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. RichardSRussell

    According to the most devoted accounts of his most devoted believers, Yahweh is the most barbaric, cruel, heartless, sadistic, torturing, butchering, murderous, pettily vindictive, unforgiving archfiend in all of fiction. He committed, commanded, or condoned massacres and genocides by the score. Good thing he's not real. But by all means, let's not sugarcoat his bloodthirsty sadism, and then maybe people will come to their senses and once and for all let their humanity trump their indoctrination.

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

      John 3:17

      February 26, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  2. laura

    First of all, great article! I appreciate the insight into how we can find so manny similarities between us and those who came before us – we love the same, yearn for the same things and are frightened by the same unknowns.
    Ultimately, if my religion helps guide me to be a better human, what concern is it of yours? I can say absolutely that when I lead a more carnal life, that I had no focus on others at all. If I had stayed in that life, I would have been far less a caring human being today. Thanks to my religion and my faith in God, I have perspective and purpose. So you want me to be wrong- well if I am then so be it. I would have lived a meaningful life with charity towards others, and when I die, blackness. If you are wrong, you would have lived a life of charity you needed no help in finding, but whe will you spend eternity. No matter how convincing Either argument, neither of us has an absolute answer. We only have our faith in our convictions- your that you die to nothing, mine that I die to an eternity with God. I really prefer faith in mine.

    February 26, 2012 at 6:08 am |
    • Mark Yelka

      "Ultimately, if my religion helps guide me to be a better human, what concern is it of yours?"

      For many people, on the way involves forcing others to come along with them. Poor gay folks are persecuted by the Mormons with big bucks funding anti-gay legislation. Women are told to take subservient roles, etc. Some religions will imprison, torture, or kill people who don't conform. Religion is generally intolerant of others in active ways. That's the problem.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:15 am |
    • joey

      well, you just put your IQ into perspective, but, yeah, whatever it takes, by all means, lay on the B*S

      February 26, 2012 at 6:16 am |
    • JP0

      You won't be surprised when you die because you will no longer be cognizant of anything.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:24 am |
    • JacksonBrowne

      Laura just nailed it- all the GOD hooey is based on humans' fear of death.

      Hey guys, be nice to eachother because it is the right thing to do, not because some Unicorn Tooth Fairy says you should.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  3. Lukescorner.net

    You can always tell when it's Sunday morning just by checking into cnn here.

    Either an article is posted talking about how great Islam is or an article is somehow throwing Christianity under the bus can be found......did we move to Tehran or Riyadh??

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

      Uh, I think the man's point is that people like you think that pointing out reality is somehow "throwing Christianity under the bus", and that the bible has more than the 1950's Disney-version our culture seems to want it to have. Don't feel threatened by losing your Disney, it's still the bible.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:13 am |
    • Dave

      Rather than throwing Christianity under a bus, this article makes a claim for a more authentic christianity based on a more ho nest and accurate interpretation of scripture and its intent. Christianity is alive and well in this article.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:29 am |
  4. godless


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

      You give our cause no assistance by shouting, my friend.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:13 am |
  5. Heather Kiley

    thank god someone has come to their senses, this is an absolutly lovely article and i thank you for writting it. it's the type of thing ive been trying to frustratingly get people to understand. good show.

    February 26, 2012 at 6:06 am |
  6. joey

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

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

      Perhaps you have absolutly no idea what the Bible is about do you? Have you ever read it cover to cover and truly understood why a God would allow such a thing? Perhaps you need to find out the true reason why before you condemn it. You may learn something very important.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:12 am |
    • joey

      the reason does not exist, it follows protocol

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

    We'd all be so much better off without the fiction of gods. Religion is all about intolerance. Religion can't survive without it. It's always "I'm right, you're wrong. Convert the unbeliever."

    February 26, 2012 at 6:04 am |
    • brandon

      I hear this. You're saying religion is not about tolerance.... And conforming people to perfection. As well as about people not being ok with differentness. And converting you.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:14 am |
  8. David

    Even israel was named after 3 other gods.

