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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. Beam

    Whoa..Jesus partied!? I don't think so. Jesus was constantly being falsely accused by the religious leaders and the author should know that. You make it sound like Jesus was getting drunk..which is what people do at parties...yet that would go against the Word of God and (Jesus is the Word John 1:1-5), when it warns us to NOT get drunk. People know very well when they get drunk they tend to do things, usually sinnful things, they wouldn't normally do. It leads to alot of heartbreak and destroyed relationships. In fact it says drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) So to say Jesus parties, implies He was doing things He tells us not to do...which would ruin the creditability of the bible wouldn't it?

    Yes Jesus befriended those that lived a sinful life..Matthew 9:13..it doesn't mean He sinned Himself to get along with them.

    Also in David Psalms while he does moan and groan at the beginning of his Psalms he always end it praising God. In trying to make a point to not sugar coat the bible...lets not swing so far the other way that things are exaggerated to the point they are just plain untrue. Especially when it comes to our Savior.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Brad

      Excellent point!

      February 27, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • pastmorm

      Dude, Jesus was the ultimate party animal!!!

      February 27, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • MarcTTF

      Being a drunkard, and getting drunk are not the same thing.

      February 27, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  2. Yes1fan

    Martin Luther was the original thinker on this take.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  3. reason

    According to a recent Pew Research study the more you know about religion the less likely you are to be religious.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Anon

      I can attest to that fact.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • pastmorm

      I'm proof of that fact as well. I was a return mormon missionary and when I realized that mormonism was a cult I investigated christian religions and studied history until I realized that all of christianity is a cult.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • The Jackdaw

      Yes, the more you know the more you shake your head in disgust.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  4. Byzantine

    Will recommend Mr. Steven James devotes a little time studying the Septuagint Book of Job which deals with subjects such as the presence of evil, misery, justice, faith and people which relate closely to the contemporary world of today as well as tomorrow.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Job_in_Byzantine_illuminated_manuscripts

    February 27, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • crazypete

      Every 1st year theology student has studied that. Jeez buddy, get with the program

      February 27, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  5. BoldGeorge

    I don't believe so much that the bible itself has any sugar-coated translations. I believe, upon witnessing testimonies, that the bible is sugar-coated when misapplied in one's way of living or one's philosophy of what they "think" the bible means by what it's saying. For example, many people say that God is a god of love, a forgiving God and and he wouldn't send anyone to H-E-L-L because He came to save the world. The point for Jesus to come to earth was to show us the way to avoid hell and how to inherit God's Kingdom. But if we don't believe and follow Him, then there's no point. Read JOHN 3:16 (and don't forget to emphasize the part where it says "whoever believes in Him...").

    Now, God indeed sent His Son to d-i-e and resurrect from the grave so that everyone may have hope for an eternity in heaven after we d-i-e. But this only applies to true believers. It only applies to those who know God and more importantly, to those whom God knows...JOHN 10:27,28 - "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will sna.tch them out of My hand."

    February 27, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • bigot

      you still are only quoting words of MEN, not words of god. Any quote in that book needs to be taken with a few grains of salt.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • BoldGeorge

      Besides, there are prerequisites needed for salvation: Repentance, Belief a willingness to turn from your sinful lifestyle and turn to and live for Christ. Remember, true repentance will lead you to salvation.

      2 Corinthians 7:10 - For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • BoldGeorge

      @ bigot...would it be better for your belief system to somehow God Himself wrote the bible? It's almost like asking God to show you a sign or appear Himself to you so that you may believe. But then you wouldn't need faith. And faith is the only thing needed to get close to God.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • bigot

      "would it be better for your belief system to somehow God Himself wrote the bible? It's almost like asking God to show you a sign or appear Himself to you so that you may believe. But then you wouldn't need faith. And faith is the only thing needed to get close to God."

