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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. Jesus Loves You

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

    February 27, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  2. GeorgeBos95

    The Bible is not "God's message" – it's a book written by people who claim it's God's message. Big difference.

    There are plenty of people who claim God speaks to them – at one point do people wake up and stop believing there are a limited few who speak to "Him", and recognize it for the scam it really is?

    Actually, he speaks only to me.... and he says you all have to give ME $1 ... or your collective butts are in deep, deep trouble.

    February 27, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • popeye47

      Or you could do like Oral Roberts did. I forgot exactly what it was but he so much money or god would take him home or something like that. It was okay if god took him home, as far as I was concerned.

      February 27, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
  3. Joy

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1BwfQURWJ8&w=640&h=390]

    February 27, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  4. IS

    Thnx Mr James for your article. It has been just hours that your article came out and there are already 5K + comments triggered by it.
    Christianity has endured all kinds of attacks for over 2,000 years. What makes its detractors think that they hold what it takes to make it go away? The very fact that it sparks all kinds of controversy, should make all those speaking against it, wonder how much their decrying only helps to keep it growing stronger.

    February 27, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • reason

      Actually Christianity, as with all major religions are declining in America and abroad.

      February 27, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  5. 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 5:38 pm |
  6. Bizarre

    I can see two possible disparate effects of this article:

    1. Pushing people closer to Fred Phelps' hideous philosophy. They often use that "don't sugarcoat it" phrase...
    2. Convincing people that the whole book is primitive nonsense.

    February 27, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  7. Anon

    Why the fck you braindead christards devote so much time on a fcking myth!

    February 27, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  8. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional .

    February 27, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  9. jj

    Where did this guy get the idea that God wrote the Bible?

    February 27, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • EuphoriCrest

      If a god wrote the bible, I would have expected a much better read.

      February 27, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  10. Bizarre

    @just sayin:

    The fact that places mentioned in the Bible have been verified archeologically has no bearing on the veracity of the supernatural stories put forth in that book.

    Mount Olympus (and many other places mentioned in their legends and myths) really exists in Greece. Does that mean that 12 gods really live there? Dickens' "The Christmas Carol" fairly accurately portrays the places and conditions of 19th century England. Does that mean that the supernatural visits of Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come were real? All sorts of fiction and fantasy stories are set in real places.

    The Bible is a book which includes *some* history of primitive Hebrew culture, and *some* good advice for practical, beneficial human behavior, but a great deal of it is a compilation of ancient Middle Eastern historical fiction, myth, legend, superst.ition and fantasy.

    There is not a whit of verified evidence for any of the supernatural beings or supernatural events in that book.

    February 27, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Bizarre

      –sorry, wrong spot...

      February 27, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Road Apple

      Let me get this straight: you mean to say that Jonah did not really live in the belly of a whale for 3 days and nights until it puked him up on a beach?

      February 27, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  11. TruthStandsClearFromFalsehood

    God's words are holy and so are his Prophets – they cannot be like the worst example of the humankind. Amazing, this is exactly what this guy says what led him away from Christianity ...
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYMKQKSV0bY&w=640&h=390]

    February 27, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Debby

      I have but one word to offer in response to that blog: Amen!

      February 27, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  12. Alejandro Martinez

    I do agree with the author on the original sense that all scriptures from the Bible have. However looking at how distorted is the view by an increasing number of people in the world, to take the books literally and do not understand the very nature of the books, a raw version would only create more crazy religious groups. Any educated Theologist would tell you that in the end, interpretation of the sense and objective of the original author requires careful study and historical, political, economical and sociological understanding of the moment in time. Many verses, specially in later sections of the New Testament were coded messages amongst early Christians. Very old passages of the Old Testament relate to a number of previous scriptures, some from diverse origins, to Mesopotamia to Egypt. We need to understand the general rules of engagement in the world, and praise God for his help to us. Literal interpretations without proper education is what gets all religions in trouble.

    February 27, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 27, 2012 at 4:37 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 4:54 pm |
    • Patrick

      Any belief is good and as atheism is another belief system (pitting all their belief energy against religion) it must be good for atheists, as long as they truly believe that they can change religion.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • nope

      nope .

      February 27, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Sally

      "nope

      nope ."

      I agree, prayer doesn't work, nope, nope, nope...no way....nada,

      February 27, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • Charlene

      Atheism is good for children because it teaches them to question and to have an open mind. Do not judge what you do not understand.

      February 27, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  14. The Idealist

    I completely agree, once you take out the human nature of things they no longer have the same effect, the world needs real people not artifical too perfect superheros. I honestly believe more people would have faith if we kept things honest and to the point. How can one relate to perfection, no?

