and then extending this consideration to all other spiritual beings. The goal is to be able to reside in true spiritual communion for eternity in one another’s presence without giving offense to others.

      All other spiritual endeavors, which lead toward a goal other than attaining true spiritual communion for eternity, are fruitless in the eyes of the Creator.

      All religious endeavors other than a person’s personal effort to love (be considerate of), the Creator and to also love (be considerate of), all the other people in this world are fruitless in the eyes of the Creator.

      This is the only true religious effort that is acceptable in our Creator’s sight, regardless of a person’s creed, denomination, or religion.

      Love the Creator. Love your fellow humans beings, all of them! Nothing else is acceptable. Nothing else is asked or expected.

      This is the only reason you exist, to practice loving others. Most people never figure this out or accept this, their one and only responsibility to the Creator.

      The only true act of worship toward the Creator is loving (being considerate of), one another.

      The only thing that will help planet Earth is that people truly love (be considerate of), one another.

      Each person accomplishing this one thing, (being truly considerate of all others),
      would greatly please our Creator.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      @syman – there is only one reason you exist : Because your dad spilled his junk in your mom and you happened to be the lucky swimmer to get through to the egg first. Problem solved there. Next question?

      February 26, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      @NVRWRNG: too bad his dad didn't pull an ONAN!

      February 26, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  3. Dhulfiqar

    Search on youtube:
    Theist Vs Atheist Debate: "Does God Not Exist?"

    It's a brilliant debate.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      great video. Regardless of belief, everyone should watch it.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
  4. CONFESS SINS

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    February 26, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      I better smoke some jesus420420.com before i go to that site, so I can get a better laugh.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • CONFESS SINS

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      February 26, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  5. Steve C

    Really Justin? Religion "is basically to promote good values and help you lead a good life"? Have you read the bible? All of you, including Turn2Christ, quit just parrot the parts you've been told. Read it. Have you read Deuteronomy 11:13-21, which says that if, on your wedding night, you discover your bride was not a virgin, you are required to stone her to death on her father's doorstep (because he sold you bad goods)? Num. 28:3? Ex. 21:2? Lev. 25:46? Deut. 22:5? etc. etc. etc. Nobody even follows commandments 2 and 4 – ever! As soon as y'all read the bible, and stop justifying the hate it spews as being "parts we can ignore because they're from another time", the quicker the world can move to a higher consciousness, a place that is truly good.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • Justin

      @ Steve C- did you read the part where I said "religion" as in not Christianity specifically? Also, why are you so angry that people find solace in something greater than themselves? Forgetting about all religious texts for a second, that's what religions purpose is.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  6. djlockerthebrain

    The reason people sugarcoat the Bible is because it's full of horrible things. It's a horrible religion and everyone knows it so they sugarcoat it. At least the author of this article doesn't lie to himself, he knows his religion is disgusting and dirty.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Lisa K.

      You hit the nail on the head. They change it because it so insane as is.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
  7. whatwouldbebetter

    It all comes down to what you want the future society to be... Do you want to live in a more civilized future or a less bright past...

    February 26, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  8. Syman Pons

    The whole of real and effective religion, is to shape one’s spiritual character during life on planet Earth, so as not to give offense to the Creator, when we eventually find our self in the Creator’s presence. Every human body is a vessel designed by the Creator to be filled with the Holy Spirit. This is why a human body is called a temple of the Holy Spirit. We have all been commanded to practice loving all other spiritual beings, starting with the Creator and then extending this consideration to all other spiritual beings. The goal is to be able to reside in true spiritual communion for eternity in one another’s presence without giving offense to others.

    All other spiritual endeavors, which lead toward a goal other than attaining true spiritual communion for eternity, are fruitless in the eyes of the Creator.

    All religious endeavors other than a person’s personal effort to love (be considerate of), the Creator and to also love (be considerate of), all the other people in this world are fruitless in the eyes of the Creator.

    This is the only true religious effort that is acceptable in our Creator’s sight, regardless of person’s creed or denomination..

    Love the Creator. Love your fellow humans beings, all of them! Nothing else is acceptable. Nothing else is asked or expected.

    This is the only reason you exist, to practice loving others. Most people never figure this out or accept this, their one and only responsibility to the Creator.

    The only true worship is loving (being considerate of), one another.

