Real Hard Cash
Russell D. Moore on the Path of the Man in Black
There was an empty seat at this year’s MTV Music Video Awards. The late Johnny Cash wasn’t there. It’s not as though Cash frequented the Generation X/Y annual awards program. He was old enough to be the grandfather of the most seasoned performer on the platform. Still, two years ago, even while he was sick in a hospital, the Man in Black was there.
At the 2003 awards show, Cash’s video “Hurt” was nominated for an award—up against shallow bubblegum pop acts such as that of Justin Timberlake. Cash didn’t win. But the showing of the video caused an almost palpable discomfort in the crowd. The video to the song, which was originally performed by youth band Nine Inch Nails, features haunting images of his youthful glory days—complete with pictures of his friends and colleagues at the height of their fame, now dead.
As the camera pans Cash’s wizened, wrinkled face, he sings about the awful reality of death and the vanity of fame: “What have I become? My sweetest friend/ Everyone I know goes away in the end/ You could have it all/ My empire of dirt/ I will let you down, I will make you hurt.”
Whereas Nine Inch Nails delivered “Hurt” as straight nihilism, straight out of the grunge angst of the Pacific Northwest’s music scene, Cash gives it a twist—ending the video with scenes of the crucifixion of Jesus. For him, the cross is the only answer to the inevitability of suffering and pain.
“It’s all fleeting,” he told MTV News. “As fame is fleeting, so are all the trappings of fame fleeting; the money, the clothes, the furniture.” This could not be in more marked contrast to the culture of the popular music industry (whatever the genre), a culture of superficiality, self-exaltation, and sexual libertinism.
Perhaps this is the reason Cash remained—to the day of his death—a subject of almost morbid curiosity for a youth culture that knows nothing of “I Walk the Line.” At the 2003 awards show, 22-year-old pop sensation Justin Timberlake, beating Cash for the video award, demanded a recount. Why would twenty-something hedonists revere an old Baptist country singer from Arkansas?
In one sense, the Cash mystique was nothing new. For the whole length of his career, onlookers wondered what made him different from the rest of the Hollywood/Nashville celebrity axis. Much of it had to do with the “man in black” caricature he cultivated. Cash joked that fans would often say to him, “My father was in prison with you.” Of course, Cash never served any serious jail time at all, but he could never shake the image 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 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 prison imagery seemed real to Cash because, for him, it was real. He knew what it was like to be enslaved, enslaved to celebrity, to power, to drugs, to liquor, and to the breaking of his marriage vows. He was subject to, and submissive 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 there was the very real guilt of a lifetime of the self-destructive idolatry of the ego.
It was through the quiet friendships of men such as Billy Graham that Cash found an alternative to the vanity of shifting celebrity. He found freedom from guilt and the authenticity of the 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 one’s own guilt as a “chief of sinners.”
Even as a Christian, Cash was different. He sang at Billy Graham crusades and wrote for Evangelical audiences, but he never quite fit the prevailing saccharine mood of pop Evangelicalism. Nor did he fit the trivialization of cultural Christianity so persistent in the country music industry, as Grand Old Opry stars effortlessly moved back and forth between songs about the glories of honky-tonk women and songs about the mercies of the Old Rugged Cross.
To be sure, Cash’s Christian testimony is a mixed bag. In his later years, he took out an ad in an industry magazine, with a photograph of himself extending a middle finger to music executives. And yet there is something in the Cash appeal to the youth generation that Christians would do well to emulate.
Other Christian celebrities tried—and failed—to reach youth culture by feigning teenage street language or aping pop culture trends. How successful, after all, was Pat Boone’s embarrassing attempt at heavy metal—complete with a leather outfit and a spiked dog collar?
Cash always seemed to connect. When other Christian celebrities tried to down-play sin and condemnation in favor of upbeat messages about how much better life is with Jesus, Cash sang about the tyranny of guilt and the certainty of coming judgment. An angst-ridden youth culture may not have fully comprehended guilt, but they understood pain. And, somehow, they sensed Cash was for real.
The face of Johnny Cash reminded this generation that he has tasted everything the MTV culture has to offer—and found there a way that leads to death. In a culture that idolizes the hormonal surges of youth, Cash reminds the young of what MTV doesn’t want them to know: “It is appointed to man once to die, and after this the judgment.” His creviced face and blurring eyes remind them that there is not enough Botox in all of Hollywood to revive a corpse.
Cash wasn’t trying to be an evangelist—and his fellow Bible-belt Evangelicals knew it. But he was able to reach youth culture in a way the rest of us often can’t, precisely because he refused to sugarcoat or “market” the gospel in the “language” of today’s teenagers.
One of Cash’s final songs was also one of his best, an eerie tune based on the Book of Revelation. His haunting voice, filled with the tremors of approaching hoof-beats, sang the challenge: “The hairs 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 in Cash 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 Dark Side
Johnny Cash is dead, and there will never be another. But all around us there are empires of dirt, and billions of self-styled emperors marching toward judgment.
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.
Perhaps if we paid more attention to the dark side of life, a dark side addressed in divine revelation, we might find ourselves appealing to men and women in black. We 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.
And, as we do this, we just might hear somewhere up in the cloud of witnesses a voice that once cried in the wilderness: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
Russell D. Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.