Books That Shaped Our Lives

Rod Janzen, Professor of Humanities

The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts by Clarence Jordan

 

When I was in high school (1967-1971), my father, concerned that I had little interest in reading the Bible yet recognizing a developing interest in issues of peace and social justice, brought home a copy of Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts.

Jordan, a Southern Baptist minister with a Ph.D. in Greek New Testament, had, in his twenties, discovered a different Jesus than the one presented to him in Sunday School – one who empathized with the poor and the weak, and attacked materialism, violence, racism, and injustice in its many forms. Jordan, an evangelical who also believed in the importance of a personal relationship with Christ, established the racially integrated Koinonia Farm near Americus, Georgia, in 1942. This community, which continues to flourish, was despised and attacked by white Christian neighbors.

In writing his paraphrase of Luke, Jordan placed Jesus in the state of Georgia (instead of Palestine), traveling through rural and urban areas, where he attacked racism, elitism, and all forms of hypocrisy in the context of the contemporary Deep South. Matthew 15:2-3, for example, reads: “And white church people and Sunday school teachers were raising cain, saying, ‘this fellow [Jesus] associates with black people and eats with them.”

This Cotton Patch “translation” caught my attention. It encouraged a more careful reading of the New Testament (and especially the Gospels) into the present and it propelled nascent ideological and political viewpoints. Equally important was the fact that I was reading this account at the same time that a new teacher at Immanuel High School was also encouraging us to read the Bible differently. Instead of answering questions about the Gospels at the end of workbook chapters, he gave assignments that asked students to put specific teachings into practice and then report back to class on the kinds of responses received. This was intimidating but also energizing. The instructor’s approach was similar to Jordan’s and it helped reinforce a way of reading the Bible that I later also discovered in liberation theology. In any case, I have read the Bible differently ever since turning those first few pages of Jordan’s Cotton Patch interpretation, and my faith in God has been strengthened in the process.