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. Jokesterer

    Do you know what I think?

    February 26, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • Chip

      No. Please enlighten us so we may follow.... the thread.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:28 am |
  2. cynthia hicks

    Quran ... Bible... LOTR... Dune... Star trek... Star Wars... HARRY POTTER! BLAH BLAH BLAH !

    ALL the same... written by man,, fiction and fairy-tales.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:24 am |
    • z

      Have you done the research to prove its a fairy tale or just your opinion?

      February 26, 2012 at 7:26 am |
  3. Odinson

    Regardless of your beliefs. The most interesting and the most read book of the NT by me is the Revelations. And its all coming true. The last great war is upon us. The Anti-Christ and False prophets are here and now. War has been declared against the church. Its all going to end and there is nothing that is going to stop it. The cycle is nearly complete.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:21 am |
    • Jokesterer

      People have said that for 2000 years. Wake me in 2000 more years.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • queenbee10

      Never forget the other part of REvelations–the church would be persecuted–but to have that part of prophecy to come true–the Church had to behave in such a way that resulted in revulsion and prosecution. The bible also says many in the churches will be deceived. Unlike modern Christians who claim to emulating Him, Jesus never made the mistake of mixing his beliefs with the laws of the land–he was not into politics. He did not try to change the world to suit His beliefs nor did he tell others to do that–instead he told people to live a life based on the changes within themselves so that when other people saw it–they'd want to be just like that too. Christians today are alienating a lot of people and a lot of people who think they are Christians are not Christ like at all and will be in for a rude awakening at some point.

      People are supposed to be transformed by the renewing of their mind–which of course comes as a result of being born again and having been covered by Grace. Too many so called Christians are merely Johns–and too many so called pastors are nothing more than pimps who try to pimp both God and religion and offer up the carrot of "riches" (mammon) to their flock.

      But here is the paradox "Choose you this day whom ye shall serve , for you cannot serve both God and mammon" Imagine that.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • z

      sorry but I disagree, the Bible is a love story btw us and our Creator. He loves us so much that He wants to renew a relationship with Him. But the problem was that we are selfish people who only gives in to the desire of our body. We are a soul with a body NOT a body and may have a soul.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • Jim in Georgia

      Philippians 3:8 . A pile of cr*p...

      February 26, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • voodoo4u

      Yeah, yeah.... That's what all the doomsayers say.... The rest of us have no interest in your kool aid... BTW... They are here – disguised as the republican primary candidates. Can you enlighten us as to which one is which?

      February 26, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • z

      2 Jim in Georgia – are you confuse of this verse? Paul is indicating that everything in this world is meaningless and he prefers to live a wonderful life with Christ. "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." Philippians 1:21

      2 voodoo4u – revelation is not a doomsday book, it is a love story about warning us. As rebellious as we are, He hope we can to come back to Him. And why are you tying politics to a faith in someone who love you more than anyone in your life. The one who walks with you and can count all the hairs in your head. The one who knows your heart and hope you will try to know His heart.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • KC

      I'll believe the end is near when the Chicago Cubs make the World Series

      February 26, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  4. z

    After reading the Bible, one thing is for sure, none of us deserve to live. Remember Jonah, he wanted God to destroy Nineveh. Jonah did not want the people of Nineveh to repent but yet God saw a different light and gave them the opportunity. The same choice we can make today. I see a merciful God observing us, sometimes God gave us children so we understand. Like when children rebel against their parents and not understanding their view. As we grow older and hopefully wiser, we will understand. It is not easy, and we have the same real issue today, family problems like David, loss of death like Job, slavery & seduction like Joseph. May the power of the Holy Spirit guide you

    February 26, 2012 at 7:20 am |
    • queenbee10

      This is what comes from not understanding Scripture. Jonah did NOT want God to destroy Ninevah. Jonah did not want to go to Ninevah because he was sure that if he delivered God's message about impending doom for Ninevah that the King there would have him put to death for bringing such a threat and bad news. So he avoided it and instead of going where he was supposed to–he chose cowardice and tried to escape–then we have the story of the storm, the capsized boat and the great fish. Jonah found out there were things that might be worse than death–when he was finally let out of the fish, he went to Ninevah like he was supposed to and delivered the message and the King let the entire city know of God's threat and he BELIEVED and repented as did the entire town. Because of such profound humility and belief, God spared the town. Jonah's sin was not simply disobedience it was cowardice. If you go through life misreading scripture–you are going to have a very hard time understanding the map you are trying to follow for your soul's sake. It is like not only reading a map upside down, it is not understanding any of the legends or symbols on the map also and therefore really not having a clue about where you are headed or even WHY.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • z

      2 queenbee10 – I agree, that's what I said in my first sentence. Jonah did NOT want God to save Nineveh. It shows we are more merciless than God. Thank you for the more detailed explanation.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  5. michele starkey

