If I could start again, a zillion miles away,
I would save myself; I would find a way
–“Hurt” by Trent Raznor, covered by Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around, ©2002, American Recording Company
The palpable agony in Johnny Cash's final album still haunts me nearly a decade after its release and Cash's death one year later. "Troubling" has been an apt word for the lyrical accomplishments of Johnny Cash, all the way back to his scandalous shooting (in the fictional lyrics) of "a man in Reno, just to watch him die," back in 1955. But American IV is, in my opinion, the most troubling project in Cash's career.
The lyrics of "Hurt" are certainly dark in and of themselves: "I hurt myself today to see if I still feel" are the opening words. To hear Nine Inch Nails perform the song is somehow less disturbing—young people often go through difficult seasons in their lives, and they occasionally tend toward unmerited melodrama. It is easy, therefore, to write off Nine Inch Nails's dissonant performance of "Hurt" as someone going through a phase (or a narcotic-induced stupor), but destined to sort it all out as maturity dawns and to discover that life isn't so dismal after all. But to hear the voice of a tired old man bringing forth such fatalistic and dark poetry is another experience altogether. It brings one to doom and loss not as the angst of overwrought hormonal excess, but as a final judgment upon the vanity of life from one who has lived long enough to have some credibility upon the subject. His final words, feverishly attempting to conjure up hope for self-salvation give us, in the end, more an unfulfilled (unfulfillable?) desire for "a way" than any tangible belief that such a way exists.
That the album includes a couple of songs hinting toward Cash's professed faith in Jesus Christ, to me, only makes matters worse. It places before us the proposition that the source of all of this angst is not one who has no hope merely because he hasn't looked for any. He has searched. He has engaged the Christian faith, and it has left him to face death in despondency. I don't know that Cash actually felt that way, but that is the inescapable message of his final recording project.
The final strains of "Hurt" put before us the idea of starting again, not as a belief in reincarnation, but as a hypothetical exercise. The author doesn't suggest that he's learned any concrete lessons that he could readily and easily apply. He makes no appeal to being wiser for being older. He doesn't know the way; he only knows all the more how important it is to try to save himself.
The image that these final couplets of "Hurt" place into my mind is that of Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, and John Wood in the 1983 movie "War Games" standing in the bowels of Cheyenne Mountain watching the WOPR computer play "Global Thermonuclear War." The computer restarts the game over and over and over. It tries something different each time. Every plan ends in the annihilation of the world in this Cold War thriller. Finally, the computer compares the prospect of thermonuclear war to the game tic-tac-toe. "An interesting game," WOPR declares, "The only winning move is not to play."
Cash's final album seems to make the same observation about life.
Is the new birth in Jesus Christ a "winning move" in the game of life? No, I don't mean in the sense of Your Best Life Now. But can the Christian believer arrive at the culmination of earthly living genuinely singing "I Can Only Imagine" instead of "Hurt"? I'm convinced that genuine conversion makes that difference. I've seen it in the people of my church. You may be convinced as well. But the world around us is not. They hear too many who claim the name of Christ but who seem to lack confidence in Him as the answer to their problems in this life and beyond. Certainly something has been said about the relevance and reality of Christ as the Conqueror and conversion as a winning move when a purported believer utters something like "I focus on the pain, the only thing that's real."
I believe that this phenomenon of such an uncertain witness coming from self-identified believers has major implications for our fulfillment of the Great Commission as Southern Baptists. In 1735 a young John Wesley—missional, devout, and pious, but as of yet unconverted—encountered his own panic and despair in the face of death. A brutal Atlantic storm beat down upon his ship, threatening the crew and passengers with their imminent demise. Wesley's momentary angst dwelt upon his own mortality, but the enduring angst from that moment focused upon the difference between Wesley's reaction to the danger juxtaposed against the reaction of a group of Moravian missionaries in the ship. Wesley panicked; the Moravians sang and prayed very calmly. Even after the storm had passed, Wesley's disquiet about the contrast between himself and the Moravians remained. It persisted for a full three years until it drove Wesley in 1738 to the Moravian meeting at Aldersgate and to his own conversion.
The momentary angst of our contemporaries is focused upon their jobs, their 401(k) accounts, their upcoming tax bills, and their mortgages. This storm will pass...may already be passing. Will those who live across the street from Southern Baptists or who work in the next cubicle emerge from this storm with any enduring angst, any sense after weathering these storms together with us that they are lacking some peace that Christ has imparted to us? If so, this reality would greatly assist us in fulfilling the Great Commission in our land. Some Southern Baptists certainly are demonstrating Christ's peace in their lives, but we must face the fact that many members in good standing of Southern Baptist churches do not show the evidence of Christ in their lives because they do not have Christ in their lives.
Meaningful and biblical church membership takes the Johnny Cashes of this world and engages them with something more real than pain. If they remain unconverted, it calls them to conversion. If they have been converted but are walking disorderly lives, it brings them the encouragement and accountability and support that they need to find Christ's strength for victorious living. If they will have neither of these things, it refuses to ignore their troubles until and unless they address them.
This biblical covenant community of encouraging accountability is the way. It is not a means for saving ourselves, but a means of acknowledging that we cannot possibly do so and pointing us to the only One who can. It does not require going back to some imagined decision-point a zillion miles earlier in life, but demonstrates that life can change even now when the Creator creates us anew. It confronts us with a message that strips away the veil and demonstrates pain to be nothing more than "temporary light affliction" that, while quite real, fades into insignificance in comparison to the glory yet to be revealed.
The way was there all along, right under Johnny Cash's nose. Let's knock the dust off it and make sure that everyone else can see it better from now on.