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. LuisWu

    Christianity, like all religions, is nothing more than ancient mythology, written thousands of years ago by members of a primitive society in an effort to explain existence and comfort people in the face of their mortality. I've read both the old and new testaments cover to cover. I've read many other religious texts as well. They're all just ancient mythology from primitive cultures, nothing more. When I look around me,

    I don't see a god flying around in a cloud or pillar of fire, I don't see sticks turning into snakes, I don't see rivers turning to wine, etc. etc. If that stuff was real and happened then, it would be happening now. I don't see miracles happening, all I see is a lot of ignorant people blindly accepting ancient mythology as fact, while rejecting modern scientific knowledge. If people would use their brains for a change, THINK about it using logic, reason and objectivity, then they would understand that it's just old myths. It's just so utterly obvious.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • NJBob

      I agree wholeheartedly!!!

      February 26, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Me

      You don't see miracles happening Luis? This is a clear indication your eyes and heart are fixed on you. The science you enjoy was created by the ultimate scientist...God. If you enjoy science, I suspect you would enjoy his company greatly.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  2. NJBob

    Any one who is still religious should be deeply embarrassed to admit that they accept anything in the bible based on faith. Come on, people. We're in the 21st century. It's time to drop the childish fairy tales.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  3. oowarrior

    Jesus partied? Yeah, nice try buddy. I agree that the Bible is watered down to suit our needs these days. This article is promoting "feel good Christianity". It seems like the author was trying to portray Jesus as a hippie of His day. Once again CNN takes a pop shot at the Bible.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • peick

      Wow, how do you get "feel good Christianity" out of this article? Go read it again. And Jesus made wine for a big party, so at least on that occasion he partied, although I'm sure he didn't get drunk.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • Robert

      Agreed ,hes trying to create a image in the readers mind that simply isnt there.

      If you read the verse he quoted about Job 31:1the bible makes no referral to young girls,just woman in general.He wants it to sound more risque so he adds things that arent there.Very disingenuous.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • bill

      @robert – Stop making a fool of yourself and look at bible dot cc for the dozen of so translations.

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


      Hung out with 12 of his best dudes.
      Long hair, beard, toga and sandles.
      Preached love and understanding.
      Drank wine.
      Didnt have a job.
      Made religious and political speeches.


      February 26, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  4. Mordechai

    I don't know much about the Christian bible (referred to by Christians as the "New" Testament), but I can tell you that it is impossible to accurately understand the Jewish Bible (referred to by Christians as the "Old" Testament) without an understanding of the oral tradition (the midrash and the Talmud (mishna and Gemara)) and classical Jewish commentaries. For example, the somewhat harsh sounding "eye for an eye" was never, in the Jewish tradigion, meant to be taken literally but was always understood to mean monetary compensation for tort damages. Unfortunately, in the Christian tradition, the Jewish oral law and tradition is disparaged and the saintly Rabbis of the Talmud are disparaged as Pharisees. This is why the Jewish bible, in Christian hands, is so misunderstood, its meaning twisted and warped to fit Christian theology.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • oowarrior

      You say it is hard to understand the Tanakh without Jewish commentary, because we might misunderstand something. You say we have to use the "oral tradition" to shed light on Scripture. I disagree. I know you don't consider the Christian Bible, New Testament, as Scripture from God, but let's look at a verse real quick. Mark 7: 13 "Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that." Guess who said that? Jesus. God Bless.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  5. Susanna

    God is unlikely to be real. And by probably, I mean very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very unlikely.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • bill


      February 26, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  6. Cechaz

    Well written and spot-on article that would have resonated with me long ago, before I became an Atheist. Now, I see how irrelevant even an-all too rare-prescient Christian perspective on faith is. Arguing over the particulars of a belief system built on fantasies has no merit, whatsoever, no matter how well written or thought-out.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  7. brmh

    Mark, please dont make your blanket assumptions about what people base their convictions on "even if they say so". Religion and logic are not compatible..isnt what why they call it "faith" which is the ability to check intellectual thougt processess at the door and believe in the unbelievable? "Faith" in and of itself, imho, is not a virtue but only the ability to stop thinking when it comes to religion and logic. Logic clearly applies to evolution, connect the dots, afterall this book of fables was written, rewritten,changed, cherry picked and has no basis in logic. Thats not rebellion against a mythical being, its just reality.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  8. NJBob

    @Angel - I DID try it. That's how I know it's a crock!

