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. joey

    sanduskys bible, catholicism, ouch, KY

    February 26, 2012 at 5:50 am |
  2. mmmmkay

    dr. seuss means more to me then the bible- oh the places i'll go

    February 26, 2012 at 5:50 am |
  3. Andrew

    As an Irish Catholic I attended church until I was 16 years old. In those 16 years I never heard the most important statement of Jesus mentioned once, not once. And since then I have also never heard it mentioned once by any Priest, Preacher, Televangelist or anyone else. What is that statement? "The kingdom of Heaven is WITHIN you". If God is in Heaven and Heaven is within us then where is God? Religion always tells us God is out there or up there or anywhere except right HERE within us. That's why I turned to the ancient Indian teaching of non-duality which actually instructs you to turn your attention 180 degrees and to look inward!

    February 26, 2012 at 5:49 am |
    • joey

      how about just eliminating herd mentality ? poor human

      February 26, 2012 at 5:52 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Andrew is right.
      The true Jesus didnt need a church, pass the plate and put money in it.
      The true jesus has been hidden by the church.
      Dont want to lose that cash cow.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Joey, you are the one with the herd mentality.



      how about just eliminating herd mentality ? poor human

      February 26, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  4. John

    The reason why modern Christians "sugarcoat" the bible, is that most of the "brutal bloody vividness" you speak of is Old Testament. Since Christians live under the New Testament, its less relevant to us, the Old Testament being more of a history book than a manual of directives, having been replaced by the new covenant.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:44 am |
    • joey

      oooppps, there goes the commandments !!!!!!!!! rolmfao

      February 26, 2012 at 5:53 am |
    • The Truth

      Yes, the Bible should be followed to the letter! If you follow one rule you can't toss out the rest. So based on the bible you can sell your daughters to slavery, cut of a women's head, kill people who work on Sundays, and shame men with long hair. Corinthians 11:14, Exodus 21:7, Exodus 35:2, Deuteronomy 25:11-12, Timothy 2:11, Deuteronomy 23:2, Leviticus 12:5, Luke 16:18.

      The above should be taught in every Sunday school too!

      February 26, 2012 at 6:11 am |
  5. godless

    In what we call twenty fisrt century, humans will never harbor the idea that there is NO god. This utopian idea is what is going to get us ALL killed. The burden of proof is on those that clamor his existence. I live in total mental freedom to know that I personally don't need the guilt, power trip or any ritual to guide my life in harmony with my fellow man. Remember: Science, reason and logic will fly us back to the moon; religion, dogma and diluted trust called faith will fly you onto a building.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:43 am |
  6. Dikran

    Finally an article I wholeheartedly agree with....Too many American churches are more interested in piety and Sunday fashion parties than the naked bloody truth of the Gospel.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:40 am |
  7. Chris

    1. Why is this trash on the front page?
    2. Why isn't there an atheist blog?

    February 26, 2012 at 5:36 am |
    • John

      Ah, one of those ever present Evangelical Atheists. Gotta love em.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:45 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      Actually, the Belief Blog will periodically run articles and essays about atheism, just not every week.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:33 am |
  8. Ec1warc1

    "We don’t need to edit God." ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!!! Who wrote the bible? God? No! That is because there is no god. Since the bible was written, people have learned to face reality and since that time, god has not made any more appearances. That is because god was never real.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:31 am |
    • Justice

      Prove me God don't exist, you seem to try to convince us because you know the truth, well i say show us your proof and we will believe you. If you can't then i say you better get your mind and you life together and try to hold on to the truth instead of pretensions.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:44 am |
    • Lars J

      He is not real to you. But to millions in every walk of life have found deliverance from addictions, conflict, meaningless, fear, selfishness, and hopelessness. Sure there many millions more who profess to be Christians but are intolerant, narrow minded, selfish, having a facade of religiosity but exhibiting no change in their miserable lives. But that doesn't nullify those who have found a miracle and the voice of a loving Creator in the word of the Bible. To most people this is all foolishness.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:45 am |
    • NJBob

      @Justice - Ec1warc1 cannot prove a negative, but you are making a positive claim that god exists. It is therefore up to YOU to provide the proof! This should be interesting!

      February 26, 2012 at 6:02 am |
    • joey

      another form of herd mentality. "millions" believe in amway also

      February 26, 2012 at 6:03 am |
    • Justice

      NJBob go back and read, he said there is no God, a definitive that he knows God don't exist. You need to go back to school.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:29 am |
    • Grammar, please

      Justice – Please add the word "doesn't" to your vocabulary and learn how to use it.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  9. bull

    It's ridicules to stick to a few books that are thousand(s) of years old. And arguing or killing each other based on different believes. This is absolutely a disgrace for human race. I think it's OK for everyone to have your personal belief if you feel it works for your daily life. But please keep it private and respect other people's different choices. We're in the 21st century.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:31 am |
    • Justice

      Ok let's all stick to books that says we're all coming down from monkeys. Would that make you feel better?