    February 26, 2012 at 6:04 am |
    • joey

      thank you , king, christians love democracy, uh, i mean, monarchy

      February 26, 2012 at 6:08 am |
  9. Thomas

    I enjoyed the column and found it interesting and entertaining. However, it's a pity that most of the "soundoff" comments lack civility and are just plain mean or rude. It takes the fun out of the whole "exchange of ideas" thing.

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

      welcome to the WWW, tom

      February 26, 2012 at 6:09 am |
  10. Flex

    And you Mr. James, stop attacking Christianity and be another fool puppet of the Obama administration.

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

      Huh? What in the world does Obama have to do with it?? lololol Do you always combine all stories into one? It is just one idea, thought, interpretation of which there are many. Nothing to do with Pres. Obama, nor me, nor you.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:25 am |
    • Nodack

      How is he a puppet for Obama? I would really like an explanation. Does he even know Obama or are you just making it up as you go?

      February 26, 2012 at 6:27 am |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Brain damage at work.

      February 26, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • fables are not healthy for children and other living things

      Yeah, Obama's the antichrist, shave his head and you'll find 666 burned into his scalp. What a bunch of incredible imbeciles.

      February 26, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
  11. steve

    Deuteronomy 25:5 If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her

    Leviticus 20:21 If a man marries his brother's wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother. They will be childless.

    just compare, this is what filthy satanic jew cult is about, their imbecile god can't even make up his mind. Youll find this in no other scripture except filthy parasitical jew satanic cult. wherever jew goes, pestilence follows. learn from history to know future.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:58 am |
    • joey

      adolph is is the house !!!

      February 26, 2012 at 6:10 am |
    • steve

      adolf wh exposes your filthy satanic pedo jew cult

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

      Insults aside, there is a substantial difference between a widow and a wife.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:17 am |
    • Dina

      There are meds for that. You really would feel better if you h ated less.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:17 am |
    • Dave

      Steve.I believe one text refers to a senario where the husband has died and the other where the husband is still alive. If I am right In this case the texts are not contradictory and whilst you may disagree with the instruction you would have to admit it to be potentially logical and fair.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:22 am |

      @Joey – LOL

      February 27, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  12. David

    Everything this author is saying holds more truth me than the version the bible presents. As an agnostic, I'm in search of the full truth, but have accepted I'll never know it. For the record, I'm interested in religion; but from a historical viewpoint rather a faith-based one. Since most religion is faith-based, most of it I'm not interested in. I need artifacts and official unedited records, and science that's not afraid to change the story when new evidence presents itself. Most religion cannot and will not do that. And that's why by its very nature it must not be telling the whole (or even partially) the truth.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:57 am |
    • Sid Airfoil

      There isn't enough room for this conversation. But your mistake is that you hold the wrong standard for "certainty". As a result, you are an agnostic, forever barred from KNOWING anything, instead of an atheist. There is no point in defining "certainty" in a way that is, by definition, not attainable by humans. Humans are flawed and finite, and so is our knowledge of the world. You need a definition of 'certainty" that takes that into account. For me "certainty" is what I achieve when I consider all evidence available to me and draw a conclusion that is not based on what I WANT to be true. Naturally, my conclusion may be wrong as a result of incomplete information or errors in thinking, but that doesn't mean that I'm not certain.

      This may sound like word games, but it's not. It is a rejection of the absolutist epistemology of the theists that necessarily finds humans incapable of KNOWING anything unless we have faith and submit to the authority of the church. It is the creation of an epistemology that is appropriate for finite, flawed human beings. ONe that does NOT require faith or submission to the authority of those who CLAIM to know the truth that they CLAIM you are incapable of knowing for yourself


      February 26, 2012 at 6:17 am |
  13. Justin Olson

    How can anyone talk about the single most re-written/edited book ever? Anyone ever wonder what the Bibles the Vatican has locked away say? How can educated people actually talk about religion intellectually? They are mutually exclusive, grow up you silly, small, littl,e people.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:57 am |
  14. Sid Airfoil

    "According to Jesus, the truly spiritual life is one marked by freedom rather than compulsion (John 8:36)"

    I wonder if Steven James opposes socially-conservative laws forbidding a whole range of "sinful" behaviors. Should we be allowed to sin so that we may CHOOSE to live righteously? Do socially-conservative laws violate god's will by preventing us from exercising the free will that god gave us?

