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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. Will

    The Bible: The greatest fiction book of all time

    February 26, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      not to mention the best-seller!

      February 26, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • What!!!

      At the end of our lives we will all find out the truth? Won’t we? Where will you be if your wrong?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • GinCas

      Precisely Will, and what a vile, perverted, sadistic work of fiction it is!

      February 26, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      @What!!: presumably in the same place you will be, fella. Standing around wondering "what the hell just happened?"

      February 26, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
    • What!!!

      Maybe? But the truth will be known! If I am wrong and I have lived like Christ instructs us and he doesn't exist what have I lost?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      Frankly, "What!!," you've lost a lot of good times, fast women, delicious wine, profligate spending, thinking outside of religion's bounds, secular music, movies, different points of view, friends, a healthy sense of self, and lots of good s ex. Not to mention Las Vegas, and nice walks on the beach in the middle of the day in August. And lots and lots of episodes of South Park. But you haven't lost your soul!

      February 26, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      and you've also lost a debilitating externally-imposed sense of guilt, shame, and a strange belief that the earth is +/- 6,000 years old. You've lost the joy of watching Jurassic Park or going to a dinosaur museum without seeing apparitions of Noah and his ark in the parking lot. You've lost the joy of looking forward to a long life, by worrying and anticipating about when the rapture will occur. You've lost a peace of mind that you may never know, not that your understanding of Christ gives, but that the world gives. You've lost the joy of Buddhism and mystical studies.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      But most importantly, you've lost relgiously-imposed fear, and a life full of true, unreserved love for your fellow man, DESPITE their se xual orientation or religious beliefs. You've lost a religious legacy that includes the Crusades, the Inquisition and George W. Bush (and indirectly H itler and the KK K). Need I go on?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • Dumb and dumber

      Idiot. When you die your brain chemistry ceases. You will "find out" nothing. Grow up.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      Thank you Dumb and Dumber. You just totally redeemed yourself! So you're tellin' him there's a chance? lol

      February 26, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • What!!!

      I don't know about that? Just like made a choice not to believe and live the way you chose I have made a choice! I have lived your way and for me this way is good for me. Frankly, if I continued to live the way you profess to be so good, I assure you I wouldn't be someone you would want to live with. No matter, when time ends we will know the truth!

      February 26, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
    • What!!!

      Dumb. Only a omni present, omni potent omnicient being knows what happens after natural life stops.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • What!!!

      Dwight Corvelo, additionally I have a good physical relationship with the women I love, I still enjoy the walks in the park and on the beach. I can enjoy a drink if I chose to and I do enjoy a good movie and I respect others view, even though I don't agree. As for Hitler and the K K K there is no link between them an Christ. Hitler was a mystic and atheist. The KK K I find this the hardest thing to believe that a member of this group can profess Christ (A Jew by blood)? Been to Los Vegas, visually impressive but no substance and I saw a lot of peoples live destroyed at all levels in a natural environment that is not sustainable if the economy collapses it will return to the desert village it was once with a lot of ruins. I pray for you and dumb before God that you will seek the truth for yourselves.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      What!!!: regardless of your lifestyle sir, I do not want to live with you. I appreciate the offer, though.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      What!!!: I'm just messin' with you, man. Seriously, good for you, glad you found an amazing faith and eternal security in Christ. Good luck in all your endeavors.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • What!!!

      Dwight Corvelo, It was a time when you really wouldn't have wanted more than you will ever know. I will include you in my prayers and hope to see you soon! My Brother.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
    • What!!!

      Dwight Corvelo, sincerely, I was not offended because I in some ways looked at life the same way just a few years ago. I pray the blessings of God on you and your family, business and life. PS. Your challenge helps me know why I am and why I believe. It is all good.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • John

      and the most violent..

      February 26, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
  2. christopher

    This is by far the best article I have ever read on CNN.com

    Thanks, Steven James!

