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Man in white

Culture | Johnny Cash's stark and honest profession of faith gained a hearing and garnered respect

Issue: "Isabel's slow march," Sept. 27, 2003

JUST MONTHS BEFORE JOHNNY CASH DIED, Elizabeth Miller, writing in the highbrow literary magazine McSweeney's, said that "The Man Comes Around"-the title song on his last album-"just might be the best song I have ever heard in my entire life."

The song is a montage of biblical images and quotations about death, hell, judgment, and the coming of Jesus, the Man who comes around. Ms. Miller said that she has no idea what it all means, but that she cannot stop playing it over and over:

"After hearing this song, the song that I listen to every night before I go to bed and first thing every morning when I wake up, the song that made me pick up my guitar and play it so hard that I woke up the next morning with no feeling in the fingertips of my left hand, I know that if there was a religion based on the guitar, the words, and voice of the man who is Johnny Cash, I would write a thousand songs about it."

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Ms. Miller would like a religion based on Johnny Cash, but his haunting song may be introducing her to the religion that he came to base his life on.

Although Mr. Cash was at Sun Records with Elvis Presley and became one of country music's biggest stars, he became better with age. His performances kept getting more expressive and artistically complex, and the songs he wrote and chose to sing became spiritually deeper, with an explicit, theologically rich Christianity that jumps out of the stereo.

In his last days he was all but ignored by the country music industry, which refused to play his records, even as his 1998 masterpiece Unchained won a Grammy for best country album. And yet, ironically, in his old age he was embraced by young people and by their music industry.

A few years ago, Mr. Cash started an unusual collaboration with Rick Rubin, known primarily as a producer of rap and hard rock. Together, they put together the "American Recordings," a series of four albums featuring Mr. Cash's versions of classic American songs, intermixed with his own. The Man Comes Around, volume IV, includes folk songs ("Streets of Laredo"), transfigured '60s tunes ("Bridge Over Troubled Water"), lounge standards ("The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"), and songwriters from Lennon & McCartney to Sting. The productions, uncharacteristically for Mr. Rubin, are spare, acoustic, and charged with meaning.

One cut from the album is "Hurt," an anguished song about drug addiction by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. Mr. Cash told an interviewer that he recorded the song because "it scares you to death" and should make people want to stay away from drugs. The music video, which mainly just showed Mr. Cash singing the song, was nominated for six MTV Video Music Awards. It only took one prize-for cinematography-but some of the winners paid tribute to him, including Justin Timberlake, who called his own Best Male Video award a "travesty" and demanded a "recount," saying that the award should have gone to Mr. Cash.

So what is it about Johnny Cash that has attracted hard rockers, punks, hedonists, and the literati, even as he has grown more in-their-face and fire-and-brimstone about Christianity?

Conventional wisdom says that Christians need to tone down their message to make it more palatable to the culture. Church growth experts exhort preachers to be "positive," projecting a happy, upbeat personality and a "victorious" lifestyle.

Today's young people-and most unbelievers-tend to see right through those facades, dismissing them as shallow and fake. Johnny Cash, though, was real, projecting an honesty about his sins, his suffering, and his failures that made his profession of faith seem real and honest too. Mr. Cash's faith rescued him from a life of drugs, alcohol, and other transgressions, and he knew to depend solely on the grace of God, rather than any worthiness in himself. His portrayal of his faith, void of hypocrisy and self-righteousness, garnered respect and could gain a hearing.

Mr. Cash titled a recent three-CD collection of his greatest hits Love. God. Murder. Those were the three themes of all of his music and arguably of all of literature. Some Christians cannot approve of his murder ballads ("I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die"), wanting more uplifting moral examples. But in Mr. Cash's biblical worldview, sin is real, and human beings are in their nature criminals, guilty of senseless crimes and awaiting execution. Love too is real, a gift of God who calls us into relationships and families. His songs to and about his wife June Carter-who died only four months before he did-are genuine and affecting. And the songs about God make sense of all of the rest.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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