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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Rewriting the Cultural Myths: Clarence Jordan and the Cotton Patch Gospels

Frederick L. Downing

Clarence Jordan was a white southerner who became so profoundly concerned about the “ordinary reader” of the New Testament gospels that, thirteen years before the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, he established an interracial farm in southwest Georgia between Americus and Plains as a “demonstration plot” for the true kingdom. Later, Jordan began to translate the New Testament into the idiom of the region. He called this translation for the ordinary reader a “cotton patch” version, and he actively sought a genuine “flesh and blood” reading from a southern perspective. The purpose of this paper will be to “contextualize” Jordan’s rewriting of the gospel and to show that his reworking of the New Testament was at the same time an effort to rewrite the cultural myths and present a new portrayal of the humanity of God.[1]       

 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 that he was taught a song 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.”[2] For Jordan the “ordinary reader” was under the powerful sway of a failed institution: the established southern church. Although Jordan’s region had become known for its orthodox theology, world missions, and gracious hospitality, the message of Jesus competed with some powerful myths, the most fundamental of which was the American Dream. Early citizens envisioned America as a new Israel, but the Native American Indians were seen as the Canaanites of old. So the founding of the noble experiment was built on a primal crime—the Indians were often deprived of human rights if not life and liberty.

The beginning of this new society was witness to another major crime, namely, slavery. Countless numbers of Africans with their own native culture and symbol system were forced to take up a role in the European dream—a dream that for the Africans became worse than a nightmare. The dark side of the American myth merged with the plantation system. These cultural myths seem to have been undergirded by a human propensity toward a false division of the human family—a deeply held conviction that some divine providence had made one’s tribe, race, or religion uniquely superior to others. Clarence Jordan, therefore, 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,” acting as a “god above God”—a powerful set of cultural mores and values that mitigated against a true spiritual life and therefore gave a perverse understanding to issues of race, wealth and property, and war.[3]

This life context raised serious issues for the church and the reading of the gospel. How does one call the church to a deeper and more profound spiritual life? How can one work to revise false images of the human family that are deeply embedded in culture? How does one deal with the power of the mythic tradition and the popular images of selfhood promoted by the culture itself? How can one address the issue of the rift between the life of the spirit and the daily life of the ordinary reader? Can this form of bifurcation be addressed with a translation of the text? Is there a particular hermeneutical perspective that is necessary to address this issue? What images of Jesus are most helpful in addressing these problems?

             

The Jesus Event and The ReCreation of the Southern Church

 Though Matthew and Mark both understand Jesus to be a prophet, Luke seems to place an even greater emphasis on this role. In Luke, Jesus is born and dies as a prophet. Clarence Jordan seized this prophetic image and proclaimed the central identity of Jesus as a rebel prophet—not a southern rebel, but one who leads a revolution in values. The Gospel of Luke, so read, provides a socio-political platform for the rebel Jesus who leads in this revolution of values. The baptism of Jesus is thus a commissioning of the prophet, and the temptations a testing of the prophet’s commitment.[4]

Jordan introduces John the Baptist and the prelude to the portrayal of Jesus as prophet by saying: “the word of God came to Zack’s boy, John, down on the farm. And he went all around in the rural areas preaching and dipping in the water—a symbol of a changed way of life as a basis for getting things straightened out.” What does John say to the folks in the “rural areas”? “You sons of snakes, who put the heat on you to run from the fury about to break over your heads? You must give some proof that you’ve had a change of heart. And don’t start patting one another on the back with that ‘we-good-white-people’ stuff, because … God … can make white-folks out of … rocks.”[5]

After Jesus was “dipped” in the Chattahoochee, he returned “on fire for God.” Then he went into the backwoods where the Confuser took “some cracks at him.” Since you are God’s man, then “tell this rock to become a pone of bread.”[6] This was apparently an economic temptation—“feed the crowds and you shall be king.”[7] After Jesus rejected this first offer, the Confuser made a second: “Look here, all this power and glory has been turned over to me, and to anybody I want to share it with. Now if you’ll just let me be boss, I’ll put you in charge and turn everything over to you.”[8] This testing may have been socio-political in nature—yield to political power and nationalist urges.[9] But Jesus rejected this offer by affirming that the Scripture says that only the Lord shall be your boss. Then the Confuser had one final offer. The Confuser took him to Atlanta to the steeple of the First Church and said to Jesus, since you are God’s man “jump down from here, because you know the scripture says, ‘He will give orders to his angels to keep close watch on you.’”[10] Perhaps this was a call to triumphalism in the manner of pseudo-messianism.[11] But Jesus responded, “It also says, ‘Don’t make a fool out of the Lord your God.’”[12]