    In other words, Don't be God's Editor.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:19 am |
  6. Yeldarb

    The bible is a good book for children to read to learn right from wrong, good from bad. Otherwise it is pretty much as true as anything the Grimm bros wrote. It's a book of fairy tales. Just don't take it literally.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • Ken

      Wow. I am so impressed that you can summarize a collective work that took forty inspired writers 1,500 years to assemble in a couple of sentences. In order to make this statement you must have studied the Bible intensively and extensively. I am humbled to respond to such a great theological mind.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  7. godless

    @RichardSRussell I'll see you in the parking lot...LOL get off the soap box and embrace the real world. You proffesor, my dear fellow man are a snobby S.O.B., but I like you anyways!

    February 26, 2012 at 7:09 am |
  8. Genevieve

    Well done good and faithful servant Steven James. Being a follower of Jesus Christ is a journey. Some days we are the sinner and some days we are saints. All days, we need God's strength, wisdom, forgiveness and guidance. All days we need "truth". Jesus said "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free." Free from the slavery of hate, ignorance, ill mannered, rude, self centered, arrogance. and immaturity. He also said to seek and you will find. If you seek the truth, rather than to think you know it all, you will find it. Once you find wisdom, you will have better things to do than to spew hate at authors and followers of Jesus. Bottom line......God loves all of us in spite of ourselves not because of.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:06 am |
  9. surianot@archmil.org

    what do you think?

    February 26, 2012 at 7:06 am |
  10. fauxhawk70

    Just watch the end of the first MIB movie where the aliens are playing marbles... Makes perfect sense to me! It's not that I don't believe that there is a creator somewhere, I just believe that we as humans probably cannot fathom what is truly out there because we cannot see that far out. Yes I consider myself atheist now even though I was forced into catholosism when I was young... I often reason and think of the stories of the bible as this... Back in the time that these stories were written there were a number of things that I believe can be explained. For instance... Even today if a women commits adultery in the middle east she would be killed by stoning or other means... Maybe Mary had to make up how she became pregnant because she knew she would be killed if it was found that she commited adultery... Maybe even Joseph himself didn't want her to die so he went along with it... Jesus was born under the north star... Whatever the whole planet is in a straight line of the north star... People walking on water... A mirage in the desert... People hearing voices... Schizophrenia. There was no aspiren for headaches and drugs for mental illness and another thing... If you think that smoking weed and even strong holucigenics wasn't the norm then that would be crazy in itself because I doubt that an officer of the law or DEA was around to enforce this kind of thing! They just didn't have laws and/or know what effects that drug use has on the body! As for prophecies... They can be interpreted in way to many ways! If it was written that the son of god would ride in to town on a donkey with palm leaves or whatever, don't you think that someone who got word of that before the fact could know the story and set it up to climb on a donkey and ride into town? We and this universe are probably some cell in the veins of some larger living being but we don't realize it because we are so small and we think of beings as things like us with red blood and something that needs oxygen so that we can survive.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:04 am |
    • J in FL

      Other virgin births in religion before Jesus...Buddha born via opening in his mother's flank, Krishna born of the virgin Devaka, Romulus born of the virgin Rhea Sylvia......and the list goes on & on. Most stories in the bible aren't even original. Just revised stories from Mythology.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  11. Joe G.

    Wow...finally CNN has a good post on thos blog. It's about time!!

    February 26, 2012 at 7:03 am |
    • Chip


      February 26, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • Jim G.


      February 26, 2012 at 7:16 am |
  12. harry

    And you thought The Quran was violent and bad. Bible is no exception. Yet both claim to be the religion of peace.
    Our forefathers were right when they insisted on separation of church and the government. This is why America has lasted and lived in glory for so long. But recent jabber in the govt (such as Bush taking orders from higher authority) and increasingly religious overtures in the politics may take America backwards.

    Let us stamp out religion.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:02 am |
    • Chip


      February 26, 2012 at 7:11 am |
    • A in Pa

      They do give a prescription for peace, if you join them, agree with them, subordinate yourself in every way to their every demand you'll be loved and accepted and belong to an organization working on world domination, if not you can shut up and die.

      Religion is the left hand of goverment.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:14 am |
    • harry

      Chip....sorry...I forgot ......FOREVER.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:15 am |
    • B(iraq) Hussein Osama

      let me put it this way. the quran and the bible are A LOT MORE peaceful than atheism and Godlessness!

      February 26, 2012 at 7:17 am |
    • Mirosal

      How many Atheists are flying planes into buildings? How many Atheists are executing people for apostasy? How many Atheists are screaming "Allahu Akbar" before opening up with a machine gun on innocent people?

