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FIRST-PERSON: The Man in Black

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The Man in Black has met the Man in White. All the tributes offered to the now-deceased singer/songwriter Johnny Cash have one thing in common: He was just different from other celebrities. And yet, the Hollywood/Nashville axis just can’t quite seem to put the finger on what it was that made him stand out in the bright lights of American show business.

Johnny Cash once joked of all the times a fan would say to him, “My father was in prison with you.” Of course, the Man in Black never really served any serious time in jail, but he never could shake the legend of a hardened criminal on the mend. People really seemed to think that he had “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”

That’s probably because of just how authentic and evocative his songs of prison life were. “Folsom Prison Blues,” for instance, just seems to have been penned by someone really lying on a jailhouse cot listening to a train whistle in the night. “There’s probably rich folks eating in a fancy dining car/They’re probably drinking coffee and smoking big cigars/Well, I know I had it coming/I know I can’t be free/But those people keep a’movin, and that’s what tortures me.”

The reason the prison imagery seemed real is because, for Cash, it was real. He knew what it was like to be enslaved — to celebrity, to power, to drugs, to alcohol, to the breaking of marriage vows, and to all the temptations the recording industry can parade before a man. He was a prisoner indeed, but to a penitentiary of his own soul. There was no corpse in Reno but, for Cash, there was the very real guilt of a lifetime of the self-destructive idolatry of the ego.

It was through the quiet friendships with men like Billy Graham that Cash found an alternative to the vanity of shifting celebrity. He found freedom from guilt and the authenticity of truth in a crucified and resurrected Christ. And he immediately identified with another self-obsessed celebrity of another era — Saul of Tarsus. He even authored a surprisingly good biography of the apostle, with the insight of one who knows what it is like to see the grace of Jesus through the grid of one’s own guilt as a “chief of sinners.”

And yet even here Cash was different. He sang at Billy Graham crusades and wrote for evangelical audiences, but he never quite fit in with the saccharine mood of pop evangelicalism. Cash never seemed “perky” enough for Christian television. Nor did he fit with the trivialization of cultural Christianity so persistent in the country music industry, as stars effortlessly moved back and forth between songs about the glories of honky-tonk women and the Old Rugged Cross.

Perhaps this is why Cash, to the day of his death, remained an object of fascination for a youth culture that knows nothing of “I Walk the Line.” Twenty-two-year-old pop sensation Justin Timberlake, beating Cash for a prize at the MTV Music Awards, claimed that there should be a recount.

Cash’s Christian life was, to be sure, a mixed bag. And yet, there is something in Cash’s authenticity that evangelical Christians would do well to emulate.

While other Christian celebrities tried — and failed — to reach youth culture by dressing in heavy-metal get-up or feigning teenage street language, Cash always seemed to connect. He recorded Nine Inch Nails songs lamenting the ultimate futility of pursuing an “empire of dirt” that will come to nothing at death. When other Christian celebrities sought to down-pedal sin in favor of upbeat messages about how much better life is with Jesus, Cash sang about the haunting tyranny of guilt and the certainty of coming judgment. An angst-filled youth culture may not have understood guilt, but they understood pain. And, somehow, they sensed Cash was for real. He didn’t sugarcoat or “market” the Gospel like a game show host. Instead, he resonated honestly with human pain and pointed to the climax of history coming in the triumph of Jesus of Nazareth.

One of Cash’s final songs was an eerie tune based on the Book of Revelation. His haunting voice sang the question: “The hair on your arms will all stand up/At the terror of each sip and each sup/Will you partake of that last offered cup?/Or disappear into the potter’s ground/When the Man comes around.” Cash’s young fans — and his old ones too — may not have known what he was talking about, but they sensed that he did. They recognized Cash as a sinner like them, but a sinner who mourned the tragedy of his past and found peace in One who bore terrors that make Folsom Prison pale in comparison.

The death of a sinner like that is a rich opportunity for teaching about sin, death and the mercies of an all-forgiving Messiah. As for Cash, he is no longer a celebrity. But he is still singing about sin and redemption, and he has different lyrics. He is singing, with the redeemed of all ages, “you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10, ESV).

And maybe, just maybe, one small segment of the chorus to the Lamb began this morning with one last introduction: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
Russell D. Moore is assistant professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He also serves as executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Moore’s commentaries can be read at the Henry Institute website, www.henryinstitute.org.

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  • Russell D. Moore