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Dead Man Singing

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I liked the Johnny Cash life-story film, Walk the Line, but I’ve more and more had mixed feelings about it. People who watch the movie get an honest portrayal of part of Cash’s life, but something big is missing. For a long time I wasn’t quite sure what it was. At first, I thought it might be Cash’s faith, at which the movie only glances. The more I think about it though, the more I’m convinced what is missing from the movie is weakness: weakness and death.

In the film Joaquin Phoenix portrays Johnny Cash at the height of his career, a relatively young man in a hurry. What he can’t play is Cash at his most powerful: an old man singing about God, love, and murder with the shadow of the Grim Reaper on his guitar strings.

That’s why Cash’s new album, released now after his death, is the antidote to the cocky, young, addicted Johnny Cash most Americans have seen on theater screens. The album, American V: A Hundred Highways, was recorded shortly after the death of June Carter Cash and only months before Cash’s own demise. And it’s all about death.

It’s not just that the lyrics of the songs deal almost exclusively with the themes of impending death. It’s also that Cash himself is so obviously dying. The album leaves in quivering lips, weakened voice, and even gasps for air. There’s no booming, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” here.

Cash sings about a man who places his wife’s casket “on the evening train,” while he and his children watch the train carry her body away. He sings about others placing his own casket on “the 309” train. He acknowledges that death is coming and, though he says he’s not the whining kind, “it sure would be nice if I could get my breath.”

This isn’t some New Age ode to the “seasons of life.” Nor is it the typical Christian triumphalist jingle about “moving on up” to a heavenly reward. It is instead the songs of a man who recognizes the horror of death, and who is focused on what every man thinks about at such times: judgment. There is something especially powerful in Cash’s warning in the song “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” directed toward a murderous Klansman but applicable to all of us have sinned against an omniscient God:

Well you may throw your rock and hide your hand Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man But as sure as God made black and white What’s down in the dark will be brought to the light You can run on for a long time Run on for a long time Run on for a long time Sooner or later God’ll cut you down Sooner or later God’ll cut you down Go tell that long tongue liar Go and tell that midnight rider Tell the rambler, The gambler, The back biter Tell ’em that God’s gonna cut you down

This is what Hollywood hasn’t yet pictured on the silver screen, and I don’t think they ever can. It is hard to imagine an American entertainment culture hearing Cash’s words, in an era when pop singer Jessica Simpson now sings love songs in which consumers can tailor the lyrics so their own names appear. The early Johnny Cash, who gets the girl and triumphs over drugs and alcohol, is much easier to understand, even if he does it with a little help from Jesus.

That’s different from the gasping, trembling faith of this album. And yet what Cash is singing about here has been sung about before. King Solomon never won a Grammy but, like Johnny Cash, he discovered the vanity of fame and finance as death approaches. The faith in American V is less like a celebrity testimony at a Billy Graham crusade and much more like the desperate faith of a crucified robber, sobbing as he drowns in his own blood: “Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42).

All of us need to hear this, and sometimes we can only hear it from a dying man who we once saw as so vigorous and successful. The Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nyssa said much the same thing as Johnny Cash sings when he counseled the vain, strong, young men of his day to go and look at the pile of corpses at a graveyard. Gregory warned: “Have you not seen the heap of bones piled on each other, skulls stripped of flesh, staring fearsome and horrible from empty eye-sockets?”

Cash has always sung of the dark side of life, of the vacuity of human existence. He famously recorded Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” about a pitiable hung-over man wandering the streets, listening to children singing in Sunday school. Cash sings:

On a Sunday morning sidewalk, I’m wishing, Lord, that I was stoned. ‘Cause there’s something in a Sunday That makes a body feel alone. And there’s nothing short a’ dying That’s half as lonesome as the sound Of the sleeping city sidewalk And Sunday morning coming down

It is not until American V that we realize that, whatever Cash knew about pain, he didn’t know how lonesome dying is. Until now.

We can only hope that a generation of Americans will hear such a warning in this album from a dead man. But let’s hope that they also hear, in this weakness, Cash’s triumphant faith. Even in the face of a Judgment Seat, Cash’s songs of death are hopeful, looking to a Day of Resurrection in Christ. He sings:

Further on up the road Further on up the road Where the way dark and the night is cold One sunny mornin’ we’ll rise I know And I’ll meet you further on up the road.

The lyrics were written by Bruce Springsteen. And I know the Boss wrote them to say “one sunny morning.”

Maybe it is just my imagination, but it sure sounds to me like I hear this dead man singing, “one Sunday morning,” Sunday morning coming up.

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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