    I think so.


    February 26, 2012 at 5:57 am |
  15. godless

    @Holly Man: Stick to this conversation and stop showing to the world the level you want us all to be in. when you trully understand that god's existence is futile to prove, I will see you gasping in desperation to hold on to the ever growing ideal that there is No eternal life, and therefore die afraid and alone.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:56 am |
    • Justice

      To Godless, i'm glad you don't believe in Eternal life, we won't have you and those like you up there, have a nice Rap and Hip Hop life.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:04 am |
  16. NJBob

    Well, here's my interpretation of the bible: it's a total crock. It's a license to be stupid. It's a justification to remain ignorant.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:55 am |
    • Justice

      NJBob since you seems to hold the truth, i would like to know what is your belief and would like for you to give us the way we should live our lives. Let's all adore NJBob, he is our new God.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:20 am |
  17. steve

    the satanic jew cult is the worst, a religion their own pedo god hashem calls them liars and deceivers jeremiah ch 9, a religion of filth and impure jew vermin isaiah ch 57, a religion of incest, cannibalism, murder of pregnant women/kids this is why in order to have peace we must uproot and exterminate jew parasite. beleive it or not humans have understood this for over 5000 years.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:54 am |
    • Nodack

      Exterminate he Jews? You must be religious. Only religious people talk about exterminating entire Groups of people they dont like.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:06 am |
  18. Mark Yelka

    The Bible contained raw, crude language because it was written by primitive, crude people. Not very god like for a very good reason: no god involved. Just a bunch of delusional, control-freak, insecure people who needed the fantasy of a god to help them.

    February 26, 2012 at 5:53 am |
    • Nodack


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

      Don't forget the part about the dirty old men needing some divine justification for keeping all the virgin girls alive after massacring their parents and brothers. Mighty convenient that old Yahweh always went along with that agenda.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:16 am |
  19. 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. Atheists seek only truth and reject blind faith. 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 5:53 am |
    • Roger

      Even if there was evidence of God, that wouldn't change my views as an atheist. Being an atheist means that my outlook on the world is one that agrees with my senseabilities, not anyone else's including God's. If God and I happen to disagree on certain matters, I say who cares. That's His problem, not mine. Of course there might be consequences for defying a so-called "God," but to obey His world for the sake of avoiding his wrath is to live in fear. In fact, to give credence to His word on any level not out of mutual agreement but out of acknowledgement of his "greatness" is to deny my own existence. If that is the purpose by which we live, then why are we alive in the first place?

      Theists often rationalize the importance of believing in God by paying lip-service to the fact that He created all that we see. That is, if he is the creator, then we must obey and we must not question. If that is the case, then is not God therefore history's greatest example of the fallacy of logic known as the "appeal to authority"? Just because, right? Uh, no. That is not right.

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

      You said it yourself that an Athiest isn't 100% certain there is no God which sounds like an Agnostic to me. I am not certain about a lot of things. Is there a God. Is there Aliens? Is God really just an Alien? I have seen no evidence that comes close tp proving either one or any disproving either one. Well maybe I believe in Aliens more than a God. The Earth and man created in one day means that there was no such thing as dinosaurs and there are mountains of evidence proving the existence of dinosaurs millions of years before man.

      February 26, 2012 at 6:18 am |
  20. Amit-Atlanta-USA

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

    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 practiotioners of the world's second largest religion!!!!

    While many of the major eligions 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 5:51 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.