Experiencing Cotton Patch Moments

CPG_Epistles_400_cI remember the first time I realized that I’d experienced a “Cotton Patch moment.” Although long a fan of Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel translation that recasts Jesus in the southern part of the United States in the middle of the 20th Century, it still took some time to develop even a hint of Jordan’s prophetic vision.

After teaching a Sunday school lesson from the Cotton Patch Gospel one day several years ago, I turned on the news at home. There I watched as the governor of a southern state—and a member of a Baptist church—signed into law a harsh anti-immigrant law that ignores the plight of our neighbors. The law could even criminalize those who try to help people like the one beaten on the road from Atlanta to Albany (or Jerusalem to Jericho if you’re using some other biblical translation). I watched as the governor signed the bill not far from the spot Jordan’s Jesus has the man beaten up. And I thought about how the governor’s short stature, round face, and grayed hair made him seem like he’d just come from casting central to play some Roman leader in a new Hollywood Bible epic.

I chuckled when I thought about the things Jordan’s biblical characters say about the governor of that state, including in a passage in Acts we had just studied that morning. And then I realized I was watching the biblical stories play out once again. A Cotton Patch moment!

Jordan feared English translations of the Bible left the stories “stranded in some faraway land in the long-distant past.” The act of translating the language helped, but the distance in time and space still made it difficult to actually participate in the stories. So he worked to take the texts out of the “stained-glass sanctuary” and into the lives of those around him. For Jordan this was simple since he saw the biblical characters walking around him already.

“I have witnessed the reenactment of one New Testament event after another until I scarcely can distinguish the original from its modern counterpart,” Jordan explained in a translation note.

Since my own Sunday afternoon revelation, I’ve tried to experience more Cotton Patch moments. As I read Jordan’s version of scriptures, and other writings of his, I’ve learned to prayerfully open my eyes to see the New Testament reenactments all around me. And Jordan’s perspective helps me to avoid just seeing myself playing the part of the good guys. He recast the Pharisees as good, church-going “white American Protestants” like me.

I see rallies by a mob looking for a strong leader to make their nation great again. I see descendants of immigrants who received freedom here but now want to shut the doors to others, just for trying to come a generation later. I see people go so far beyond neighborliness to shower a family member with assistance after an accident. I see “white American Protestants” cheer and vote for politicians who brag about their faith in churches while also advocating torture and the carpet bombing of innocent civilians. I see the slaughter of innocents in Brussels, Damascus, and elsewhere. I see myself as I reflexively move over while passing someone on the street who doesn’t look like me.

Jordan feared we might attend church and then walk out the doors and see no connection between the teachings of Jesus and our own world. So he took the safe, distant Jesus and threw him in our midst. When I read the Cotton Patch Gospel, I cannot help but think of my society and what Jesus would say to it.

Although we call this week “holy week,” Jordan recognized all weeks—and places—as holy. When we love our neighbor—or walk on by—we live in biblical times. When we see someone’s faith swell like Peter’s on Pentecost or deflate like Mark’s on the missionary journey with Paul, we find ourselves in that holy story. We don’t need the stones to cry out in our place on ‘Palm Sunday’ since we have the same old stories playing out around us each day. We must not reduce faith to studying supposedly “dead” stories, but instead to discovering the living Word of God. The stories don’t end. It’s up to use to rewrite them and live them again.

And that reminds me of a guy I met last week in Missouri. Let’s call him Peter….


Dr. Brian Kaylor, an award-winning author, is the generational engagement team leader for Churchnet. He is the author of For God’s Sake, Shut Up! Learn more at BrianKaylor.com.

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