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. endpeace

    This author gets it right. The Bible is gritty and raw, and we can never know how badly we need the Light until we see the full extent of the darkness that we are currently in. I have never liked the churches that sugar coat the message. Give me the gritty details. That way, I can continuously be reminded of how I was saved, and see why the world is in need of a savior.

    February 26, 2012 at 6:47 am |
  2. stevie68a

    Why give folklore respect? People believed for millions of years that the world was flat, and we know how that worked out.
    The buy bull is all made up.

    February 26, 2012 at 6:44 am |
    • History Lesson

      For MILLIONS of years people believed the world was flat. The Flintstones view of human history...

      February 26, 2012 at 6:50 am |
    • fables are not healthy for children and other living things

      Um....there haven't been people on the planet for millions of years. If you want people to pay attention, please be as factual as possible. Otherwise you end up sounding just like the crazies you're attempting to refute.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
  3. baba

    it is realy sick person.he try to tel us about jusses.he don't know him.he try to us mis guid.watch out your self.

    February 26, 2012 at 6:41 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      Could you put that into something that anyone about your grade 1 mentality can understand?

      February 26, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      should have read anyone above not about

      Either way your post made no sense!

      February 26, 2012 at 7:13 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Crack is not your friend.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  4. godless

    I know I rant like crazy, but to be honest with you world, (everybody reading) is that when that moment comes, and those that wait for that cloud or that shinny throne in the sky, and never shows up....yeah is a sad moment, but you pat them in the back and say its ok, you can get up now and look forward to help the rest of the world that desperately needs you .

    February 26, 2012 at 6:39 am |
    • john

      Why continually bash people for their beliefs? I wish everyone in the world would believe in the lord and live their lives by the bible and treat each other with respect and kidness. Your words and mockery of what other people do is kind of being hypocritical to what you are saying.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:49 am |
    • terri

      And how, exactly are you qualified to determine when that "moment" is? According to the Bible – "No man knows the hour or the day". Should I take the ideas of a mere man seriously (over the Bible)? Do you really feel that you are greater than God?

      Furthermore, If you want to criticize Christians, you might want to try becoming knowledgeable about the material (The Bible) first.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:54 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      Wow, these people who think they know the buybull when all they really know is the 'feel good' parts!! Non-believers usually know more about the buybull than believers do simply because we have read it and it is what made us the non-believers we are today. Most of you have no clue as to what the history of that book is or who wrote it (and no it was not god nor was it god inspired-until gos is proven to exist with evidence, you have no way of knowing anything more than non-believers do). Either way you look at this topic, the book has no pertinence in today's society and belongs on a dusty shelf with other fictional books. Your buybull and no amount of praying is going to save the world, so get off your lazy god-fearing as.ses and do something useful, instead of the wishful thinking you've been taught is the solution!

      February 26, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  5. Enlightened

    Dude looks like a meth-head. Now, you're gonna have to fill me in here. I thought your god wrote the bible, or whispered it
    to some guys who wrote it down or something. My personal god does way more than yours. My personal god looks after an Alzheimers' afflicted senior and her diabetic 85 year-old husband. Every day. I hear your god ignores you. I hear you practice mock blood rituals and mock cannibalism rituals with guys that prey on your children and dress up in bizarre clothes. Your god says that people that don't worship him will be set ablaze for eternity. I like my god much better. I see results.

    February 26, 2012 at 6:39 am |
    • terri

      Did you say you were on meth???

      February 26, 2012 at 6:58 am |
  6. Mark Yelka

    It seems to me that god isn't necessary for good people. They can be nice to others without god because they want to be nice. But, god is necessary for bad people. They need god to justify intolerance, hate, and violence.

    February 26, 2012 at 6:36 am |
    • Russell

      Obviously, you have not read the Bible that you are commenting on... And NO the stories that you were read as a 9 year old do not count as reading the Bible... Your response shows that your encounter with the scriptures was filtered...

      February 26, 2012 at 6:44 am |
    • Mark Yelka

      Actually, I've read it from cover to cover. I did missionary work for 2 years. It is through my deep involvement in religion that my current opinions derive.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:46 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      To Russell (no relation, I'm guessing): According to the above essay (a point that I agree with) EVERYONE gets a filtered view of the BIble except for those very few serious scholars who are familiar with it in the original Greek and Aramaic.
      More to the point, the vast majority of congregants hear the weekly readings from "God's Word" that the minister chooses to read — and these are heavily subject to cherry picking. So it's no wonder that most people have a terribly skewed sense of what the Bible actually says.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:53 am |
    • terri

      You have one thing right – God came to save sinners. Therefore, it is only sinners who can be saved. For those who believe that they are "pretty good people" – God cannot save them because they believe themselves to be sinless.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:00 am |
  7. Kim

    Beautifully written and gracefully explained. Enjoyed the article and I am sure there are those that 'godless' condemn it, but isn't that the world we live in...let is roll off the shoulder and keep writing Steven James!

