Monthly Archives: November 2005

Elegies for the Man in Black

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I’ve always been a fan of Johnny Cash. As my musical tastes changed from being primarily country to, by the end of High School, being more Rock/Alternative and then broadened again to include bluegrass, folk and americana during college and after, Cash was always there. As a measure of Cash’s genre and social-crossing ability his death had been mourned by many younger artists of the music industry–perhaps in their heart the recognize the sincerity in Cash’s music that is lacking in their own–and by Christians who I think see in him a person who represents the truth of sainthood. To quote a line from another great country singer, George Jones “The only thing different between sinners and saints is one is forgiven and the other one ain’t.” The truth of Johnny Cash–why he could move from singing lines like “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” to singing Just a Closer Walk with Thee or Old Rugged Cross and convey sincerity with both and faith with the latter–is that he recognized that he was a sinner and, especially later in his life, that he was forgiven by the grace of God shed abroad through the Cross.

As a measure of the impact Cash has had on Christian thinkers–not in an intellectual way, but in the way that music should speak, to the heart and soul–he has been eulogized and analyzed in two of my favorite Christian journals and magazines. Peter Candler wrote the following in
First Things
:

Johnny of the Cross

Peter M. Candler, Jr

Copyright (c) 2003 First Things 138 (December 2003): 6-9.

In the world of popular music, one generally becomes a “legend” only in death—as if death accomplishes for a musician all that he was unable to do for himself in life. Legends are often made in the manner of their death—in a helicopter crash, say, or collapsed on the bathroom floor. But Johnny Cash’s death at seventy-one on September 12 was decidedly un-legend-like: silent, slow, and unspectacular. Yet “legend” seems, if anything, not big enough a word to describe Johnny Cash.

We all knew the end was coming, particularly after June Carter, to everyone’s shock, beat him to it. But the impact of the news was not thereby diminished. On that Friday we lost possibly America’s most singular individual. I don’t think that it’s too much of a stretch to say that in Johnny’s death a little bit of what is best about America died, too.

The only word that seems to suffice here is magnanimity. The OED defines it poetically: “In Aristotle’s sense of megalopsuchia . . . loftiness of thought or purpose, grandeur of designs, nobly ambitious spirit. Now rare.” That was Johnny Cash: great-souled, rare. Everything about him was as big and black and broad as the Arkansas delta, from his physical stature and persona to “that” voice.

Yet his life cannot be reduced to a metaphor. It was more than just one of noble ambition or grandeur of design; Johnny’s virtues were just as hard-fought as his vices. In life Johnny Cash struggled for and against the God whose grip on him was so frustratingly and thankfully relentless that it was able to absorb all that fierce rage and all those addictions. Johnny could sing about murder and God in the same song and with the same voice because to do otherwise would have been dishonest. At the same time, he let that despair, agony, and rejection stand on their own—he lent them integrity. There was no serious salvation unless there was first some serious sin. Cash echoed St. Paul: “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” But there is at least one thing that Cash never was, and that is a moralist. He did not chalk doubt up to a misunderstanding. Rather, Cash showed that doubt is itself proper to faith. A God who could not stomach the darkest moments of His creation was not worth our worship, much less a song.

About three years ago, my wife and I took a weekend trip from Durham to Wilmington, North Carolina, where she was to attend a conference related to her work. One of her colleagues also traveled with her husband, a gourmet grocery store manager and guitar player, whose musical tastes tend toward dark, brooding Germanic bands with wicked-sounding names like Einsturzende Neubauten and Godspeed You Black Emperor (both of which I had never heard of). He has little use for religion, except as it pertains to Egyptian archaeology. Over a whiskey in the bar at the Hilton Hotel in Wilmington we chatted about music. Eventually the conversation turned to Johnny. At one point he raised his hand, pointed his finger at me for emphasis, and said, “If I were going to believe in God, I would believe in the God of Johnny Cash.”

[….]

