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. hippypoet

    muhahahahahahahahahaha 🙂

    February 26, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son


      February 26, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
  2. Deez

    If you're Atheist, you believe that this life is all you have, so you cherish it. You know that others only have this one life as well, so you're much more careful to not hurt them either. Imagine a gay person and this is the only life they have. Don't do something that takes away their happiness.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
    • RobertM

      People need to grow up and stuff the bible in the box you keep all your other child hood books in. If you cant get through the day or be a good person without the help of divine intervention or the threat of burning in hell for eternity then you're just weak minded/willed.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
  3. Joseph

    OMG.....another ignorant mental midgit. To the author of this article: It's 2012...WAKE UP!....God has nothing to do with the Bible. It is a man made mythology. Do you not have any knowledge of how the Bible was made? who wrote it and why? How it came together?...Obviously not. It is a corrupted and forged book written by men. I am not an atheist, I was raised Christian and left it long ago. Thank God. Grow up! Educate yourself. Chrisitanity is a man created mythology. It is unbelievable that people in this day and age are still clinging to this destructive, primitive, childish nonsense.

    February 26, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • Too Old to Care

      And you can prove this how??

      February 26, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • Kelly Galson

      Very well said

      February 26, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • What!!!

      Only an omni present, omni potent and omnicient being knows as a matter of fact that there is no God.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
    • What!!!

      But then that being would be God!

      February 26, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • justme

      hey joe , ( thank God? ) what an idiot, did anyone else catch that or was it intended? you realize what you said?
      you really need to contact Jehovah's Witnesses soon.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • Indyman

      There is no historical evidence that Jesus existed. There is so much evidence to the contrary, as well as even more evidence that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, were complications of stories, tales, and myths that date back to prior myths. Yes, it's mostly myth. I'm not an atheist, and I've done years of research on this subject, and continue to do more. The truth about the Abrahamic religions is so awesomely weaved with mystery and intrigue it'll make anyone continue researching. It's better than any story every told. But let's not lose perspective, the foundation is a myth based on older myths. Jesus is a composite of many prior "saviors" who was never crucified. I could post links but they'll most likely be deleted. The Jesus Myth is a good start. Osiris is another search word to use. Take the philosophy that has been attributed to Jesus, remove ALL the violent and useless language in the old and new Testaments, and you'll have a very good book of common sense, but it's NOT the word of God.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:23 pm |

      @Joseph, well said! But most people refuse to let go of religion as they have either nothing else to sell or nothing else to buy. Sadly, they care more about this made-up stuff than real fellow human beings.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
    • What!!!

      Joseph you Hitler, Mao, the Khmer Rouge and Stalin didn’t believe in God? So is this a good thing?

      February 26, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
    • What!!!

      Indyman, I really appreciate your comments and I hate that you have harded your heart toward God and Jesus in particular. I will pray that you and Joseph seek and find the truth and I pray that you two are blessed, your families and your family. Look around someone loves you more than you can ever know.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
    • ashrakay

      "My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice." -Adolf Hitler (Speech delivered at Munich 12 April 1922)

      February 26, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
    • What!!!

      ashrakay, God looks for one that will stand in the gap, I stand in the gap as the Ambassador of Christ! One day the Ambassador will be called home to give an account! At that point what will be will be.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @what, So are you taking Hitler off of your list of people that don't believe in god? You might also recognize that the actions of totalitarians and cruel despots, most resemble the actions of those in the old testament under the command of god. God has ordered the mur.der of women and children, and genocide was done many times in his name.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
    • What!!!

      Hitler once believed in God but during WW1 he lost his mind and began to move into the mystical realm soon after the war with Heinrich Himmler. The Old Testament is an agreement between God, Abraham and his blood descendents. I live under the new agreement signed by Christ for all men. As a men made in the image of God (that is 3 parts in one) Man the body, man the soul and man the spirit the Old Testament is given to us as natural examples of the spiritual situations that influence all men.

