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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. Rika33

    Brilliant revelation – people use religion and the bible for their own pragmatic purposes. Let me intoduce you to the Church of England, Mormon Elders, Iranian Ayatollahs, Catholic Bishops, and televangelicals everywhere. The writer does not mention the venegeful Old Testament Jehovah, prefering (apparently) the more easy going New Teatment Jesus. Maybe he's doing a little oicking and choosing for his own agenda too.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  2. pastmorm

    When it comes right down to it, believers and non-believers are always going to argue about this topic. I say let the religious people be consumed with their ignorance and hatred and bigotry and let those that are either just spiritual (without the need for a "punishment/reward" program) or non-believers be free from constant attempts of conversion to something they view as archaic and backward.
    In other words, get off our backs christians and mind your own business. In a decade or so, religion will be all but gone from our modern world as people grow intellectually.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • GodPot

      "I say let the religious people be consumed with their ignorance and hatred and bigotry " The only problem is they push for no birth control and early child indoctrination to churn out as many little Christian soldiers as they can and teach them that they can "consume" as much of this planet as they want because hey, God can just make another one, so who cares how they leave this one...

      Lets not let them consume our planet along with logic, reason and compassion, for we have no place else to live.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  3. YBP

    As a side note, here's a word or two about actual historical people: The painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, dipicted her own self-portrait as Judith, and the portrait of her real-life rapist, Agostino Tassi, as Holofernes in the illustration above. At least this hideous bedtime story from the Bible provided an opportunity for the artist to humiliate her rapist. It was probably the only justice that she received in her day.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  4. Truth

    The bible is truth. No post on the CNN forum is going to change that.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Observer

      Which version? They contradicted each other.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • pastmorm

      Truth...with your comment you put a whole new meaning to "brainwashed!"

      February 27, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Truth

      I only follow the King James version.. Please point out to me the verses that contradict. Thank you for your reply.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • GodPot

      Which part? The part where he creates the universe in 6 days just 6000 years ago contrary to all available evidence? Or the part where he apparently stops the known universe from moving so that the Israelites can finish a battle that would have gone into nightfall?

      February 27, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Truth

      Pastmorm name calling doesn't make any points and is rather senseless. Do you have any kind of a constructive idea.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • pastmorm

      Truth..please...if I were "name-calling" then I'd hardly have pointed out that you're JUST brainwashed. Please educate yourself...

      February 27, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Truth

      @GodPot Very good questions. No, the bible says the heavens and earth were created in 6 days. As to evidence to a 6,000 year creation.. Please recheck this information. You will find it isn't "solid" It is a theory and theories are not proven.
      You seem to have done a little research already. I urge you to do more. Thanks for the reply.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Truth

      @pastmorm I'm still waiting for an intelligent question vice posting threats and childish play. I'm sure you are above this.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • GodPot

      I see, so the "Truth" is that God really did create the heavens and the earth in 6 days but it could have happened as far back as say, 13.5 billion years ago as all the actual data indicates. That would then make the earth 13.5 billion years old as well...but wait!! All available scientific data puts the earths age at 4.54 billion years!! How can this be possible? A six day span of creation that also spans almost 10 billion years? I can tell "Truth" when I see it, just as I can tell when something was pulled out of an ancient authors a s s like "six days" and "a day is as a thousand years with the Lord"....

      February 27, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • pastmorm

      Truth, it's like throwing pearls before swine. Your passive-agressive stance will not bait me, but in return to your meaningless challenge to come up with a different answer (and I did answer your comment, but you don't like it so you keep pushing and pushing) I would ask you to prove that the bible is the word of god. Then I would ask you why you believe in a book that has cause so much hatred, anger, slaughter, fear, decimation and evilness in the world.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  5. ClintBeastwood

    My rules:
    Treat others as you would enjoy to be treated
    Make use and don't waste the gifts/skills you were given to benefit the world and future generations
    Be good to yourself

    I think my friend Jesus smiles upon this and not me literally translating a book that is on it's (insert large number here) revision with writings and insertions by kings and scholars and theologist who are all imperfect like me. If I am wrong, I better be prepared to bring some 100 SPF to the afterlife (even though only up to SPF 35 is actually effective in hell, it's more of just a comfort thing for me).