That’s because he lived, sang, and played truthfully. There was in him no hint of fraud. At a time when he could have resurrected his career by riding the coattails of others’ popularity (as is the trend today), Johnny did the reverse. On 1994’s American Recordings (on the cover he stands in a field wearing a long black preacher’s coat, alone except for two dogs), he did not simply return to the “old” Johnny Cash and commodify himself for a younger audience. Rather, he signed with a punk label and sang about his familiar subjects, but this time with no musical accompaniment beyond his own acoustic guitar. All kinds of audiences ate it up because they recognized that in a world full of fakes, Cash was authentic.

There are so many aspects to Cash’s career that are unmatched in popular music. He is the only person to be inducted to the respective halls of fame for rock musicians, country artists, and songwriters. Possibly more striking than the body of songs he left us are the songs written by others that he covered.

[. . .]

In this sense, a song like “The Mercy Seat” was a Johnny Cash song all along, as if its author, Nick Cave, just tended to it until it found its true voice. This is not to denigrate the original—far from it. Rather, some songs transcend their own authors in such a way that they can only be sung by a particular voice. This was literally the case with “The Wanderer,” a U2 song that the band’s lead singer, Bono, penned and tried to record. He finally gave up, admitting that the only person who could sing the lyrics was Johnny.

The same could be said for Johnny’s last single in his lifetime, a cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.” I doubt whether in time it will be remembered principally for having been written by the frontman for the techno-punk band Nine Inch Nails, because Cash so completely inhabits the song that it becomes his own musical last will and testament. At the end of his life Cash sings,


I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real

The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything

Does the needle deliver heroin or an IV? A narcotic or a painkiller? When Cash recorded “Hurt” in 2002, he had already been suffering from a variety of ailments for several years. There is a poignancy to his frank confession of the reality of pain that rings all the truer for his having sung it.

Critics did not regard the later editions of the American series with the same awe that they did the first. The last one he released while still alive, American IV: The Man Comes Around, was well-received, but some critics wondered why we needed another version of standards like “Give My Love to Rose.” We needed it because, when sung by a seventy-year-old and frail Cash, it is a very different song than the same tune sung by the same man at age twenty-four. For now the character in the song who lies at the side of the railroad tracks is very much Cash himself.

For this reason American IV actually has more coherence and power than his previous two releases in the series. Every song on the record is about death—the title track, “I Hung My Head,” “We’ll Meet Again.” What is “Danny Boy,” after all, but a funeral dirge? It is precisely here that Cash’s final years were in some ways his greatest. On his final album, he was teaching us how to die. And in a culture that by and large loves death but does not know what to do with it—a culture simultaneously repulsed and attracted by it—Johnny’s confrontation with his own imminent demise was largely misunderstood. The critics who complained that his voice was not what it used to be missed the point entirely. It is precisely because his voice was not what it used to be that the songs have such power. The beauty of the record lies in that very frailty, the tremolo in his voice that became more pronounced with each album. Even in his younger days, the inimitable strength and fortitude in his voice was mixed with the occasional moment of weakness, the odd quaver and show of vulnerability. In the last few years those moments became more frequent, and his voice became more diaphonous, disclosing more of the effects of illness.

Yet for that very reason, Cash’s voice was all the more beautiful—it had a weakness stronger than others’ strengths. Nowhere is this more clear than on the music video for “Hurt,” directed by Mark Romanek. As with most of the songs on American IV, the vocals for “Hurt” were recorded dry—without the use of reverb, delay, or other effects. That in itself is remarkable, because recording a voice that way reveals all the idiosyncrasies and flaws that a digital effect might otherwise cover up. Nowadays almost no one records vocals this way. The unadorned character of the voice is echoed visually in the film by Cash’s refusal to conceal, with the use of makeup and other gimmickry, the fact that he is dying. No attempt is made to shoot his face from the most flattering angle, no effort to shun the ravaged face of a once indomitable figure now consumed by disease.

Towards the end of the video, the song crescendos to an intense height, accentuated by the repetition of a single note on the piano. Superimposed on all of this is a rapid montage of footage from Cash’s prime, when his hair was still black and his jaw still square. Juxtaposed beside flashes of his successes are images of the Cash museum in a state of disrepair, broken shards of those successes whose significance is now altogether subverted by the figure of Cash himself, sitting at the head of the festal table. And in between visions of the spry young superstar and the remnants of fame is the recurring image of the crucifixion. The climax of the film comes when Cash, with a crystal goblet full of red wine lifted and trembling in his enfeebled right hand, turns the cup over and empties its contents over the table, baptizing the sumptuous banquet laid out before him.