      February 26, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • Joseph

      JustMe: I believe I stated I was not an atheist in my comment. I stated Christianity was a man created myth..as well as Islam..etc That is fact not opinion. The vast majority of Christians know absolutely nothing of the origins of their belief system and how and why it was created and grew.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
  4. Adam

    I read a really good quote once, "We are all atheists, I just happen to believe in one less god than you. When you realize the reason why you dismiss all other gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours".

    February 26, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • Zeke

      One 'fewer' god than you. It's a clever quote but the proper word should be fewer.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • sybaris

      Another good quote is, "We're all born Atheists"

      February 26, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • justme

      born athiests? isn't it great that JHVH gave us a mind and so much evidence to show us how to become a believer. as well as the bible to teach us what he wants of us.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
  5. Drew E

    Interesting... In an attempt to talk about tidying up the Bible, the author goes in the other direction and seems to sensationalize it. The Bible is not meant to be partially digested by someone else so that they can regurgitate it back to you. Study it and read it for yourself. A quick shout-out to the atheists that thrive on reading religious articles and then spewing all of their hate and despair: Thanks for reminding me of the reason that I have faith and giving me an example of what not to be. Of course, God always leaves an open invitation to anyone, so its not too late to find him.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • Zeke

      Well nanny nanny boo boo to you too. Does God love your sanctimony or just forgive you for it?

      February 26, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      say hi to the baby-killing bigot you worship for me please. (Hosea 13:16, and many other verses)

      February 26, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  6. i would say so.

    if one soul get saved so worth it. cuz God loves people so much

    February 26, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
    • JRS ONE

      Meanwhile, the Tooth Fairy hates people, though the Easter Bunny is ambivalent.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
  7. i would say so.

    may christians be saved and jesus2020.com if you dot have him. and if you do have him just confess all known sins and preach gospel. we all need Gods love

    February 26, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
  8. Josie

    Maybe we shouldn't sugarcoat the Quran either. Can't have you're cake and eat it too.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      Good idea. Throw it all out there for the world to see. 1 Samuel 15:21 versus the worst the Q-book's got. Cue Rocky music.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
  9. Damon

    Christians are not uncomfortable. We are actually the most comfortable people in the world. You are the uncomfortable ones. We are ok with sitting back and waiting on rapture. You guys are shivering in your boots. Otherwise, why write about us? What are you afraid of? We are afraid of absolutely nothing!

    February 26, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      just hope the rapture doesnt happen when you're telling a white lie, checking out a chick, or using a pg-rated curse word. Otherwise, you gonna be left behind!!

      February 26, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
    • Jim

      Funny how "smart" people like Dwight are. Don't understand what they are talking about but are confident in their ignorance.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • Zeke

      Jesus didn't tell you to be comfortable, man. Certainly not smug. Read the thing again. Or once perhaps. Jeesh. It's bad enough that people have to suckle the teat of religion in the first place and then they still mess it up so bad they might as well worship the NFL or chewing gum or something.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      Sorry Jim, I forgot to tell you that I have a Master's in Theology from Biola University.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
    • What!!!

      Dwight Corvelo, If the rapture happens our choice will have been made and there will be no negotiations at that point. Whatever we are doing at that very point in time will be irrelevant.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
    • Too Old to Care

      Sorry Dwight, looks like you were sleeping through your classes. Maybe you should mail back your diploma, cause it doesn't look like you learned too much. Many of my friends also went to Biola M.Div, and their beliefs and yours surely don't match.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • sybaris

      Quite the contrary. People who subscribe to religions that promise an afterlife are fearful due to the ultimate motivator, death.
      If you are so comfortable then go join your alleged maker now.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • Henry

      "Dwight Corvelo
      Sorry Jim, I forgot to tell you that I have a Master's in Theology from Biola University."

