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. Patti

    My Take: Stop taking the bible literally. The world would be a better place.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • God

      I concur.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  2. EC

    There. Is. No. God.

    The bible was written by men so they could control other men (and women). If you can't accept that fact, then you are living in fantasy land.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • god

      this is true.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Ike

      There is no EC. It is what some has written that ask us to believe that EC exist.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • fintastic

      No Eric Clapton???

      February 27, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • KD

      How do you know?

      February 27, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  3. mikey

    What a great article, finally. 🙂

    February 27, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Joseph

      I agree; wonderful editorial!

      February 27, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  4. rick santorumtwit... America's favorite frothy mix

    If Rick Santorum becomes president, he'll see to it that we all got more of the baby jesus in our daily lives. Lots more. There will be a 24 hour baby jesus channel on major network television. Our highways will be inundated with baby jesus billboards. We'll all have the baby jesus coming out of our ears. And our @ssholes.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  5. Samwise

    But none of it's true! It's a fiction like Lord of the Rings, except not as carefully-constructed.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  6. Robert Monroe Turner

    Mr.James has made some valid and interesting points regarding modern day translations of the Judeo / Christian scriptures however Mr. James ends his article with a complete misrepresentation of Jesus "Jesus saves us from the dry, dusty duties of religion and frees us to cut loose and celebrate." Wrong!!! Jesus or rather Yeshua his real name became the living Word of God in the flesh. Yeshua is the giver of the law, the commandments. He fulfilled all the law and as Yeshua said "He did not come to do away with the law". Yeshua fulfilled the law and kept the Spirit of of the law which is love, love for the heavenly Father and mankind. All the commandments of the law and observing God's holy days and festivals were perfectly kept and done by Yeshua. Yeshua came as "Ben Joseph the suffering servant of God, he will return as "Ben David" the conquering King, the Lion of Judah.
    As for other evidence of Yeshua existance Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote of Yeshua.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Brad

      Agree that this article ended twisting the truth.

      February 27, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Samwise

      And you can prove all this stuff? Turn some water into wine and I might believe you. Walk on water or raise the dead. It's all talk.

      February 27, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Tom

      What has your salvation got to do with walking on water or wine?

      February 27, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  7. Don

    Who cares ? Why bother with this article? To what end is it? What a waste of words!

    February 27, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  8. me2012

    The caption on the picture above in incorrect. The story of Judith slaying Holofernes is from the Book of Judith, an apocryphal text that is absolutely not in the Bible. The lovely painting by Artemisia Gentileschi depicts a religious scene, not a Biblical one. Just a misrepresented fact. There are many almost identical scenes in the Bible, to be sure.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  9. Brad

    You said-"They feel the need to tidy up God"

    Actually, it is the other way around the Bible sees the need for people to tidy up from their raw sinful nature

    February 27, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Tom

      The act of tidying up comes by accepting the plan of Salvation offered by Jesus.

      February 27, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Jake

      Step 1: Stop killing each other over different fantasies.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Patti

      II agree with you Jake. Well put!

      February 27, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  10. Klaatu

    God has no power in certain countries. For example in Syria.
    Christards will need some holy explanation to do for the cause.

    God controls the Sun, moon, planets galaxies but cannot manage massacre of babies. Cannot manage killers brain.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • mcp123

      ...and the surviving children of Haiti beg naked in the streets for food after thousands of them were crushed in an earthquake. Did god save them?

      People need to get out of this primitive need to explain their existence in the universe. FREE your mind.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  11. Nathan

    Steve, thanks for this article, it is so refreshing! I will be forwarding this one for sure – it's so important to capture how raw the lives and situations in the Bible so often were. Many of our traditions (or, our "versions" of Christianity) quickly cover this up, and we miss out on so much of the application to our present lives and situations.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  12. tim

    Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • The Jackdaw

      Quoting a text to prove the text is true is a circular and therefore crummy argument.

      February 27, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • fintastic

      Behold.... a load of crap.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  13. lucy

    Well, I do agree that the bible shouldn't be sugar coated but the Isaiah 64:6 (KJV) does say " But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags" and that is right. There is no such thing as a good person or even a bad person because "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" according to Romans 3:23. In that same chapter of Romans it also tells us that "there is none righteous, no not one". The only one that is without sin was Jesus Christ himself. He was 100% man and 100% God. For he hath made him to be sin for us who knew no sin that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor 5:21). The only way to heaven is through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Today is the day of salvation, now is the acceptable time to give your life to Christ before it's too late. All you have to do is confess you are a sinner, believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, was buried, and rosed again. Romans 10:13 "For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be." Salvation is a free gift. The debt has already been paid for us. We don't have to work to receive Christ or work for our salvation. Accept Christ today before it's too late.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  14. Horus

    My Take: Stop viewing the bible as anything more than what it is. A collection of creative writings by various individuals, and groups over a limited period of time, and during the absence of modern awareness.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  15. Godoflunaticscreation

    I agree. Stop watering down the bible because you are ashamed of it's evil nature. When you censor tv and say to read the bible which is full of disgusting acts you are a hypocrite. God calls for genocide in the bible yet these fake modern "christians" with their ipads and war mongering ways would have you believe that their god is good. If you read the actual bible you would realize that he is barely a step up from Zeus. Even that is arguable since Zeus doesn't damn his followers to an eternity in hell (no hades is not hell). We need these people to face the truth and realize that they are a bunch of modern day cavemen so we can move on to improving ourselves on the principles of love and empathy. The bible is anything but that.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  16. Steve

    Way to go! An excellent way of bringing out what is the Truth in scripture. Thanks!

    February 27, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  17. Nickolas DiDonato

    "WOW" This has got to be one of the most honest,realistic,and more believable posts I have yet to read on Biblical matters pertaining to the Bible,Good Job.....

    February 27, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  18. Nikki

    It wasn't so much 'decency' that text and various books were censored. Mostly it was done for POWER and CONTROL of the masses to benefit the church (namely the catholic church). Anything that appeared the threaten the power/control of the catholic church was suppressed, hidden away, or completely destroyed. Kings and queens also did their part in controlling what the masses were told. If you recall, the church kept the masses illiterate as part of their control
    ALL of the text needs to be translated as accurately as possible and the people decide what they want to read. I've heard of one little word that can make a large difference in meaning. Thou shalt not kill vs thou shalt not murder. Some words as the difference between kill and murder may have happened by accident as meanings change over time. It is time that religious information hidden away, blocked, etc. be given back to all people.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  19. ryan

    check out evilbible.com. One only needs to read the bible to understand how reprehensible, horrific, and stupid of a book it is. It is hardly a guidebook to life, rather it is evidence of a brutal and ignorant past that we can learn from as something to be avoided today. Things like child abuse, slavery, and genocide are encouraged. Its truly a repulsive book.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  20. myweightinwords

    The fact of the matter is, the bible was written in a time and place so different from our own that its language, its customs, its morals and ethics are nearly alien to us. Things that were "normal" then are considered horrific today. We have evolved and changed.

    This is why the bible as a whole is not suitable for application to our lives today. It no longer fits.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • mcp123

      A better solution.... and I quote Bill and Ted. Be excellent to each other... and Party on dudez!

      February 27, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Samwise

      "Things that were "normal" then are considered horrific today. " According to the Bible, you should have slaves and several wives, and it's ok to sell the children of your slave-wives as slaves. If your brother dies, you MUST marry his wife; no exceptions. And if you get santorum on yourself, you have to go apart for thirty days and be cleansed.

      February 27, 2012 at 11:18 am |
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