After this, Jesus was “spiritually invigorated” and returned to south Georgia, where the word about him went throughout the entire area. He went to his hometown of Valdosta and to church on Sunday, where he was asked to preach. It is here that Jesus began to set out his platform in social terms. Jesus read from Isa 61: “The Lord’s spirit is on me; He has ordained me to break the good news to the poor people. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the oppressed ….” When he finished reading, the eyes of the crowd were focused on him, and he said that “this very day this scripture has become a reality in your presence.” Jesus went on to tell them that “no prophet is welcome in his own home town…. There were a lot of white widows during the time of Elijah … but Elijah did not stay with any of them. Instead he stayed with a Negro woman over in Terrell County.”[13] When the congregation heard this, they ran him out of town and tried to kill him, but he escaped. The meaning of this encounter seems to be the announcement of what Jordan calls the God Movement—a new regime is at hand in which the rich will give to the poor, captives will be made free, and people will have a new understanding if they accept the news.

The reader discovers the revolutionary prophetic nature of Jesus the Rebel in Jordan’s translation of the Sermon on the Plain (6:17-49), where the platform is once again affirmed in social and religious terms. With the large crowd all around, Jesus turned to his disciples and began to instruct them concerning the God Movement. He began by saying, “The poor are God’s people, because the God Movement is yours…. But it will be hell for you rich, because you’ve had your fling. It will be hell for you whose bellies are full now, because you will go hungry.”[14]

For Clarence Jordan, the God Movement was characterized by a renunciation of possessions and wealth—the blessing of the poor had become a mandate for giving up one’s possessions. The Sermon on the Mount, or in this case the Sermon on the Plain, is therefore the core teaching of the faith or a manifesto for the God Movement. This text moves from the foundational social and economic issues to include models of the human, relationships with the other (race), and violence and warfare. In this core teaching, the rebel Jesus gives a revolutionary command: “Love your enemies, deal kindly with those who hate you, give your blessings to those who give you their cursing, pray for those insulting you.”[15] For Jordan, this text raises one of the most vexing problems of human history—how to deal maturely with those who want to do one harm.

Historically, human beings have dealt with this issue in a series of ways: “unlimited retaliation”—no limit to the amount of retaliation; “limited retaliation”—a limit placed on retaliation; “limited love”—love your neighbor and hate your enemy. When commenting on this stage of human history represented by “limited love,” Jordan exposed and critiqued the cultural mores and myths embedded in the American self-understanding. In a sermon titled “Loving Your Enemies,” Jordan tells about an epitaph that he read on a tombstone from the frontier days in Mississippi: “Here lies John Henry Simpson. In his lifetime he killed 99 Indians and he lived in the blessed hope of making it 100 until he fell asleep in the arms of Jesus.” How can one kill 99 Indians and fall asleep in the arms of Jesus? This can happen only if the Indians are made into sub-humans and not counted. For the law of the land was that if a person killed one white man, he would get the death penalty. By the same logic, Jordan thought, a nation in the time of war could drop a bomb on yellow people and destroy two entire cities and those involved would be rewarded with the highest military medals. The conventional logic found in these examples is that of “limited love”—love only your neighbor or those of your race or nation.[16]

For the Jesus who rebels against cultural mores and traditional myths, it is not enough to limit one’s love for one’s own group. This Jesus demands a response of love to those outside of the group—to respond positively to Black Americans and to all those who are somehow “other.” Jordan prophesied that we as Americans will learn to take this step of “unlimited love” or we will perish in the folly of “limited love” or even with the use of “unlimited retaliation,” which seems to rule many military departments. But what is the nature of “unlimited love” and what will it mean for Jesus the Rebel and those who follow him?

The Road to Atlanta and the Scandal of Unlimited Love

At the end of chapter nine, Luke begins to describe a long travel narrative that will take Jesus to Jerusalem. Jordan transposes Jerusalem for Atlanta. The question of “unlimited love” remains in the background for the reader/participant. What follows at the end of this road is the story of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem and the passion. The story of the passion is presaged in as much as Luke says at the outset that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jordan put it this way in the Cotton Patch Version: “Now when the days for his arrest approached, he set his heart on going to Atlanta.”[17] In this long narrative, Luke provides some of the best known and perhaps most characteristic teachings of Jesus, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan.