      February 26, 2012 at 5:46 am |
    • joey

      ahh yes, jews, muclims, and christians, all the children of abraham, killing and hating each other, now that feels better

      February 26, 2012 at 6:05 am |
    • NJBob

      @Justice - What book says we're "coming down from monkeys"? Is that your ignorant way of saying that you don't believe that humans and monkeys had a common ancestor? Actually the evidence all points in that direction. There is NO evidence that we all got here the way the bible says we did.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:06 am |
    • Justice

      Well NjBob keep believing in your book about monkeys, that shows your intelligence.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:11 am |
    • bull

      It's hard to argue with those who don't respect facts and knowledge. They thought 'believe' could solve all the problems while they enjoy the achievements by science and reasoning. They belong to the group whose brains have less-evolved on reasoning than the rest of us.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  10. Navin Johnson

    I could care less if 93% believe or 1% believe. It has no merit. If 93% are wrong, the number itself does not make them right.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:30 am |
    • Holy Man

      You do realize, don't you, that by saying you "could care less," that you ACTUALLY CARE? Perhaps your argument would have more weight if you used the English language properly and say, "I couldn't care less." As it is, people will see your comment and just assume you're a moron.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:46 am |
    • godless

      I totally agree

      February 26, 2012 at 5:46 am |

      @Holy Man, in the same way people will equate your being religious to you being an imbecile. So your point is moot. Nice try.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  11. John Charles Aruzian

    The Bible was never intended to be read by the masses. Originally, it was a spoken record of man's events – a "history". A "history" cannot function as a "how to live" guide. It is popular primarily because it continually contradicts itself, thereby allowing the broadest audience to interpret it, each for their individual applications. I doubt that any of the hundreds of deities claimed to be the only deity by the hundreds of christian/judeo sects would ever claim authorship.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:27 am |
  12. SGT Dunson

    Good Article

    February 26, 2012 at 5:26 am |
  13. The Truth

    If you don't question what you think the truth is then it is not a truth. A true human being is an agnostic human being; one who questions everything to learn the truth. The truth will set you free from the chains of religion. An Atheist is the polar opposite of a Christian but they are also one in the same; they don't seek truth.

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

      The Truth wrote: "An Atheist is the polar opposite of a Christian but they are also one in the same; they don't seek truth."

      You are absolutely wrong. And anyone who calls themselves agnostic is really atheist but they don't want the stigma of that word.

      Atheists don't believe in God. That doesn't mean Atheists are 100% certain there is no God. It just means they have yet to see any evidence that to them is compelling. But Atheists seek to have questions answered. If there is no God, then why ARE we here the Atheist asks. Christians and people of faith blindly believe in something without questioning it. They do not ask why we are here or is there a God. They start with the presumed answers and reject any questions.

      Agnostics are just liars. Something to be agnostic about is the existence of alien life. There is plenty of evidence that alien life COULD exist, but there's no evidence at all that it does for sure. So its something that is plausible but we don't really know. Where's the "plausible evidence" that God exists? There is none, you either have the faith or your don't. If you think you're agnostic because you see no evidence of God and therefore aren't certain there is one, you're an Atheist.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:50 am |
    • The Truth

      Atheist = They are certain there is no god. Christian = They are certain there is a god. Agnostic = You can not prove or dis-prove the existence of god. Pure unbiased Science is Agnostic. Push the limits, don't create them like Christians or Atheist do.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:07 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      To "The Truth": Suppose I'm holding a rock. Suppose I let it go. What will happen?
      Most people will immediately say "It'll fall down." But, in fact, in 99.9999999% of the Universe, it'll just float there. It only falls down if you happen to be inside a gravity well. As it happens, that's where all of human experience has occurred, so we have an extremely skewed view of nature. (Another example: "Nature abhors a vacuum." No, 99.99999999% of the Universe IS a vacuum.)
      So it's a good idea to keep an open mind. But it's also a good idea to recognize reality when you see it. When any of US lets go of that rock, it's gonna fall down, and it's carrying open-mindedness to a ridiculous degree to pretend otherwise.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:40 am |
  14. me

    1. The Jewish and Muslim scriptures are just as brutal.
    2. Modern day Christians have "evolved". Muslims haven't.
    3. This is propaganda, not news.

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

      The bible doesnt evolve. the fact that it has renders it a just a "cool story"...rendering religion what it is: Man made. It's 2012, time to move on.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:30 am |
  15. jerry

    i agree 1000000000000000% there is far too much compromise in the church today

    February 26, 2012 at 5:21 am |
  16. Robin Burns

    Excellent reminder that today's sermons are mostly about not offending anyone, while the real lessons within scripture are not addressed. It's not all about witch hunting and gay bashing, it's about keeping oneself pure of heart and exercising forgiveness. Unless the individual is faced with the very real messages God gave us he cannot understand how to become what God wants in His children. Our society has become far too self-serving, and many pulpits fail to improve the situation. Everyone should read the Bible, whether or not you are a "believer." It's a great education in history and a primer on the religions which affect us all. If a little morality rubs off, so much the better!

