He was 88 years old and had just received a diagnosis that may leave him a year of life.
Gene Patterson, an extraordinary writer and editor, decided to undertake one final, audacious act. On a laptop from his sickbed, he created a streamlined version of the King James Bible. It turns out that even Moses needed an editor.
The Old Testament was just too long, concluded this famous son of the South, too discursive, too beside the point. There were great stories in the Bible, some of the greatest ever told. But it was too hard to get at them and to see the connections. It was as if the human authors of Scriptures, however inspired by God, had found a fertile meadow and planted a patch of kudzu.
"A lot of people want to come in the house," Patterson said of potential readers and believers, "but they can't get up the steps."
Patterson decided to lend a hand. Near the end a long and fruitful life, he has completed what some might find a quixotic, perhaps presumptuous task. This great man of the word — on oxygen and under hospice care — is about to publish an abridged digital version of the Word, one of the most beloved documents of Western culture and religion.
This has been tried before over the last century, always with criticism in its wake. At least 10 significant condensed editions of the Bible have been published with titles such as The Short Bible, The Living Bible, The Bible Designed to Be Read as Living Literature, A Shortened Version of the Modern Readers Bible, the Compact Bible and, the champion of condensation, the Reader's Digest Bible. A more recent effort wants you to be able to read the good book in the time it takes to watch a movie: The 100 Minute Bible.
What happens when editors take on what many consider the word of God? One Hebraic scholar, an Englishman named Hugh Broughton, declared that he "would rather be torn in pieces by wild horses than that this abominable translation should ever be foisted upon the English people." That abominable translation? He was referring to the King James Bible, and the year was 1611.
Patterson's original title was The Bare Bible — not a reference, I assure you, to Adam and Eve naked in the Garden or to the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. His new title is Chord: The Old Testament Condensed. It will soon be available on Kindle, more than a half-million words lighter than the version provided us by those prolix Jacobeans. Patterson is unsure how much it will cost, but he promises us "the main chord, not the whole hymn."
Before you dismiss this as the unsteady act of a man in his senescence, you need to know something about the author. From 1960 to 1968, Patterson served as editor of the Atlanta Constitution. Gene was a writing editor and opinion leader who produced a signed column for the newspaper — every single day — for eight years. More than 3,000 columns in all.
He didn't write two on Thursday and two on Friday, mind you, so he could have the weekend off. For Gene, writing was like shaving. You got out of bed, cleaned yourself up, drank your coffee and wrote your column. The typical piece was about 700 words, a coiled spring of powerful prose. "There is a touch of the Old Testament in Southern language," admits Patterson, and he could hear it in the metaphors of black preachers and the prophetic calls for reform in the work of some editorialists, such as his mentor Ralph McGill.
The influence of Patterson's columns became legendary. Written during the classic period of the Civil Rights movement, Gene worked to convince his fellow white Southerners that they were wrong on matters of race, and that the sky would not fall if they changed. His column in 1963 on the Birmingham church bombing, in which four little girls were murdered, was deemed so powerful that Walter Cronkite asked Gene to read it on the CBS Evening News.
"A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham," wrote Patterson. "In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her." Such work earned Patterson a Pulitzer Prize in 1967. He would go on to become the managing editor of the Washington Post, a teacher at Duke University, and the editor and CEO of the St. Petersburg Times.
But still, Gene, edit the King James Bible?
Patterson anticipates criticism of his efforts, describing himself as an "unlearned" man in matters of biblical history and scholarship. "I'm just a copy editor, not a theologian." That may turn out to be a strength rather than a weakness as Patterson has come to identify with his readers. "I'm with the seekers," he says, "the searchers."
In an introduction to Chord, Gene explains, "Some force urged me to lay my editor's pencil on the Old Testament and lighten its density. Its expository entanglements had tripped up my lifelong efforts to read it through . . . I wondered if that great river of a story might be made to flow unvexed past the dams of details and tributaries of digression. I wanted to read the Bible as a book aimed at people in the pews, not shelve it as a catalog of passages from which to select a sermon subject or a movie script. A book with a sustaining narrative, easily followed, surely lay there for the telling."
That's mighty fine prose, I must say, coming from the fingers of a man approaching his 89th birthday. But how would this new edition work?
Gone are the genealogies, histories, digressions and repetitions that blocked the flow of the narrative. His goal, he says, is to reveal the "thread," a story of salvation that could be read as a book.
The details of editing Scripture are messier and more problematic.
Let's take the Psalms. Psalm numbers 2, 5, 10, 12, 13, and 21 — all gone. Certainly the 23rd Psalm, which hangs on the wall of my bedroom in all its comforting glory, must have survived the knife? Not so. "Walk through the valley of the shadow of death" prevails, but not "thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil." (In an earlier version, Patterson cut "My cup runneth over" — as if to say that nothing will runneth over in this edition — but restored the line in the end.)
It pains me to disagree with my friend and mentor on the need to work over such a precious passage, but then I've never met an editor who didn't work at times with too heavy a hand. In all other respects, Patterson remains my hero and grows in stature. Perhaps his last literary act will turn out to have been his most ambitious.
Not a particularly religious man, he addresses why he would tackle the Bible: "Perhaps discovery that I am terminally ill with cancer," he writes, "focused my decision to proceed with this condensation. If I must have a noble aim, my hope is to bait the reader of these pared chapters into pursuing their elaboration in the fullness of the mother Bible. I am also bound to report that the force of the story, taken all together, tends to steady one's faith. Maybe, with Job, I got a glimpse of God."
Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times.