By Jeff Brumley
In July 2012, author, professor and self-described Clarence Jordan devotee Brian Kaylor was doing research about the late Koinonia Farms founder when he discovered some mysterious boxes in the Jordan archives. When he figured out what was inside them, he got goose bumps.
The contents included an unknown manuscript in which Jordan wrote about the life of Christ in language and imagery his 1940s readers would have understood, Kaylor told an audience Saturday at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, N.C.
Jordan’s most famous work was his Cotton Patch Bible translation, which he began writing in the late 1950s and continued through the ’60s. It presents biblical stories in language and geographical settings familiar to American Southerners of that time.
Kaylor was at the Americas, Ga., farm’s archives researching a book about Jordan last summer when he found the 26-chapter work.
“It was like a buzz,” said Kaylor, an assistant professor of communication studies at James Madison University, and a journalist who has won numerous Baptist and other writing awards. “That’s how it felt the whole week (in July 2012) that I was in the archives.”
Kaylor said he has suspended work on the original project and is now close to publishing The Life of Christ by Clarence Jordan. Kaylor will be listed as the editor of the project.
While the publication date hasn’t been determined, Kaylor promised his audience the book will not disappoint Jordan fans. It also will likely shock and disturb readers.
And that’s something Jordan, who died in 1969, did for much of his adult life.
Jordan was a Southern Baptist pastor who earned a doctorate in Greek New Testament from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1938. In 1942, he and his late wife, Florence, joined former American Baptist missionaries to found an interracial, Christian farming community on 440 acres in southwest Georgia.
They began spreading a message of non-violence, environmental stewardship and common possession of property. They named it Koinonia, the ancient Greek term for fellowship used in Acts chapter two.
The farm and its residents became the targets of racists during the ensuing Civil Rights movement and Jordan’s Cotton Patch Bible – which substituted crucifixion with lynching and Washington D.C. for Rome – added to the Southern white anger aimed at Koinonia.
Recasting Scripture into modern, controversial language is also what Jordan is all about in his Life of Christ, Kaylor said.
For example, the two thieves crucified beside Jesus become two rebels, the subversive, anti-government types that late-1940s Americans would have feared and despised.
“This matters because this makes Jesus a rebel, too,” Kaylor said. “Jordan makes me do this over and over again – seeing passages in a new way.”
In another passage, the Good Samaritan is presented as an African American – a switch communicating to white Southern Christians how galling a Samaritan hero was to Jews of Jesus’ time. Whether it is in his life of Christ or in the Cotton Patch Bible, Kaylor said, Jordan’s message is that Scripture must always be translated into current-day language and images.
“In making him (the Samaritan) black, he’s teaching us that we need to think creatively about how do we retell the stories for people today? How do we reach them where they are?”
It’s also worth noting that Jordan wrote this “life” in 1948 – six years after Koinonia was founded but well before he had become widely known, Kaylor said.
He added that Jordan has been largely forgotten, if ever known at all, by generations of Christians who followed him. He hopes The Life of Christ by Clarence Jordan will revive interest in the visionary in a time when Christianity is struggling for relevancy in American culture.
“He challenges us so that we cannot ignore the teachings of Christ,” Kaylor said.