The man in black is physically gone, but his legacy remains: the image of a man dressed in black, that deep talking-singing voice, that one string that sustains the beat, and the story of a man who learned the hard way with a face to show it.
Let me suggest in this post that Johnny Cash is a parable of a serious issue.
Kris and I saw “Walk the Line” and both of us loved the movie. Neither of us is a country or country Western music fan, neither of us was a big fan of Johnny Cash during his prime, but each of us likes a few of his songs. “Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire.” The acting was good, but what do I know about acting? Next to nothing. I go to the movies Kris decides we’d both like.
The movie focused on his life story — beginning with a father whose emotional bruality scarred Johnny for life, a brother whose death Johnny couldn’t quite live with, a failed attempt to write and produce some gospel songs, a failed marriage, collapsing with drug problems, falling in love with June Carter who continually resisted him until, one night on stage, Johnny proposed and June accepted. (I have no idea if this happened.) June Carter saved Johnny Cash. Hollywood wanted no serious part in the Christian dimension of Johnny Cash’s story.
Russell Moore, Dean at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, uses the authenticity of the story of Johnny Cash to excoriate fadishness in churches — “youth ministers who are little more than goateed game-show hosts” (Touchstone, December). Johnny, he suggests, tells the real story of sin and guilt and forgiveness and struggle and redemption.
I will say that, though Moore may speak like this, it was our generation that excoriated Johnny Cash for telling his own truthful story. We wanted no part of anyone dressed in black, especially the man dressed in black. We preferred the clean story about people who had become clean so we could create a clean church.
Frankly, it grieves me the way we spoke about Johnny Cash. He was a big target with a known past and big black hat to hide under.
Easy enough for Moore to talk about authenticity — but I recall a recent event in Kentucky when another “man in black” was banned from speaking to the Southern Baptists because he wasn’t “clean” enough. He, too, had a story to tell. “Hello, I’m Brian McLaren!” is what he could have said. (And I don’t mean to pull into question Brian’s integrity; I’m calling into question a belated welcome and recognition of a brother.)
I have no real truck with the SBC in general, nor with Moore in general, but I find it mighty convenient to stand in line with Johnny now when the tough days of standing with him are over. Stand with the men and women in black, I say, and you’ll find yourself sometimes standing next to Jesus.
The emerging crowd will do better with stories like Johnny’s. Many of them, “dressed in black,” might take to the mike and say, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash too.” And “I’m learning to walk the line but I find it crooked sometimes and I still follow it.”