Jesus Creed

After I posted yesterday on a parabolic comparison between the way the SBC treated Johnny Cash (and now backs down some) and now treats Brian McLaren, Russell Moore writes this column:

McKnight, McLaren, and McAuthenticity
Tuesday, December 06, 2005
A friend sent me this morning a copy of New Testament scholar Scot McKnight’s take on my Touchstone article on Johnny Cash. Turns out, McKnight sees a parable here. He notes that Cash was mistreated by another generation of Southern Baptists because of his “Man in Black” persona [I think I’d make it a little more on his behavior, but persona gets near it] and ties that to the fact that “emerging church” guru Brian McLaren was disinvited from speaking at a Kentucky Baptist Convention evangelism conference. Moreover, McKnight comments:

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.

First of all, if the Southern Baptist Convention (or the larger evangelical community) vilified Johnny Cash, it is certainly difficult to see from here. Cash, a baptized Southern Baptist, was a frequent speaker at Billy Graham Crusades and other evangelistic events and wrote a book on the life of the apostle Paul (Man in White) with an evangelical publisher.
Second of all, yes, it is much easier for me to commend Johnny Cash now than it would have been during his tumultuous days in the late 1960s and early 1970s, since I was born in 1971.
Finally, the tie between Brian McLaren and Johnny Cash just doesn’t work. When Cash spoke of his conversion (what we call “giving his testimony”), he did so in orthodox evangelical terms of repentance, sin, and faith in Christ. McLaren is not speaking as a penitent to other penitents. He is speaking as a pastor and theologian. As such, he denies some things that conservative evangelicals (including Kentucky Baptists) consider to be essential for evangelism (such as the necessity of conscious faith in Christ for salvation and the reality of hell). The issue is not why the Kentucky Baptists disinvited McLaren, whom most of us consider a false teacher. The question is why he was invited at all. This is quite different from Cash’s stumbling moves toward repentance. In fact, it is the difference between the early Augustine and Arius. The difference between Cash’s sin-and-repentance authenticity and the manufactured faddish candles-and-incense “authenticity” of the “emerging church” movement is one of kind, not just degree.
As the Dixie Chicks once sang of the contemporary Nashville music scene, “They’ve got money but they don’t got Cash.” One might also say of the repackaged liberalism of the “emerging church,” everyone who wears dark turtlenecks is not a Man in Black. After all, there’s not really a line to walk if there’s no ring of fire.
Thanks, Russell, for taking note of my blog. Not that we’ve gotten to know one another via blogs (mine a talk-back and yours not), my response would be along these lines and I’d really like to chat about some of this. I will be direct, but I don’t mean to be anything other than discussional about these matters. I think they highlight an important difference between us when it comes to understanding just what the emerging movement really is. Here goes:
First, Russell, I’d like to say that I’m the first to say that I stretched “man in black” to fit the point. The reason I said what I said about Brian’s integrity is because I knew I was shifting SBC nervousness with Johnny Cash’s moral lapses to the SBC’s nervousness (probably too light of a term) about Brian’s theology. I know his theology is the issue, and I know the differences between Cash and McLaren are not to be taken lightly. So, let me grant your point: I stretched the analogy.
My point, however, remains. I think you are claiming Johnny Cash when my generation, which you admittedly don’t remember, didn’t treat him so well. History will stand on my side on this one — and what made him SBC was probably the wideness of the SBC at the time. I could be wrong on that one.
My point would be this: as Johnny Cash’s presence created tension for many in the SBC (and, as you say, the wider evangelical movement — the SBC was really not part of the evangelical movement at the time — see below), so Brian’s did. Time will tell whether or not the SBC judgment was sound or not.
Second, I make a pretty clear point that I grieve over the way “we” (I include myself, brother) treated Johnny Cash. I think you should acknowledge that history: Johnny was not always accepted. More do today.
Third, the following statement is faddish, catchy, and plain silly — and if you’ll read Gibbs and Bolger you’ll know why. It is unprofessional to characterize the emerging movement with these terms, and I’m asking one more time for you and other leaders in the SBC to re-think how you are defining and characterizing the Emerging movement. It is much broader than you are permitting, and it is only fair to all of us to be fair to it. Here are your words:

The difference between Cash’s sin-and-repentance authenticity and the manufactured faddish candles-and-incense “authenticity” of the “emerging church” movement is one of kind, not just degree.

(And I think the “ring of fire” in the song is adultery — not fidelity.)
(The emerging movement is fundamentally a missional movement to a postmodernist generation, and your own SBC pastors are deeply entrenched at various levels in the movement. Gibbs and Bolger have so described it, and it is unfair to ignore plain, good scholarship on the movement and trade in stereotypes that are disingenuous to sound scholarship.)
Fourth, it is inaccurate to describe the SBC at the time of Johnny Cash as “evangelical.” Read any book about evangelicalism at the time, and you will see that the SBC was largely on its own. James Davison Hunter’s widely-read book, Evangelicalism, which charted the morals of evangelical colleges and schools in the 80s, didn’t list one SBC college or seminary as part of his survey. Mark Noll’s book, Beyond Criticism and Faith, shows how uninvolved the SBC professors were in ETS at the time.
My big point, which didn’t quite didn’t get the attention I thought it deserved, is this: the emerging movement is more ready to accept, at first blush, folks like Johnny Cash, in spite of their issues, because it is fundamentally less boundaried. The authenticity of his story resonates with the modern culture more than it did a generation ago. That, my friend, is unquestioned. I think the new resonation is a cause of some Jesus joy, for he too was able to take crooked lines and make them straight by taking crossed lines and making them redemptive.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus