The Gift

The Journey of Johnny Cash

Our culture loves heroes.  Whether it is an entertainer or a political figure, an actor or an athlete, we love to put people on pedestals.

Twenty-four hundred years ago one of the greatest of Greek philosophers, Aristotle, thought about this.  Aristotle sought to inspire his readers to be heroes.  The virtues he commended were noble ones and he believed that if his readers embodied these virtues – courage, self-discipline, decisiveness (among others) – they would stand out from the crowd with their self-sufficiency and resilience even in the midst of setbacks.  For Aristotle the definitive image of a hero was the soldier who is prepared to risk death for the sake of a higher good.  The noblest death is death in battle, for battle offers the greatest danger thus requiring the greatest courage. 

Some 1500 years after Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, a Christian theologian pondered Aristotle’s teaching but made some significant changes.  Aquinas did not inspire his readers to be heroes.  The virtues he proposed are not those that would enable his readers to be heroic warriors.  Rather, the virtues he proposed are those that enable Christians to follow Christ.  Christians are not called to be heroes, but saints!   The word ‘hero’ does not appear in the New Testament, while the word ‘saint’ occurs sixty-four times. 

Johnny Cash would certainly have not considered himself a hero.  Steeped in the Gospel traditions of the South (he attended church three times a week as a child) he grew up singing gospel songs.  But after he became a star at Sun Records in the 1950s, Johnny’s life got derailed.  The demands of endless concerts, travel, and time away from family eroded his life and convictions.  He became addicted to drugs prescribed by his doctors and abused alcohol. He was arrested several times and his marriage foundered.

But through it all – ‘the mud, the blood, and the beer’ – as one of his songs puts it – he retained a faith in God.  As the film THE GIFT makes clear, Cash knew about sin and forgiveness, about failure and redemption and new starts.  A hero?  No.  A saint? Yes.

Cash was known as the ‘Man in Black’ but it happened by accident.  Black  was the only color shirt that he and his two bandmates had in common when they were asked to sing gospel songs at an evening service in Memphis, Tennessee. “Black is better for church,” Cash said at the time, although later he’d go further, singing, “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,” including those “who’ve never read / Or listened to the words that Jesus said.”  

Cash would demonstrate his passion for justice by recording an album, ‘Bitter Tears’ focussing on Native Americans and their mistreatment by white settlers.  The album was controversial, so much so that some radio stations refused to play any of the songs.  He called them cowards though he knew it would hurt sales.

Cash also recorded a famous album at Folsom Prison which one a Grammy.  Cash knew how to relate to the down and out – one sinner singing to other sinners - and they in turn responded to him with enthusiasm.

Perhaps his most famous act of rebellion was in 1968 when President Nixon invited him to sing at the White House.  Nixon has asked that Cash perform two songs written by others:  ‘Okie from Muskogee’ which mocked hippies and Vietnam protestors; and ‘Welfare Cadillac’ which portrayed welfare recipients living well off of government handouts. 

Cash declined to perform those songs and instead sang his own song, ‘What is Truth?’ in front of a visibly uncomfortable and squirming president.  After the song, Cash called on the president to bring an end to the Vietnam War as quickly as possible.   (What is truth)

Hero or saint?  How does the New Testament define sainthood?  Join us this Sunday as we explore Cash’s story and this theme from Hebrews 11-12.


You can watch ‘THE GIFT’ on youtube at the address below: