Next week marks the release of "Walk the Line," the new film about the life of Johnny Cash, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. Although I don't go to the movies often, I'll be curious to hear how (or if) the biopic portrays the Man in Black's Christian faith.
Johnny Cash was a rare breed of musician: an entertainer who could bring the Gospel to a mainstream audience. Johnny bore the scars of hard living, trouble with the law, and drug addiction, and he sang of the sin and brokenness of a fallen world. His honesty about his own sinfulness and his dark nights of the soul reached out to those hurting in a culture of spiritual emptiness. His own search for redemption illustrated the healing power of Christ to an audience of millions. In an article in First Things shortly after Johnny's death, Peter M. Candler, Jr., put it best:
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.
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).
Like Jesus, who shared meals with prostitutes and tax collectors, Johnny Cash carried a message of hope to the most despised members of society, including the robbers, rapists, and murderers of San Quentin and Folsom prisons. At the same concert where he famously flipped the bird at photographers, he also sang gospels like "Peace in the Valley" and his own composition about Christ, "He Turned the Water into Wine," to thousands of prisoners. Johnny Cash wore black as a call for justice for and sign of solidarity with those whose pain he shared: "I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,/ Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,/ I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,/ But is there because he's a victim of the times."
His own pain and relationship with God were central to his music. A 2003 Christianity Today article quotes the singer's struggles with the demons of addiction and how God reached out to him:
In a 2000 interview with Rolling Stone, Cash compared drugs' spiritual consequences with their physical and emotional devastation: "To put myself in such a low state that I couldn't communicate with God, there's no lonelier place to be. I was separated from God, and I wasn't even trying to call on him. I knew that there was no line of communication."
Though he'd professed Christ at age 12, Cash wrote that by 1967, "there was nothing left of me… I had drifted so far away from God and every stabilizing force in my life that I felt there was no hope." He decided to crawl into Nickajack Cave on the Tennessee River, get lost, and die. "The absolute lack of light was appropriate," he wrote. "My separation from Him, the deepest and most ravaging of the various kinds of loneliness I'd felt over the years, seemed finally complete.
"It wasn't. I thought I'd left Him, but He hadn't left me. I felt something very powerful start to happen to me, a sensation of utter peace, clarity, and sobriety…Then my mind started focusing on God. He didn't speak to me—He never has, and I'll be surprised if He ever does—but ... I became conscious of a very clear, simple idea: I was not in charge of my own destiny. I was not in charge of my own death."
Will "Walk the Line" include any sentiments like these? I have no idea. But any film about Johnny Cash that leaves out his Christian faith will miss the mark in painting a complete picture of his life.