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. David

    Great article. It is amazing to me how applicable the bible is to our lives.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:12 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      Not to the lives of any rational minded person!

      February 26, 2012 at 5:14 am |
    • Jon O

      Anything can be applicable to your life. Grimms' Fairy Tales – every story has a moral, often times they're violent and brutal just like the bible.

      It is amazing how Grimms' Fairy Takes applies to our lives.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:27 am |
  2. Michael

    They feel the need to tidy it up because the God looks like the bad guy in this book. Democracy is righteous, this "God's" dictatorship is murderous and disgusting.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:08 am |
    • tdog

      Jesus is Holy, everyone elses needs this Holy Savour

      February 26, 2012 at 5:12 am |
    • Jon O

      Jesus is holey all right, one in each hand, one in each foot and a spear wound in the side.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:17 am |
    • tdog

      Jon O He died for you, by the way He arose 3 days later. By the way He's coming again

      February 26, 2012 at 5:20 am |
    • Jon O

      Your God – do you believe he is all-knowing tdog, simple question.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:31 am |
  3. Mickey

    The original bible (Hebrew – before Christians decided to make huge changes to suit their own religion) should have been left alone.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:07 am |
    • tdog

      The KJV is pure. Criticizing the Words of God not wise

      February 26, 2012 at 5:10 am |
    • Jon O

      The King James contains words and entire lines that are not in the original versions of the bible.

      The King James is a corruption of the word of God by arrogant men – it is not a translation, it is an adaptation.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:11 am |
    • Michael

      tdog you are a complete idiot, just like every person who has come before you believing in different gods and living their lives by their code, you will die off and people will mock you just like you mock the people who worshiped the sun god.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:12 am |
    • tdog

      Satan deceived Eve in the garden by casting doubt on the Words of God. What are you doing? KJV is the Words of God for English speaking people every other version has copyrights. They're in it for the money. Celebrating 400 years of KJBible

      February 26, 2012 at 5:17 am |
    • tdog

      The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God

      February 26, 2012 at 5:18 am |
  4. Abdurrahman

    We as muslims beleive in all the heavenly books.. But only those which were original.. I wonder when a human edits the Word Of God.. The only book which is going to be in its original state till the day of Judgement is the Holy Quran(God Himself is the Guardian of it).. So Authentic, So true, So guiding, So healing, So pure.. Follow and understand it and guided are you..

    February 26, 2012 at 5:04 am |
    • tdog

      Your prophet died a sinner, Jesus died to be a redeemer

      February 26, 2012 at 5:07 am |
    • Michael

      It has been proven that men wrote these books, any way you look at this, it is something influenced by man, even the originals.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:10 am |
    • Jon O

      No,Jesus just died. Jesus' entire story was a carbon copy of the Egyptian God Horus – like everything else in the Christian faith – Christmas, the idea of transubstantiation – it was stolen from another pre-existing faith.

      Your God is a Xerox.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:13 am |
    • Mirosal

      Your muslim prophet was also a ped-o-phi-le. True or false.. he married a NINE year old girl?? True!! yeah.. nice role model you have there.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:19 am |
    • Abdurrahman

      Tdog i don't blame you.. You know nothing about the History of Islam.. 🙂 both Jesus and Muhammad Are the Prophets of God 🙂
      Michael.. The work of God is incomparable to the work of Man.. I advise you to learn arabic.. Is when you'll realize that there is no literature resembling the Holy Quran.. The whole Book is in a poetic manner.. Without a single language or grammatical mistake.. The easiest book to memorize yet keep it saved in ones memory in the entire life.. Yes, childred of the age of Ten years complete memorizing the Holy Quran almost everywere in the world.. Its only by observing will you see..

      February 26, 2012 at 5:20 am |
    • Jon O

      Abdurrahman – your book is just another regional adaptation of the existing teachings of the Abrahamic God.

      You did nothing that every other religion – including Christianity – hasn't done – you looked at existing religion, stole a bunch from it, and then changed everything to suit your needs.

      Allah is a crock. Mohammed is a joke. And your religion is a violent, barbaric mess.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:25 am |
    • tdog

      Jesus did not come to be a prophet but came to be God. Hebrews 1:8

      February 26, 2012 at 5:25 am |
    • Jon O

      Bats are birds.Lev. 11:13, 19 And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls...And the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:29 am |
    • Dave

      Do you know how many times your quaran has been edited? MANY!

      February 27, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  5. Preston

    This is not an offensive article to Christians, but rather an empowering one. The bible in all of its realness would not dare try and paint life any less real. I like the fact that the Bible is an "In Your Face" as it is, because that is the level it must be on to compel one to change...

    February 26, 2012 at 5:02 am |
    • tdog

      This is a degrading article unto God. Making him into a partier, and the author making money off of it.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:34 am |
  6. Jack in black

    Good article. Now for some balance CNN, have the journalistic courage to publish a similar deconstruction of the holy Koran. Wishful thinking.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:01 am |
    • Jon O

      Maybe they will – the difference is that CNN is an American owned company, and America is Christian, and American Christian are usually

      1) Totally uneducated on their own faiths
      2) Hypocrites who cherry pick what parts of the bible apply today
      3) Liars who fabricate untruths and try and push their agenda through lies

      So when America reports back as being 70% Muslim while, on a functional level, absolutely NOT emulating Christ... then maybe the author will call out Islam as well.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:16 am |
  7. Romanakb

    This article is like finding fresh water in the desert of horrible news. Too bad not many of you commentators could recognize that and are still dying of thirst. At least show some respect for the word of God and God Himself. Thank you to the author of this article who has the courage of expressing his opinion knowing that disrespectful brothers would attack him. Yes, you are my brothers and He loves you even after you insult Him. Look to the cross...