    February 26, 2012 at 6:33 am |
    • yeahright

      I got a better idea. Stop taking the bible so literally. Forget about the afterlife, it can't be proven to exist so why not be a good person just for the sake of it? Why do religious people need that carrot on the end of the stick?

      February 26, 2012 at 6:38 am |
    • john

      We take the bible so literally because it is the word of GOD. We don't need to have it to be good we want to have it to have the father in our life and to want jesus christ in our life for dying for our sins

      February 26, 2012 at 6:45 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Q. Why do you believe the Bible?
      A. Because it’s the word of God.
      Q. How do you know?
      A. Because the Bible says so.
      Q. But why do you believe the Bible?
      A. Because it’s the word of God.
      Q. How do you ... oh, never mind.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:54 am |
  8. godless

    The ideal expession of FREEDOM OF SPEECH is that ALL can speak equally, the reality of this right is that it has been soooo manipulated, trashed and stepped-on that matters no more. Here is a thought: How come all the media in the world hasn't given an equal forum to atheism, agnosticism and every ism that there is out there to PROVE its validity. And by the way, don't give me grief about how many people in the world believe, again doesn't make it right no matter the percentage.

    February 26, 2012 at 6:32 am |
    • joey


      February 26, 2012 at 6:33 am |
  9. joey

    ive been waiting for beheading freak pedophile to show up, im solonga gonna leekum, brother

    February 26, 2012 at 6:31 am |
  10. eli

    peace , we are going to die

    February 26, 2012 at 6:29 am |
    • RAMONO

      What the F is this?

      February 26, 2012 at 6:36 am |
    • RAMONO

      I always thought the Bible is full of *** how true.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:38 am |
    • joey

      mohammed, the pedophile, beheading freak king who loved jesus

      February 26, 2012 at 6:38 am |
  11. Bootyfunk

    this author telling us not to edit and sugarcoat God just edited and sugarcoated God. he says to use the "real" language of the bible, but then he conveniently forgets to discuss one of the harshest words removed from the bible - "s_l_a_v_e". half the time you see "servant" in the bible, it should say "s_l_a_v_e." Jesus himself tells s_l_a_v_e_s to obey their masters if they want any chance of getting into heaven. real nice....

    and there's a BUNCH of other examples. this author sugarcoats his own article, only mentioning the "harsh" words when it won't make the bible look too bad. he leaves out the harshest of examples himself.

    February 26, 2012 at 6:28 am |
    • joey

      and what did paul, the founder of amway, say about slaves ? and women ? fine new testament doctrine !!!!

      February 26, 2012 at 6:30 am |
    • History Lesson

      Throughout history, people have been masters and s-l-a-v-e-s. Strong/Weak. Rich/Poor. Have/Have-not. That has not, and most certainly, will not change. Slaves have been of all races. Certainly not just blacks. Read a world history book and become enlightened.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:44 am |
    • UncleBenny

      Although to be fair, the books in which Paul makes the statements to which you refer are among the disputed Pauline letters, those which he probably did not write, according to current Biblical scholarship.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:54 am |
    • GT

      Joey, the word is more appropriately translated "bondservant." A bondservant being one who has willingly given their lives to the service of another out of love and admiration. God does not condone slavery. Slavery was a very real part of the Ancient Near Eastern culture and Paul, when telling slave how to interact with their masters, was not condoning slavery, but rather instructing slaves on how to relate to their masters. He has similar instructions for masters as well. God's heart couldn't be further from forced servitude. It is the very reason he refuses to force servanthood on us. He doesn't want robots, he wants relationships. So when one makes himself a bondservant it is out of love, not coercion. God despises the enslavement of any man or woman, but longs for all to see how greatly he loves them – enough to die for them. One of the many great paradoxes of faith is that by becoming his bondservant you find a freedom you never could have imagined before you knew his love.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:55 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      i love when christians make excuses for slavery. it was not bondservant, it was slave. there are rules in the bible for how to beat your slave. so don't try to sugarcoat it. and the problem with the bible is that it is supposed to be infallable. so you would think it would say that slavery is bad, not good.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  12. Mark Yelka

    People create gods in their own image: base, crude, jealous, fearful, power-seeking, curious, pleasure-oriented, hard working, intelligent, foolish, .... All of those things that are human.

    February 26, 2012 at 6:28 am |
    • terri

      Exactly. That is why it is so important to read the Bible.....It gives one the opportunity to compare one's ideas to what the Bible says....Further, a way to measure ourselves against what we would like to believe about ourselves, and find out whether our thoughts were valid or ridiculous.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:49 am |
  13. AB

    Or could it be that we humans wrote the bible and all the "holy" books to express the beast and the saint inside us, could it be that: GODS 'R' US!!!

    February 26, 2012 at 6:27 am |
    • joey

      i purchase all my idolatry there

      February 26, 2012 at 6:28 am |
    • terri

      That idea is the epitome of idolatry – the idea that perhaps each one of us is a god. It conveniently eliminates the pesky idea that we are small and inconsequential and need to show respect for and follow the rules of another (God).