One day a Bible class teacher came up to Jesus and tested him with the question: “Doctor, what does one do to be saved?” Jesus answered simply: “Love the Lord with all your heart … and love your neighbor as yourself.” Perhaps the simplicity and quickness with which Jesus answered the question brought another question from the Bible teacher: “But … just who is my neighbor?” In order to answer this question, Jesus began to tell a story. While he was on his way from Atlanta down to Albany, some gangsters attacked a man. The robbers took the man’s wallet, brand new suit, and drove away in his car. They left the poor man beaten and unconscious on the side of the road. Not long after this incident a “white preacher” came down the same road. “When he saw the fellow, he stepped on the gas and went scooting by.” Soon after this a “white Gospel song leader” came by and “he too steeped on the gas.” Then it so happened that a black man was traveling down this road and when he saw the fellow on the side of the road, he was moved to compassion and tears. Unlike the other two, he stopped and attended to his wounds and drove the man to the hospital in Albany. Then Jesus the Rebel asked the Bible teacher which of these three would you consider to be your neighbor? After the Bible teacher said, “the one who treated me kindly,” Jesus said, “you get going and live like that!”[18]

The original setting of this parable must have been one like that of Jerusalem, where Jews and Samaritans would have no dealings with one another; the term “Samaritan” would therefore mean “outcast.” The whole story implies what cannot be said—that the phrase “good Samaritan” is a contradiction in terms. Thus, the story is here a parable from the lips of the historical Jesus demanding that one say that a Samaritan is good. A world is challenged and potentially reversed. Outside of first-century Jerusalem, the story lacks meaning and its original iconoclasm.[19] Hence one sees the need for a translator like Jordan to reinvigorate the former meaning of the story by infusing new metaphors for contemporary outcasts.

Conclusion

The major problem that Jordan identified was a bifurcation of the life of the spirit and that of everyday life and practice. Religion and ethics had been separated from the way people lived. How could this be addressed in the life of the church and in the life of the ordinary reader? Jordan seemed to know instinctively that a praxis-oriented translation of the gospel was necessary for the church and for the ordinary reader. Jordan tried to hold together the life of the spirit and the way people acted. With his translation for everyday life, Jordan redirected the teachings of Jesus to the citizens of the region so that they could no longer divorce their religious experience from daily living. In so doing, he redefined the biblical narrative and brought on a revolution of values. The ordinary reader had been accustomed to being a spectator. The religious world was bifurcated, and the reader or average church member could use religion to dehumanize and denigrate other persons on the basis of race, gender, wealth, or nationality.

By rewriting the gospel in a southern idiom, Jordan placed the ordinary reader in the midst of the action and flow of the narrative, thereby making the reader a “participant” rather than an observer. In this way, Jordan sought to recreate the Jesus event and help southerners experience the God Movement as news rather than history. A good example of this practice is Jordan’s translation of the parable of the Good Samaritan. By replacing Samaritan with black man, Jordan recaptures the original setting of the good “outcast,” which potentially becomes world reversing. In so doing, Jordan challenges cultural images and mythic models of the good person. Through the work of Jesus the rebel, myths are redescribed and thus rewritten. Now the good person is the person who lives with unlimited love and can stand against cultural stereotypes that demean and denigrate.

Frederick L. Downing, Valdosta State University

Notes

[1] In this paper the Gospel of Luke will be the primary focus of the study.

[2] See Dallas Lee, The Cotton Patch Evidence: The Story of Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Farm Experiment (1942-1970) (Americus, Ga.: Koinonia Partners, Inc. 1971), 8.

[3] Samuel S. Hill, et al., Religion and the Solid South (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972), 24.

[4] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 30-34.

[5] Clarence Jordan, The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts: Jesus Doings and the Happenings (New York: Association, 1969), 21.

[6] Ibid., 23.

[7] Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 31.

[8] Jordan, Luke and Acts, 23.

[9] Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 32.

[10] Jordan, Luke and Acts, 24.

[11] Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 34.

[12] Jordan, Luke and Acts, 24.

[13] Ibid., 24-25.

[14] Ibid., 30-31.

[15] Ibid., 31.

[16] See Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1974), 63-66; and Jordan, “Loving Your Enemies,” an audio cassette (Americus, Ga.: Koinonia Records, n.d.).

[17] Jordan, Luke and Acts, 44.

[18] Ibid., 46-47.

[19] John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 63-64.

 

 
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