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. gran

    @Nick and Pedro – if you don't llike what you read here, click on something else. There are 16 or so headings at the top of this page. This is BELIEF BLOG, a section where readers comment on "reigious: articles. If the topic itself angers you so, avoid it. Go rant somewhere else. No one is forcing anything on you. I don't go to SPORTS and comment "Football is Stupid!" Get it?

    February 26, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  2. pastmorm

    I agree, there's nothing wrong with Witchcraft and erotic acts (as long as everything is consensual). The bible is so outdated; how do people still believe in such an archaic, man-written book?

    February 26, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Kevin

      Most secular folk have no problem with Shakespeare. It's old.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  3. Wes

    Author of 30 books? C'mon CNN research this guy... they are PAMPHLETS most of them. Typical Christian misleading people with tripe

    February 26, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  4. Bonnie

    Correction, Mr. James. Once Peter knew Jesus, he NEVER had any doubt. "In answer Simon Peter said: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." In response Jesus said to him, "Happy and blessed you are, Simon, son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal it to you, but my Father who is in the heavens did." No, Mr. James, Peter did not doubt, and please do not make such false statements. He simply was human, with natural human fear, especially when it came to violence and extreme, blood-thirsty hatred.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Bonnie

      This Scripture quote found at Matthew 16:16&17.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  5. TAMMY

    THIS is what I have been waiting to HEAR!!!


    February 26, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  6. FRANK

    The GALL!

    This guy is showing Christians beheading people and just to the left of this HEADLINE is another article. "ISLAM KIL LS 7 AMERICANS OVER A BOOK BURNING ACCIDENT"!

    Lets not write about the Muzlims burning churches all over the world and massacring Christians DAILY! Lets bash the bible and show Christians beheading someone 2500 years ago! THIS IS LIBERALISM AT ITS FINEST! This is the ANTI AMERICAN TRASH STUDENTS that's coming out of our top colleges "Know as Liberals" that get most of their funding from Saudi Arabia!

    IF YOUR AMERICAN, read the article next to this one one the CNN HEADLINES that reads "8 American soldiers murdered by ISLAM and the MUXLIMS!"

    WHO CARES WHAT MID-EVIL CHRISTIANS DID 3000 YEARS AGO! We are concerned about the thousands killed at the hands of MUZLIMS and ISLAMIC IDEOLOGY that comes RIGHT OUT OF THE KORAN! EVERY DAY IN THE YEAR 2012!

    February 26, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Wes

      Um.... DNA today proves that Adam and Eve were mythical characters. This also means that "original sin" is mythical too. If you are in denial of science, you are bound in a box of delusion. This isn't to say that free-thinkers do not have delusion affecting them, however, humans as a whole live on a planet that has natural explanations. If you bind yourself to bronze aged delusional religion, (And yes.. most is not your fault but indoctrination's), you subject yourself to not only delusion that free-thinking people face every day, but to the most irrational religious delusion.

      Being on the outside of the box of religion is the most free the human mind can be. It allows you to study who we are, our nature, and the entire natural world around us..... without mumbo jumbo.

      The hideous acts in the bible have NO explanation that is rational from an all-loving; all-knowing; all-powerful "God". To buy into the baloney of this author is to fester a delusion that will prevent future generations from having any chance of survival.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • pastmorm

      Wes, it's good to hear a rational response on this chat board. Thank you.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • John

      Excuse me but to my knowledge there were no Christians 2500 years ago after all their founder was born roughly 2000 years ago.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Jack

      I pity you for such little understanding of Islam and your anti-islamic feelings. You'll be taken care of on the day of judgement!!!
      By the way what about a few who were shot at and killed in addition to such disrespectful act of burning the holy book. All shallow 'good-will' down the drain, 10 years of intrusion in the name of a 'helping-hand' and God knows how many american soldiers' lives lost, and spoil it all with your own hands! How messed up! How pathetic! What a pity!

      February 26, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • Visitor

      Wow, that post was ignorant. Where do some of these people get their Bible knowledge, Veggietales?

      February 26, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  7. Sodapophead

    I guess you think Harry Potter is real too. God is a myth.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Angel

      Your wrong! He knew u when you were in your mothers womb! And he loves you

      February 26, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Scott

      I used to be just like u. Then I went to church and asked god to reveal himself. He did!! Praise God!! I've been where u are, but you haven't been where I am. Take a chance. Ask him if he is real, then to reveal himself to you.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Kevin

      Regardless, the article brings up a good point.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Angel told you sodapophead. How can anyone disagree with such fact filled reasoned response!?

      February 26, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • scott

      Yes Scott you're special aren't you. The creator of the universe has revealed himself to you. You walk the path of the righteous with the chosen and live in the light of god......Seriously you need help!

      February 26, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • gman

      @ scott , he revealed himself to Scott because he asked him to. if you think he needs help then read the story

      of lazarus and the rich man. Once you go there , there is no help for you. are you sure you know

      where your going because your own words will condem you here. I would be careful what i say

      as you will be accountable for every word when you die. If you ask God to reveal himself to you

      like Scott did and mean it , you will find the truth. Don't wait till it's too late. Or if that's what you

      want truthfully then there is no help for you.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  8. Carol

    Thank you Mr James, you have written what I have been saying for many years. Yes,to the ones who say God knows us. The question is Are we willing to hear the truth from God. We ALWAYS want it to be sweet like candy!! Life is not. We chose to be just as the ones in the Bible, evil. Yet we want Gods words in the Bible for us to be loving and Sweet.

