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. zack

    this is one of reasons why i left christianity and converted to Islam.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Andre Mangano

      You must be joking? lol

      February 26, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  2. Jesucrisco

    I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to smite him myself?

    February 26, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • awm

      Yep! Get to smitin'.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Craig

      -Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing)

      February 26, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  3. YeahItsMe72

    The bible was made up by people to suit their own purposes, I don't see too much difference with people continuing to do that.

    The key takeaway is that it's more on par with Grimm's fairly tales in terms of teaching morals as opposed to something that should be revered as infallible.

    Good lessons... yes, in some case... infallible and absolute... um clearly not.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  4. Chris

    Could it be that the bible is merely Man's story of Man's grappling with his place in the world, rather than god's story?

    February 26, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  5. Jesucrisco

    Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this only applies to Mexicans and not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

    February 26, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  6. Andre Mangano

    The attack on Christianity and traditional values continues from liberals and the gay lobby, they would never say this about the koran because they have no backbone, that's why Christians need to wake up and fight back before it's too late.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • JM

      Um, no. Jesus teaches us that we are supposed to "turn the other cheek". That's kind of the point of Jesus' teaching: we aren't supposed to "fight back".

      If we actually did that, rather than getting irate like most of us (myself included) about pointless things, people might actually think there was something appealing about us (instead of of a bunch of angry, self-centered, crazy people).

      Compassion, love...we're missing it a lot of the time (Christians).

      February 26, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Jim

      The Koran is also a fairy tale. Now what?

      February 26, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • notogop

      The Koran was stolen from the Bible or at least Jewish writings. Look at the principal characters in both books. Mohammed was just a late bloomer. It just took him an extra 600 or so years to hit his stride.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  7. notogop

    The Bible had to be written is this style to maintain its position of the day with Greek, Roman, Norse, etc., mythologies. After all, it is simply Jewish mythology. Jewish mythology is an extension of these previous writings and beliefs, with the big exception that is embraces monotheism. Likewise, Christianity robs from several beliefs to garner the popularity and acceptability of peoples conquered and ruled by the Romans.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      The Koran is fiction, just like the bible. Are you happy now or do you still want to kill people because they don't believe in magic apples, magic gardens or magic babies that walk on water. Grow up.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • notogop

      In Reason I Trust, I don't understand your response. I'm agreeing with you. This whole thing of religion is fallacious. You need to work on your comprehension skills before replying.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  8. happyjackrich

    since the bible also a bunch of made up malarkey, we should at least try to make it interesting...

    February 26, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  9. Jesucrisco

    I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness - Lev. 15:19-24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women get upset.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  10. Alex

    How about we just ditch the bible?
    Its clearly not true, you simple need to read it to conclude that.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  11. Jesucrisco

    I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. What do you think would be a fair price for her?

    February 26, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Fast Fred

      Living with you, she must already be in slavery.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Craig

      just post the video you keep plagiarizing, or at least put the authors name (Aaron Sorkin) at the end if his work you keep posting.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • tateman

      I love your sense of humor!

      February 26, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • KeithTexas

      I don;t know my daughter is whoring around and I am not even getting a cut

      February 26, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  12. C

    you people never cease to amaze me....

    February 26, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • awm

      Which people? That statement applies equally to many on both sides of the argument.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  13. XX

    The Bible has a lot of wisdom when approached as myth in the some sense that Greek Myths have a lot of wisdom. But to take the bible as a literal word of God is ridiculous. Frankly, the way Christians have behaved throughout history is the biggest argument against Christianity.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Satwinder

      The Read & Share DVD Bible videos are nleelxect. My grandchildren from age 4-11 will sit, enthralled. The 30 minute format is perfect for the younger ones. The Bible stories are well representated and I would highly recommend these to anyone who wants to increase their children's Biblical knowledge. We watch them over and over at our house.

      April 1, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  14. Craig

    I asked a devout Christiain from work why a hard working Muslim family who never hurt anyone deserves eternity in hell. With a straight face he told me that for Muslims to reach paradise they have to kill innocent people. He then went on to explain that there are different levels of paradise and the more people you kill the better level of paradise a Muslim gets to. When I asked how he knows this he replied that it's common knowledge. He was being 100% serious and truly believes this.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Just another guy

      That's awful. Political manipulation has seriously tarnished the image of Islam. It's a shame.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • JM

      For heaven's sake, just try reading the Bible.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  15. Rainer Braendlein

    Abraham a liar?

    Some of you may know the Chronicles of Narnia and the movie "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe".

    Once Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter were persecuted by the secret service of the witch (some wolves). A faithful fox (serving Aslan, but not Jadis, the witch) was asked by the wolves were the children had gone. He told them a lie. He sent them in a completely wrong direction.

    Was it a "sin", what the fox did?


