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. cheesy

    Why are so many atheists reading this story? Why do they feel compelled to "correct" the church? If they are right, then our destination is the same as their own. Why not just let us believe our little fairy tale and enjoy our lives. Why are they so driven to pop our bubble? Because thats what they are driven to do by their master, Satan. The funny part is, they dont belive in him either. Satan doesnt require or even want you to follow him. In fact, he wants you to believe he doesnt even exist. He just wants you to ignore God! I believe in everything Jesus did and does for me. If I am wrong, I will never know it, I will simply die one day. If the atheists are wrong, they will have an eternity to mourn about it. So I ask you again, why are you so concerned about what we believe?

    February 26, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • ReligionIs4Dolts

      "Why are [atheists] so driven to pop our bubble?"

      Because you're the ones who started the fight! Because you're the ones who go around telling people they're going to burn in h&ll if they don't think the way you do!

      February 26, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • aginghippy

      We atheists want to "burst your bubble" because religious fanatics aren't satisfied to simply "enjoy their little fairy tale" and live their lives. They want to create laws that control everyone based on their beliefs. On the extreme end of the spectrum, religious nutjobs are killing others because they dare to believe a different fairy tale. Please don't feel like atheists are picking on Christianity. Atheists are equal opportunity bubble bursters. We find all religion to be worthy of contempt.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • cheesy

      The aginghippy has a valid point with the law thing. It would be nice if everyone believed in being good all the time, then we wouldnt need any laws at all! So I assume you have some of Jesus's teachings that you are opposed to. They all seem good to me, which ones do you consider offensive?

      February 26, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Why do you ask stupid questions ?

      February 26, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Daniela

      When you say tnhgis like Evolution says tnhgis just randomly popped into existence or Evolutionists think it's all just a big accident , don't you understand that you are describing not SCIENTISTS' view of evolution, but your OWN? No scientist says It all just happen by accident and such rot. It's easy to create a parody of somebody's actual position, make it look ridiculous, and then claim you have demolished their position. It's much harder to do the actual work of first UNDERSTANDING the other guy's point of view and THEN critiquing it. I have yet to see a Creationist write anything that shows he or she actually comprehends the theory well enough to be qualified to rebut it. When you attack straw dogs like Evolutionists say it's all random and we got here by accident , don't you see you just make YOURSELVES look ignorant?

      April 3, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  2. Socrate

    The Bible is a book to be read with a grain of salt.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      A doob and a six pack helps.
      Dont forget the pop corn.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  3. eric doogan

    I like to picture Jesus In like a tuexzudo shirt, kinda like he saying. "I'm here to work, but I'm also here to party".

    February 26, 2012 at 8:53 am |


    February 26, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • Eric G

      Uh, China is on the phone for you.... want me to put them in your voicemail?

      February 26, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      WHY AM I SCREAMING..............

      February 26, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  5. ReligionIs4Dolts

    "[the bible] 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."

    HA HA! Then why doesn't "god" just go ahead and die?! And be sure and let us know in an unequivocal way that "he" is dead so we can all move on with our lives without stupid religion!

    February 26, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  6. BDM

    The Bible, Torah and Quran are all about mankinds relationship with God; about how we fall short of the glory of Heaven. The cruelty, shame, and doubt within all of them is about what holds us back, but also these Books show how God continuously commits to our redemption, salvation, jihad to find the flaws within us and to surrender ourselves onto God. These truths are both liberating and condemning. It is the latter that has motivated many to distort, edit, and undermine the orignial message., The Bible is about faith, not religion; God makes faith to join us and mankind makes religion to separate. I will also question religion and religious zealots. With faith there is always reason and a reason to believe.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • sybaris

      There is as much compelling reason to believe in the Bible as there is to believe in Dr. Seuss books.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  7. NHAZman

    For those Believers, who see the Trinity as the cornerstone of their beliefs, you'd be wise to do a bit of a historical study on how it was introduced into the Church in 382 AD by the Roman Emperor, who melded it together with ancient Platonic and other ancient mythology. God remains God but the Doctrine of the Trinity is without question highly incorporated with Pagan beliefs, (See: http://www.antipas.org/books/trinity/trinity1.html).

    February 26, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  8. Jean

    Before you guys criticize God and the Bible, do some research. Some of you guys don't know how ignorant you sound. I hope you guys come to your senses before Death arrives. I dare any of you guys to take some time and sincerely seek God to see if you won't find Him..

    February 26, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • sybaris

      Our knowledge of the Bible and the history behind it is why most of us don't buy it.

      If you were born and raised in Saudi Arabia you'd most likely be a Muslim. Your beliefs are no more "divinely inspired" than the influence of your environment.

