Cotton Patch Gospel retells greatest story ever told

cotton patch

Dr. Chris Perry and his band members from Montgomery, Ala., perform the Cotton Patch Gospel at 6 p.m. Sept. 28 and 29 at Good News United Methodist Church in Santa Rosa Beach.

Special to The Sun
Published: Thursday, September 12, 2013 at 11:10 AM.

“When Jesus was born in Gainesville, Georgia, during the time that Herod was governor, some scholars from the Orient came to Atlanta …”

A one-man show by a local pastor in Santa Rosa Beach — the Cotton Patch Gospel — presents the greatest story ever re-told.

Not the King James version of Jesus’ birth, but a faithful “re-telling” of the entire Gospel in an entirely new context. 

“The Cotton Patch Gospel is based on the Cotton Patch translation of the New Testament done by Dr. Clarence Jordan, a Greek New Testament scholar,” Dr. Chris Perry told The Sun. “Dr. Jordan was the founder of the Koinonia Farm in southern Georgia in the 1940s, a place of racial equality and common ownership of all possessions. Pretty radical for pre-and during-Civil Rights-era Georgia. He was also largely responsible for the eventual founding of Habitat for Humanity.”

The Cotton Patch translations are legitimate biblical translations from the original Greek, but Jordan changed the setting to 20th century Georgia.

“Jerusalem became Atlanta. The letter to the Ephesians became the letter to the church at Birmingham. Rome was Washington, D.C.,” Perry said. “Instead of the tension between the Jews and Samaritans, Jordan highlighted the tension between whites and blacks in America. His whole point was to make the New Testament come alive for modern day Americans.”

Turned into a stage play by actor Tom Key in 1981, the show is the Cotton Patch version of Matthew and Luke and features the music and lyrics of Harry Chapin (“Cat’s in the Cradle”), his last work before his death.

“I’ve long been a fan of the play and finally was given the opportunity to stage a production of it at the Millbrook Community Theater in Millbrook, Ala., in 2010,” Perry said. “I gathered together a group of musicians from my church and we’ve been performing it in various places as we’ve had the opportunity ever since.”

Perry plays all the major characters in the one-man show — Jesus, Matthew, Governor Herod, Governor Pilate, Peter, Joseph, the Angel Gabriel and more. The set is simple, a table and chairs, and there are no costume changes, so the story is told through a change in mannerisms and voices.

“We start the story with the birth of Jesus and go all the way through his crucifixion (lynching in our story) and resurrection,” Perry said.

Having Jesus born in Georgia was a way for Jordan to make the story relatable and allow people in America to connect with the story set in first century Judea.

“The people of rural Judea were similar to rural Southerners and Jordan wanted the modern day audience to be able to see themselves in the Gospel story,” Perry said. “With this new setting you can better ask, ‘How would I have reacted had I met Jesus like this?’”

Perry said the humor of the show comes mostly from the situations and the reactions of the disciples and others, and a natural humor actually found in the Gospels.

“If you study Jesus’ words He had a great sense of humor, but the disciples didn't always ‘get’ His message,” Perry said. Also, a lot of the humor comes from people hearing things they’ve heard in the Bible all of their life suddenly put into a familiar context, for instance when Jesus says, ‘Man does not live by grits alone’. The play in no way makes fun of Jesus or the disciples.”

Eight vocalists/musicians are in the play — the pastor’s wife, Renae, Steve Shumake, Larry Evans, and Robert Barge are vocalists, while Sterling Frith, Michael Snead, and Glen Weldon play guitars, and Lori Harris is on the piano.

“The musicians don’t just sing and play,” Perry said. “They also play the part of the disciples and some other background characters throughout the show. The music is as much a part of the show as the words.” 

There is no cost for tickets, but Perry asks that reservations be made at 850-622-9191 so they know how many to expect. A love offering will be taken during the show to help support the ministry.

“The message of the Gospel is made very clear in the show,” Perry said. “But there are plenty of laughs as we enjoy seeing the disciples try to figure out this completely new life Jesus calls them to. Most of the humor comes from us being able to see ourselves in the same spot.” 

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