    February 26, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      You must not get out often to read.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @NVRWRNG, well, in fairness it's better than CNN's article about how the Twilight movies are like your relationship with christ. I didn't make that up.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  3. thegadfly

    I've studied physics and philosophy enough to know that I know nothing, and yet I know something. This thing called God is all too human. There's something seriously infinite out there, and it loves you, but it's not that knucklehead who is. It wasn't made in the image and likeness of man. Ancient writings of all flavors should be read in all their naked glory, but we mortals should scoff at anything that does not pin us for a three count. Love everyone and everything, then ask yourself what's true. It ain't what they're selling, and it ain't what you're shoveling. Truth smells good. Truth tastes good.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • Rick Schauer

      http://CRITICALTHINKG.ORG

      Please go there and learn to critically think.

      February 27, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  4. corntrader19

    I am glad someone had the courage to say what he did. All of you fools that say "there is no God" (which God himself says are fools) need to get a hobby. No one is interesting in your stupid diatribe. Don't you have a cat to chloraform or something?

    February 26, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • Terry Reagan

      what a beautiful day for an exorcism!!

      February 26, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • Terry Reagan

      so in essence this board is a battle between your Bible's definition of "fools" and self-proclaimed "fools for Christ?" LMAO!

      February 26, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • thegadfly

      My, aren't we a loving creature... Do you, by any chance, care for and look after someone less fortunate and capable than yourself?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • Wes

      Now in all seriousness.... How do you know what "God" says. Men wrote the bible, this is provable fact. Yet, you can't really claim "God" wrote the bible as though it's fact. You may believe this... but it's not good enough just wanting to believe. You are making the claim... if you cannot prove it... we should not listen to you as you are just spouting off like an uneducated know-it-all.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • Raoul Duke, Jr.

      The only fools are those who believe in a fictional man in the sky. Long live the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In the name of the Pasta, the Sauce, and the Holy Ravioli. Ramen.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      HAHA ^

      February 26, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
  5. Justice

    NVRWRNG my reply to you went right at the start of this page for some reason, i guess CNN has some bug in their system. lol

    To Wes, is any relatives of yours is a politician? Do you think water boarding is not cruel. How about the torture of police force and military these days? Do agree with those?

    February 26, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      I got you. I responded below.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • Wes

      Justice, it is really easy to see that the majority of Christians support water-boarding and other forms of torture. The free-thinkers overwhelmingly reject it. The war we got into was christian pushed by George Bush and all his radical right wing followers. Do you really think Al Gore would have gotten us into the war? Over 4,000 troops dead and hundreds of thousands mentally injured. Yes, I do blame the religious and pious followers of religion for allowing the greedy to get their way. The religious are indoctrinated to do as they are told in the pulpits.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  6. Romy

    good article

    February 26, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  7. winstonsmith

    Good deeds are all that matters, because THAT'S what makes this world. God doesn't literally affect our world at all. Belief in something, if it does not change the way you live your life, then that belief is useless and pointless. A filthy rag perhaps?

    February 26, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • thegadfly

      Consider axiomatic Set Theory. Ponder the von Neumann universe. Then tell me what's missing. Don't worry. Your beauty does not go unnoticed.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
  8. CNN YOU NEED TO SET UP A SIGN IN USER NAME THINGY

    SET UP A SIGNIN USER NAME THINGY.....CUZ OTHER ARE ABUSING THE REPORT BUTTON.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • atomD21

      Kind of like how you're abusing caps lock?

      February 26, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
  9. FOUND

    if you anyone abuses name of christ on here rpot them..

    February 26, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • Lilith

      Rpot them to God? Are you that afraid of people's opinions that you can't deal with a post on a website? Your faith should be a bit more substantial than that!

      February 26, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • thegadfly

      I insist that anyone with the power to ban me from this site have the mental capacity to spell, and to form complete sentences. But hey, this is CNN.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • GinCas

      Excellent Lilith!

