Sunday, March 29, 2009

WOPR, Johnny Cash, and Regenerate Church Membership

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.


Darby Livingston said...


Do you think there is a place in the Christian life for what Piper calls, "grieving joy" or "joyful groaning"? Isn't there a dark night of the soul for some that we just can't explain an might never personally experience? Do you think that is what Cash was expressing? He also had some grace songs after all.

selahV said...

It seems that Johnny may have reached the end of his life clutching to regrets for things he'd done and didn't do. My dad was like that. Though he loved the Lord so much and looked forward to going home, he simply could not shake the things he'd done and things he'd ignored in his life.

In comparing it to the church, I'd say the church--consisting of many folk who are walking on life's journey at individual paces--is definitely a refuge for those struggling with sanctification and receiving grace amid the conflict.

I think of Solomon and his take on life in Ecclesiastes. His words give so much wisdom in that book. Words of warning. Words of reality. Words of letting go of the world to embrace the Kingdom of heaven. selahV

Baptist Theology said...


I believe you are correct in your assessment. Whatever Johnny Cash's personal disposition, it is the public message that is so disappointingly non-Christian.


"The dark night of the soul" is a basically humanistic means of contemplating the divine, I am afraid. Moreover, historically, as it is rooted in medieval mysticism, it is fundamentally at odds with the Reformation doctrine of justification. The Lutheran concept of Anfechtung (roughly, "despair") is distinguished from the medieval "dark night of the soul" in that it despairs of any human capabilities whatsoever and clings entirely to the alien righteousness of Christ.

In Christ,

Bob Cleveland said...

It is the undeniable and impending spectre of death that reveals, as perhaps nothing else, the depth and the reality and the genuine-ness of one's faith. Recent events have driven that home to me at the most personal level.

But it isn't the only time it's happened. In December of 1970, I'd taken a job in Muncie, IN, and we were driving up to scope things out. On the way, the CONELRAD alert went off and the radio station instructed us to tune to a CONELERAD station, and promptly went off the air.

We tuned to CONELRAD and listened to 15 minutes of announcements that we'd shortly be hearing from NORAD in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. We fully expected the worst.

Finally, the announcer said "The North American Air Defense Command in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, has announced they put the wrong tape on the air, this morning." You cannot imagine the feelings we all had right up until last ten words.

Those events bring home the reality of the things we all confess, but seldom consider as we ought.

Good post.

David Samples said...


This may in fact be one of the best things that I have ever seen you write. I really was moved by your words. I think that there are a great many want-to-be Christians sitting in our churches who are missing the point entirely. I don't know about the faith of Johnny Cash. I think his song that you referred to expresses the often painful hope of salvation that many of our sheep feel but are too afraid to talk about. Very good post!

Darby Livingston said...


Thanks for the response. I've never experienced anything like a "dark night" but it sounds like you would call such a thing a type of grief that leads to death rather than repentance? I'm tempted to think of it as a lack of faith in the imputed righteousness of Christ. After all, we shouldn't grieve as those who have no hope. But is it possible for some who are saved to struggle at just this point (despair), while others might struggle with lust or greed or fear of man?

Alan Cross said...


It is possible to hurt deeply and have hope at the same time. Johnny Cash expressed hope in Christ. It still did not make everything better all the time or take away all his pain. We hurt because we recognize that things are not as they should be. When a love one dies, pain is a natural emotion. It is us agreeing with God that we were never supposed to die. Jesus wept. He knew that He would raise Lazarus from the dead, but He wept anyway. He cried so bitterly at Gethsemane that he sweat blood. He knew the resurrection was coming. He cried out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" At the same time, He knew that He would be restored to the Father.

Having our hope in the Lord and feeling and expressing deep pain are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes, pain is the most real thing about us. It is real because it connects us with reality. All is not well with the world. We need a Savior. I need a savior today the same way I needed one when I was eight years old. We grieve that things are not as they should be. We grieve deeply. At the same time, we hope and we know that one day, all will be restored. But, if we truly love others, we can grieve for them, for ourselves, and for our common experience. We are still human, even though we are reconciled to God and raised up with Him. The "now, not yet," paradox provides hope, but still we yearn and grieve waiting for our redemption.

From the Middle East said...

Brother Bart,

Artists are interesting folks indeed. One thing I love about them is that they are often willing to bare themselves, struggles included, when most of us are keeping up appearances.

Have you checked "The Man Comes Around" on the same album?

Peace to you brother,
From the Middle East

From the Middle East said...

Brother Bart,

There is also an interesting article in Christianity Today's archives entitled "The Man Came Around" about Johnny Cash and his faith.

Peace to you brother,
From the Middle East

Chris Poe said...

I'm no Cash expert by any means (calling Dr. Russell Moore) but there was also "The Highwayman" which Cash performed with the group of the same name (Waylon, Willie, and Kris Kristofferson) in the mid 1980's that rather explicitly embraced reincarnation.

Of course I can make no judgment on Johnny Cash's profession. But could it be said that the contradictory messages noted here are the epitome of Bible Belt religiosity?

From the Middle East said...

Speaking of Dr. Moore, here is his article "Real Hard Cash."

Peace to all,
From the Middle East

From the Middle East said...

Brother Bart,

One other thing of note here is that when Cash sang "Hurt," he did not sing it as you quoted above. He sang it as:

"If I could start again, a zillion miles away,
I would keep myself; I would find a way"

You can listen to it and watch the video here.