    February 27, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  15. In His Service

    Steven, I am thankful for the insight you have shared and would like to add a comment of my own. I think it is imperative that people understand that God is looking for a relationship, that He sent Jesus to die in our place on a cross, and that the sins of the whole world (from the beginning to the end of time) were heaped on Him so that the world is completely forgiven. Can you imagine? The sins of the whole world have been forgiven! I believe people act the way they do because they don't know they've been forgiven. They are trapped in sinful lifestyles because they are under condemnation. This is a brutal trick of the enemy to keep people in bondage. People only need to receive Jesus' acts of obedience, even unto death on a cross, to be made Righteous in God's eyes. Religions say you must do this or do that! The way my Bible reads, it has been done, done, done! We (people) are not made righteous by our own obedience, or by works of our own wills. We are in right standing with God because Jesus lived a perfect life! This simple fact releases us from the pressure of performance and allows us to live a life of thanks and praise to the one who is altogether lovely! Life is a gift of God's Grace and is to be full of joy and happiness when released from the pressures of this world by trusting in His love for us... not in our love for Him (which fails from time to time)!

    February 27, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • Well Hung Jesus

      Excuse me.... where do you get this imaginary view?

      February 27, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • pastmorm

      In his service...glad I'm not in his service! Crazy!!!!

      February 27, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • In His Service

      Imaginary view?

      February 27, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • In His Service

      Why.... The Bible tells me so!

      February 27, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • PamR

      Well put and well expressed – amazing how many there are out there that are afraid of truth and can only respond with attach and mockery. A professor once set before me that small minds talk about people, average minds talk about events and great minds talk about God's Word.

      February 27, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  16. Well Hung Jesus

    When someone says, "According to Jesus".... I have to chuckle. lol

    February 27, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • jimtanker

      I'd love to have a time machine and go back to 30 CE. "Jesus? Jesus who? Never heard of the guy."

      February 27, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  17. David Claytor

    God bless you all...especially those of the household of faith. Good evening (afternoon).

    February 27, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  18. Emergency #'s

    – When you are sad, call on John 14

    – When you don’t feel loved, call on Romans 8:38-39

    – When you have sinned, call on 1 John 1:8-9

    – When you are facing danger, call on Psalm 91

    – When people have failed you, call on Psalm 27

    – When God feel far from you, call on Psalm 139

    – When your faith needs encouraging, call on Hebrews 11

    – When you are scared, call on Psalm 23

    – When you are worried, call on Matthew 6:25-34

    – When you are hurt, call on Colossians 3:12-17

    – When you feel no one is on your side, call on Romans 8:31-39

    – When you are seeking rest, call on Matthew 11:25-30

    – When you are suffering, call on Romans 8:18-30

    – When you feel you’re failing, call on Psalm 121

    – When you pray, call on Matthew 6:9-13

    – When you need courage, call on Joshua 1

    – When you are in need, call on Philippians 4:19

    – When you are hated because of your faith, call on John 15

    – When you are losing hope, call on 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17

    – When you are seeking peace, call on John 14:27

    – When you want to do good works, call on John 15

    – When you want to live a happy life, call on Colossians 3:12-17

    – When you don’t understand what God is doing, call on Isaiah 55:8-9

    – When you want to get along with others, call on Romans 12:9-21

    February 27, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • jimtanker

      When you want to live in the real world call 1-800-REALITY.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • ashrakay

      – when you lack the courage to face reality, rely on the fantasy of the bible

      – when you're feeling intellectually lazy, find answers in the bible

      – when you are faced with problems, don't do anything to solve them. Just pray

      – when you are questioned about your faith, just ignore any evidence and sink lower into your delusion

      – when you want to get along with others, make sure they believe exactly like you do

      February 27, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Alto

      That 800 number above if you wanna reach hell!

      February 27, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Soprano

      Aksr..You said when questioned about your faith ignore the evidence-Care to explain?

      February 27, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @Soprano, How about I give you a typical example... Noah's Ark: If you believe the bible then you believe that a bunch of animals were crammed into a boat and a great flood wiped out humanity. Every species alive today must therefore be from that boat.

      Here comes the evidence:
      1) How did the fish survive? If that much fresh water was mixed with salt water, it would have become brackish and decimated the fish population
      2) How did all of the animals get back to their respective places (i.e., kangaroos in Australia, penguins in Antarctica, polar bears in the Arctic.
      3) What about the millions and millions of species of insect (keep in mind that some cicada actually have a 12 year mating cycle which means they only come out for 1 year every 12 years to mate, other species of cicada have a 7 year cycle, and so on, which means than none of their mating cycles would overlap. You can do the maths on this in finding the probability of overlapping prime numbers over a period of time.
      4) What about all of the special diets for the animals?
      5) What about the tons and tons of animal d.ung that would need to be removed everyday through a tiny window?
      6) Where is the geological strata evidence of a global flood? There is none.

