Why Didn't God Want the Gospel to Come to Texas?

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Ask most ministers what they think of “The Cotton Patch Bible” and you can get some pretty interesting answers. Some people find it funny, some find it provocative, some just hate it. Those who are familiar with the Cotton Patch are rarely ambivalent in their feelings towards it.

Clarence Jordan, as a young man, had attended and graduated from Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. A Greek scholar, he graduated in 1936 with a Master’s Degree in Theology. From there, he went to minister to inner-city youth and found his passion. A “Yankee” by profession, he fell in love with the lower-income people of the southern United States. He was disturbed, though, to find that there was a huge chasm between the people of the south who—even though they professed to worship the same Lord and savior—were divided by their skin color.

Enter Koinonia Farm. Jordan and his wife Florence founded Koinonia Farm in Georgia with the intention of showing that Christians—black and white—could work and live together in Christian harmony. The farm worked pretty well, but as you can imagine, it had many detractors. While fighting those battles, Jordan set about to create a modern English translation of the New Testament that would grab his contemporary audience in much the same way Jesus’s original words galvanized the crowds around him.

For fifty years, Bible-reading people—from scholars to lay-people—have been debating whether Jordan succeeded or not.

See, Jordan didn’t just update the language of the New Testament from Greek to English, he re-set the whole story in the American south. Jesus is born in Valdosta, GA, in the Cotton Patch Version and Paul is from Tallahassee, FL. The Apostle Peter is nicknamed “Rock” and the Apostle John (for reasons unclear—to me, anyway) is called Jack. Substitute Atlanta for Jerusalem and Washington for Rome and, well, get the picture?

The names and places aren’t as jarring as some of the specific verses, though. Take Romans 2:13, which in the New International Version reads, “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” In the CPV, Washington 2:13 reads, “For it is not those who listen to Scripture but those who act on Scripture that will be considered right with God.”

Or, how about Romans 6:1, “What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” In the CPV, it reads, “So what are we advocating? ‘Let’s wallow in sin, so more grace may pour forth’? H--- no!” I think you can see why some people have problems with the Cotton Patch Version.

The book of Acts may be the most problematic, from a story-telling point of view, anyway. Resetting the book in modern Atlanta, with Paul traveling by bus around the South and being warned in a dream by the Holy Spirit not to go to Texas(!), is an interesting conceit, but an impossible one. Impossible because it assumes an America basically like the one we had in the 40’s and 50’s, but without Christianity (if Jesus Christ isn’t born until the 1920’s).

Without Christianity, America would not be anything like what it is (or was). Some may say that would be a good thing, but if we took Christianity out of American history, we would be removing Harvard, Yale and Princeton from the picture, as they were started to be preacher’s colleges. Right here in the panhandle, if Christianity had never come to America we wouldn’t have Baptist-St. Anthony’s Hospital. In fact, most of our schools and hospitals would have never been started if there had been no Christians.

I have enjoyed studying the Cotton Patch Version of the Bible but even as I do—and am frequently finding myself struck by some of Jordan’s translations (sometimes I agree, and sometimes I profoundly disagree)—I keep being reminded of the enormous contribution to modern America brought by Christians. Not everything we have done has been good, sadly, but I submit that it’s impossible to picture America or American history without Christian influence.