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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. Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

    Comic book characters are made into movies, but adults do not believe they actually exist. The ones who do are not looked upon kindly by most people. People who believe in god are no different, and possibly even more deluded. For them, even death will bring no answers, for at the moment when they die, they will be...dead. In this fashion, their delusion hurts the living for all eternity.

    February 26, 2012 at 4:28 am |
    • tdog

      Without the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world( Jesus Christ) all would perish in Hell Revelation 20:18-20 All will bow be the Holy God one day, may it be in reward and not Judgment. Hell is a literal place. All those who have not believed upon Jesus Christ as God. Hebrews 1:8 People like the author are guilty of apostasy when they degrade Jesus into a partier, that's going to go over real well on Judgment day.

      February 26, 2012 at 4:38 am |
  2. darkos

    And thou shalt eat it as barley cakes, and thou shalt bake it with dung that cometh out of man, in their sight Ezekiel 4:12-13
    Genesis 29:23 But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and Jacob lay with her (jacob has s*x with his niece)
    this is what satanic jew cult is about(censoredbyjewNN)

    February 26, 2012 at 4:28 am |
  3. Ferit

    i'm tired of seeing all this bible stuff on cnn. why make headlines about a book out of million others one full day every week?

    February 26, 2012 at 4:27 am |
    • Marty Marzipan

      Duh! This is the 'Belief' section! You don't have to click.

      February 26, 2012 at 4:35 am |
  4. notheism

    "Certainly the Lord of all the worlds is not filthy" How do YOU know??
    "Nor did he send a prophet who would be sinful to the people." How do you know?
    "This would defeat the purpose of his intention." How do you know what his intention is????
    You claim a bunch of stuff and offer no kind of support for your argument but please don't say that some kind of scripture tells you so.

    February 26, 2012 at 4:27 am |
    • notheism

      This was meant to be in reply to @Muminah

      February 26, 2012 at 4:27 am |
  5. Quid Malmborg

    Nothing new here. Western mythology has always been watered down for public consumption. Best thing for this would've been to pay Robert Graves to translate the whole thing 50+ yrs ago, make it as literal as possible whilst still comveying the original meaning, and be done with it. But no, there's something apparently magickal about the KJV, and anyone who touches that already censored and Bowdlerized tome is destined for the book burnings of Hell.

    February 26, 2012 at 4:27 am |
  6. tdog

    The reason the characters in the Bible were full of murder and aduldtery etc, is because of the fall of Adam. God created man perfect, but Adam sinned in the garden of Eden. Romans 5:12. The ten commandments were given on Mt Sinai not to give man some righteousness to attain but to realize man is a sinner, and can't become Holy. It was by a sinless Savour Jesus Christ one may be declared sin free and enter into Heaven. Isaiah 53 The Bible isn't written to show man's accomplishment but God's grace.

    February 26, 2012 at 4:26 am |
    • *facepalm*

      There's plenty of murder in the bible that's committed by god. Your omnipotent deity needed to murder a bunch of egyptian infants just to try and change some guys mind. Not very omnipotent, is he?

      February 26, 2012 at 4:28 am |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      No, it is a work of fiction, designed to control the simple minded, like you.

      February 26, 2012 at 4:30 am |
  7. Enlightenment

    1 Timothy 2:12

    February 26, 2012 at 4:22 am |
  8. bob johnson

    how about running it through a reality filter

    February 26, 2012 at 4:21 am |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      Then it will be likened to the pamphlet in the movie, "Airplane!", where the woman asks for some light reading, and the stewardess offers her something called, "Great Jewish sports legends".

      February 26, 2012 at 4:32 am |
  9. Muminah

    Obviously this shows that the Bible has been altered. Certainly the Lord of all the worlds is not filthy
    and does not depict filth and murder in a book that He sent down to the people so that they will be
    guided. Nor did he send a prophet who would be sinful to the people. This would defeat the purpose
    of his intention. His intention is to send a prophet with good behavior and righteousness so that the people
    will follow him and be save from the torment of hell. Since the Bible has been altered another Prophet and book
    was sent to the people and it is the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Someone mentioned
    that prophets committed adultery and other horrible sins. This is not true. Once this would defeat the purpose of
    a prophet's mission.

