Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of a Nation
by Rodney Clapp
Westminster John Knox Press,
192 pages, February 2008, $16.95
Reviewed by Chris L. Rice
It is with a polemical flourish that Rodney Clapp introduces Johnny Cash as a man of American contradictions. His new book finds in Cash all the sentimental attachments and serious tensions associated with the American spirit. How could Johnny Cash be so profoundly Christian and patriotic, and yet so this-worldly, provocative, and controversial at the same time? Clapp finds answers in America’s music, poetry, history, politics, and social reality.
Country music, according to Clapp, is a culture of adaptations. Its instruments are multinational in origin, and “not as insular and provincial as its detractors think—or as it might imagine itself to be.”(pg. xv) I’m impressed with how well-versed Clapp is with country music overall, and his employment of it for understanding loneliness and community. He is up to date with all the best sources for biographical and discographical information on Cash’s life and music. From train songs to Cash’s plunge into the Native American experience, Clapp draws everything we need most from the Man in Black today.
I would be remiss not to mention this book’s theological emphasis. Clapp says that America is itself taken with theological claims, employing them in ways that make it hard to be a Christian in public. He puts it quite bluntly:
“To instrumentalize faith or take the living God’s “name in vain” is a violation of the First Commandment, and chief among the sins judged harshly in Scripture.” (pg. 60)
Far from being a Christian nation, America tries to use faith language for its own purposes.
Clapp is not afraid of fiery rhetoric, albeit with sincerity, exploring the themes of lonesomeness and community, holiness and hedonism, tradition and progress, guilt and innocence, and violence and peace. These pages are full of weighty ruminations, employing Walt Whitman one moment and Hank Williams the next, Johnny Cash again, and then pulling away to a brief history of southern democrats and the rise of the New Right in politics. One of my favorite sections is on the way the locomotive changed everything, from the way we eat to the way we mark time. His reading of Hermann Mellville’s Moby Dick in order to understand the American experience is priceless.
My deepest impression from this book is that there are profound implications to Christian faith and practice. The final chapter, “On Baptism, Patriotism, and Being a Christian in Public”, contains one of the best metaphors I’ve ever seen for being Christian and patriotic at the same time. Clapp says that nations are much like parents. We don’t choose them, but we love them. We may not approve of everything they do, and yet remain committed to them. (pg. 124) With the final paragraph, Clapp surrenders himself to the knowledge that his way of writing is not Cash-like. “He was a poet and not a critic.” (pg. 132) He says he is certain however, that they both are Christian and American. With this book, Rodney Clapp loads both those words with so much more meaning.