For Cash there was no empty cross but a crucifix, which neither concealed the horrors of suffering nor prematurely removed the bleeding Christ to a higher plane. In the end, it seems all his life’s vices—and even his virtues—were consumed by the blood of Christ. The truth of Cash’s music, and of his life, lies in the image of the crucified Jesus—who dies alone and forsaken, simultaneously consummating the whole creation and crippled by its weight. For Cash, redemption was not won without a fight: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrew 9:22). He sings,



And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt


Johnny Cash died in a way that demonstrated what it might mean to die well. Unlike those who die quickly, he was graced with the company of friends and loved ones, yet he never used his illness as a pretense or a front. His end was slow, painful, marked with tremendous accomplishments (even for a healthy person), but he drew near it honestly and unsentimentally. His spirit was scarred, busted, threadbare, but fearless, peaceable, witty and wise. In his living, playing, loving, and singing, he also sounded out the timbre of the Christian faith and showed how it ought to be lived: stammeringly, tunefully, with no overdubs and no effects. But most of all, with soul.

{Read it all}

That essay was written in December of 2003, not long after Cash’s death. Now, the newest issue of
Touchstone
has Cash on the cover. Here are some excerpts from one of the articles about Cash:

There was an empty seat at this year’s MTV Music Video Awards. The late Johnny Cash wasn’t there. It’s not as though Cash frequented the Generation X/Y annual awards program. 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.

At the 2003 awards show, Cash’s video “Hurt” was nominated for an award—up against shallow bubblegum pop acts such as that of Justin Timberlake. Cash didn’t win. 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.

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 Nine Inch Nails delivered “Hurt” as straight nihilism, straight out of the grunge angst of the Pacific Northwest’s music scene, Cash gives it a twist—ending the video with scenes of the crucifixion of Jesus. For him, the cross is the only answer to the inevitability of suffering and pain.

Fleeting Fame

“It’s all fleeting,” he told MTV News. “As fame is fleeting, so are all the trappings of fame fleeting; the money, the clothes, the furniture.” This could not be in more marked contrast to the culture of the popular music industry (whatever the genre), a culture of superficiality, self-exaltation, and sexual libertinism.

Perhaps this is the reason Cash remained—to the day of his death—a subject of almost morbid curiosity for a youth culture that knows nothing of “I Walk the Line.” At the 2003 awards show, 22-year-old pop sensation Justin Timberlake, beating Cash for the video award, demanded a recount. Why would twenty-something hedonists revere an old Baptist country singer from Arkansas?

[…]

The prison imagery seemed real to Cash because, for him, it was real. 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: Saul of Tarsus. He even authored a surprisingly good biography of the apostle, with the insight of one who knows what it is like to see the grace of Jesus through one’s own guilt as a “chief of sinners.”


{Read it all}

In an era when people seek through all means to avoid, deny and stave off death and mortality, the witness of Cash stands with the witness of Pope John Paul II to what it might mean to truly die with dignity. Both deaths were in a way an affront to the culture of denial we’ve constructed. The Pope’s personal integrity in avoiding all those things that Roman Catholic doctrine forbids or frowns upon but which so many in our culture–sadly so many Protestant Christians–embrace with enthusiasm. That was the man in white. Cash, the Man in Black offers his own unique testimony. The testimony to a faith born amid conviction of sin and a recognition that all things are fleeting except for a relationship with Christ. This was the gift he gave us in his final days. Sure he was still a rebel and was willing to insult the major recording industry. But why not? He recognized his peccability and his need for Christ and he conveyed that in his music. One song that has been little mentioned by other articles conveys this very well: The Man Comes Around

And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder: One of the four beasts saying: “Come and see.” And I saw. And behold, a white horse.
There’s a man goin’ ’round takin’ names. An’ he decides who to free and who to blame. Everybody won’t be treated all the same. There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down. When the man comes around.