      Now, when faced with this, you have to choose: The story must be false, or there is some mystical faith-based explanation (delusion). Get the point?

      February 27, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Soprano

      You still have not explained yourself.
      I asked you about your statment "You said when questioned about your faith ignore the evidence...
      I am challenging you about your statment on faith and evidence.

      February 27, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • Wrathskeller

      @Alto "That 800 number above if you wanna reach hell!"

      How nice of you to have made your judgement and condemned another to hell. Very/typical Christian behavior. For the record, hell is nothing more than a tool used to get the mindless sheep to do as their told.

      February 27, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Alto

      Heaven and Hell are real. To pretend they don't exist is foolishness. To lead people away from the scriptures by telling them there is no God has its consequences. God is the ultimate judge of where a person goes to.

      February 27, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @Soprano, Then you're going to have to be more clear about your question because I'm not following you. Perhaps provide an analogy or example of what you're talking about.

      February 27, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @Alto, Hell is wasting your life believing in a illusory afterlife. Heaven is the chance to live and experience the wonder and horror that is life.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  19. John N. Seattle, WA

    I agree with the author on this...and would add that the worship of God has gone WAY downhill since the invention of organized religion!

    February 27, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • kleentx

      I agree with you regarding organized religion. The first thing that came to mind is the difference between the various sects of Baptists. I was raised Southern Baptist – no dancing, no card playing, no noise during the church service other than hymn singing. When I found out during my teen years how the Northern Baptists conducted themselves, I thought "why aren't we having that kind of fun?" They praised the Lord loudly during church services, danced in the aisles, and clapped their hands in joy and agreement. I am no longer a Southern Baptist as their judgemental, prejudicial nonsense drove my husband and I to take our family elsewhere to worship the Lord. I believe the Bible tells us how to live our lives and as each person reads it they will take from it what they need to.

      February 27, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • just sayin

      facepalm , Start a cult with Dan Brown or if you are to lazy go with L Ron Hubbard. Brown wrote his fiction as fiction. The Bible was written as God's Truth to man.

      February 27, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "...the worship of God has gone WAY downhill since the invention of organized religion!"
      I agree. Ever since Zoroaster as early as 6000 BCE, and perhaps even further back with Vyasa or Rishabha, it's gone downhill fast, perhaps we should give it up.

      February 27, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  20. Joe

    Are you Episcopalian? You sound like one of us. You are correct, the bible is still relevant to us, the characters in the Bible are definitely real, and it is the message of redemption which is so important in what God through the Bible is telling us in every single one of it's pages. This is so important to all of us in Christianity. Thanks for the article.

    February 27, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • jimtanker

      You have no idea whether or not that the characters in the bible are real. You only hope they are.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • just sayin

      History has confirmed a great many people in the Bible and every day more are being accounted for.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @just sayin

      You have sources for that assertion? If so provide them.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • jimtanker

      Yes, certain characters in this fable are based on real people. I have read many peices of fiction that have characters based on real people. That does not make all of those books true.

      February 27, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      A Dan Brown book is far more historically accurate than the bible. Yes, oddly, you still find it in the fiction section.

      February 27, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • just sayin

      Abraham/ Machpelah
      Sodom and the cities of the plains/ Kedorlaomer
      House of David/ Israel and Judah
      Sources are from archaeology, That would be a science to you that worship science.

      February 27, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Epic Logic Fail

      Just because the North Pole exists does not mean that Santa is real.

      February 27, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • Over It

      just sayin,

      History confirms many people told about in ancient Egyptian writings too - does that mean that their gods and superst'itions are true?

      February 27, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Bizarre

      @just sayin: (repost from above)

      The fact that places mentioned in the Bible have been verified archeologically has no bearing on the veracity of the supernatural stories put forth in that book.

      Mount Olympus (and many other places mentioned in their legends and myths) really exists in Greece. Does that mean that 12 gods really live there? Dickens' "The Christmas Carol" fairly accurately portrays the places and conditions of 19th century England. Does that mean that the supernatural visits of Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come were real? All sorts of fiction and fantasy stories are set in real places.

      The Bible is a book which includes *some* history of primitive Hebrew culture, and *some* good advice for practical, beneficial human behavior, but a great deal of it is a compilation of ancient Middle Eastern historical fiction, myth, legend, superst.ition and fantasy.

      There is not a whit of verified evidence for any of the supernatural beings or supernatural events in that book.

      February 27, 2012 at 5:17 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.