      February 26, 2012 at 7:33 am |
  13. mipolitic

    just a couple of questions,
    whay does most of the people sware using the name of JESUS OR GOD d_____ ?
    whats with this BC and AD thing inregards to year and what it is ?
    whats with the book of revelation, for a book that is apart of the HOLY BIBLE which is rejected , why is the book of revealtion point to by the tv and media shows if it not true ?

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

      I dunno, why is "Harry Potter" the top-grossing movie series of all time "if it not true"?

      February 26, 2012 at 7:02 am |
    • EvanMinn

      Why is Thursday named after Thor (Thor's day) if not true?

      Those are all cultural things. Just because something is picked up and used by a culture doesn't have anything to do with whether it is true or not.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  14. the studier

    For the people who clame "God is Love", apparently you have never read the bible. The Bible is raw and horrific. From the treatment of women, incest, and killing of children ordered by God. I grew up in a religious family, and didn't start studying the bible until I was older. And now that I am truly studying the bible do I truly believe there is no God. Some people think that it's sad, but the truth is the bible has been changed many many times to suit many kingdoms, and scare people into acting a certain way. Remember, it didn't start with Adam and Eve, it started with Adam and Lilith. If you don't know what I am talking about read the story of Lilith...And read the old testament.

    February 26, 2012 at 6:57 am |
    • Catholic

      You cannot understand the bible without the original church which Jesus created using apostolic tradition and the magisterium for guidanceby the Holy Spirit.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:02 am |
    • Ken

      You are just an ignorant liar now get out of here fool.

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

      so go get yourself the original Hebrew OT and Greek NT, like I did and look for the depth of each word. Seek and you shall find. King James is a literal word to word translation hence some grammer issue but its translation in its rawless form. NIV is a verse by verse translation, etc... Many means the same, can you accept that, or something else is preventing you to believe. Maybe wanting to live for yourself? And not by some almighty creator who has a heart to love us and to seek us when we're all alone.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • chaz8181

      The Bible is like any book...you can read it and believe it or reject it. Many have researched the source of the bible and still do not know nor can prove who wrote any of it. Much of it is related to myths from many centuries before Christ. Why would Jesus want to make his life such a mystery when , since he IS God, then why didn't he write it down. and we know that only a small shred of papyrus is left that may or may not be related to the bible. Theologians have made a living and a market of the bible and have debated its source for centuries. Jesus has been invented and then re-invented many times. And it has been used to bring hatred to many groups such as the Jews...note that Luther preached hatred of the Jews yet Jesus preached love for all..does this make sense..? The bible is a very "personal book and leave it out of any laws of our land.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • z

      2 chaz8181 – I agree that there are people who profits from scriptures, even one of the apostles, Judah of Iscariot took money from the money box. That does not mean the Living Word is false or many who has dedicated their lives to serve humanity in their response to our loving God. Many do not profit, that's why I do not believe in the feel good tele-evangelist. Our whole lives resolves around God, 7 days in our calendar, history of the middle east wars (started with Abraham, couldnt wait for God promise to Sarah) , Christmas & Good Friday, Lent, etc.....

      February 26, 2012 at 7:55 am |
  15. reason

    God commanded his followers to murder non-believers 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 26, 2012 at 6:54 am |
    • Sai

      Jews believe in just the Old.
      Christians believe in the New (and old) ((to a point))
      Their faith (Christian) is from the New Text.

      Sharp Contrast Between The Two.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • B(iraq) Hussein Osama

      your theory falls flat on its face.
      if muslims take quran more seriously, then why did they have nothing to do with most of the violence of the 20th century?
      – world war one
      – world war two
      – communist purges
      – jewish holocaust

      February 26, 2012 at 7:19 am |
    • reason

      Jesus did not wipe away the Old Testament and instructed Christians to continue to follow the laws of the god of Abraham.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • vs101

      The author misses the point. The reason why Islam has created such fanatical followers who appear to have no compuctions of killing people when the Koran is burned is precisely because they take everything in it literally. The "sugercoating" of the Bible is a reflection of the emergence of Western society from the middle ages, during which hey did believe in the Bible literally.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • z

      2 Sai – Christian is only mentioned twice in the Bible. The true word is not Christian, which is water down, but are you a Follower / Disciple of Christ?

      2 B(iraq) Hussein Osama – have you done the research to find out who was behind some of these major wars, you will be surprise that Muslims are involve.