    In that situation it was correct to lie. The wolves wanted to kill the friends of Aslan (Jesus in our world) and the fox. It had been a crime to betray once friends. The fox did a good deed saving his friends.

    Imagine, you would live in the Third Reich and the Gestapo would ask for some Jewish friends of yours, which you had hidden in your house. Would you betray them by telling the truth to the Gestapo? Never.

    Hence, Abraham was about to encounter the King of the Philistians, which possibly hated him like Hitler the Jews. Thus, Abraham had to tell a lie, in order to save the life of his wife and his life. Criminals have no right to receive the truth.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • mrrp25

      OOOkay..But wasn't this the fellow who was more than willing to chop his own son in half until God let him in on the hoax??At least he didn't lie eh?

      February 26, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  16. Jesucrisco

    When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord - Lev. 1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them now?

    February 26, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Godfrey

      That would be safest, yes. You should probably cook and eat their flesh just to be safe.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  17. HeIsGod

    Thank you so much for this article and explaining the meaning of the Bible, Mr. James. Indeed, we need to be freed from religion and it can only be done through Christ. I love everything you have said!

    "We don’t need to edit God. We need to let him be the author of our new lives."


    God bless, Mr. James!

    February 26, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Godfrey

      So if there is no God, your life has no author.

      Imagine the freedom you'd have.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  18. Tim

    Thank you for saying these things. Clearly you know best Lord! Thank you for allowing such garbage to be written.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • JM

      You read it?

      February 26, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  19. JM

    Well said. Exactly. The problem is that most of don't read the Bible. Most of us who grew up in the church don't read the Bible. We make up what we think it's all about; we assume it's an us against them (the world: you know, the "sinners") thing. Some churches get it; some just create self-righteous zombies. The Bible is amazing. It describes us (mankind) to a tee: our struggles, vanities, foolishness, pride, etc. It provides good news that the "sinners" got while the self-righteous religious Pharisees just became indignant that anyone would question their character.

    Seriously, everyone needs to read it (w/o preconceived ideas) and see what you get from it rather than just relying on assumptions as most of us have.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Ken

      The bible also says that the value of pi is three. Without saying approximately.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  20. logicnothuff

    The Holy Bible is absolute truth; it is God's Word, written by God through the hands of the prophets. There are 66 books written by 40 authors, woven into an incredibly complex book which perfectly corroborates itself, accomplished over a period of about 3000 years of writing. Since it is God's Word, and God is the author of all science and math and biology and nuclear physics and astrophysics, it gets it perfectly right. Such as, men say earth is billions of years old but Saturn's rings are expanding and dissipating at such a pace that Saturn's creation matches that of the young earth as specified by the Bible. Man said kill the baby when it's in the womb, but Bible says God knows us when we are in the womb, and now we see that the heart is beating at about a week and ultrasound shows fetuses pre-abortion writhing in pain and running to the other side to get away from the abortion doctors instruments of death. Bible is 100% true.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      Wow, you need some serious help for those delusions! You'd have to prove your god even exists and you have no way of doing so! Who created your god?

      February 26, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • JM

      Who created a computer? Must be no one because a computer couldn't have a creator if no one created the creator, according to your logic.

      Explain DNA. It's the motherboard.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Just another guy

      Troll alert.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Logic

      Truth, he doesn't need reasoning. He blind fully follows what he was told when he was a kid, even though all the scientific proof states that he's wrong. I feel bad for their children.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • loriey

      The Bible is simply the prophets(man's) interpetation of what God or Jesus spoke at that time. Jesus did nor God wrote the Bible themselves. Not much is written about Jesus life between the ages of 12 to 30, was he married, did he have children? Despite there being one Bible (taking into account different versions) various "breakway" religions started because beliefs were different among people who read, believe, or semi-believe what is written in the Bible.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • RT

      Interesting. Did you realize that a council assembled in the early 300's by none other than Constantine were the ones that decided which texts to include in the Bible. More were left out than included, and some were altered. These men were not the prophets, but were in charge of presenting Christianity to the Roman Empire in a way that kept all existing hierarchies in place (patriarchy, power, control, monies flowing through churches, class systems, etc.) and overlaid the religious practices and traditions Romans were already accustomed to as smoothly as possible so that the "new faith" would be accepted by the masses. On the pile of rejects went scores of texts containing "the word of God" as you say–especially ones that empowered the individual by promoting inner spirituality and equality. Propaganda began immediately to discredit the rejected books and twist Christianity to one that worked nicely for those in power that continues to this day.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Brian

      How can you say that the Bible is 100 per cent true when the early church leaders edited out the parts they didn't like? The church is the ten commandments and the teachings of Jesus. Everything else has been tainted by men. The same men who use the words in the Bible or other holy books to justify wars, exclusion, and prejudice. I can worship God. I refuse to worship the followers of God.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Ken

      The bible also says that the value of pi is three. Without saying approximately.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
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