A line from a song by a British artist named Peter Gabriel is a suitable opening to discuss my fellow Man In Black, namely an artist on this side of "the pond" named Johnny Cash.
I went to see the movie based on his autobiography, Walk The Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash, and Reese Witherspoon as the woman he loved, June Carter, one of the legendary Carter Family of early country music fame. It was a romance that happened at the expense of Cash's first wife, portrayed in the movie as an opportunistic shrew of a woman. According to a daughter from that union, this depiction was quite inaccurate. Yet it seems necessary if we are to see June as the catalyst of Cash's redemption. It makes one wonder if, in the sunset of his years, he had regrets over using a bad means to acquire a good end.
Be that as it may, a recent piece by Russell D Moore in the December 2005 issue of Touchstone magazine, sheds a light on what "the man in black" can teach us about authenticity:
Perhaps if Christian churches modeled themselves more after Johnny Cash, and less after perky Christian celebrities such as Kathy Lee Gifford, we might find ourselves resonating more with the MTV generation. Maybe if we stopped trying to be "cool," and stopped hiring youth ministers who are little more than goateed game-show hosts, we might find a way to connect with a generation that understands pain and death more than we think.... [and thus] might connect with men and women who know what it’s like to feel like fugitives from justice, even if they’ve never been to jail. We might offer them an authentic warning about what will happen when the Man comes around.It is a matter worth considering for those engaged in preaching the Christian message.
We see the rise of "megachurches" among Evangelicals, and we think they're on to something. Well, in a sense, they are. They hire someone who can "reach" you, who can appeal to the mass marketing sense that draws in the crowds, and gives the illusion of success, and therefore "being saved." How ironic, that the school of Christianity that boils it down to "me and Jesus," is in the final analysis, merely about following the crowd.
That certain "look" that puts the channel-surfer at ease, has crept even into the Catholic mass media. Can you imagine this writer, a bearded man with a black hat and a few rapier wisecracks up his sleeve, doing a talk show on EWTN? No, they'd put him in a cardigan sweater, and trade in his boots for a pair of wing-tips. The hat would have to go, too, even if it meant powdering that balding pate to cut down the glare of studio lights. After luring him to the stage for what is unique to him, he'd end up looking more like the rest of the gilded lineup.
You see, it's all about the formula. The same mentality that has enslaved network television, that has reduced to monotony much of commercial radio (and is expanding the appeal of satellite channels like XM and Sirius), is being embraced whole-hog to sell the Gospel.
My twenty-year-old son Paul, who ignores country music in general, loves Johnny Cash. From what I can gather in our conversations, it is because the artist writes what he knows, and he knows life from having lived it. Not at the superficial level that comes with fame, but with an awareness of those who live with what Thoreau called "quiet desperation." Such is the true heart of the poet. It is not difficult for us to imagine Cash doing hard time, even though he did very little of it. Cash appealed to the masses with what he really had to offer -- being himself. In so doing, he understood what it was for others to do the same.
Whatever the transgressions of the man who wrote "Folsom Prison Blues," he surely never ceased to hear the voice of the Hounds of Heaven, forever calling, calling...
It is not hard to imagine the burden he carried, the yearning to lay it before the Cross.
"Being himself." Such is all we have left as we stand before our Maker.
(UPDATE: Another review of the Cash movie can be found in a recent edition of Crisis magazine, written by film critic William Baer.)