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John the Baptist at the MTV Music Awards

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There was an empty seat at last week’s MTV Music Awards. Johnny Cash, nominated for several awards, called in sick. In some ways, it is just as well. The aging, somber visage of the Man in Black would have been a marked contrast to the typical celebration of superficiality, self-exaltation, and sexual libertinism. And yet, the sad spectacle of the awards show reveals precisely what the MTV generation has to learn from Johnny Cash—indeed, what Cash has learned himself, the hard way.

The remarkable aspect of the whole story is that Cash was invited at all—nominated for an award up against shallow bubblegum pop acts like that of Justin Timberlake. But commentators note that Cash’s newest album, possibly his last, has struck a nerve with contemporary youth culture. And so, kids who have never heard of “Folsom Prison Blues” resonate with Cash’s latest album—a dark piece rich with Christian imagery from the Book of Revelation and the rest of Scripture.

Particularly relevant to these youth is Cash’s rendition of the song “Hurt,” which was written and originally performed by the band Nine Inch Nails. Cash’s haunting video features faded film shots of his youthful glory days—complete with the images of friends and colleagues, once at the height of their fame, who are 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, the Nine Inch Nails delivered “Hurt” as straight nihilism, Cash gives it a twist—ending the video with the scenes of crucifixion, which, for Cash, is the only answer to the inevitability of suffering and pain.

“It’s all fleeting,” Cash told MTV News. “As fame is fleeting, so are all the trappings of fame fleeting; the money, the clothes, the furniture.”

Ever since his early days, Cash has cultivated the grave “Man in Black” image. For most of his career, this was mostly showmanship. But now, having buried his wife and contemplating his own mortality, Cash’s gravity is at is most real. And Cash’s Christianity seems to transcend shallow gospel moralism tacked onto the end of Grand Old Opry entertainment. Perhaps this honesty is what makes him stand out to a youth culture that is nervously aware of death in a post-September 11th world. There is a growing cadre of kids out there who are frankly bored by Madonna’s latest attempt to shock American sensibilities. What they are shocked by instead is a gravelly-voiced septuagenarian telling them what they already suspect—the shallow kingdoms of this age are headed for a stunning collapse.

This is hard to see—and not just for the young. Indeed, the Wisdom of God tells us that there are two kingdoms locked in conflict through the ages. One kingdom is obvious, with a zip-code, an entourage, and the adoration of the paparazzi. Another kingdom is hidden, working itself invisibly like yeast through the ages (Matt 13:33). One kingdom promises pleasure and self-exaltation—and ends in death. Another kingdom promises death and suffering—and ends in life eternal.

And so, it is a shame that Johnny Cash didn’t make it to the awards show. This old man repudiates everything the MTV Music Awards is all about. The face of Johnny Cash reminds this generation that he has tasted everything the MTV culture has to offer—and found there a way that leads only 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” (Heb 9:27). His creviced face and blurring eyes remind them that there is not enough Botox in all of Hollywood to revive a corpse. His death-tinged songs expose the futility of grasping for the idols of the self, and instead point to the promised apocalyptic moment when “the Man comes around.”

At the end of his life, he could play the odd role of John the Baptist at Herod’s birthday party. The masses may be distracted by the hedonistic dances of Herodias’ daughter (Matt 14:1-12). But in the background there is still the voice of one crying in the wilderness.

And he knows what happens—ultimately—to empires of dirt.

We live in a fearful and cowardly time. The crisis we face is not a crisis of clarity but a crisis of courage.

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About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Public Theologian at Christianity Today and Director of Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project.

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