      2 reason – yes, our Lord confirmed it, He summed it up.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  16. Catholic

    The author needs to study the original and true bible put together by the Catholic church in the 4th centuray with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It cannot be understood without the two other parts of the church: Apostolic tradition and the Magisterium. Moderm translations from the original Greek and Latin have lost some meaning, but the church continually strives to correct this as seen recently in the English speaking mass changes. We are all sinners. The Saints were sinners many of which overcame great sin and serve as great examples. As far as faith, science is also based on a faith system. As an engineer, I have faith that physical properties when exploited behave the same way every time. Theoretical science is greatly based on faith and each new theory builds on the previous. Science is God's creation. I have seen the most wonderful explaination of the Big Bang theory by a Catholic priest. God is great! God is all good! God is love!

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

      As an engineer, your att¡tude toward structural integrity is due to CONFIDENCE (based on prior experience), not faith (based on nothing whatsoever). It is by attaching itself unfairly to worthier decision-making methods that faith has gained a wholly unjustified good reputation. It is, in fact, the world's worst decision-making technique, and nobody should ever use it for anything.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:08 am |
    • SpikeyApples

      correction: Old Testament was originally given in Hebrew, so to best understand what's written there, it's best to know that language.
      also, in many languages, English being one of them, same words may mean different, sometimes closely and sometimes loosely related, things; so when this James guy writes 'menstrual rag' or what not, it may or may not be what was meant in the Bible. one of the points of contention between christians and jews, for example, is whether the Old Testament prophecies speak of 'virgin' or just 'young woman' who will bear a child, whose name will be Emmanuel etc.
      i also take somewhat of an issue with the author's conclusion, as i saw it, namely the attempt to ultimately pave a way to sort of 'all-forgiving' 'joyful' religion, liberated from all sense of guilt. King Solomon said, there's time to wage war, and to live in peace; time to gather rocks and time to scatter them; likewise there's time for solemn rituals and partying, for guilt and for liberation. one could even say that the two don't even go one without another

      February 26, 2012 at 7:15 am |
    • Jeff

      Big bang theory will soon be understood as just another creation myth, induced by the optical illusion of universal expansion – oops, what are all those galaxies that are on collision courses doing, running into each other when they are supposed to be 'expanding' in an accelerated universal expansion. If space were expanding, so would the diameters of galaxies, stars, planets, atoms, everything would expand not just the distance between *some* galaxies. Space does not conform to our human imaginations which we now call Euclidean space, with three spatial dimensions. Space is inherently curved and only appears to be expanding because of the nature of that curvature, which also gives rise to gravity, no time to explain that, try to figure it out yourselves. Meanwhile, big bang theorists will be regarded with the same disdain we now regard flat earthists. Time? Human invention. Motion? Like a vibrating string on a musical instrument, the universe itself doesn't move but from our human perspective it looks like it does, what we register as motion is the universe vibrating. We ourselves are just a wave, a tune on the infinite 'string' of being.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:19 am |
  17. godless

    You don't have to believe me or anybody. I'm very happy with my life. But I say this. All your religions (and I mean every single act, move,covenant that speaks of a deity) is a social, moral and physical phenomena, simply called a huge blind spot in your brain. One that can not explain something, must be supernatural. You find more trenght not in the mamba-jamba tha is written in a book; because admit it, it has GAPS like a MOFO. And since your gaps can't explain the real true, you simply dismiss it. Your strenght is in the longevity, populace and overall tsunami belief "That if everyone believes it" must be true.

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

      Wow what a fool you are. LOL

      February 26, 2012 at 7:14 am |
  18. Jennifer Bell

    When the apostles performed signs, they were killed. Stephen, for example...

    February 26, 2012 at 6:51 am |
  19. Inkwitch

    Religion of any sort is a skewed explanation of the inexplicable with a dose of fear. Nobody gets it right. Too bad most of the human race is too immature to handle the topic.

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

      Your first sentence is exactly why the 'gods' were invented in the first place. Mankind did not understand the natural world arund him and could not explain natural occurences. Therefore a "god" must have done it. See how it was flawed right from the start untold thousands of years ago?

      February 26, 2012 at 6:53 am |
  20. RichardSRussell

    If Christianity were true — or even if it was just a collection of lies but divinely inspired by a single source — why are there 5000 different flavors of it, each contending that it and it alone is the only one that's 100% true, and that the devotees of all the others are misguided heretics, apostates, and heathens destined to burn in Hell forever for their failure to adhere to the One True Faith?

    February 26, 2012 at 6:48 am |
    • Mark Yelka

      False implies true. (Logic concept: if you begin with a false premise, you can declare that anything is true. This is invalid reasoning). There are many beliefs simply because there are many people who want to have followers.

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

      Gotta disagree with ya, there, Mark. You're right that it's not possible for all 5000 mutually contradictory versions of Christianity to be true, but it IS possible for them all to be false. Example: Which letter comes before "A" in the alphabet? I can name you 25 wrong answers. If each of them had a priest class attached to it, they'd be soliciting donations based on why "F" is a better answer than "Q".

      February 26, 2012 at 7:13 am |
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