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Real Hard Cash Russell D. He was old enough to be the grandfather of the most seasoned performer on the platform.
Still, two years ago, even while he was sick in a hospital, the Man in Black was there. But the showing of the video caused an almost palpable discomfort in the crowd. The video to the song, which was originally performed by youth band Nine Inch Nails, features haunting images of his youthful glory days—complete with pictures of his friends and colleagues at the height of their fame, now dead.
For him, the cross is the only answer to the inevitability of suffering and pain. Why would twenty-something hedonists revere an old Baptist country singer from Arkansas? In one sense, the Cash mystique was nothing new. He knew what it was like to be enslaved, enslaved to celebrity, to power, to drugs, to liquor, and to the breaking of his marriage vows.
He was subject to, and submissive to, all the temptations the recording industry can parade before a man. He was a prisoner indeed, but to a penitentiary of his own soul. There was no corpse in Reno, but there was the very real guilt of a lifetime of the self-destructive idolatry of the ego.
It was through the quiet friendships of men such as Billy Graham that Cash found an alternative to the vanity of shifting celebrity. He found freedom from guilt and the authenticity of the truth in a crucified and resurrected Christ.
And he immediately identified with another self-obsessed celebrity of another era: He sang at Billy Graham crusades and wrote for Evangelical audiences, but he never quite fit the prevailing saccharine mood of pop Evangelicalism.
Nor did he fit the trivialization of cultural Christianity so persistent in the country music industry, as Grand Old Opry stars effortlessly moved back and forth between songs about the glories of honky-tonk women and songs about the mercies of the Old Rugged Cross.
In his later years, he took out an ad in an industry magazine, with a photograph of himself extending a middle finger to music executives. And yet there is something in the Cash appeal to the youth generation that Christians would do well to emulate. Other Christian celebrities tried—and failed—to reach youth culture by feigning teenage street language or aping pop culture trends.
Cash always seemed to connect.
When other Christian celebrities tried to down-play sin and condemnation in favor of upbeat messages about how much better life is with Jesus, Cash sang about the tyranny of guilt and the certainty of coming judgment. An angst-ridden youth culture may not have fully comprehended guilt, but they understood pain.
And, somehow, they sensed Cash was for real. The face of Johnny Cash reminded this generation that he has tasted everything the MTV culture has to offer—and found there a way that leads to death.
His haunting voice, filled with the tremors of approaching hoof-beats, sang the challenge: They recognized in Cash a sinner like them, but a sinner who mourned the tragedy of his past and found peace in One who bore terrors that make Folsom Prison pale in comparison.
The Dark Side Johnny Cash is dead, and there will never be another. But all around us there are empires of dirt, and billions of self-styled emperors marching toward judgment.
Perhaps if Christian churches modeled themselves more after Johnny Cash, and less after perky Christian celebrities such as Kathy Lee Gifford, we might find ourselves resonating more with the MTV generation.
Perhaps if we paid more attention to the dark side of life, a dark side addressed in divine revelation, we might find ourselves appealing to men and women in black.
We might offer them an authentic warning about what will happen when the Man comes around. And, as we do this, we just might hear somewhere up in the cloud of witnesses a voice that once cried in the wilderness: He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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