      The problem with applying free flow thinking to religion is that you end up with garbage conclusions. There are rules and a framework (The Bible). It is appropriate to apply creative thinking only after you learn the framework and the rules. Apply prayer and then you have half a shot at arriving at a valid conclusion of your own.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:45 am |
  14. bunny

    religion is a boatload of garbage and needs to be tossed out

    February 26, 2012 at 6:25 am |
    • terri

      Is that bunny thinking?.....

      February 26, 2012 at 6:45 am |
  15. joey

    didnt jesus die in waco, tx ?

    February 26, 2012 at 6:23 am |
    • JP0

      Shouldn't that place be renamed to Wacko, TX?

      February 26, 2012 at 6:33 am |
    • joey

      ah, youve been there, yep, preacher-a-minute

      February 26, 2012 at 6:37 am |
  16. Mike R

    Does one need Santa Claus to understand the true meaning of the gift of giving. Jesus represents Love because his story displayed the biggest act of Love that a person can express: giving up your life for the life of another. So, as someone who was raised a christian, I believe that to "Find Jesus" is to find the power of love within your own heart. Jesus was an examplary human on this and his life is immortalized to this day. Do you really need somekind of reward system to get you to do good deeds?

    February 26, 2012 at 6:23 am |
  17. Gonzo

    more wars have been started over this book, then any other book. This should tell everyone something. Organized Religion has used it to force people into their beliefs. Just ask the Native Americans. They have used the law to their advantage. They get tax-exempt status for themselves and the business's they own. But yet they continue to break laws and take no responsibility. Just look what happened in Philadelphia with the abuse scandal going on and the priests that were involved. They are constantly covering up. The Pope and the Church refuses to take responsibility for any of it. But yet many a child has been a victim. So what right do they have to force their beliefs on me, and they use Government to do it. The Bible is like a Law book its all in who is doing the interpreting.,

    February 26, 2012 at 6:21 am |
    • Justice

      Nope you wrong, wars are not made based on this book, wars are done by us and the desire for power, a good example is the search for WMD which they've never found, too many innocents have been killed for lies and that has nothing to do with God or the Blible.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:24 am |
    • joey

      mr marx made some interesting comments on this topic

      February 26, 2012 at 6:25 am |
  18. Name*Chedar

    The only practice I believe in is, am I good enough to my fellowmen. The only legacy we can leave to this society is to benefit humankind. The rest are immaterial and thus create more confusion.

    February 26, 2012 at 6:18 am |
  19. Richard Conn Henry

    "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steven James." You are telling me, that not one single person on this planet Earth agrees with Steven James? How do you know?

    February 26, 2012 at 6:17 am |
  20. godless

    To those who believe there is a god, simply PROVE IT!!!! oh that's right you can't. too bad. Yo can still be a productive human beign by helping your fellow man: black, white, yellow, christian and muslim oh yeah baby WE are all in the same BLUE pearl called EARTH, join the revolution! don't be afraid to say I don't believe.

    February 26, 2012 at 6:14 am |
    • Justice

      Wow Godless you just proved your level of intelligence, you just won a Turkey at the closest grocery store to you. Congratulation.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:26 am |
    • eitherway

      Prove there isn't. It's the same conundrum either way. Belief is not the same as knowledge, in fact it requires the absence of provable fact... for you as well as for someone who is religious. There is no proof either way. So believe what you want, and so will everybody else. We can't know, and that goes for everybody, including you. But I wholeheartedly agree with the rest of your comment.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:31 am |
    • Josh

      Your actually proselytizing your own belief by saying that I should stop what I believe and believe what you do (that there is no God). Your god is yourself. If ,to you, our beginning is insignificant and after our life is insignificant then you must have the guts to say that your life is insignificant. Some people believe there is more out there. If all you believe is what can be observed, measured or studied in a lab, (Physical things), then you are far more close minded than any Christian I know.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:35 am |
    • Justice

      Eitherway i raise my hat to you, at least here is someone that make sense. Exactly my point, well said.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:36 am |
    • enjoylife

      What if I believe there is a God and when I die I find out I was wrong, what have I lost? But on the other hand, what if you do not believe and when you die, you find out that you were wrong?

      February 26, 2012 at 6:39 am |
    • vincent jean

      PROVE IT?.... read the bible and look at the world now.. thats proof right there, hope God has mercy on all of us including me when christ comes back

      February 26, 2012 at 6:41 am |
    • UncleBenny

      "enjoylife: What if I believe there is a God and when I die I find out I was wrong, what have I lost? But on the other hand, what if you do not believe and when you die, you find out that you were wrong?"

      At least quote your source. This is a paraphrase of Pascal's Wager. The problem with the Wager is this: Suppose you bet on belief, and at your death, you meet God face-to-face, and he says to you, "So you believed in me because it was a safe bet?" What then?

      February 26, 2012 at 6:58 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      To EnjoyLife: Without explicitly naming it, you are citing what's known as Pascal's Wager. It is so wrong in so many different ways that there are entire websites devoted to pointing out all its problems. You should google them before you keep making fatuous references like this and further embarrassing yourself.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:59 am |
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