    February 27, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Truth

      Interesting idea..
      You use the phrase My Rules... and I Think....
      So, do you believe that God can be Just and Holy if he accepts your own personal rules over his and you only "think" Jesus accepts it.
      The Law of God is Absolute. The Grace of God is eternal.
      Nothing said by man will change this

      February 27, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  6. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things,

    February 27, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Nope

      ~The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • nope

      nope

      February 27, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • jemzinthekop

      Like poverty, hunger, crime, violence and war? Pray sure has done a bang up job at changing those things. Funny how the most theistic nations on the planet are the ones tangled up in all the pesky wars.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • fintastic

      Nope, you're still here...

      February 27, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  7. just sayin

    Bring out a story with the word Bible in it and the wanna bee atheists attach themselves to it like the blood sucking leaches they are.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      I'm sensing a bit of anger from you lol.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Observer

      Bring out a story with the word "gay" in it and the wanna be Christians attach themselves to it like the HYPOCRITES many are.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • just sayin

      No anger, accurate, impartial observational skills.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Observer

      just sayin,

      "accurate, impartial observational skills."

      "like the blood sucking leaches they are."

      Lol. lol. lol. lol. lol.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @just sayin

      I'm sure. I'll just forget about the fact that your anger is well known toward atheist here on the belief blog. Speaking of blood sucking leeches, what group gets a tax-exempt status AND government money for many of their "organizations" outside of the church? Your intolerance shows itself consistently, that high horse you ride on must be up into the exosphere by now.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • just sayin

      Tax exempt is a historical precedent. You want seperation of church and state but want to tax the church? What is wrong with that picture?

      February 27, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @just sayin

      Did I say anything about taxing the church? I just pointed out that 1) The church does not pay taxes and 2) They get government money for their other endeavors. I also notice that you made no mention of me pointing out the well doc.umented hate and intolerance you've shown on these forums. I wonder why that is.

      February 27, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  8. jemzinthekop

    Don't cleanup the part about the talking snake or the 800 year old man that built a big boat with rhinos, snow leopards, amoeba, owls, sharks, crickets, and polar bears because that all seems so plausible.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      Continue. Why don't u add sharks and whales while u r at it! We r not at Sunday School. If u can start talking like the snake I will be very grateful.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Observer

      Don't forget the unicorns.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • jemzinthekop

      and dinosaurs! They weren't invited on the boat.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  9. JD

    This was probably one of the most inspiring articles that I have read on CNN's website. The fact is that the Bible is raw, but it also gives hope. It is filled with proven historical real life situations to show us it is real. Great article.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • jemzinthekop

      Raw and gives hope.... it sounds almost like a poorly written Iliad

      February 27, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      What "proven historical real life" situations are you talking about.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  10. J. Morales

    Thanks for the insightful article, you make a lot of great points. It is especially comforting to read the Bible and realize how many of the heroes in the Bible had flaws and mistakes. This doesn't make them any less, it just shows how God can use any of us and really helps me to realize how big God's grace is and that being down on myself as the "worst person, like, EVER" isn't helpful 🙂

    February 27, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  11. God's a bit weird

    I don't get God's plan for us. He cast us into sin but Jesus will be back (eventually) to rule for a thousand years. Everything in the middle then is a waste of time. God should just turn us all to the last page.
    You ever notice too all of "God's plans" have failed. Eden-Failure, The Flood-Failure (we still sin). Sodom, Babylon, after Jesus death...he's done nothing to fix us"...
    Don't blame Free Will either cause he's Omnipotent!

    February 27, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Lewis Craig

      God hasn't failed. We have failed. Thought provoking article.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Rob

      The plans (Eden, etc.) failed because God gave us the free will to oversee them, and we messed up badly. Yes, God may be omnipotent, but He also chose to let us do what we will rather than forcing us. That's why He sent His son to the cross: To give us a chance to be redeemed.

      http://disciplebeacon.blogspot.com

      February 27, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  12. EAP

    Isn't it the biggest gamble of them all? Eternity. Living for the dot or the line. We all make the gamble on our own. What is the price to ante up? If the atheists are right? What have the religious folks lost? If the religious folks are right? What have the atheists lost? Heck, we all gamble with money on our 401k's with some historical evidence that it will grow...and some that it will not. But bet most say it's a good bet to have that to "cover themselves" in retirement. What do we lost if we gamble on eternity?

    February 27, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • Mark 13: 33

      Wow. I didn't think anyone else had that thought. I've thought that (almost verbatim) on infinite occassions. Needless to say ,well said!!