      Biola? Seriously? That's like saying I have a mail order PhD.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
  10. Greg

    Why waste your time arguing whether there is or isnt a God....no one is going to change their mind by reading from people who post comments on the cnn website.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
  11. Valerie Tarico

    Ever noticed how every Christian seems sure that his interpretation of the Bible is the real one - the one God intended? This article doesn't seem radically bold to me; it seems like more of the same. Same old biblical literalism. Same old atonement theology. Same old assertions of sharp fact in a sea of conflicting evidence. Same old taking sides in the endless tug of war between Christians who make their God and their Bible hard-edged and those who don't. Ugh.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  12. Remnant of God


    February 26, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  13. Zeke

    I'm sorry, I just can't take someone seriously once they say things like, " He intended the Bible to speak to people where they’re at," How do people take themselves seriously with this stuff? God wrote that book? Or, actually, a huge collection of often contradictory, often misogynistic, racist, pro-slavery and in other ways vile books. Of course people keep tweaking the thing. It's the only way to keep from just admitting that it's a bunch of old books written by all kinds of different people with their own ideas about right and wrong and the myths of their cultures.

    I was raised in the Catholic Church and I wasn't out of elementary school before I found myself thinking, "Aaahh, this is all just people choosing to 'believe' something." And, unfortunately telling me that I believe it too. I'm so sick of religion and how it leads smart people to speak stupidly and stupid people to act insane.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      I think saying "where they're at" is like saying "where you at, dawg?" or "fo shizzly-dizzle ma homeslice." It's apparently the "bomb-diggity" thing to say.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • Zeke

      Yeah, thanks Dwight, that was interesting.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • i would say so.


      February 26, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      any time, Zeke. Sa da tay on the tippie tie and ptl!

      February 26, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
    • Zeke

      Yeah, my (wonderful) devout mother and untold generations of Christians before her and twelve years of parochial education all led me to write what I just wrote. But now I'm going to get all into it on jesus.com. Thank you.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
  14. WeRwithoutexcuse

    "Your boasting about this is terrible. Don't you realize that this sin is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough?" (1 Corinthians 5:6) A little truth mixed with distortion is still the devil's propaganda. "But these people scoff at things they do not understand. Like unthinking animals, they do whatever their instincts tell them, and so they bring about their own destruction" (Jude10). Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Pro 9:10).

    February 26, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      And fear of clowns is the beginning of the Simpsons Season 4, Episode 1.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  15. Cory

    Brilliant! Scripturally and theologically accurate!

    February 26, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
  16. yeah

    godlife.com we really want all people to save and know Gods love.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      and when they save enough, they can trade it in for a coloring book.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
  17. Stein

    Anyone here believe in Santa? No? Silly to believe in Santa you say?

    February 26, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • JRS ONE

      The real Santa is much earthier. He bones elves. He drinks. Let's not sugarcoat Santa.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      He also has a thing about chimneys.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  18. Greg

    I just read through some of these comments and concluded most of you are on some serious drugs.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • i would say so.

      yeah all weirdos flocked to the religion discussion more liek chat room. so many people are rporting each other for no reasonw hatsoever. need to set up passwords.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  19. Charles Hughes

    I believed the Bible was the word of God until I read it and then I knew it wasn't. That people can believe Jehovah, that genocidal tribal god of mostly illiterate sheep and goat herders, is God of the universe is beyond me. On the other hand, I love the Bible for its wisdom and poetry and appreciate its deep cultural significance. As a philosophy professor colleague who was also an ordained Methodist minister once said to me about the Bible, "I know they are just stories, but they are my stories."

    February 26, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • Dwight Corvelo

      Beautifully said, sir. Couldn't agree more. Just like the tales of King Arthur, though with deeper cultural significance. May all our eyes be opened.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • Wes

      I prefer to read Robert Frost poetry and Aesop's fables.. They build a more realistic foundation.

      The only think I find beautiful in the bible is Philippians 04:08 Most of the other stuff demands I have a daddy figure in the sky. After I reached a certain age... I don't need that anymore.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
  20. QT

    Great article. Very daring.

    February 26, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
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