    The only thing that will help planet Earth is that people truly love (be considerate of), one another.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • Realist

      Honestly, I am relieved to know that someone else understands the truth about life. We are born to love and be loved. We get a lifetime to do so, so don't be afraid to show some.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  9. Marlon

    I like this guy. He brought something realistic to the truth.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • ChristianCatholicJim

      Thanks for your cogent reply. Does anyone know the source used for this article? A list of mistaken translations and which bible they are misquoted in would be helpful.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
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    February 26, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • You know you can write a 'bot that will do that. This site is pretty easy.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
  11. Numyorangay

    ONAN.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      Come on, woman. That argument's dried up.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      Death by e jaculat ion is the strongest evidence for God in or outside of the Bible. Looking forward to meeting David Carradine at the pearly gates.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      er, I mean "stale." that argument's stale. lol

      February 26, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
  12. amjp

    EDITORS: I have tried to post this twice. The first time I got a message that it was a duplicate though I didn't see it. I then tried using another name, but both appeared. I then tried to remove one, but both disappeared. So here is an approximation of the original post.
    I find this article very interesting, especially as I had some similar thoughts while reading "The Dovekeepers" by Alice Hoffman, namely that much of the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, was written (Yes! "written'!) for ordinary, everyday people. This is especially so with the first five books of the Tanakh, or the Torah. Also, many people here used the term "myth" in a derogatory sense to label the Bible. However, according to a well known dictionary, a "myth" is "a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon."

    February 26, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  13. HispanicMan

    No No. I made the challenge. Prove to me first that God does NOT exist, 100% facts, and I can prove that God DOES exist with 100% facts.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      Prove it. Then I will refute everything, more than likely, with why you are wrong.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • HispanicMan

      Ah. Ok. The person who can refute fact BEFORE hearing the testimony or facts. You must be a dedicated Republican or a very good celebrity criminal defense attorney.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      Or just very well educated. I'm offering an open invite to share you beliefs, please do, maybe we could have a logical conversation

      February 26, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • HispanicMan

      Sorry. You've made your point. You will refute all that is said BEFORE its even said or presented as fact. You my friend are not even close to being well educated. You dispose of intellect before you hear it.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      @His – Really? That's your answer. I actually wanted to hear what you said. Anything that can bring this topic to further evaluation and understanding is better for everyone.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • In Reason I Trust

      Lol

      February 26, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
    • Lisa K.

      Religion is getting more scary by the day

      February 26, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • Observer

      HispanicMan,

      Why should anyone think you have figured out something that no one else has?

      February 26, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • I'm The Best!

      Physics doesn't allow the existence of a god. The laws of physics don't have an exception in them saying that they apply at all times except at the whim of an all powerful being.

      Now you try and prove god using facts. God is disproved with facts.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • Daniela

      Lortab Abuse .com welcomes you to post otemmncs on the subjects of Lortab and Lortab Abuse, or any kind of drug related topics of issues. We look forward to hearing your opinions and otemmncs

      April 1, 2012 at 6:47 am |
  14. Michaelwg

    @ Bob "Get over yourself! the gospel has been preached for over 2000 years now and will continue to be long after you and I have gone..." Like Zeus? and Thor? and Osiris?

    February 26, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
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      February 26, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      Mr Schazer kindly read the story of God's visit to Abraham again. You got it wrong n I hope it was not deliberate.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
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    February 26, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  16. IPOEL

    What about the invisible realities? What are feelings and emotions, logic, truth, righteousness, faithfulness and love? The Bible is gritty because people are gritty. And what of the OT commands? It seems some do not understand that Israel is not the world, but a people who wanted the Creator to be their God, and the laws he established for THEM was for them only. The morality of the Bible is for all men. Do we think it is OK to murder, steal lie, cheat, break vows, etc...? Without these Western Culture crumbles, and we will become like the nations.

    To pursue things that are eternal, truth, righteousness, love, faithfulness; to hope in the promises of a faithful God who has demonstrated that He keeps his word; to trust in the One who made all things and promises a future much more desirable such that when compared to our lives today would be worth selling all we could ever own to attain; to trust in the God who placed the highest value on the Son, then asked Him to give his life to ransom evil men to life; This is eternal life, to know the Father and the Son, not through the stories we read, but through His fulfilling His word, which NEVER FAILS as He is not one to lie.

    Christianity is not a delusion, it is the pursuit of ultimate reality. How do we know it exists? Because you CAN LOVE. Love defined to pour out you life for the betterment of others. If it were not real, you could not do it. The Bible reveals a God who loves His creation that he paid the Ultimate price one could pay in this world. To reject that Love will lead to death.