      February 27, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  13. Andy

    My Take

    I can't believe that here we are in 2012 and there are still fools out there who believe in god. The bible is a book of stories, not a single one of which has been proven through scientific or historical study.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • BobbyGB

      Actually, aside from the mystical parts, several of the people and events have been proven by objective historians. I'm not surprised at the number of people who believe or do not believe. Both beliefs require faith.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  14. wisdomVS

    It's not just the language of the scripture that is cleaned up. The Christian faith itself is constantly cleaning up after itself... child abusers, embezzlers, fights in meetings, etc. All these things are concealed and hidden as rapidly as possible. Obviously to avoid the general public from acknowledging the reality of how flawed the church has become and how much like Pharisees the church leaders are today. With the church's constant manipulation... God doesn't stand of chance.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  15. Jesucrisco

    The Bible was written by bronze age goat herders.

    There's no such thing as Santa Clause.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • wisdomVS

      You can't prove God doesn't exist anymore than the church can prove he does. So ask yourself... What if you are wrong?

      February 27, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Anon

      Wrong, the christian god concept can be easily disproved, but the hard part is getting the believers to admit it.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  16. PauletteB

    Part of the problem is that the early Church gave far too much credence to the writings of Paul, who was at best a misogynist and at worst needed to come out of the closet. Rather than accepting that his demons might be personal, he worked hard to convince early Christians and those who followed that those demons were universal. In his letters he seems to have forgotten much of Jesus's teachings regarding love and tolerance. I can't help but wonder how many letters and other writings by those who disagreed with Paul were destroyed by his accolades who were more interested in molding the new Church in Paul's image than Jesus's.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  17. Sparky91

    Follow the history of the bible or the stories people tell their children or the stories that are told to prospective followers. It all has to do with the times. In the 50's it was all wrath of God, and people were turned off because it was a little scary. Later, the story was focused more on a forgiving God. My point is, the story is constantly going to change based on the current times because it is a book on how one should behave given various situations. Behaviors are changing, and so will the story.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  18. Adam

    Who cares?
    It's all a forgery anyway.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • wisdomVS

      What if you are wrong? It will probably be too late by the time you find out. You must have faith, not proof.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Anon

      Irrelevant, using reason and logic with common sense shows that the bible is nothing but myth.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  19. PrimeNumber

    The Bible makes people angry. THey look at all the treachery and say "this is evil". What they are doing is looking into a morror. They pronounce the mirror evil, when what they are really seing is their own reflection. Nothing is more enraging than to be confronted with one's own nature.

    February 27, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • MarcTTF

      It's not the bible that makes them angry; it's the hypocrisy, and absurdity of it.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  20. Dennis

    By all means stop sugar coating the Bible. How about not sugar coating God's actions of murder and genocide?

    February 27, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Kim

      omg!! Stop being so damn dramatic...

      February 27, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      Can u prove this in a court of law or u r just running ur mouth. Prove it!

      February 27, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Observer

      It's estimated that the Bible shows 1,000,000 people killed as a direct result of commands from God in it.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • just sayin

      observer name them.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Nii, can you prove in a court of law that your god exists, or that The Babble is not fiction? Do you have the guts to subject your beliefs to examination by a court of law? Until you establish the foundations of your god and beliefs, you are merely engaged in the biggest fantasy role playing game in the world, with heavy, heavy emphasis on fantasy.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Observer

      just sayin,

      One example:

      II Kings 19:35 “the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 .. all dead bodies.”

      February 27, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • MarcTTF

      @Nii

      There's nothing to prove because it's all a myth. Get over it, and move on with your life.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • just sayin

      You said 1 million. Better question why?

      February 27, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Observer

      just sayin,

      So you had no problem accepting 185,000 killed by God?

      There are many references involved such as:

      – 120,000 Judges 8:10 “when the Lord has handed over Zebah and Zalmunna to me”
      – 127,000 I Kings 20:29 “I will defeat this vast army for you.” [100,000 in war; 27,000 wall fall]

      February 27, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • pastmorm

      If you read the bible then you are well aware of how god commanded many of his follower to wipe out entire cities, leaving no man, woman, child or beast standing. I think that's rather obvious if you want to stop sugar-coating. I also think it's sick for people to follow a hateful, evil god like that.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • just sayin

      Problem with the enemies of God and Israel dispatched ? No, The better question is why they were dispatched.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • sharoom

      @just sayin, are you trying to justify men killing each other on the word of God? Can you not see how twisted that can become when everyone else has to trust the "word of God" on the word of man? I'm sorry, but "God told me to do it" has resulted in some really stupid and dangerous behavior.

      February 27, 2012 at 2:42 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.