      Well, YEAH it would be better, obviously. You are actually going to take the word of fallible HUMAN BEINGS who wrote all this stuff about god as absolute truth when everyone knows that mankind is one of the most conniving, lying, disgusting species we know? You are going to believe a bunch of men who wanted to control the population by scaring them into believing this crap while they benefited from it? It is no different than what happens today, only our government doesn't use religion, they use terrorism, oil, economy to control us.

      Question: would you believe me if I said "last night I had an hour discussion with Jesus. He told me I need to write the NEW New Testament. I am currently writing the works and it should be out before December."

      Now why do you believe those people and not me??

      February 27, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • pastmorm

      Boldgeorge...in your response to bigot...you're actually saying that the whole basis for religion (in this case christianity) is simply faith? That you have no right to see or hear or feel the reality of god; you have to just have faith? Have you really thought of the implications of that particular archaic belief? So see, I believe in ghosts and the funny thing is that I've seen them. Now if I hadn't seen one, I sure as heck would never have believed in them...I would have thought that the people who say they believe in ghosts are crazy. Get it? Faith doesn't work in today's modern world and words written by a bunch of crazed, controling men a thousand years ago don't fit into this world of reality anymore.

      February 27, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • bigot

      "would it be better for your belief system to somehow God Himself wrote the bible?"

      Are you telling me that an all powerful, all knowing god cant write his own bible himself?

      February 27, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • BoldGeorge

      @ Bigot...

      First of all, though I agree that many have taken the bible out of context and used it to suppress and manipulate the people, I can safely say that those people are not and will not experience any of the heavenly blessings the Bible promises. God's word is for uplifting, for rebuking and to further God's kingdom, not to manipulate, self-gratification and just to please people. Furthermore, the men who wrote the bible did have a personal experience and relationship with God, Christ and with the things they wrote. I would NOT believe you because there is no evidence whatsoever that you have any relationship with God, and nothing you would say would be benefiting God's Kingdom.

      Secondly, you can trust the bible because f its power to transform lives, because of its prophetic and historical accuracy and because of it's amazing message of comfort and hope it gives to me and to many others throughout the ages. Test it out for yourself. As a matter of fact, the bible itself requests for people to test all things.

      February 27, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • bigot

      Again, everything in the book was WRITTEN BY MEN, NOT GOD. Please get this point through your sk..uil. How MEN can know what GOD wants is laughable, especially when they could barely read or write. Evidentially, god loves slav...ery, discri....min...ation, and the be...ating and ki...llin.g of women and children (not what I would think a god would want out of its people). No, people at the time found those things morally acceptable. It was only until we became more intelligent that we abolished these things, and disc...rimina....tion against ga...ys is still around thanks to fanatical christians who choose to disc....rimin....ate rather than accept and move on.

      February 27, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • bigot

      well my other argument for your "prophetic accuracy" (nostradamus?) argument and other BS claims wont post so you can thank CNN for that.

      February 27, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  6. me2012

    Great job, Steven James! This is a good article, a wonderful point to make! Watering things down only makes them worse. Let God's glory shine as he intended it to, it's vibrant and real and so much more beautiful than we could ever make it by editing it. That's why he expressly told us not to. Because he knows we're idiots who will only gum it up if left to our own devices. Reading translations of the Word that are as close as possible to the original Greek or Hebrew is always so much more impactful than some white bread translation that kindof doesn't mean anything. You need the original beautifully expressive words to understand the full beauty of the text. God can work through any translation though, all of them can touch a person's heart in a lifechanging way, a soul changing way

    February 27, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • bigot

      the words you are translating and not words of god though. those were written by MEN.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • pastmorm

      God glory is shining as he spreads hatred and disease all over the earth just like he did in the Old Testament!!!! YAY!

      February 27, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  7. Jesus Loves You

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2bpc7LSRZc&w=640&h=390]

    February 27, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • vmdksed

      Awesome!