The hairs on your arm will stand up. At the terror in each sip and in each sup. For you partake of that last offered cup, Or disappear into the potter’s ground. When the man comes around.

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers. One hundred million angels singin’. Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum. Voices callin’, voices cryin’. Some are born an’ some are dyin’. It’s Alpha’s and Omega’s Kingdom come.

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree. The virgins are all trimming their wicks. The whirlwind is in the thorn tree. It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

Till Armageddon, no Shalam, no Shalom. Then the father hen will call his chickens home. The wise men will bow down before the throne. And at his feet they’ll cast their golden crown. When the man comes around.


[. . .]

Listen to the song. And thank God for his grace and for people who recognize it like Johnny Cash.

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From Titusonenine: The Dissociations and Alienation of Liberalism

Alien
Interesting observations:

“[Note] the impressive number of dissociations to which the ultra-liberal ideology leads: . . .

–[the dissociation] between conjugality and parenthood;

–[the dissociation] between parenthood and kinship, the first being defined by the exercise of an ensemble of functions, the second, as a status that confers place in a genealogy;

–[the dissociation] between parent and progenitor/progenitrix, the second referring only to what is called the biological, generally in order to reduce it in importance;

–[the dissociation] between the sexual and the sexed, i.e. between sexuality and the difference of the sexes; . . .

–[the dissociation] between sexuality and fecundity, or, if preferred, between the sexual and the parental, between sexuality and filiation.

Éric Dubreuil even pleads for a dissociation of the notion of parenthood from that of the couple (303).

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From the Evangelical Outpost: A Pneumatological Approach to Virtue Ethics

Bcc-Petri

The Sanctifier:

A Pneumatological Approach to Virtue Ethics

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who think it’s not that simple. When it comes to ethics and morality I am one of those who think it is that simple and that the world can be divided between Christians and everyone else.

This is not to say that the group labeled “Christians” consists of people who are inherently more moral or ethical than those “everyone else.” Because of God’s common grace, both groups have access to the “law written on the heart” and have the ability to act in accordance with the natural law. Where we differ is that Christians also have the special revelation of Scripture and the Incarnation. The ultimate source for Christian ethics, therefore, must be founded on God and the work of His son, Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, this is often not the case and our ethical theories tend to be as indistinguishable from non-believers as are our moral actions.

Without digressing into an extended critique of the ethical theories typically embraced by Christians (deontological, Divine Command, natural law, etc.) I want to point out that they tend to share a common trait. Almost all of these theories focus on epistemological questions such as how we can know the good or how we can discern “ought” from “is”. As essential as these questions are to moral philosophy they tend to distract us from the more pressing issue of how we are able to do what is moral.

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From Mere Comments: What has dating come to

Check it out:

I suppose it’s a sign of how far we have progressed from the drug scene of the 60s and 70s that we now have mandatory drug testing in many of our high schools and parents have at their fingertips their own home test units. I have to imagine the conversations that take place between parents and teenagers–and it’s not hard, believe me–“If you’re not taking drugs then it shouldn’t matter if you take the test”; “Why don’t you just believe me?”

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Interesting thoughts from Fr. John Heidt:

From Dispensing with the Branch Theory:

Without the branch theory to support us, we were left without any ecclesiology at all, and those Anglo-Catholics who loved all the ceremonial accidents of Catholicism without its theological substance soon moved in to fill the gap. Many “affirmed their Catholicism” simply by turning ECUSA into a small imitation of the Roman Catholic behemoth. General Convention became an ecumenical council, 815 the new Vatican, and the executive council the new curia. Only in ECUSA was to be found the fullness of Catholic truth; The Presiding Bishop who, at his enthronement threw holy water from the great Catholic river onto the congregation and occasionally sneaked off to a Roman mass to reassure himself of his own position, tried to be the infallible voice of the whole church by learning how to be all things to all men – and women, and vote with the majority of bishops on episcopal appointments.
We now need a model of the church which preserves all the essential Catholic doctrines and practices we once defended through the branch theory and which can restore our self-confidence as a legitimate province of the whole Catholic Church. We do not need to invent a new model but resurrect an old one, a truly biblical model which has always been a part of our Anglican tradition but which, I think, has never been allowed to transform our thinking sufficiently to meet the demands of the present moment. We need to rediscover the church as the Mystical Body of Christ.

read it all

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Interesting comments from A Worker in the Vineyard

Cana Wedding-757317

Interesting comments from A Worker in the Vineyard

“Tomorrow, Texas voters will go to the polls to approve (or oppose) a constitutional amendment to the Texas Constitution which will clearly define marriage as “between a man and a woman.” And I don’t care. And I won’t be there to vote.

