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. Plug1

    La ilahaa ilaa huwa la sha reeka laa.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  2. Al Stefanelli

    There is no god, the character portrayed as "Jesus" in the bible never existed but is merely an amalgamation of contemporary and previous savior myths. Same goes for the apostles, Abraham, Moses and almost every other character in the fallible, inconsistent and interpolated series of books that make up the bible. Religion is the biggest Ponzi scheme in the universe. It makes Bernie Madoff look like a five-year-old who stole a cookie from the pantry. We do not need a god to be good, and anyone who needs the hope of reward or threat of punishment to regulate their behavior has no concept of morality or ethics. Religious belief is an insult to the collective of human intelligence. That it still exists in a post-modern world is a sad testament to our gullibility as a species. God exists in the minds of those who need him to. That millions need him to is only evidence of mass delusion. Let it go, man...

    February 26, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Observer2

      I'd wondered about that, Al Stefanelli. I'll have to re-examine my faith sometime real soon. But what if God does exist? Is that a contingency you can address?

      February 26, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • jimbo

      Al Stefanelli – I agree with you 100%. Your words are much more accurate than the bible which is the greatest fiction book ever written and rewritten and rewritten by emotionally needy insecure humans.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Observer2 .. If God(s) exist don't you think God(s) would be smart enough to understand why someone would question it's existence? Also, if you believe that a belief in God(s) is a hand at poker, your "faith" is a bit weak and completely insincere.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • jimbo

      Observer2 – If god does exist all you have to do is think like a multimillionaire mega church preacher man. Upon death stand before the omnipotent being and say, "please forgive me." Then go catch a Micheal Jackson/Elvis twin header concert in the Pearly Gates Grand Ballroom. Problem solved.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  3. rationality-is-the-only-way

    Religion is best ponzi scheme ever! How do I get in on it? Oh yeah – open a megachurch in the bible belt and tell all the weak minded that if they give me money, i will make their problems go away. Ha Ha Ha

    February 26, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  4. The Central Scrutinizer

    Contemplate the contradictions

    A thoughtful person who thinks about God cannot help but notice the amazing contradictions. They are everywhere you look.

    Here is one very simple example. On the day Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments, he discovers that the Israelites have created a golden calf. To punish the people, Moses gathers a group of men and takes the following action in the book of Exodus, Chapter 32:

    Then he [Moses] said to them, "This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: 'Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.' “The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died.

    So... one minute we have God carving into stone, "Thou shalt not kill." Then the next minute we have God telling each man to strap a sword to his side and lay waste to thousands. Wouldn't you expect the almighty ruler of the universe to be slightly more consistent than this? 3,000 dead people is a lot of commandment breaking. Obviously that is a total contradiction. The reason why you find contradictions like that in the Bible is because God is imaginary.

    When you look at slavery, you get the same feeling of total contradiction. It is obvious to modern human beings that slavery is an abomination. The fact that God is a huge proponent of slavery in the Bible shows us that God is imaginary.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  5. david

    Just another reason why evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians are either mentally ill or incredibly stupid.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Pt

      I find it strange how the author seemed to miss the most important change religion made to the Bible. They removed His name almost 7000 times. Yes, 7000! YHWH is the Hebrew spelling, commonly pronounced Yahweh. In English, it's most accepted pronunciation is Jehovah.
      Man has determined that this name should be removed when God himself had it recorded so that people would know it. Even Jesus said that we should pray to God "Hallowed by thy name." But most people don't even know it.
      John 17:6 Jesus said "I have made your name manifest.." Who is making Jehovah's name manifest today like Jesus instructed Christians to do in Matt 28:19,20?

      You should not focus so much on little omissions and changes, when larger, more important ones are forgotten. This author should do a little more research and focus on issues that are more important.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  6. david

    Just another reason why evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians are either mentally ill of incredibly stupid.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  7. joshua

    the bible isnt real, the bible is a fairy tale full of elaborate myths

    February 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • rationality-is-the-only-way

      the best ponzi scheme ever! How do I get in on it? Oh yeah – open a megachurch in the bible belt and tell all the weak that if they give me money, i will make their problems go away. Ha Ha Ha

      February 26, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  8. rationality-is-the-only-way

    The bible specifically allow the notion of one man cohabiting with multiple woman – so why is marriage only between one man and one woman?

