Christian Spirituality in Surprising Places

(Originally posted May 26, 2016)

The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., recently spoke at a global missions conference in Puerto Rico (May 18).

Through a video of the bishop’s presentation brought to my attention in a blog by the Rev. Titus Pressler (see https://titusonmission.wordpress.com posted on May 16, 2016), my friend and former curate while I lived in Massachusetts, I was re-introduced to a powerful book that speaks loudly and pertinently to the phenomenon of Christian spirituality: Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel, originally published in separate parts between 1963 and 1969 and compiled and re-issued in 2012 by Smyth&Helwys in Macon, GA.

Jordan was the agriculturalist-farmer-translator who in 1941 co-founded Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia, shortly after earning a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1976, he was instrumental in the founding of Habitat for Humanity, but it is his vernacular translation of the New Testament, the Cotton Patch Gospel that clearly spelled-out Jordan’s spirituality and Bishop Curry uses Jordan’s writing to underscore what he sees as a new “Jesus Movement” in the Episcopal Church and its mission.

This is not the hippie-inspired Jesus People Movement of the 1960s, Curry notes, but rather a renewal of the “Movement” that arose from the disciples of the New Testament. He relates this phenomenon to his audience at the University of Puerto Rico at Ponce gathered for the 21st Global Episcopal Mission Network Conference through a synopsis of Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel. 

That version relocates the story of the gospels and the early church to rural Georgia, in particular, to Gainesville, a city northeast of Atlanta near Lake Lanier. In Jordan’s translation, Gainesville becomes  Bethlehem, Atlanta becomes Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary flee to Mexico, the disciples are Rock and John and Bart and Phil and Jud, to name several, and Jesus–known as Jesus Davidson–who is not crucified, he is lynched!

Cotton Patch Gospel is a powerful and compelling challenge to 21st-century Christians living in a racially diverse and divided America. The re-issued version contains an introduction by former President Jimmy Carter  (who grew up within a few miles of the Koinonia Farm); a foreword by the late Baptist minister turned writer Will D. Campbell, who left an academic post in Mississippi to become a 1950s civil rights activist; and an afterword by Tony Campolo, the Baptist sociologist and evangelist recently retired from Pennsylvania’s Eastern University, who has consistently challenged evangelical Christianity’s spirituality in areas of social justice. The brief essays by the three C’s (Carter, Campbell, Campolo) are worth reading on their own.

In re-reading (honestly, my previous exposure was a cursory sampling) the Cotton Patch Gospel, I discovered a powerful spirituality in Jordan’s translation (Jordan did the work using the Nestle-Alland twenty-third edition of the Greek text–the latest edition available in 1957), perhaps best exemplified by his rendition of the Sermon on the Mount:

“The spiritually humble are God’s people, . . . ;

“They who are deeply concerned are God’s people, . . . ;

“They who are gentle are his people, . . . ;

“They who have an unsatisfied appetite for the right are God’s people, . . . ;

“Men of peace and good will are God’s people, . . .”;

and so on. (Matthew, Chapter 5).

[In addition, the Cotton Patch Gospel inspired a powerful musical in 1981 by Tom Key and Russell Treyz. The music and lyrics for the oft-performed play were written by the popular folk-singer, the late Harry Chapin. Playlists of Chapin’s songs and some scenes from a variety of productions of the musical are available on YouTube.]

(ed. note: This YouTube link connects to 19 audio selections recorded from a stage presentation by the original cast of the musical. The songs were posted in 2013 by The Orchard Enterprises, a digital music distribution company located in New York City).

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On a similar front:

Last month I discovered in my father-in-law’s library another book probing Christian spirituality in an area where few expect to find it: Reformed Spirituality: An Introduction for Believers (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), by Presbyterian Howard L. Rice, the late chaplain and professor of ministry at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Rice spent most of his academic career at SFTS on crutches or in a wheelchair after being stricken by multiple sclerosis, a diagnosis that was changed to spinal cord damage when he retired. He was a pioneer in bringing to popular attention the writings of John Calvin on Christian spirituality and, as a follower and colleague of Morton T. Kelsey, helping to develop seminary programs in spiritual direction and Christian spirituality.

Rice also was an ardent reader and appreciator of the fiction of C.S. Lewis, and argued, counter to the heavy rationalism associated with Calvinism, for more attention to and appreciation of imagination, emotion, and mystery in theology and Christian reflection.

From Rice I’ve lifted this tiny catalog of important Reformed (and Puritan) writers and declarations on spirituality:

John Calvin; Lewis Bayly; Francis Rous; Richard Baxter; Samuel Rutherford; John Owen; John Bunyan; Henry Scougal; Elizabeth Singer Rowe; Gerhard Tersteegen; Jonathan Edwards; Charles Hodge; Emily Herman; Howard Thurman; John Knox and the Scots Confession; Caspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism; Heinrich Bullinger and Huldrych Zwingli and the Second Helvetic Confession; and The Westminster Confession and Catechisms, best known among English-speaking Presbyterians and members of other Reformed denominations.

I’m working my way backward through this list and confess to a humbling and eye-opening (and heart-bowing) experience.

Almost all of the names on this list were largely ignored by students of Christian spirituality in the 20th century; although, that ignorance has been undercut by the 2001 publication of Calvin’s Writings on Pastoral Piety (admit it, we cringe at the word piety!) edited by Princeton scholar Elsie Anne McKee in the Classics of Western Spirituality series published by Paulist Press.

I’m just grateful for Howard L. Rice and fathers-in-law.

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