    February 26, 2012 at 5:00 am |
  8. AdmrlAckbar

    Still waiting for conclusive, solid empirical evidence proving or disproving a higher power one way or another until then the forums trolls worship the Almighty opinion. False prophets who claim scientific creed seem to know little about it though...

    February 26, 2012 at 4:59 am |
    • tdog

      Read the Gospels. Matthew Mark Luke and John. Search for the truth of the Gospel message. Eternity is a long time to realize the truth was there all along.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:04 am |
    • Michael

      Tdog you are a complete idiot.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:10 am |
  9. Rickett

    Great article!!!!

    February 26, 2012 at 4:57 am |
  10. Bill

    Good article, the bible is a blood thirsty book but then it was was written by humans at their time frame.

    February 26, 2012 at 4:56 am |
  11. Navin Johnson

    A Christian ends up in hell and he goes to the complaint dept. The devil asks him "So, what's your complaint?" to that the Christian says "I don't understand how I ended up here. I read the Bible everyday and did everything it said". The devil responded "How did you interpret it?"........

    February 26, 2012 at 4:56 am |
  12. ETF

    Merciful Christ can we please stop taking the writings of bronze age peasants seriously? Or at all? Now we have computers, mathematics, satellites, liberal democracy, philosophy, medicine, evolution, astronomy, literature, architecture, quantum mechanics, relativity: topics so much better and MUCH more worthy of human contemplation. Why the obsession with ancient Palestine and the primitive customs of its peoples?

    February 26, 2012 at 4:55 am |
    • tdog

      How long do you expect to live in all your wisdom. Death is certain Romans 6:23

      February 26, 2012 at 4:58 am |
    • ETF

      The things that you're liable to read in the bible, it ain't necessarily so.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:02 am |
    • tdog

      Read Luke 16 The rich man and Lazarus" A literal interaction between someone in Hell and someone saved. The rich man asked Abraham to send someone back from the dead so they might believe. The answer: They have Moses and the Prophets.Meaning The Bible is in the World

      February 26, 2012 at 5:29 am |
  13. alain

    there is also the issue of the bible condoning slavery. multiple times. it has been sugarcoated in translations by calling slaves servants...but as their masters own them , beat them and sell them (and yes the bilbe indicates that if the beaten slave dies 3/4 days later, the master cannot be held accountable, but if he dies right way...this is bad...

    February 26, 2012 at 4:53 am |
  14. Norma Tyler

    Thank you Jesus for the truth keep speaking the word.Nobody said anything about them burning the America flag.

    February 26, 2012 at 4:52 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      Jesus died and never returned...no-one has ever returned from the dead you dolt and science has proven that fact. If you knew a thing about jesus you would know that he was not written about until 30-40 years after his death and none of the authors who referred to him ever met him-not such reliable sources of information.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:02 am |
    • Jesus Christ, are we still talking about this?

      FACT – the authors of the New Testament NEVER MET JESUS! The book has been interpreted, rewritten countless times, interpreted and rewritten in different languages, and so and and so on!!

      February 26, 2012 at 5:15 am |
  15. Don

    The side who has a tyrant threatening eternal torture if they choose banishment must denigrate sound arguments that attempt to persuade that there is no tyrant and they would be at bliss if they were free from his leash. Only infants use the 'relative card.'

    February 26, 2012 at 4:40 am |
    • tdog

      If you spend eternity in Hell, thats your choice. God has made a way for everyone to escape. We were all born sinners, we were all born into judgment. Through the Death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, God has given any human being Salvation. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord and thou shalt be saved. Romans 10:13

      February 26, 2012 at 4:53 am |
    • ETF

      "Give me your money or I'll kill you!", says the robber. People have free will. They can choose to obey the robber's commands or not. Robbers don't kill people; people choose to die by disobeying the robber.

      "Worship me or burn in hell!", says god. People have free will. They can choose to obey god's commands or not. God doesn't condemn people to hell; people choose to go to hell by disobeying god.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:00 am |
  16. David

    My tooth fairy is better than your Easter Bunny. You're all whack jobs. With Love, God

    February 26, 2012 at 4:37 am |
    • Mirosal

      My dragon can defeat your orc, and I have a loaded 20-sided die that says so. By the way, if you DO play D&D, you neeed therapy. Just like if you thnk EVERY word in the buy-bull is true.. again, you need therapy.

      February 26, 2012 at 4:40 am |
  17. Robert

    Good article. Also would mention as we become more advanced in science, we can become more sophisticated and
    use our technology to sin.

    February 26, 2012 at 4:36 am |
    • caw

      But what is sin and who defines it?

      February 26, 2012 at 4:46 am |
    • Jesus Christ, are we still talking about this?

      Robert does, don't mess with ROBERT. whalka whalka

      February 26, 2012 at 5:16 am |
  18. David

    Thank you for cementing my doubts that rather than an agnostic I am an atheist. Ever considered working as an agent in hollywood?

    February 26, 2012 at 4:35 am |
  19. me123me

    You people really are clueless. You dont even come close to understanding any of this. That goes fro the author and the comments.

    February 26, 2012 at 4:31 am |
  20. charms

    dear cnn, try one on islam please

    February 26, 2012 at 4:28 am |
    • 2+2=5

      it wont be funny when you find out it was more relevancy in the world today, let me guess, your thinking jihad right? some most Muslims do not encourage, cute.. Fox may have some material this morning along the lines of your ideology. Go there.

      February 26, 2012 at 4:50 am |
    • charms

      2+2 = 5...that was a profoundly unintelligible comment. Now go take your pill

      February 26, 2012 at 5:13 am |
    • Jesus Christ, are we still talking about this?

      wow charms! what big words you have. better to insult Mr. math-man with! Now go vote for rick san-TOR-um

      February 26, 2012 at 5:20 am |
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