Peace to you brother,
From the Middle East

PS - Apologies for the plethora of comments on this one ;^)

Bart Barber said...

Greetings all!

Quite a discussion has blossomed here since I last visited. I see that I need to indicate a couple of things that I am not saying and return us to what I am saying:

1. The lyrics of the song "Hurt" are antithetical to Christianity.

2. I am not claiming that anything other than "sunshine" is antithetical to Christianity. I am claiming that the lyrics of the song "Hurt" are antithetical to Christianity. I have been through my share of dark days, some of them recent.

3. I am not claiming to know Johnny Cash's spiritual state; I am discussing the spiritual state portrayed by the lyrics of that song. I wrote early in the piece: "I don't know that Cash actually felt that way, but that is the inescapable message of his final recording project." Looking back over the piece, the final paragraph, in the manner of using Cash's name, may have blunted the effect of earlier words trying to hedge my bets on Cash's personal situation.

4. FTME reminds us that artists are sometimes more transparent than others. Sometimes, perhaps. Yet the very trait that enables one to excel as an actor or artist is greater skill at fakery than most of the population possesses. Rather than a critique of Cash, this is actually my reason to hold out hope for him—I'm assuming the possibility that Cash sometimes covered lyrics written by other people (as with "Hurt") that did not represent his personal convictions.

5. For an artist to sing lyrics compatible with Christianity and then sing lyrics that are not compatible with Christianity, what I mentioned in point #4 is necessarily true. That is why the presence of songs such as "The Man Comes Around" make the album more disturbing, as I mentioned in the essay, because it does not fit with "Hurt."

6. The main points of the essay are: (a) Any member of a biblical church uttering the lyrics of "Hurt" as his own sentiments should be comforted and confronted until his stated sentiments change, because (b) Any member of a biblical church uttering the lyrics of "Hurt" as his own sentiments is testifying AGAINST Christ to the world.

Bart Barber said...


Good catch on Cash's alteration of the final lines. I missed that, and it was important. My apologies. I do not believe that it undoes the point of the essay, but I do believe that it is very relevant.

Also, with regard to Dr. Moore's essay, with great temerity I disagree with Russell. I agree that Cash connected with this song. But I think that the essence of that connection was the sense of a dismaying mass of lost people that Cash was just like them. That's a sentiment that will foster connection, but will it give anyone any motivation to emulate such a person's proposed solution?

I also agree with Dr. Moore that Christianity has something real and non-saccharine to say about pain. I just don't think that Cash ever got around to saying it.

Chris Johnson said...

Brother Bart,

Great words when you said…

“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.”

Cash may have had some hang-ups as he survived around the plastic environment of disorderly lives in an unusual industry. In that industry,..words sell songs, and “cash” was good with words….not so much for his sake, but it is the connection those words have to countless millions that buy the media (that may be the saddest commentary). We probably know just a little of his (Cash’s) own personal struggles.

I compared what Cash had to say with an email I received last week from a man where his words were almost as disturbing as Cash’s comments…. Unlike Cash, this man stands as a Pastor…. He wrote….


1. I'm personally teaching Class 101 for the first time in ten years.

2. I'm personally baptizing after Class and you'll receive a photo & baptism certificate.

3. You'll get a free one year subscription to Purpose Driven Connection magazine. (Never offered before)

4. You'll get free copy of The Purpose Driven Church book.

5. Your name will be included in the historical list of Saddleback Pioneer Members who joined in our first 30 years. (This Easter is our 30th Easter and I want you included in this list.)

6. The class is 1 hour shorter than normal. You can watch session 3 here online now.

7. You'll be a part of making Christian history! The largest membership class ever!

Now that type of selling is hurtful…and repulsive all at the same time! Cash probably has sold more of his albums though through his line of work….


volfan007 said...


How do you do? My name is Sue!

David :)

volfan007 said...


Something else that your readers may find interesting is that you and Johnny Cash were born not too far from each other.

"I hear that train a coming...coming on down the tracks..."

David the Johnny Cash fan

Wes Kenney said...

Well, now that the serious discussion is apparently over, I'll go ahead and point out to everyone that Cash himself had the solution to depression.


Good post, Bart.

From the Middle East said...

Brother Bart,

Thank you for the clarification that this is not about Johnny Cash's faith.

With regard to the song "Hurt" offering no hope to unbelievers, neither does half the book of Ecclesiastes or much of the Psalms or even the first half of the "Roman Road." Yet, when taken in totality, all offer both the problem (great despair and pain) and the Good News! Could it be that you are asking the song "Hurt" to stand alone as his testimony when it was never intended to stand alone but was intended to get people thinking about how all their "stuff" is really dirt and people all go away. In short, could it be the presentation of humanity's dilemma?

Maybe as an evangelistic effort, we could play the song "Hurt" for an unbeliever and then play the song "The Man Comes Around" ;^)

Peace to you brother,
From the Middle East

Anonymous said...

Profoundly tired of useless Christians who decide for themselves who is and isn't saved. Cash has done more to bring people to Christ than a thousand little snippy blogger-critics all put together. Sure, the narrator in that old song shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. How dare you take that lyric out of context! When the narrator thinks contritely about that deed, like St. Paul, he says "I hang my head and cry." Face it. Cash and Dylan are the great evangelists of the last half of the 20th century. The bitterness and small-mindedness of their little critics is shameful.