      Grow up. Put the religion down.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • BDM

      Many turn away from the Bilbe because they don't want to face the judgement, but many more do want to learn. As for you argument about Saudi Arabia and being a sum of your environment then this means all being from the southern stats should be Republicans and all from the north are Democrats (which is not true). We are all an ever developing sum of our experiences. Faith is based on experiences and self-revelation. Religion is just the means for mankind to find faith and it does matter which religion it is as long as the person is willing the face the truth in this world and the next.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • sybaris

      BDM, apples and oranges. You submit a fallacy

      There is not the fear of hell instilled in the inhabitants of our country if they don't subscribe to a political ideology. There is not a Republican or Democratic "church" within 6 blocks of each other in every US city. There is not prayer to a Republican or Democrat before public events. People don't go to worship a political ideology by the millions every Sunday. There is not a Republican or Democrat Bible in every hotel room. There are not book stores devoted entirely to political material. There's not a Republican or Democratic Vacation Brainwashing School (VBS) for children in the summer. There are numerous other examples that illustrate the fallacy you present.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  9. LaWanda

    Thank you for writing this article. Too often Christians are so comfortable in their sin that others can not see that the consequences of sin is death. The depiction of Christ is meek and mild and even childlike but many do not recall the immediate reprecussions of death and famine shown in the Old Testament. Thank you for your faith you have encouraged me this morning as I am on my way to church!

    February 26, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  10. Jenny

    God (if there is one) did not write the Bible, man did. That is simply fact. You can make any statement you want about God and the Bible and at least half of the religious folk reading it are going to agree. That's the beauty in making your living with a sure thing huh?

    February 26, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  11. Bman

    We could start by burning bibles.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Justice

      We don't need to start burning the Bible, you will see a beautiful lake of fire soon enough.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • BDM

      I see you have learned nothing from the past... repeat the lessons of Hitler and Stalin to silence the debate.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      *** We don't need to start burning the Bible, you will see a beautiful lake of fire soon enough.

      And the red guy with the horns and pointy tail, holding a pitchfork..........LOL.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  12. Rallph Smith

    More Christion mumbo jumbo.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  13. Rob

    Thank u!

    February 26, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  14. Charles

    My wife read the KJV, start to finish, in one go. Hated it. Hated all the characters. So my question is, If the Bible is just as dark and gritty as any modern-day Sam Spade novel, and parrots any number of legends that came before it (parthenogenesis and resurrection are VERY common in ancient religions) and thousands of fantasy novel that came later. What makes that book so special?

    February 26, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  15. Sefira

    When will people see (all) religion – as what it truly are? 'The Worst Kind of A Control Manifesto.'

    February 26, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Justice

      Before that, we should stop focusing on blaming the Bible for what is going bad and start to focus on corrupted politicians in this world were the real problem is.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  16. PrazeJah

    "Atheists" tend to Repent on their death beds. No worries, ask for forgivenss when that time comes, we will all party together in Heaven!!!! 🙂

    February 26, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Eric G

      No, they don't.

      But, just to be fair..............

      Please provide any verifiable evidence that heaven exists, and I will change my mind.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • PrazeJah

      That time has not come for you yet my brother, but when it does, remember my advice.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • Jenny

      I think you should read some of these other comments. I'm with Eric. And, my daughter and I almost died and it changed nothing except made me feel more justified in my beliefs.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Justice

      To Eric G, if there is no heaven for you then all i will say to you is Bon Voyage.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • PrazeJah

      I understand the doubts my love ones, but remember God loves all of you regardless of what you think of him. It would be sad to think that our souls would just be wasted away with this world when it ends, it will not I promise you.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • kevin

      Where in the bible does it say that most people are going to heaven? The bible does say that Jesus was the first to ascend.to heaven. So where are all of the people that died before him?(John 3:13) Further, you'll also have a hard time reading in the bible that when one arrives there they get to enter some kind of dream world. The bible is quite clear in Revelation that those going to heaven are there to rule as kings and priests over those on the paradise earth. (Rev. 5:10, Psalm 37:10,11:29)

      February 26, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • Eric G

      @Justice: There is no heaven for anyone. We all deserve a "Bon Voyage". The voyage is our lives. Make them count today.

      The concept of heaven is for procrastinators.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • PrazeJah

      @kevin quick to listen, slow to speak.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  17. Julian

    Yahweh himself commits unspeakably horrible acts in the bible stories and is depicted as just as "fallen" as his creations. It is a gruesome collection of tales, overall. Clearly, the stories told in the bible are really about the anguishes and hopes of human minds. Nothing more, nothing less. But that is enough.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  18. Bill

    This guy should read a science book, then maybe he can write an article on why all of this is man made and nothing but another form of mythology.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  19. Jeff

    Absolutely. Why sugar-coat it? The American neo-Protestant tradition of "buffet-style" interpretation does nothing but confuse the sheep and renders the message inauthentic. Talk the talk, walk the walk.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  20. Tim

    I think all you Christians should repent and sacrifice a bull to Zeus before he notices what you've been up to for the last couple thousand years.

    February 26, 2012 at 8:46 am |
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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.