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. Justin

    I was suprised to read this on CNN, but I really enjoyed it and am glad someone said the above. To those who say " the bible is unsuported" There is more archeilogical evidence to support the Bible then any book we have proof of...

    February 26, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Zona


      February 26, 2012 at 11:54 am |

      It's people like you who are so totally misguided and mislead. The fiction book was put into the mainstream for weak minded people to control mass populations. It's the scientists that go out a prove, scientifically, that there is no need for a "god."

      February 26, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • albie

      Like what?

      February 26, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  2. Eduardo Silva

    This is the most true statements about the bible, I wish everyone could see the bible that way.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  3. albie

    No one should believe fairy tales like the stories in the bible. You should ask yourself why things talked about in the bible don't happen today. Why no giant flood, parting seas, water to wine and other magical nonesense. It is because they are stories. Christians should realize what a negative impact they have had in the world by causing untold wars and death, not to mention wasting tremendous resources in terms of time and money. I really really don't like christians.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Eduardo Silva

      my friend, n.1 we must understand in what period of time we are today, floods and other things does not happen today because we lost the connection with the supreme creator, or God as many people say, in the beginning of times humans wore more intelligent beings , a ex. of that is the pyramids in egypt, the stones and pyramids in south america that cannot be explained today , and even with so much technology they cannot reproduce the same result with stones and other things unexplained today, . times have passed and where are those people today, like mayers and other cultures. my point is, just because you don't believe in something, it does't mean it's not true. Like you said you hate christians, they're not so stuped as they look, they just look the past to find the meaning of our existence today in this planet. also we are living in the Grace times, and it will be over soon. one thing we cannot forguet, we are smart people, we think for our selves , and we don't know where we are going after death, the only explanation today is the bible, science doesn't know and so many other mysteries. so you can hate anyone you like , but you know we're all going to die, and having something to hang on as a insurance of after death is always better then nothing.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • albie

      I never said "hate" - lets leave that kind of sentiment to the old testament and right wing middle america

      February 27, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  4. Gumball

    Religion is the worst kind of slavery. It's not physical, aty least a person is aware of that. It's mental slavery, and religion has turned people into mindles zombies.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Eduardo Silva

      you're right my friend , religion is a crap', but Jesus came to free people from religion if you read the new testament, the bible is not something religious , is a manual of life itself of losses , death, hope and a formula of explaining the wrong doing of humans thu times so we don't repeat it all. if you realy analize what i'm saing , you'll see.

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

      Actually its materialistic thinking that turns people into zombies. Some of the things that science asks people to believe is patently absurd.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  5. Alex

    Why don't we all just come to realize that religion was put in place to control the masses. Each and every religions holy book is jam packed with depictions of a god less benevolent than that of a serial murderer to keep people in fear and ultimately under control. Why should we begin to believe that god is great if his depiction in text is seemingly less moral than us humans?

    February 26, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  6. Tim

    Thank you Lord for today and this article. Thank for the attack on virtue. Even if less people show up to Church today because of this article, my faith remains in you. Your ways God are not my ways

    February 26, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  7. LadyChristian

    I became a Christian about 10 years ago. I have found peace and joy most of the times. God feels very real and close to me. Truly an intimate relationship... that's how I feel about my friendship with God. But let me tell you: The filthiest and most disgusting people I ever met in my life are most of the Christians I see in church. Just filthy, judgamental, racist, greedy, thieving, condemning, immoral, promiscuous, manipulating, conniving, scheming, slandering bullies.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • albie

      That was my experience as well - some people think that by going to church and saying that they are a christians, that it is a blank check.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  8. Rfred manjawira

    Its time 2 follow the bible as it is,God never makes mistakes and He cant be edited

    February 26, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  9. Name*beverly

    ive been saying the same thing for years !

    February 26, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  10. Rainer Braendlein

    The believers of the Old Testament and the New Testament stumbled sometimes, but they did not sin always or live a sinful life.