    We,humans, shut our eyes or blame everyone else for our wrongs. Grow up and Open your eyes.

    Thank you again for this truth as I see it. Yes I am a Christian and I read the Bible. I also live in the world with my eyes open.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  9. Pat A

    Amen & Thanks, CNN & Steven James

    February 26, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  10. Me

    I used to have faith in religion and then I found God.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  11. WeWereOnTheMoon

    Very interesting opinion. Most of what people know about religion comes from someone's (priests) personal interpretation of the bible. This article could go a step farther by suggesting that the bible could be a "guide to life" made up of centuries of human experience ,written by people, for people. " God" adds weight to all the stories and automatically makes the book perfect and true. While no one knows if "god" exists, I think the human race is ready to exept the fact that we as humans are great, independent and capable of writing a great book all by our selves.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  12. Lillian Speaks


    Very easily proven, the Bible was written by primitive men. It never ceases to amaze me how under educated most of America is. Some people have no clue about our own human evolution and biology in general. Please people, read a book already. Start!

    February 26, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  13. Mike P

    Good for this guy. I agree wholeheartedly. Let the Bible say what it says. Don't sugarcoat it, and don't deny its clear teachings. If you don't like what it says, don't assume there's something wrong with it - start from the assumption there's something wrong with you, and work from there.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • tepeters

      The author does not touch on how it was written. It is a collection of the myths of many ancient peoples. It is a human book with some profound tales and some nonsensical like all epic tales-it is of the same genre as the Illiad and Odyssey or the Anneid. But it has no more significance than any of those other pieces of human literature

      February 26, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  14. Jand Meditz

    why is it if I say 'hi' it gets posted, everything else doesn't.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • Lorraine

      I had the same problem. It is the automatic filter which catches any kind of swearing, no matter if it is tucked into other words or not. One time, I wrote a response with the word: "Res-ti-tution" and the filter caught the "t-i-t" in that word, preventing its posting. Look for any of those hidden words. I don't know all of the banned words, but just look REALLY hard.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  15. Free Man

    All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God. John 3:19-1

    February 26, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • connie

      All Scripture?? Or just Christian Scripture? Every fundamentalist group is convinced their book is the Word of God.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  16. connie

    Yes, by all means, let's use the Bible to get everyone worked up into an emotional frenzy. Let's use a book to justify cruelty, injustice and oppression. Yes, there are wonderful things in the Bible, like Christ's Sermon on the Mount. There are also things that are used to do things that Christ never would have endorsed. Focusing too much on a book is akin to idolatry. The bible wasn't written by God or by Christ, it was written by human beings. Can't people see that worship of a book is dangerous? Look is what happening right now in Afghanistan with everyone "worked up" over the burning of their own holy book!

    February 26, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  17. OldMo

    In Reason I Trust,
    The Egyptians were given many warnings and plagues before their firstborns were taken. And the Canaanites had reached "their full measure of wickedness" before judgement came down on them. Too many people have this image that God is merely love but he is also just and does get angry. Please read the full Bible to get a full perspective. If you don't believe after that, ok. You will however stand before a just and holy God in judgement so you might as well at least know what you're rejecting. Give yourself a chance friend, don't cherry-pick things and base your opinion on that. It's not going to work as an excuse.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • tepeters

      The ancient Egyptians,thought of as a very religous people, have an interesting text found in one of their pyramids. As adapted it reads "Men need symbols to inspire them, lacking them they invent the gods, so cpoose symbols that represent truth."

      February 26, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      That's the problem with religion, it's got decent people trying to defend someone that kills children. So sad.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  18. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    Special status for all things religious needs to stop. Religion is a personal thing not a public thing. Treating supersttion as though it's beyond questioning is just embarasing for the human race.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  19. t3chsupport

    I love it!
    I've recently started a project of reading the whole bible, cover to cover, and taking notes the whole time. I've read most of it in piecemeal fashion, but never cover to cover. I'm taking notes as if I've never read these things, and like I haven't been exposed to them or instructed in them, and forgetting all of my biases (for as long as I can). I've been hashing through Genesis in the last few days, and this is the early conclusion I've drawn as well – this god character is shady and shifty and violent. It'll take awhile to get through the OT, but I don't think the NT can possibly wash off all of the nasty I know I'm going to find as I continue reading.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Fr33d0mhawk

      Amen- pun intended. I used to be a Christian until I read the OT, and found God to be a petty, angry and jealous God who was an avid killer, found amusement in causing human suffering, basically representing the very worst qualities of leadership imaginable.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Apacheone

      Reading the whole bible is a good experience. I have read it cover to cover twice. I read it twice because it is so extensive and sometimes hard reading so for me it helped to remember it and to remember and explore further parts that struck me as odd or where I thought this says something that contradicts a previous part (lots of that). It was a good experience and I still remember it well, in fact when quotes or arguments come up in conversation about bible and religion I am able to contribute and sometimes point out that there is another point of view and here is the page.

      Great read everyone should do it at least once. I am going to read other religions books as well soon.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • no-body

      . . you are right on the money when you say "this god character is shady and shifty and violent". If you really want to understand why, and who this 'character' really was, check out: slavespecies.com get the book and read it!!

      February 26, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  20. chief

    very well put

    February 26, 2012 at 10:21 am |
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