      February 27, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  8. Willa45

    The Bible has always been an object of subjective interpretation and there is nothing earth shattering here. What the author is suggesting is a far more humanistic interpretation of New Testament scripture than previous ones. It was the school of thought called 'Humanism' that ultimately divided the original Church (Great Schism) into Orthodox, Protestant, Lutheran and the many other Christian religions we know today. Many of our fore bearers came to this country to avoid religious persecution. Indeed, religious freedom is one of our most inalienable rights...the right to follow our hearts and minds and to choose how or if we worship. I do not trust politicians who exploit religion and religious issues to get votes. I also agree with the author that hypocrisy can be much more egregious than simple human weakness.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  9. Joe T.

    If people would look up the origin of the god Yahweh (who was originally one of many gods the Jews had), they would have a different opinion about the Judeo-Christian god all together. In fact, they might even become atheists. When you look at the OT in the light that Yahweh was one of many gods, the way the OT was written starts to make sense.

    That being said, Yahweh has about as much credibility as Ba'al.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • AGuest9

      Study of the bible is actually one of the primary ways that many become atheist.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Joe T.

      I guess that's why I'm an atheist. I've read the Bible 4 times. When you stop sugarcoating it, you can take an objective look at it and realize it's really kind of stupid.

      The big kicker is seeing how the Bible actually originated. If that's not enough to make you change your mind about religion, nothing will. If you look up the origin of Yahweh the war God, that's just another little nugget to add in when debating people who believe in Christianity.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      Baal is a name for a Canaanite fertility god. The Canaanite also worshipped a Creator God like YHWH. This is why the Hebrews also learnt to do so too.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      YHWH the war God is a Liberal and Deist theological supposition with no basis other than people being full of bombast.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Anon

      ^ Ram a bible up your @$$.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      In seminary the first thing you are taught is that the first 3 chapters of Genesis is a myth. If you can't handle this information you are definitely better off an atheist.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Joe T.

      Nii, Yahweh was not originally the creator God. Eventually he "won out" over the other gods the Jews had and at some point, the history of Jewish polytheism was changed to monotheism.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • bigot

      "In seminary the first thing you are taught is that the first 3 chapters of Genesis is a myth."

      and which PERSON decided this was a myth and the other works written by MEN were true?

      February 27, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • reason

      That depends on the seminary. Many Christians believe it literally.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • pastmorm

      Except Ba'al has cooler statues than Yahweh!!!

      February 27, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  10. SoFunny

    Let's see the bible was written by man, on notes, after 60 to 80 years after the death of Jesus. And a bishop said let's eliminate all the other gospels, because they don't fit. Right, let's pick four so that we can tell our followers what to do, and while we are doing that, let's descriminate against women? Get a life people, a real life.

    Remember, Jesus said the temple of GOD, is within in YOU, not a church, not idols, not anybody, not those who say they have a connection with GOD, it's within YOU.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • JT

      Your first paragraph made you sound like a rational person but then the second paragraph negated it all.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  11. Patty Moore

    You said it awesomely! Wonderful article!

    February 27, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  12. Sarah Taylor

    Just awesome! To learn more about God from this biblical perspective, take a look at Malcolm Smith ministries. Free Webinar Tuesdays at 7:00 pm CT on livestream.com/malcolmsmith or zoechs.org

    February 27, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • pastmorm

      Dang, what is it about you christians and the use of the word AWESOME? It makes it sound creepy and programmed and cultish. In all your songs and arms raised high while you chant awesome, awesome, awesome. Gag.

      February 27, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  13. reason

    God commanded his followers to murder non-believers and people of other faiths in Deuteronomy 13:5-15. The primary difference with Islam is they have more adherents taking the Quran seriously. Modern theology has sugarcoated the Bible to be compatible with Western society.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      Ch.rist.oph.obia

      February 27, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • George

      Organized religions are barbaric when you actually bother to read the scripture.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • don

      That was a time when he actually spoke to someone. The covenant with his son Jesus changed all of that.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • reason

      Jesus did not wipe away the old testament and instructed Christians to continue to follow the commands of the god of Abraham.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Nin

      Nii Coffie suffers from real.ity.ph.obia.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Anon

      Suffering from christard psychotics is more likely.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • W247

      Reason – please see Galations 3
      23 Before the coming of this faith,[a] we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
      26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  14. Revrant

    There are plenty of theologies that focus on what the writer is discussing here. Really it is mostly white, rich people that clean it up.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  15. A&O

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAui_O8v4v8&w=640&h=390]

    February 27, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  16. MyTake

    American Christians often relieve my burden with the hilarious things that say ... thank you ... and keep 'em coming ...