The reason is simple: when my wife and I went to the county offices to get a marriage license, it was to ratify that we intended to merge our assets and debts and, for tax purposes, to combine our incomes. So the state says, alright then, in our eyes you’re married, just make sure the bishop sends in the certificate. And so that was that. We defined our sacramental relationship along financial lines as well, and had the state ratify our financial union. Because the distinction is not often drawn, we clergy deal with countless droves of people who think that if they dissolve this relationship before a judge acting with the authority of the state, then the relationship is dissolved before God himself. Wrong.”

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More on Theosis/Deification from an inteersting source

64669035 00374Db88B BAs I mentioned in a previous post, I have been interested in how the doctrine of theosis has been dealt with in western theology, particularly Protestantism, being a protestant. I suppose it might be wrong to call it a Protestant doctrine of theosis since that is the proper term for the Orthodox understanding, but it works. Well, I’ve also been working on a possible topic for an honors thesis, and have been looking into what I wold term “High Church Evangelicalism,” as this has been the party with which I tend to identify most–that is those churchmen who have been convinced both of the error of Rome and the importance of the Church Catholic properly understood. That being the case I’ve extended my reading beyond the traditional High Church Anglicans and have begun looking toward the Reformed and Lutheran traditions. One interesting figure I’ve run across is a man by the name of John Williamson Nevin who defended the Calvinist doctrine of the Eucharist and was a progenator of what became known as the Mercersburg Theology. This is the first page of an essay dealing with Nevin and it talks about Calvin’s understanding of unity with God. Very interesting stuff.

From the BBC: What kind of legacy. . ..

 41017264 Emmanuel203From the BBC When the last US ships sailed out of Subic Bay in 1992, the US Navy was not just leaving behind its biggest base anywhere in the world.

American servicemen returning to their old lives in the US also abandoned thousands of Filipina girlfriends and children, often to lives of terrible poverty.

Now the black, Hispanic and Caucasian-looking boys and girls they left behind have grown up.

Few of the so-called Phil-Ams in Olongapo have much hope of a future. In the Philippines it is hard for them to fit in because of their foreign blood. Many never recovered from the devastating childhood blow of being abandoned by their fathers.


What kind of legacy is this? Armies leaving behind children is nothing new, but it is frustrating that so many American servicemen would shirk responsibility for their children this way.

Salvation through Christ, part I

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I’ve been talking with a future member of my family about soteriology, or the study of our Salvation in Christ, so I thought I would write this post to give a basic summary of my thoughts regarding the centrality of Christ in our salvation. Here’s my first attempt:

Through the incarnation of Christ in human form, the Word come down to tabernacle among us, in doing so the image of God in humanity was renewed through the action of very Word through which creation was originally constituted. This renewal of creation is perhaps related to what Wesley referred to as prevenient grace, that is, this general grace offers the opportunity to escape from bondage to sin to all humanity yet this requires the still further grace of faith, which is not a work finding its origin in the human heart, but rather in the work of God within our hearts to which we are called respond and nurture.

This faith is faith in the one name by which we may be saved, Jesus Christ our Lord. But how does Christ restore us, individually, to relationship with God? It is helpful here to consider the outlook of both Paul and Hebrew’s. . .{more to come}

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Pepys’ Diary

From Samuel Pepys’ Diary:

“Then to my office late, and this afternoon my wife in her discontent sent me a letter, which I am in a quandary what to do, whether to read it or not, but I purpose not, but to burn it before her face, that I may put a stop to more of this nature.”

Hmm… anybody know anything about 17th century marriage counseling?