    February 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Nuh

      That's funny. Being from Utah, when I travel people do ask me if I have or know anyone with more than 1 wife. There are still people who practice polygamy, but only in isolated parts of the state. We're not ALL Mormons in Utah and "most" men have only 1 wife.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Me

      Perhaps reading the Bible would help you with your grammar...

      February 26, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  9. Jeff Myhre

    If God did exist, it would be necessary to abolish him.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Herb

      if God did exist, it would be impossible to abolish Him. The word God means Supernatural Creator, which means He is the reason why ALL things exist, including you. To abolish Him, you would first have to find a way to abolish yourself, which is impossible because you did not create yourself. The GOOD news is that God loves ALL people, including you, and He loves them WHETHER they love Him OR not. Try to abolish that!!!

      February 26, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  10. whynot

    Great article. I guess when Christians say, "Read the Bible," they don't mean the whole thing. Even as someone who grew up as a Jew and eventually an atheist, I agree with all of Christ's ideas when they're not skewed by the church. Christianity would be rather appealing if churches actually followed Jesus. Thank you CNN for posting a very smart, respectable and original article.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      you agree with all his ideals? really? this tells me YOU haven't read the bible. either that or you have atrocious ethics. jesus told slaves to obey their masters if they want to get into heaven. you agree with that?

      February 26, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • joshua

      in my opinion religion robs you of the true meaning of life. you should want to do good things and be a good person for humanity because you want to be a good person not for fear of a divine punishment. when you tell people that this is not the only life they get, when you tell people that they get an "after life" they tend to not take this life seriously, when the reality is we only get one life to live and everyday is a day that you will not get back every moment is a moment you could possibly not see again and i feel like if we were to live everyday with this mentality our civilization would be alot more productive than the civilzation that reads a book that says you live forever and all you have to do is praise the almighty glorious "god" to save your ass

      February 26, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  11. Forrest for the trees

    Current headlines...

    *7 U.S. troops wounded in protest over burned Qurans*
    -While the "emotions of our people" over the burned Qurans "are legitimate and valuable," Karzai said
    -Karzai also repeated calls for the United Sates to prosecute those responsible for burning the Qurans.

    *Attack on Nigerian church*
    -Many targeted were deemed "insufficiently Islamic" were also attacked

    These aren't Atheists attacking Atheists over how to not believe!

    February 26, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Andy

      No, but you forget World War I, the bloodiest war thus far who it was for and against. Hitler was atheist, Stallin was originally a seminary student turned atheist, and Mussolini was atheist all in thanks to the philosopher Nietsche, who reminded us that God was dead. Hitler thus wanted to create a super race by exterminating Gods people. Please dont patronize me of all the wars started because of religion when in fact people forget the wars started because of atheism. That was the real reason, but no one heard that publicly.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Thanks for the summary, Andy. Inaccurate as it is, it resembles World War II, I think.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Inglourious

      Andy: Hitler was an atheist? Hitler was raised a Catholic and said in Mein Kampf that he was doing God's work in persecuting the Jews.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Forrest for the trees

      Andy, Hitler was a devout Catholic (that's not an Atheist) and yes Stalin was educated as a Christian .. sure sounds like a Christian upbringing is the common denominator. Are you disputing the headlines posted? Your God has killed the entire planet of living things (women, children, animals, etc..) with the exception of Noahs family, quite a murderer there Andy.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  12. jct

    Steven James is spot on. Jesus was not some effeminate-looking wimp as depicted in so many paintings and stained glass, but a carpenter who didn't have power tools. I envision a rough-handed, big-shouldered, beefy-armed blue-collar-looking real man who had conviction and boldness to stand up to religious authorities but with such an intense love for our sinful humanity to go to the mat, as it were, to ensure our eternal presence with him. Look at two of his primary disciples, James and John. Rough, hardened fisherman hauling up a nasty load of fish onto a dock. If Jesus were here today, I imagine he would drive his beat-up pickup to some roadhouse bar, build friendships over a cold brew, and dispense tough-love wisdom and encouragement inside. And today's religious leaders, just like those in his time, would condemn him for eating and drinking with sinners, not taking the proper right-wing political stand, using the wrong bible translation, and missing the entire point. Thanks for a great commentary!

    February 26, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      You just turned a liberal jew into a redneck,
      OH MY GOD !!!!