    February 26, 2012 at 5:21 am |
    • Mirosal

      Your buy-bull is a great education in .. what??? history???? You ARE deluded aren't you? Using that book as a history lesson is like using a chemistry textbook to teach P.E. class.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:23 am |
    • Justice

      Mirosal since you seem to enjoy the bottom back hole we all have, let us stick with our beliefs and opinions will you.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:51 am |
    • Mirosal

      You can hanve your beliefs. I have no problem with that. But do NOT come knocking on my door, or appear on my TV, and tell me that I am inherently bad and that if I don't accept YOUR way of thinking I will burn for all eternity. That's a very typical X-tian fear tactic. Why must a religion use fear tactics to get peolpe to convert and accept it? Get your beliefs out of my government, and keep your faith where it belongs. In YOUR home, in YOUR church. As far as biblical history goes (as taught by man)... if you really think Dec. 25th is your "savoir's" b-day.. think again

      February 26, 2012 at 6:03 am |
    • Justice

      Mirosal i have no problems to keep my belief in my home, if you would only keep your opinion to what you don't believe in to yourself.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:31 am |
  17. ghost

    I get everyone has an opinion and they have every right to them THANK GOD AND GOD BLESS AMERICA FOR THE RIGHT! What I do not understand is the hate and the disdain for exercising our freedoms whether it is belief or non-belief. What a lot of people forget is the fact that God gave us freedom of choice therefore it is not always God or the foolish devil delivering wrath or revenge, it is our actions causing our problems. The devil gets his laugh and God spares us from our stupidity. Remember the bible is also a history of different cultures, laws, lands, and beliefs. BE BLESSED IN LIFE AND SPIRIT!

    February 26, 2012 at 5:20 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      You refer to "the fact that God gave us freedom of choice". That is not a fact, that is your opinion. And you have no evidence whatsoever to back it up.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:44 am |
  18. Sriram

    We need to be mentally mature before we start the celebrations....if not, we will destroy ourselves. To become mentally mature we need the rituals and prayers.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:17 am |
  19. NotBlind

    LOL @ all the atheists who come out of the woodwork to comment on religious topics. I've never seen a group of people so threatened by something they don't believe in.

    Atheist: "There is no God... and I am his prophet!"

    It's so ridiculous it borders on pathological. I don't believe in the Loch Ness Monster, but that doesn't mean I go trolling the Interwebz trying to dissuade believers. So what are you atheists doing here? Trying to save our souls? LOL.

    At least 93% of the world's population believes in some sort of divine personage or deity. You'd have an easier time getting a camel through the eye of a needle than convincing the entire world there is no God.

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

      All 'gods' die off eventually. In time yours too will be relegated to the realm of mythology. Just ask Zeus, Odin, Ra, Quetzecotl, and a plethora of others throughout human history, and pre-history.

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

      They (we) are threatened by its message and ideology, which threatens all forms of freedom and logic. Keep your religion in your home, not in my schools, food, classroom, society, money, or politics.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:32 am |
    • Scott

      The Lochness Monster isn't the biggest threat to humanity in the history of mankind. When it becomes a big threat then I'll start checking message boards about the lochness monsters.

      For now, I'll focus on religion. This article is the perfect example of how horrible religion is for the world. Look at this author. He's wasted valuable time dissecting a work of fiction. He could've spent his time figuring out a way to help feed the homeless. Instead he spent several hours crafting together an article that isn't any more valuable to society than if I were to write an article breaking down the same themes in the Harry Potter series.

      There are lots of good people wasting their time and lives by believing in this nonsense. If we could just get these people that have a sense of social responsibility more focused on improving others lives simply because its the right thing to do and not because it's what some mythical figure wants them to do then we can improve the world.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:34 am |
    • Fn0rdz

      Jim has it right. No one is threatened by something that doesn't exist- we're threatened by "true believers" and the way they interpret what they think the creator of the universe wants them to do.

      February 26, 2012 at 5:35 am |
    • Justice

      NotBlind you're right and i agree with you, Those of you who feels threatened by people who believe in God then you are not out of the wood yet. You all blame God for the errors we human are doing. Wars, killing and so on, and yet you are calling yourself intelligent, well to me you are not. None of you are intelligent enough to figure out that you're blaming someone else for what we are doing to ourselves.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:00 am |
    • atroy

      Don't speak for people you don't know. I am an Atheist and, while I don't believe there is a god, I can't prove and won't declare that there isn't one; I just simply don't believe that there is. It may sound like splitting hairs but you really have to understand the nuances between belief and non-belief (faith and doubt) to understand. Not all atheist are the same just as all believers are not the same. Even as a non-believer I view each day as precious and our world as a unique and fragile place I'm glad to be a part of. If your belief system gives you peace of mind and comfort then I say more power to you.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:00 am |
    • Justice

      To atroy, i say more power to you, while you are in search to find out about the truth we will simply move on forward. I hope you will find out the answer you are looking for some day.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:15 am |
  20. Mark

    lol. Modern Christianity doesn't resemble the original Christianity in the slightest. Anyone studying even a little early Christian church history can easily see how man made modern Christianity is, and even better, watch it change to fit different political times, social needs, etc... The idea that evangelical protestant churches, for example, believe the same thing as the early Christians would be laughable if wasn't so scary how much people KNOW that they're right.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:14 am |
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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.