    February 26, 2012 at 4:20 am |
    • Quid Malmborg

      You describe this "Lord of all the worlds" using masculine adjectives. So the "Lord" is a male? Where's the Lady of All Worlds? Stuck at home looking after the angels, doing the cooking and cleaning?

      February 26, 2012 at 4:48 am |
  10. Jubril

    to really understand the bible , one must learn the language that the bible was originally written in, all translations cannot be trusted

    February 26, 2012 at 4:17 am |
    • notheism

      @Jubril, I agree. In the same way, one could understand read Harry Potter (the books) without being able to read them in the original language (sorry non English readers, you're SOL).

      Well said.

      February 26, 2012 at 4:20 am |
    • *facepalm*

      If the bible really were the words of the creator of the universe, don't you think he would have picked words that were fairly easily translated, or at least made his meaning WAY more obvious, given that he would have known the languages he chose were going to be dead in a few hundred years?

      February 26, 2012 at 4:21 am |
    • notheism

      *could not understand Harry Potter
      Because all translations cannot be trusted.

      February 26, 2012 at 4:22 am |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      To truly understand any of those books, you need to firmly insert your cranium into your rectal cavity.

      February 26, 2012 at 4:34 am |
  11. durarat

    The bible I believe has always been edited some way or another to fit the religion that happens to be using it to justify itself.

    February 26, 2012 at 4:17 am |
  12. Brandon

    I would love to see CNN do a story like this on islam. Good luck with that ever happening.

    February 26, 2012 at 4:16 am |
  13. Bah

    no one cares about this article..

    February 26, 2012 at 4:15 am |
  14. darkos

    And thou shalt eat it as barley cakes, and thou shalt bake it with dung that cometh out of man, in their sight Ezekiel 4:12-13

    Genesis 29:23 But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and Jacob lay with her (jacob has s3x with his niece)

    this is what satanic jew cult is about(censoredbyjewNN)

    February 26, 2012 at 4:13 am |
  15. darkos

    i agree stop sugarcoating the filthy satanictora

    February 26, 2012 at 4:12 am |
  16. anthony

    Jesus was an example of what we should all be like. The rising from his death is a symbol of eternal life. He spoke out against the evils upon him and his people. He saw the lies they were being told, he spoke of a god within, we are all god-good. its just a matter of acknowledgment. Its understanding that fear is man made, and the words were made to program fear into all of us with the use of the bible. The elite starts the wars to make people need a crutch which enables the church to be as powerful as it is. Its a very well thought out scheme. To make people feel they aren't worth anything. Mean while we are god we are good. Man made words to lie, and control other men. A system devised by cowards, and of those who lack self respect. When I say self I mean you, and when I say you, I mean me. There is only One, everything else is an illusion. Wake up!

    February 26, 2012 at 4:11 am |
    • notheism

      What are you talking about....

      February 26, 2012 at 4:14 am |
    • guest

      uh...???

      February 26, 2012 at 4:25 am |
    • Quid Malmborg

      "...Man made words to lie, and control other men." Example- The "Bible."

      February 26, 2012 at 4:39 am |
  17. mmi16

    Organized religion is the scourage of faith.

    February 26, 2012 at 4:08 am |
    • Bimmerman03

      Correction:
      Organized religion is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on mankind.
      It's all about $$$$ folks!

      February 26, 2012 at 4:23 am |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      Organized religion would not exists without the simple minded fools who believe in mythical comic book characters.

      February 26, 2012 at 4:37 am |
  18. ChristiansRIdiots

    See my screen name, I rest my case.

    February 26, 2012 at 4:03 am |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      MuslimsRidiots2.

      February 26, 2012 at 4:37 am |
  19. Kevin B

    Three times know I've tried to leave a comment here comparing one faiths religious book to another's, and every time the comment is censored. I use no bad words. But still... they won't let it through.

    February 26, 2012 at 4:02 am |
    • fables are not healthy for children and other living things

      Perhaps the spelling and grammar police don't like you.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  20. DOSman

    Kingofthenet

    Today's SCIENCE is EXPLAINED..
    SCIENCE is KING!!

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=688111496234161611

    February 26, 2012 at 4:00 am |
    • Enlightenment

      oh look...more religious cr*p

      February 26, 2012 at 4:24 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.