After decades of profound writing and excellent journalism, Eugene Patterson found himself at a pivotal point in his life, facing the realities of the tenuousness of mortality after being diagnosed with cancer. At age 88, he decided to assume the audacious task of condensing the Old Testament. The result is Chord: The Old Testament Condensed.
Patterson undertook the task after a long and distinguished career. Chairman and CEO emeritus of the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times, he was also editor of the Atlanta Constitution and managing editor at the Washington Post. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1967.
As he worked on Chord, Patterson, understanding the value of scriptural integrity, was careful in his treatment of the textual themes and was able to skillfully reduce the words within the King James Version Old Testament by 85 percent. In a one-man effort, he proceeded as a layman, interested in providing for other laymen an abbreviated Old Testament that captures in a succinct manner the illuminating riches of the various texts while ultimately serving as a tool to "steady one's faith."
To alter any biblical text is a controversial move, at best. But for the sake of communal edification, Patterson took a major leap of faith to provide a carefully crafted rendition of the Old Testament that is a sure resource for people of faith. On this point Patterson writes in his introduction, "It will be asked, How dare I edit the Bible? I feel we have no less right to select from the English of King James's scholars than they had to choose their words from the Hebrew. Moreover I've observed a shorter sermon can hold closer attention to the larger meaning. But my motivating hope is that Chord so supplements and supports the Bible that it will stimulate its wider reading."
As a lover of the Psalms, I had great interpretative concern about Patterson's sizable reduction of what I consider some of the most artful scriptures within the Old Testament. The literature of the Psalms is not only artful and poetic, but also replete with history. It was in reading his rendition of the Psalms that I was forced to consider the intent of Chord, which is to be a supplemental reading alongside the Bible.
As a supplemental resource, Chord is timely and appropriate. Patterson's provocative redaction highlights the necessity for translations of the Old Testament that effectively communicate its core themes and principles. One must be careful, however, not to interpret for potential readers within the condensation process. Patterson, like others who have braved condensing or editing any part of the Bible, runs the risk of providing too much interpretive guidance. For instance, Patterson's choice to use the King James Version as opposed to translations that are thought to be more "accurate" (i.e., Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, etc.) was an interpretive move on his part.
What I view as most important and most phenomenal in Patterson's case is that the production of this thorough condensation of the Old Testament in many ways mirrors the trend of his life's contributions. As a Freedom Rider, professor of Kingian nonviolence, civil rights activist and resident of Tuskegee, Ala., I am keenly familiar with Patterson's work. He has consistently undertaken, at every turn in his career, controversial themes and projects, but all for the better making of mankind.
Writing just after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, Patterson recorded, "A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. . . . In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her."
Patterson's commitment to these life-giving and principled subjects make this condensed resource and supplementary read characteristic of his life's work.
The Rev. Bernard Lafayette, a Freedom Rider and leader in the civil rights movement, is a distinguished scholar in residence at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.