    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 11:46 am |
  11. Bla Bla Bla

    No worries, I will build a boat with two of EVERY animal and float around for 30 days. It's not Magic, just the lord working in mysterious ways.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  12. Rational

    Nowhere in the Bible is slavery condemned. Nowhere!! Can I sell my own children or any foreigners into slavery then? Yes.
    Can I kill my neighbours for not observing the sabbath? Yes.
    A person who curses his mother or father should be killed? Yes.
    The bible is ancient fables- never mind the sugarcoating, sir, how about not obsessing over what an imaginary friend in the sky is thinking.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • ben

      rational, you should read philemon. paul pleads with philemon to free his slave, onesimus. elsewhere, paul asks slaves to gain there freedom. also, he emplors slave owners to do something even more subversive than simply commanding slave owners to release their slaves (commands do not have the power to change hearts, and paul was in the business of changing hearts) – he challenges them to treat them as equals. i think it's fair to say that followers of christ were the first abolitionists.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Jerry

      Do you know why there is slavery in the Bible? Have you studied the causes of it and what would have happened if all the slaves were made freedmen? The laws for ancient Israel are not applicable today but were vitally important for the stability of the nation of Israel. Individuals were not to carry out the penalties for breaking the law but were to present their cases before judges.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  13. GAW

    No not all the Bible contains the nice stuff that I heard in Sunday School. It took me a while before I actually read that David cut off Goliath's head after he swung the stone at him. But much of modern Christianity esp Evangelicalism is about packaging and marketing God in the right way so that he will he will appear culturally acceptable to potential converts. It's about business. Much of this is done by selective proof texting and placing verses and books above others in terms of importance. The ideological or theological dog wags the biblical tail.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  14. James

    The Bible is full of REAL contradictions anyway! How could a "perfect" god be responsible for a collection of books called a bible that's filled with errors? Here is just one of many for you people:

    How many years famine was it again? 7 Years or 3 Years?

    First here's the 7 Year passage:

    2 Samuel 24:12-13
    Go and say unto David, Thus saith the LORD, I offer thee three things; choose thee one of them, that I may do it unto thee. So Gad came to David, and told him, and said unto him, Shall seven years of famine come unto thee in thy land? or wilt thou flee three months before thine enemies, while they pursue thee? or that there be three days' pestilence in thy land? now advise, and see what answer I shall return to him that sent me.

    Now here's the same story in anothe rpart of the bible, but now it's changed to 3 years!

    1 Chronicles 21:10-12
    Go and tell David, saying, Thus saith the LORD, I offer thee three things: choose thee one of them, that I may do it unto thee. So Gad came to David, and said unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Choose thee Either three years' famine; or three months to be destroyed before thy foes, while that the sword of thine enemies overtaketh thee; or else three days the sword of the LORD, even the pestilence, in the land, and the angel of the LORD destroying throughout all the coasts of Israel. Now therefore advise thyself what word I shall bring again to him that sent me.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • no name

      maybe God came to David TWICE?

      February 26, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  15. nadine

    There is not the smallest archeological evidence to support any biblical accounts. It is all mythology and fairy tales. Religion should not be taught to young children before they are taught evolution and introduced to scientific principles which include atheism.

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

      One small correction: atheism is not a "scientific principle".

      You're on the right track, but please don't confuse the issue by defining atheism as anything other than a lack of belief in supernatural "god" claims.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Joe

      Actually there are entire books and a long running journal devoted specifically to the massive amounts of archaeological evidence that supports many of the stories in the Bible. Perhaps you should spend some more time reading and less time pontificating.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Bla Bla Bla

      Joe, show me the Arc.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:47 am |

      I hope you don't actually read those books Joe instead of reading something useful. Exact reason what is wrong with this world.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Jerry

      Get serious. There is tons of archeological evidence for the Bible.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Godfrey

      Joe, Jerry – there is a lot of evidence against some important things in the Bible, most notably that the Exodus ever could have happened.

      Also, the Ark story is full of holes...

