LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–I recently watched “Walk the Line,” the film based on the autobiographies of singer/songwriter Johnny Cash. I anticipated hating the film, but found myself sitting through the credits with a silent “Amen,” not only because the movie was so true to the Cash story, but because it was so true to the parable of the Prodigal Son and the Book of Proverbs.
My prejudice was based partly on my love for Cash and his music, so certain I was that the film would get it wrong. Joaquin Phoenix singing “Cry, Cry, Cry” in his own voice? “Legally Blonde’s” Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash?
I also, though, understood from other reviewers the film was yet another offering of the arc of humble beginnings, rise to fame, fall to the perils of fame, and renewal that we have seen in “Ray” and other films. At the same time, many Christian reviewers have noted that the faith aspect of Cash’s life is muted, if not obliterated, in the film.
I was wrong.
First of all, Reese Witherspoon was completely convincing as June Carter. My dread of seeing June as a mall girl with a fake southern accent proved to be unfounded. Witherspoon portrayed June with a mystique and transparency that should earn her an Academy Award. Phoenix, meanwhile, seemed to start off the movie with an almost parodic rendering of Cash (think of all the bad Elvis Presley life story movies we’ve seen), but, as the film went on, seemed to morph into Cash.
Yes, the film is similar to “Ray,” complete with a loving mother and a dead brother, whose blood-guilt lay on the protagonist for the rest of his life. Yes, like Ray Charles and countless others, Cash falls to the allure of sex and addiction as his celebrity grows. And yet, this is precisely because Cash and Charles and other artists actually did live this kind of life. What makes Cash’s story unique is the way his art was fired, not just by a sense of sadness, but by conviction of sin.
It is true that the film does not feature Cash’s conversion to Christ. But it does feature Johnny and June walking into the First Baptist Church, a hint of something very biblical that evangelical conversion stories often miss: the prodigal doesn’t just come to his senses and leave the pigpen; he returns to his family. It also demonstrates the allure and devastation of sin.
The Carter/Cash interaction is not a gushingly romantic love story. Their adulterous passion is portrayed as having devastating consequences on two families, and on their own souls. So often in our churches we pretend as though the temptation to adultery is found in the wiles of an evil, cunning harlot. And yet, Scripture tells us that the path to infidelity is much more deceptive than that (Proverbs 7). In the Carter/Cash love story we see less the rapacious womanizing of Ray Charles than we see the tortured affair of David and Bathsheba, an affair that ends in marriage. Like David, the singers are led to sing of the pain and guilt of the “Ring of Fire” (Psalm 51).
The film does not feature explicitly Cash’s conversion, and that’s a shame. One cannot understand the love into old age of Cash and Carter without understanding how they were able to transcend the “burning flame” of illicit guilt. And yet, the film does show something of redemption and mission. When Cash dons black and begins playing concerts for prisoners, he is told that his constituency is Christians and they don’t want him playing music for murderers and rapists. “Then they’re not Christians,” the Cash character responds. The theater audience around me erupted into applause.
My sons know Johnny Cash quite well because they hear his music around them all the time. My infant son’s lullaby each night is a Carter Family song. When they are older, we’ll watch “Walk the Line” But we’ll follow it up with a reminder from Scripture that sums up Johnny and June more than celebrity can ever explain: They loved much for they were forgiven much. There was a Man in Black, not because of a marketing gimmick, but because he understood with lifelong pain what it means to descend into a “Ring of Fire” and to find a Deliverer on the other side.
“Walk the Line” is rated PG-13 for language and thematic material (depictions of adultery and drug dependency).
Russell D. Moore is dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.