‘There’s probably more theology in that film clip than in the book of Romans.’
Rev. Steve Stockman, the minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast, said words to that effect to those who had gathered there yesterday evening for what was billed as ‘The Man in Black – a Service Built around the worship songs, life and testimony of Johnny Cash.’
I don’t want Stockman’s comment to be read out of context. What he was getting at is there is much in Johnny Cash’s story that speaks to people’s own struggles with God and with personal demons. But his life also shows us how one man sought to live in an authentically Christian way, working out his own salvation with fear and trembling.
Johnny Cash is a modern saint. He endured the devastating lows of sin, self-destruction, loneliness and existential agony – enacted on a stage of fame in the bright glare of publicity. Yet he also demonstrated how the power of redemptive love can translate into a prophetic testimony for our times.
Meditating on the darkness in Cash’s life seems appropriate heading in to Holy Week, a period of time where Jesus himself questioned God. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Stockman’s comment came after we had viewed some snippets of Cash’s life, as portrayed in the 2005 film, Walk the Line. This included the harrowing Thanksgiving scene where Cash, after arguing with his father and under the influence of drugs, drives his tractor into the lake. We see him nursed back to health by the Carter family and nurtured by the redemptive love of June Carter.
Then we see him reading fan mail from inmates at prisons around the country. They tell him how they identify with his music, with his wayward life style, and with the way he sings as if he means it.
This leads Cash to propose recording an album at Folsom Prison. One of the record company execs tells him that his fans are Christians, and they don’t want to hear him singing to cheer up murders and rapists. Cash’s reply is:
‘Well, they’re not Christians then.’
One of Christianity’s modern temptations has been to make Jesus into Prozac, a drug that will cure all our ills and make us happy.
Cash’s story is so compelling because he never pretends that Jesus is Prozac, even when, with the help of the Carters, he cleans up his life.
Rather, Cash embodied his anger and frustration at the injustices faced by the ‘common’ man and woman, those without social or political clout, by wearing black. This was a gesture not unlike that of the Hebrew prophets, who often enacted their critiques of the abuse of power for all to see.
For me, the service at Fitzroy was an invitation to enter into the darkness with which Cash identified, but at the same time to realise that even with the darkness there is hope for transformation.