      February 26, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  16. TommyDeluge

    I get what you're saying, but this article should have been about people not sugarcoating life anymore. The bible is just a book. Just like The Iliad or Harry Potter. It would be the same if the world ended and hundreds of years later survivors find millions of copies of Harry Potter books and start believing in magic all over again. Come on, we're all adults and should know better by now. Put the bible in the fiction section where it belongs.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:41 am |

      This is perfect.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Jerry

      Don't be silly. The Bible has more historical support than anything from the ancient past. If the Bible is not historical then neither is anyone or anything else from the ancient past. If you reject the Bible as historical then you have to reject Plato, all the Roman leaders and Alexander the Great for starters.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:20 pm |

      @ Jerry – jesus lived. Cool. Doesn't make the stories real about him, nor does it make the stories about Plato and anyone else 100% real. But considering they lived during the age of current book keeping I'd be more inclined to believe a book that was written at the time, rather than book that was written years after the fact.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  17. Josephine

    This is a great article. However, catholics dont make saints out to be something they were not. In fact, most saints actually did overcome terrible sin in their lives and faced tempataions for the rest of it. In the face of this they persevered and this is why they are called saints. NOT because they were sinless; it's quite the opposite. They are called saints because they faced these things with the conviction of God and changed their lives. And if you read on the saints, this form of life conversion was mainly done by them seeting their sights on the serving and care of other individuals and not focusing so much on themselves.

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

      Most Saints were pagan heroes that were adopted by the Church, their struggles had nothing to do with God but gods.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  18. Phideaux

    Sheep. Every last one of ya.

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

      Why even bother to comment then. And , just curious about why you even took the time to read the article if its just for sheep. Sounds like youhave some searching to do. I wish you the very best.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • Joe

      You say that like it's a baaaaaaaaaaad thing.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Godfrey

      Ah, the condescension of Christians. "You don't believe in Yahweh, the primal war god of the ancient primitive Hebrew shepherds, so you must still be "searching" for truth".

      Friend: your "truth" is ridiculous. People read tripe like the above article for the same reason they read the National Enquirer or stare at car wrecks. Please stop feeling so superior... you're the one in the wreck.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  19. C

    it actually takes just as much faith to say there is no god as it does to say there is one. That's a fact not an opinion.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      What??? How much faith does it take to not believe in Santa Claus? Same goes for magic virgin babies that walk on water, lol.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Eric G

      Sorry, your post is illogical. You are making a claim that your god exists. As with any claim, there is an inherent burden of proof that must be satisfied through the presentation, testing and verification of supporting evidence. It does not require belief to say that no verifiable evidence has been presented that supports the existence of any god or gods.

      So, it is your opinion until you have proved that your god exists. To state otherwise is intellectually dishonest.

      Please try harder next time.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Godfrey

      The two responses to this "C" fellow are missing a key point: C is defining atheism incorrectly. He's saying that to say "there is no god" takes faith, but the position of atheists (as you two have illustrated) is that there are no compelling reasons to believe "god" claims.

      Atheism is disbelief, not a positive assertion of absence. Please stop misrepresenting what atheism is, Mr. "C". It takes zero faith to be an atheist... by DEFINITION.

      Happy Sunday!

      February 26, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  20. Robert

    And how, exactly, does know the crassness of the Bible's original language supposed to be uplifting and edifying and help me draw closer to Christ?

    February 26, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Charlie in Maine

      No that is the point Robert. If he can forgive that crap he can forgive anything, what are your sins compared to that stuff?

      February 26, 2012 at 11:50 am |

      Charlie I took an upper decker in McDonald's last night when I was drunk. Will god forgive me?

      February 26, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • Nathan

      It's supposed to tell you that God doesn't exist in a rarified realm, removed from the human experience, and that Jesus didn't either during his time on earth. It's supposed to tell you that all the deep-down impusles and terrors and needs we all experience are things that God understands – in fact, I think that's where he does his best work with us. In short, it's supposed to point out the fact that perfection doesn't IGNORE misery, failure, sin, or even death; it overcomes them.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:57 am |
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