A year ago I wrote in Touchstone about the haunting Christian imagery of the music video of the late Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ song “Hurt.” The article noted the contrast of this video, which featured images of an dying, weakened Cash and his wife June shortly before their deaths, losing at the MTV Video Awards to bubblegum pop-star Justin Timberlake. This year, Timberlake and Cash are together again, in a way that almost completely evacuates Cash’s music of what made it unique.
It is hard to see how the video of Cash’s song “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” from his posthumously released American V: A Hundred Highways album could be more out of place. The song is a chilling reminder of God’s final judgment, of His all-seeing evaluation of human action, of His eschatological justice. Cash sings:
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 ’em down/ Tell ’em that God’s gonna cut ’em down
These lyrics, explicitly Christian in their message, come with added emotional momentum precisely because they are sung by a dead man, or rather by a man who was living when he recorded them but who now has faced the judgment himself. The video of “Hurt” communicated exactly what the dying Cash seemed to understand, echoing Solomon of old: wealth, celebrity, fame, all of it is vanity in the maw of the grave. By contrasting images of the young celebrated Cash with images of the old, gasping, arthritic Cash, his “House of Cash” closed down and boarded over, the video turned then to what Cash saw as the only real alternative to his empire of dirt: the cross of Christ Jesus.
The video for “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” however, is a “Where’s Waldo” of youth and celebrity. Cash’s voice sings of human inability to escape the wrath to come while the images run past of current celebrities: Timberlake, Sheryl Crow, Chris Rock, Bono, Johnny Depp, Lisa Marie Presley, the Dixie Chicks.
On the one hand, there is something jarring about seeing the most celebrated “stars” of the moment mouthing words about God “sooner or later” cutting us down. The vanity of the celebrities themselves is evident up against these sober words. But what is missing here, at least visually, is the warning of the song itself: the inevitability of death.
The celebrities who agreed to show up in this video probably saw this as a good career move, or perhaps as an afternoon’s tribute to the “Man in Black.” I wonder if any of them realized, as they lip-synced Cash’s song, what he came to see. God doesn’t subscribe to Us Weekly. If there is Botox, it will fail. If there is silicon, it will cease. If there are groupies, they will leave. If there are royalties, they will wither away. Only love is as strong as death (Song of Songs 8:6).
And love isn’t a commodity to be sold, or a song idea to be packaged. He’s a Man in White.