    February 26, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  9. MLH

    Ettu! The bible was written by men. The purpose is to seek God and express themselves.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  10. Laurie

    Looking down on traditions and rituals that help to tangibly connect our hearts to God are not to be tossed aside. This author forgets that Jesus was a Jew and his parents practiced the faith tradition and so did he.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  11. john

    The bible was written by men, it can be edited by men. The only God in this work, and the thousands of others like it, is the God we create. The world may indeed have been created by an intelligent God, but that God has yet to reveal itself to man. Put it another way, every effort to represent this imagined God, can been seen through as an overtly political act, by men, for men with the aims of men fully in mind.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Christfollower

      God did reveal himself to man, he became man (Jesus the Christ) and walked the earth showing himself to thousands. He then died on the cross for all who would believe that He loved them enough to do die for thier sins so they may be reconciled to Him after this life. He is just as real today as He was long ago. How do I know? He lives in me and communes with me daily. I feel His leadings, His convictions, His peace and His love. Without Him, I am nothing but an empty shell. He breathed His very own breath in me to give me life and I along with you am made in His image. I encourage you to reach out to Him, ask Him to reveal himself to you in a more personal way. He is very real.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  12. Peter E

    The vast majority of Christians in America will read anything into the Bible to justify our own sense of supriority, while ignoring, or not even being aware of the vast majority of messages in it.
    Remember when a couple of years ago people wanted to push the display of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, with the excuse that it's not religious in nature? That's because most of them could not name more than three of the Commandments, and apparently didn't pay attention even to the very FIRST one: "I am the Lord thy God"

    February 26, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  13. NJBob

    @Name*Andrew Owen - Yes.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  14. Bd76

    To those that are religious....if god is going to be my judge for where i fit in heaven....he is my judge..not you. Stop trying to force your religious views in my civil rights and in government law. Mind your own business.

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

      Don't worry you don't need us to judge you, your day will come too.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • lolwut

      Oh man, we're all quaking in our knickers!!

      February 26, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  15. Bumble Stiltkens

    "The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education." Whatever gets you paid buddy.

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

      I believe that quote can be attributed to a man named Albert Einstein.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  16. Allen Manyere

    I applaud you for making such comments about something you have insufficient knowledge about. I would consider it stupid to go and criticise a Lawyer when the nearest i have been to law school is a commentary about law or a tv programme with lawyers. The author here does not question the existence of God but questions the human interpretation of the bible. this is some thing that has always been there. That is why some of you misinterpret the issue, Religion is man made.these are doctrines from the bible a group of people have agreed to hold dear to themselves at the expense of others. However if you read the bible it tell you in 2 Timothy3 vs 16:"All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work." The fact that you all have opinions is good as it shows that the seed of the faith has been planted, i just pray that it finds a fertile ground to grow on. Thank you all

    February 26, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • SAM

      I'm not sure who you're talking to. This article is excellent. Thank you to the author for expressing God's heart so simply.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  17. Robert

    I think you stretch too far trying to form a image that isnt there.You said

    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).

    The actual verse is
    1I made a covenant with mine eyes; why then should I think upon a maid?

    Now if you said lust after woman id agree but what makes you assume its young girls?

    Then you go on to say

    instead he partied so much that he was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton (Matthew 11:19).

    The actual verse is
    19The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.

    It states that was eating and drinking with them,why do you assume that means hes parting it up?

    You seem to go out of your way to create a image in the readers mind that just isnt there in a attempt to sensationalize your story so as to catch the readers attention.You don't need to mislead people to draw them in to your story.If you really desire to grab there attention just speak the truth.Those who have the desire for truth will listen,but the way you do it discredits you as being dishonest.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • Ronald Raygun

      you should take heed to your own last sentence

      February 26, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • Antony

      i completely agree with you Robert. The celebration in every aspect of the bible is individual celebration of our personal redemption victory.. not just partying and merrying.

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

      I suggest you read other translations of the bible besides the king james version then you wouldn't make such ignorant comments.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Jesus was human.
      Why would he not party ?
      You put him on a stool so high that you forget he was just a man.

      February 26, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  18. Alan

    Excellent article. Thank you CNN for real people of faith expressing their real faith. Steven James captures the essence of the bible and belief in a cogent, passionate and powerful way.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  19. islamisvile

    i think cnn ran this to even up the score for the koran burnings , cnn is a muslim mouth peice nothing more .

    February 26, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • Cechaz

      You just contradicted yourself. If CNN were nothing more than a Muslim mouthpiece, then why would they take the time to "even up the score."?

      February 26, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  20. NJBob

    The bible is a total crock. Why waste time with it? There are so many legitimate things to learn.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • Name*Andrew Owen

      Can you proove this?

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

      In the end when your standing before God being judged your gonna wish you had read the bible and only the bible and never touched another book...and btw...I feel the opposite no book is as good as the bible and everytime I start 2 read one I put it down and go back to Gods living word that mesmorizes me everytime I pick it up...try it I dare you

      February 26, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • NJBob

      @Name*Andrew Owen - Yes!

      February 26, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • NJBob

      @Angel - I DID try it. That's how I know it's a crock!!

      February 26, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Justice

      NjBob, do you want a medal for your post and idea, i have a nice one for you if you want it.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • NJBob

      @Justice - No, are you looking for a medal for yours??

      February 26, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • JohnR

      Angel, keep telling yourself (a) that there will be a judgment day, (b) that it'll be a swell day for people like you and (c) that it'll be one major bad hair day for anyone who upsets you by scoffing at your fantasy and one day you might actually believe it. But deep down inside, you'll probably still know that it's all a crock.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:20 am |
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