      February 26, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
  10. Chris

    Over 3000 comments on this. Only 1000 on Syria. All over something that happened 2000 years ago. But it's just a fairy tale, right?

    February 26, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Yup, 3K posts is proof religion is real & Syria is less so!? C'mon, you can do better than that.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  11. Nick

    They forgot to mention that the bible is really just a collection of 'books' written by disciples and selectively munged together to form the modern day book as we know it. So the very first edit of the bible was the building of the book itself! What about Mary Magdalen's or other gospel's writings? Why don't we see those as part of the bible?? Because that doesn't fit neatly into this crafted story. Stories in the bible were written by man and interpreted by man in a time when man didn't have answers and it was easier to make them up. Then, years later selectively picked gospels were placed in what we call the bible today.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • atomD21

      Exactly. The Bible was written by humans and the contents therein were edited, translated, and assembled by a group of religious leaders to paint the picture they wanted. There are texts they deemed unfit, so they were discarded.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
  12. FOUND

    im gonna report anyone who abuses and calls someone else name or who misues jesus2020 user guy and tries to make him look bad

    February 26, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • Dumb and dumber

      Oh no, not that, hall monitor. Get over your fucking self.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
  13. Justice

    Asking people why they think differently than you is ok in my book, but persisting with your belief and to force them to look like they're a bunch of insane people is not ok. You have many times posted your opinion and we all know it by now. Now if you're so educated you will simply let others say openly and freely what they believe in or not.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  14. FOUND

    man below please dont harass or bully me from below. if you dont like when chrisxtians give opinion on opinion blog pelse go somewhere else.

    jesus2020.com be saved

    February 26, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      Ah yes, I forgot that only chrisxtians can give opinion on blog. No one else allow to posts on chrisxtians blogger!!

      February 26, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  15. bam

    bibles are books written by men to control men plain and simple. when the controls arent working u modify the book written by man by man to control man.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • Nick

      lol

      February 26, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  16. John

    Very well said , "god" does not exist! If there was a god the world would be a better place... Just use your common sense!!

    February 26, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • Earthshine

      Actually....

      February 26, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  17. NVRWRNG

    @Can't administer* Sorry.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
  18. Pt - Mr. James, you missed the most important omission !!!

    I find it strange how the author seemed to miss the most important change religion made to the Bible. They removed His name almost 7000 times. Yes, 7000! YHWH is the Hebrew spelling, commonly pronounced Yahweh. In English, it's most accepted pronunciation is Jehovah.
    Man has determined that this name should be removed when God himself had it recorded so that people would know it. Even Jesus said that we should pray to God "Hallowed by thy name." But most people don't even know it.
    John 17:6 Jesus said "I have made your name manifest.." Who is making Jehovah's name manifest today like Jesus instructed Christians to do in Matt 28:19,20?

    You should not focus so much on little omissions and changes, when larger, more important ones are forgotten. This author should do a little more research and focus on issues that are more important.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      All this about a "god" who focuses so much on little emissions ONAN!

      February 26, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • Earthshine

      Dwight: Emmisions?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      @Earthshine: Genesis 38:8-10.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • scrollman

      It seems odd to me that you would admonish someone for not using YHWH, but then go on to name someone never heard of in the early C.E. i.e. "Jesus." If you must perpetuate false gods, at least call him what his contemporaries called him...Yeshua.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • LauraRB

      Wow. Your ignorance is staggering.... "Jehovah" is being removed because it was discovered to be essentially a typo. 500 years ago or so, the Hebrew was mistranslated. Removing Jehovah is simply removing the mistake. They are not removing the name of God. You can unwad your knickers now.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      @scrollman: Gesundheit!

      February 26, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
    • Pt - Mr. James, you missed the most important omission !!!

