The musical begins with the story of a recently engaged couple, Mary and Joe Davidson (he's from the linage of David). Joe is about to break off the relationship when an angel tells him that all will be revealed as it is the will of God. The young couple travel to Gainesville, Ga., to register for a census, and Mary gives birth to a boy named Jesus. Sound familiar? Of course it does and the reader may hesitate and wonder, "What's the story of Jesus have to do with Georgia? I'm not too sure that I like Jesus surrounded by bluegrass music, humor and Georgia, let alone that the actors look like my neighbors next door."
True, when those of us that struggled with the language change from the literary genius of Elizabethan English to the vernacular of the Revised Standard Version, weren't very happy, we have reservations when we think about rephrasing the Bible story in the colloquial language of our "neck of the woods."
Instead of Matthew 4:4, "Man shall not live by bread alone," we hear, "Men don't live by grits alone." While most of us are brought to tears with the magnificent music of Handel's Messiah, we may have all sorts of emotional reactions when we hear, "Something's Brewing in Gainesville," "Sho Nuff" or "One More Tomorrow."
Rehearsals are beginning for the Fall production of "Cotton Patch Gospel." It is based on the book, "The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John, " written by Dr. Clarence Jordan, retelling the life of Jesus set in modern rural Georgia. This extraordinary presentation will be directed by the talented and gifted Mr. Lee Walker of First United Methodist Church and will be on stage at the Averitt Center. There will be a lot more information as time allows.
I remember reading "The Cotton Patch Version" back in the early 70s and heard comments that ranged from critical to remarkable. "How dare anyone take the actual words Jesus spoke and put them into the uneducated mouths of farmers and back porch story tellers? If 'thou and thee' were good enough for Matthew, who are we to change the language? And, I certainly take offense to have Jesus surrounded by folks wearing overalls and playing bluegrass music. It just doesn't seem right."
Here's the rub. The New Testament was written in Greek with a bit of Aramaic, the language of Jesus, and eventually translated in Elizabethan English. The original copies that we have were a puzzle for a very long time because much of the Greek was not the familiar classical language but a form that was nearly unrecognizable by early translators. Archaeologists uncovered the clues in their excavations. On the sides of many ancient structures was what we would call graffiti. Long dead regular people had scratched very poorly written but easily understood sayings in their colloquial language on buildings and walls. It was called "koine" or "common" Greek. It was the language of the Bible!
This language was so common and unstructured by our standards that if an English teacher of today were to read the Gospel of Mark as a homework assignment, the paper would receive an "F" because the grammar and construction are hardly acceptable.
Let's just say that Mark's good news is glorious, but his writing needs some help. If that's the case, then "The Cotton Patch Version" is right on target.
We can hear the Good News of Jesus as though it were told today, on my back porch and with all the mystery, excitement and revelation spoken in the present day language and familiarity of my generation!
I have heard the Good News preached by pastors from all over America and while each one differed in style, humor, ability and accent, the message never changed, "Love the Lord God with all your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself."
I am looking forward to an evening with the "Cotton Patch Gospel"!