      February 26, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  13. Steve O

    They're just a series of morality tales told as a narrative to make them easier to remember. Who cares if they change?

    If anyone really believed that there was a god and that the bible was the source of his wisdom, we'd spend all of our time learning Hebrew and Greek and poring over the original texts.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  14. joshua

    religion comes from the infancy of our species it comes from a time when everything was new mysterious and often lethal. religion was in many ways our first attempt at science philosophy biology and all that. we are pattern seeking animals we seek form and explanations for everything. and when we fail to give a good scienctifitc theory or explanation we jump to a junk theory a bad thing about us. and religion plays this precise role in our evolution. religion comes from a time when we didnt know about the laws and forcs of gravity we didnt know we revolved around the sun we thought it was the other way around when we didnt know the earth was round and thought it was flat. religion comes from the childhood of our species when we knew hardly knew anything about nothing.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • gman

      sounds as if you were around at the beginning of creation and know better than the almighty himself. that makes you
      how old ?

      February 26, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Andy

      Can I have my minute back???

      February 26, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • gman

      @ andy , you can have eternity if you believe in christ. all the minutes you want andy.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Ben

      Very well said, I couldn't agree more.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Do Not Disassemble

      Early man worshipped the sun.
      Somebody turned "sun" into "son"
      and its been all downhill since.
      December 25th, winter soltace, when the son dies.
      All things religious can be traced back to "SUN" worship.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • gman



      your screen name says it all.

      February 26, 2012 at 3:05 pm |

    LAS please show me one scientifically proven fact that is in the book that was proven years later. If you do I will stop commenting. You promised you had proof for me!!!!

    February 26, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Liberals Are Stupid

      I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.

      ALBERT EINSTEIN, The World as I See it

      February 26, 2012 at 2:20 pm |

      So a 17 year old kid who gets hammered and races his friend in his car and wraps his car around a tree and dies. In your eyes is that gods will? Because I'm pretty sure god had no push on him drinking 20 beer and pushing the gas peddle to the floor. For people who say god controls everything. Just insane.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:23 pm |

      Also LAS, you still have yet to say something relevant or scientifically based. I'll be waiting.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      "I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own – a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in Nature."

      Albert Einstein

      February 26, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  16. Paul

    The bible is a bigottish book written by very smart humans who understood how to manipulate people's minds though fear at a time when death was a daily experience for many people and ignorance dominated the cultural landscape.
    By all mean the Bible is the most overrated book whose inherent violence is responsible for the creation of the culture or racism and radical division among people.

    Instead of sugarcoating it, people should stop reading it, they should instead toss in the trash can, together with all other religious writing or the kind (Koran, Bible, and more recent crap book of the same kind Mormon stupid stories, Dianetics carp and other all cuts).

    The only religion people should have is education, ... no not religious education, but education such that one does not fall for religion. People instead of worshiping God they should spend time reading all books about humanist and engineering sciences and philosophy and arts. Read all you want, just don't read religious books

    February 26, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • joshua

      paul one out of every four people in the world are retarded

      February 26, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Doobie Wah

      That explains you Joshua.


      paul one out of every four people in the world are retarded

      February 26, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Jay

      That mode of thinking harkens back to Naziism of thr 1930-40s when books that werent agreed with were burnt. By no means am I calling you a Nazi. Shouldnt an education not bar a study of religion, so that not only blind adherence is avoided, but also so you and others know exactly what it is that you are talking about? Isnt humanism concerned with the values and beliefs of people? Would that not include a persons faith in something other than themselves? When you get down to it, doesnt humanism, at a personal level, elevate one's values above others? Sounds like narcissism to me.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  17. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    Not sure what the intent of the author was !?!

    I was wondering if this piece was from any of our well know Islamist supporters like Mr.Fareed Zakaria, Dean ObeidALLAH, Prof. Mohammed Ayoob, Imam Rauf or Etan Casey who are all working hard to portray other religions in a bad light while picking on things that existed, or have become irerlevant for 1000's of years!

    As a Hindu I can say this. I have never come across a Christian in my life who preaches violence just b'coz it's PURPORTEDLY there in the holy Bible, UNLIKE the practioners of the world's second largest religion!!!

    While many of the major religions have had a brutal, inglorious past, all of them have moved ahead, EXCEPT ONE which is still rooted in its origins in the the 7th century.

