‘Walk the Line’, the Johnny Cash biopic, charts the life of one of music’s most enduring icons – The Man in Black. But in charting his life it downplays one of the most significant details about the man, the one fact that unlocks everything else about Cash. Cash was a Christian – not in the general sense in which we use that word, but in the biblical sense. He was a born-again, bible-believing Christian.
He was the archetypal prodigal son. He had stood on the heights of success and excess, and he had wallowed in the depths of drug abuse and adultery. In it he saw the emptiness of all this life has to offer – this empire of dirt as he refers to it in one of his songs. A broken marriage and a brother’s death for which he was blamed all left their mark, and left a burden.
And it was when he found forgiveness in Jesus that he found his burdens lifted. In his songs Cash dealt realistically with sin, not in finger-pointing condemnation, but from a heart intimately acquainted with the struggle. He was fond of saying the only reason he didn’t carry a burden of guilt was because he figured that, if God had forgiven him, the least he could do was to forgive himself.
Johnny Cash reminds this generation that he has tasted everything the MTV culture has to offer—and found it to be a way that leads to death. In a culture that idolizes youth, Cash reminds the young of what MTV doesn’t tell them: “It is appointed to man once to die, and after this the judgment” (Heb 9:27).
One of Cash’s final songs was also one of his best. The masterful ‘The Man comes around’ exudes an intensity of something written by someone who knows his time is short. The lyrics include the lines, “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.” The warning is stark, and it comes, not from a man who likes to point the finger, but from the voice of a pilgrim at the end of his own journey, filled with compassion for those who are still on theirs.
Thousands of his fans recognized in Cash a sinner like them, but a sinner who mourned the tragedy of his past and found peace in ‘the man [Jesus] who’s coming round.’