Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Theology and the Man in Black

I went to hear a paper at the University this evening entitled 'The Apocalypse according to Johnny Cash: Examining the 'Effect' of the book of Revelation on a contemporary apocalyptic writer'.

As well as some fine music and lots of humour from YouTube, the paper was examining how we detect the effect of the Bible on the world, and using Cash's The Man Comes Around as a means of doing this.

One of the papers themes was that because Cash doesn't name Jesus as the Man (who comes around) he has a weak Christology and leaves his work open to a range of interpretations of who 'The Man' could be - from Cash himself to George W. Bush!

Lots of food for thought about how what we say is then heard and repeated in our culture, which has little understanding of the Gospel.

But the thing that really stood out for me was the suggestion that it was possible to tell that Cash was really reading the Bible in this song (rather than just regurgitating what his tradition told him the passage said) because he acknowledges the limitations of his understanding of that portion of Scripture.

I find this really helpful. I try to read the scriptures, and make a stab at an interpretation, but cannot hide the fact that I don't understand them at all!


John H said...

Weak Christology? Harumph! Sounds like the author of the paper has a poor grasp of the medium of popular music. The medium really doesn't work for communicating didactically (and there are many dire "Christian Rock" albums which demonstrate this). But abandoning the didactic approach naturally gives a work that doesn't have a single interpretation.

Of course, this is pretty amusing given that the apocalyptic literature in the Bible is rather open to a range of interpretations in the first place ;)

Of course, Cash may have been avoiding mentioning Jesus because doing so in popular music is still something of a taboo (as Kanye West rather eloquently pointed out).

Tim S said...

Yeah, wise words John. Art is art: whatever its theological significance (intended or otherwise), its being articulate or perhaps even orthodox theology has to be secondary to the artist's artistic freedom - to choose the right word, note, brush stroke, camera shot (etc) given his or her *artistic* goals.

To quote an old saw: the medium is the message. If one elevates "message" too much at the expense of "medium", one risks ending up with the artistically awful, e.g. the Christian rock albums John mentions. I'm sure Cash chose the words he did for good artistic reasons.

On the other side, one often finds the language of theology somewhat over-abstract - precisly because of the lawyer-like need for nice distinctions of orthodoxy in all matters. Which great theologian was it who said that all dogmatic writing was only an approximation to the religious truth more adequately expressed by great art?

charity said...

If you don't understand them, I have no chance!

William said...

Can someone tell me where Cash got the reference to a "whirlwind in a thorntree" My concordance list whirlwind, and thorntree, but not in anyone particular passage, and nowhere I believe in the Revelation of John. Of course the other references are clear, the pale horseman, the Man, seems clearly to mean Jesus, and yes, Cash did read his Bible a lot, and probably the Authorized version.