    So, in 2012 this article means nothing to me!

    February 26, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Jack

      As a hindu you should also know what your brothers do in India, RSS and the slogan of hindutva, trying really hard to not accept Islam as an Indian religion and alienating muslims by calling them terrorists and 'violent minded'! So who's stuck in the past? Who's stuck in 4000 BC?
      You know, we don't preach violence, Islam despises violence, it's just unfortunate that a few of us mis-interpret our religion and present it in the wrong light... but you wouldn't understand that, coz your knowledge is too shallow for such things!

      February 26, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  18. Ed

    May not be a politeness filter but those that are True followers of Christ/God will follow in the "likeness" of God to the best of their abilities a result will be in a sense "Politeness" He does make an excellent point, however.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  19. Mark Wagenveld

    The caption with the painting of Judith beheading Holofernes says that this depicts a biblical scene. I don't think so. Judith and Holofernes do not appear in the versions of the Bible that are commonly used in Christianity.

    February 26, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • wrong side of the bed

      @ mark..You're not trying to pretty-up the bible are you ??

      February 26, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  20. gman

    it's true that we should feel the freedom in christ and that satan robs us from it. But would you actually go and tell
    Job when he was suffering that he should lighten up ? , Who would dare to make an accusation like his 3 friends did.
    And as far as him lusting i don't know that what's scripture says. The lord himself said " Have you considered my
    Servant Job ? There is none like him. Fears God and shuns Evil. That doesn't sound like a man who's struggling
    with lust. And also we know the fate of Jobs 3 friends. God threatened to punish them serverly unless they asked
    Job to sacrifice for them. Sounds like a righteous man to me. You might want to back track before you accuse Job
    of anything lest you suffer the same fate as his 3 friends. Now would you still dare to accuse. Theres only one
    accuser in heaven that i know of that's doesn't fear hell and that's where he's going for eternity.


    i would lighten up on job. yes we are all filthy rotten sinners but be careful about great men of the bible. GOD PUT THEM

    February 26, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Tim Lieder

      Maybe you should actually read the book of Job instead of skipping ahead to the happy ending.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • gman

      @ tim lieder , i have read it many times , what's your point ?

      February 26, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • cody

      Yes Job was a great man, but he was a man. Men are sinful by nature. We are by nature children of the devil -John 8:44. Psalm 51:5- sinful at birth. Proverbs 14:12 there is a way that seems right to a man but its end is the way to death. Jeremiah 17:9 – man's heart is deceitful above all things and is desperately sick. .........My point Job was as human as any man and he did indeed struggle with lust. To say he didn't is living in denial of what the bible taught. As Steven pointed out in Job 31:1 Job had to make a covenant with his eyes to prevent himself from lusting after young women. I'm not sure why this is so offensive to you. He was a man, a sinner. Why put him up on a pedistol and be decietful of who he really was. Yes he loved God and that is what is most important. Infact the fact that he would even have the wisdom and conviction to make a covenant with his eyes so that he wouldn't sin just points to how much he did love God. Every man of the bible struggled with something, excpet Jesus. If we were going to be upset about somethings Steven wrote it should be that he implies Jesus was a partier. True he spent time with people who got drunk and with people who struggled heavily in different sins but he wasn't a sinner himself. I don't think thats what James was saying but I don't think he was very clear on his point about Jesus being a "partier".

      February 26, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • gman

      of course we are all sinners and we all struggle with sin. and yes the heart is desperately wicked. but if you are
      going to quote scripture then do it rightly as in rightly dividing the word. it doesn't say job found it necessary to make
      a covenant. if you read before and after job 31, you will find job talking about many things he did out of fear of god.
      the problem i have is the author makes it sound as if this were some immense struggle he was having. i read job
      many times and have had many debates on this book. and the one thing that stands out is GODS WORD incase
      ALL THE REST OF SINNERS. HE SAID THE OPPOSITE. When has god ever spoke this way of you. So yes
      he is there as i said for a reason , and what offends me is the way his friends falsely accused him of some sin
      he hadn't committed. NOW WOULD YOU DISPUTE THE VERY WORD OF GOD. there is no one like him on earth.

      i'm sorry that maybe your jealous in your walk that the lord said this of job but that's your and the author's problem.

      February 26, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
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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.