      @LauraRB

      Actually, I'm sorry to have to correct you. YHWH is the Hebrew tetragrammaton of God's name found in the original Hebrew writings of the "Old Testament" predating the dates you provided. I sure hope that you are not referring to YHWH as a typo! In different languages the translation of 'Yahweh' (most accurately accepted pronunciation) is pronounced in differently. English translates this as 'Jehovah.' Are you with me?

      I don't know what you mean that God's name is a typo? How is it a typo if you remove something that was originally there in the first place from the beginning? You fail to cite any credible source to support your absurd claim. Please try to educate yourself. Emphasis is on the word 'try.'

      @scrollman
      Since I am speaking English, I am simply referring to the English translation of Jesus's name. The reason I mentioned 'Yahweh' is because I was making the point of God's name being lost as it was translated from the Hebrew to English, which was the point of the whole article. (you did read it, right?)

      February 26, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
  19. Well...

    Good article but they forgot to mention that God is imaginary and doesn't exist.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
    • Earthshine

      Good post, too bad you forgot to include that you're a trolling stooge.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • Glad

      I guess we should be all happy enough that you took time to read about someone who doesn't exist....I wonder what compelled you to do so, hmmm....

      February 26, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • popseal

      The God you lable as imaginary actually regenerated my dead spirit in 1970. I was more than sceptical until that moment. I returned to college, finished seminary three years after that and have had what I call a miraculous life, as I look back on it. The article's appeal to me is that the author decloaked the Middle Ages imigary that does prevent contemporary mankind from discovering how real the Life of God can be in any repentant person's experience.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • thegadfly

      And yet we still argue. I'm as atheist as they get, but I find value here. I once read that atheists are more familiar with Scripture than devout Christians are. Why do you suppose that is?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
  20. Justice

    NVRWRNG i read most of your post, what are you trying to do? Are you trying to change the world into your own beliefs? You're calling others uneducated and yet you don't seem very educated to me. You blame religion of causing wars. It's people with weak brain like yours that is too ignorant to have figured it out by now that every darn wars even the ones back in the 1400 and way before that are all done by sick minded people who are thirsty for power. Mentally ill world leaders and politicians who have no other desire to fill their pockets and live a life of luxury at your expense while you are pointing your finger and blame religions for those wars. Those world leaders and politicians must like you pretty much, it's people like you that they need to keep their dirty work going. You are definitely blind or stupid.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      @Justice: Why is evewyone so f *cking stoopid?!?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • NVRWRNG

      I would like to think I'm very well educated. I have not called anyone names and have, for the most part, contributed to this conversation without bing overly dramatic. Most wars are over religous/social connections. Like before for someone who said that, I'd love to hear the wars that weren't. The world had terrible people I'm sure, leading back to the earliest known human to exist, approx. 150,000 BC. I don't know what you are trying to accomplish by bashing. All I'm trying to do is ask why people who think differently than me believe the way they do, and it is usually due to lack of education in the higher sciences.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • Justice

      I wish i would know.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      @NVRWRNG: you are right on, sir. Quote above was from Team America, world police, by Kim-Jong Il.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • Wes

      And what do those who are thirsty for power use to get the masses behind them? How do you explain all the lovely torture methods used by the clergy to sway the pagans to their Christianity? Did you ever see them? Lovely things like the "Iron Maiden"; "The Wheel"; "The Rack"... Then after they tortured via the most hideous and cruel methods that a twisted mind could come up with and burned thousands at the stake... they lead their flocks in the church who listen to them like good sheep and the sweet old ladies who left their inheritances to the church.. Then... generations go by and the truth gets filtered through these lovely bishops and cardinals.... the truth gets filtered through those atrocities to the early settlers from Europe who wipe out the indigenous indians in the most wicked ways... and enslave African natives..... and still.... hundreds of years later it is YOU that knows the truth. Your "God" finally shed the light on humans after thousands of years so that you know more than the other 7 billion persons on this planet today... that those in Europe from whom you get your biblical knowledge from... weren't "true christians".

      So finally, here you are. Tell us what we missed please.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:12 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.