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Cotton Patch Gospel

By jhuie Dec 12, 2013 1209 Words
There have been plenty of different versions of the Bible in its long history of existence. Plenty of these attempts are focused on the modernization or contextualization of the Word of God. The Message is a version that has received plenty of criticism because many people believe that it changes the meaning of the verses too much. When such a highly studied and debated work such as the Bible is altered in any form or fashion, there are going to be people that despise it, but translations are bound to happen. The ancient text of the Bible has been altered so that it speaks to the people more effectively, and that was just the reason Clarence Jordan created the Cotton Patch version of the Bible. In the following paper we will use research about the Cotton Patch Versions, Clarence Jordan, the Southern Baptist Church, Harry Chaplin’s music, and Tom Key to discuss how Jesus is portrayed in The Cotton Patch Gospel. Clarence Jordan wrote his Cotton Patch Versions of the Bible beginning in the early 1960’s until his death in 1969. During this timeframe in Georgia, where he was from, the Civil Rights movement was picking up speed, but only gradually did he realize he had hit upon a style of translation that brought the Word to the reader with a new contemporary power. “As time went by, he completed individual books of the New Testament which were widely circulated in pamphlet form. But eventually he had done enough to be able to publish The Cotton Patch Version of Paul's Epistles.”1 Clarence Jordan purposefully called it a version and not a translation because he sought to take the text out of the long ago and far away feeling and bring it into the here and now. His Cotton Patch Version is firmly planted in the southern cotton fields of the United States. “Paul's epistle to the Ephesians, for instance, became the Letter to the Christians in Birmingham, Alabama. And the early Christian church, which struggled to integrate both Jews and Greeks, became the movement which joined white man and Negro.”2 Clarence did not want his version of the Bible to be used as a substitute for other translations of the Bible. He noted that, “obviously the cotton patch version must not be used as a historical text. The Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible are excellent for this purpose.”3 The jury was split on how to receive Clarence Jordan’s version of the Bible. There were those that praised it, and had glowing reviews of its merit and value: “Obviously a translation of this sort has the advantage of making it very personal and pertinent to the people who live in this particular area. In the Cotton Patch Version, Jesus is born in Gainesville, Georgia, grows up in Valdosta, is baptized in the Chattachoochee, and walks beside Lake Lanier. Everything is brought close to home. Analogous modern ideas make the Bible come alive.”4 Some of the reviews over The Cotton Patch Versions noted that it only made the historical text more confusing. Changing Bethlehem to Washington D.C. as well as changing names of disciples to more rural American names only muddied their understandings of the Biblical story. The paraphrase did not help these confused readers to come closer to God, yet pushed them away from reading the Bible. Another negative criticism of the Cotton Patch Gospel is that the appeal is limited. Since the story is set in rural Georgia in the 70’s, the text does not reach as many readers as the original. “This approach, although it may seem silly, helps the reader have the same sense of participation that the early Christians must have had. Because it speaks so directly to one group of people, however, it has limited practical appeal anywhere else.” 5Any alteration of one of the greatest literary pieces in history will bring about criticism, whether it is good or bad. Clarence Jordan wasn’t just trying to make money off of people. He was not trying to take advantage of the market for Bible-thumping southerners. Clarence was simply trying to make the Word of God more accessible to people that might have been intimidated by the King James Version. “Jordan stated in the introduction to his first volume, ‘We want to be participants in the faith, not merely spectators.’ And so he wrote a version of the New Testament that would bring its messages home to the people of his time.”6 He didn’t want to update it so that he could infuse his political agenda or push his denominational beliefs on people. Clarence Jordan had the purest intentions in mind when creating the Cotton Patch Version. Clarence Jordan explains one of his many reasons for spending so much time compiling his own version of God’s Word: “another reason for a cotton patch version is that the Scriptures should be taken out of the classroom and stained-glass sanctuary and put out under God's skies where people are toiling and crying and wondering, where the mighty events of the good news first happened and where alone they feel at home.”7 Perhaps the main reason, though, is that the major portion of Clarence Jordan’s life was spent on a farm in southwest Georgia where he said he struggled for a meaningful expression of discipleship to Jesus Christ. “With my companions along the dusty rows of cotton, corn and peanuts, the Word of Life has often come alive with encouragement, rebuke, correction and insight. I have witnessed the reenactment of one New Testament event after another until I can scarcely distinguish the original from its modern counterpart.”8 Clarence Jordan came to an early awareness of the failure of the church and the reading of its gospel. Jordan wrote in a personal journal about a song that he was taught in Sunday School: “’Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.’ But on reflection, Jordan knew that the people of his culture were telling him a different story. Blacks must be kept in the place of servitude and inferiority. For Jordan the ‘ordinary reader’ was under the powerful sway of a failed institution: the established southern church.”9 Clarence Jordan came to see that the southern church was propped up and controlled by deep-seated cultural myths that were most visible as a “plantation mentality.” This powerful set of cultural values went against a true spiritual life and provided a detrimental understanding of race, wealth and property. In the film Jesus is portrayed as man with a bit of a sense of humor. He cracks jokes and is sarcastic plenty of times throughout the play. This is one tool that Clarence Jordan used to engage the audience more deeply. He had a thick accent and sang country songs. Jesus wore a plaid shirt and blue jeans and danced little jigs. He was not a lofty and unapproachable angel. Jesus was portrayed like your neighbor down the street. This was the whole reason that Clarence Jordan created his version of God’s Word in the first place. Bring the Word to the people instead of trying to bring the people to the Word.

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