    Jesus, observing many leaving because of the difficulty of His teaching, asked the disciples if they too were going to leave, to which Peter replied; "Where will we go?, You have the words of eternal life." Jesus has all authority and is able to complete all He said he would do, and His promises go beyond anything we could hope in this anthropocentric world. Question is will you believe?

    February 26, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
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      February 26, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • Michaelwg

      murder, steal lie, cheat, break vows
      Many non-christian dominated countries have these same rules. You aren't special.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      @Michaelwg
      You said "Many non-christian dominated countries have these same rules. You aren't special" True they may have them, but they are not the originators of them, but imitators. And anyone who imitates, and does not acknowledge the Originator, is guilty of stealing, and impersonating (Any lawyer of the copyright laws will confirm this...).
      So basically when people practice righteousness, but do not acknowledge the AUTHOR of righteousness, they are robbing God of His righteousness, and are guilty before holy God. If human beings could be righteous and by their own works enter into presence of God, earning their place with Him in Eternity, there would have been no need for Christ Jesus to come to die so that we may be saved by His sacrifice. But God says that there is none of us righteous, NOT ONE!
      So it is not the matter of "us" being special, it's
      * WHO HE, JESUS CHRIST IS
      * WHAT WE, HUMAN BAEINGS ARE
      * THE MEASURE OF OUR NEED FOR CHRIST, AND HIS REIGHTEOUSNESS

      February 26, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  17. JESUS2020 DOT COM

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    February 26, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  18. Justin

    @Observer Prove anything exists. Period. That's what solipsism is.

    Solipsism (play /ˈsɒlɨpsɪzəm/) is the philosophical idea that only one's own mind, alone, is sure to exist. The term comes from Latin solus (alone) and ipse (self). Solipsism as an epistemological position holds that knowledge of anything outside one's own mind is unsure. The external world and other minds cannot be known, and might not exist outside the mind. As a metaphysical position, solipsism goes further to the conclusion that the world and other minds do not exist.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • well

      Can you be sure even that your mind exists? I Reductionist Materialism, there is no you or me. What you call mind is nothing but an illusion created by the mushy organic computer in your skull.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • Observer

      Arguing that proof of anything does not exist is irrelevent to our conventional meaning of the word. Let's stick with the world as we know it and argue theory seperately.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  19. well

    Religious faith has been scientifically shown to increase overall happiness and life expectancy while decreasing rates of drug abuse, alcoholism, violence, divorce and criminal behavior. This is shown over and over in studies published in numerous peer reviewed scientific journals.
    So why do you evangelical atheists, so doggedly trying to prove that there is no God? If there is a God or not is really irrelevant, prayer really does change things for the better. And all the poor benighted souls you laugh at and call fools are far more happy than you.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • Satanluv

      faith softens the harsh realities of the Human Condition...it is like telling your kids the dog that was just run over in the street is now in doggy heaven....such falsities make the death easier to accept...life is harsh and cruel..beliveing in a year round Sanat Clause makes it all much easier to take

      February 26, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • Justin

      I'm not actually atheist. I'm just challenging anyone to prove or disprove the existence of God, or anything really. In the end, it doesn't really matter, we should all believe what we are inclined to. Basically this whole thread should end with Agree to Disagree.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      @Justin – Why did god create the earth and then wait 7 billion years to watch a single celled create become a multi-celled, individual thinking creature, develop?

      February 26, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • Michaelwg

      http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-humanity-naturally/201103/misinformation-and-facts-about-secularism-and-religion
      God is a Placebo

      February 26, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • Periplaneta

      All your post reveals is that you've learned to lie for Jesus very well. The only evidence that religious faith has the positive effects you claim is in your head, not in the real world. Also, if you stopped for a moment, and actually thought about what you're saying, you'd ask, "Why would atheists waste time trying to prove the non-existence of a god (which one . . . Zeus, Odin, Mithras, Jehovah?) for which there is not a scrap of evidence to support the claim that it exists in the first place?" Like most Christians, you're just clueless.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • well

      Not clueless or lying or deluded. Actually an agnostic. Just confused by the emotion that atheists invest in their belief system. Even if they are correct, statistical surveys show that they are less happy of fulfilled than the religious. Perhaps I just answered my own question.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
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    February 26, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • Observer

      Too ignorant to think of anything new?

      February 26, 2012 at 7:19 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.