    February 27, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • momoya

      Did you happen to see the christian post here that advocated slaughtering all atheists? (back about 20 pages or so)

      February 27, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Phil in Oregon

      Going to church and reading the Bible won't save you. When you arrive at the doorway of Heaven Jesus will be there, and He will say one of 2 things: "I know you" or "I don't know you" None of your works will matter if you fall into the 2nd category.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • JT

      The things they say frighten me. It's not very settling living among so many deluded people.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      BaalIim were fertility gods not a Creator God. This was why the Hebrews were able to syncretise their worship of Baalim with YHWH's worship. They were not equal.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • bigot

      "Going to church and reading the Bible won't save you. When you arrive at the doorway of Heaven Jesus will be there, and He will say one of 2 things: "I know you" or "I don't know you" None of your works will matter if you fall into the 2nd category."

      Must be nice to talk in such absolutes with ZERO knowledge of what happens when we die.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  17. starwhite

    http://www.thewarningsecondcoming.com/home/

    February 27, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  18. MyTake

    "instead he partied so much that he was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton (Matthew 11:19)."
    I want to party with this guy ... whose with me ... here we go....

    February 27, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Phil in Oregon

      Drinking was never the problem. Drunking was.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  19. starwhite

    God the Father and his beloved son Jesus Christ are really real and want to know you better. IF you are tired of feeling unhappy with all the pain in the world and your life try talking to them, I assure you they will hear you. They love us all so very very much. Give your life to Jesus. He will help with the burdens.

    February 27, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Anon

      Christianity makes me depressed and I await the day to finally see it reduced to mythology status.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      That day came and went, didn't you hear?

      February 27, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • bigot

      so youre advocating delusional ramblings based on nothing but a book written by men. congrats. you are delusional. Seek help.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Anon

      As in real mythology status that no one actually practices it anymore.
      No one actually worships or uses in politics the Greek pantheon and whatnot.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • pastmorm

      Ok. Here I'll give my life to your mythical jesus...I have bills, I have arthritis, I have a massive headache right now and I have clean the litter boxes. Where is he??? Seriously, I need him NOW to help me with my burdens! ROFL!!!

      February 27, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  20. Butters

    In order to make Christianity work , then people should'nt be allowed to have a choice .
    Christianity is bigger than one individual , Christianity has been around longer than one individual .
    People should'nt be allowed to decide whats best for them . Let the Church decide this .
    Theological/Democracy is the best way .

    February 27, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Phil in Oregon

      And just which of the 2,500 denominations would do the interpretation? After all that, have we learned to love one another?

      February 27, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Anon

      Fck Jesus and Christianity.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Tired of Sheeple

      Did you ever stop to think that Christianity as well as any other form of organized religion was meant to control the populace not "save their souls"?

      February 27, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Sarabeth

      People shouldn't have a choice? That's ridiculous & not at all what this writer is saying!!

      February 27, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Jim

      Maybe I'm missnig your point but are you seriously thinking that crowdsourcing is the answer? If the Bible is true and God is God, we don't get to make up the rules of engagement.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      A chris.oph.obic post by an atheist. followed by witless responses from more atheists.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Tired of Sheeple

      Nii Croffie, I am not an atheist but I do take offense at being told what I can and can't do where my own soul is concerned. I also take offense at being called witless. Read a bit of history, all rulers/dictators/emporers..etc, took advantage of the most beautiful and simple teachings to turn them into an instrument of crowd control.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:39 am |
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