What does it mean to be a witness? The believers of today never saw Jesus’ face, neither did we hear his words firsthand. How can we be witness? To what?
The apostolic age is long gone. What we are left with today is called the “deposit of faith” in theological terms. It’s built upon what the disciples witnessed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The deposit of faith has been passed on down the line in the lives of those who claim and proclaim the Gospel today. It’s who Jesus referred to when he said “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”.
Those who call themselves Christians are judged by what they do with this deposit of faith, and in a sense, Christianity itself is judged by the quality of their testimony. How do you explain the inexplicable? Cue to an interesting podcast I recently heard about, Johnny Cash, country legend and incidentally, a witness to the Gospel. His life was a great illustration of the “deposit of faith” borne out in human flesh.
Johnny Cash was a man of contradictions and an unlikely Christian. His career had high highs and low lows. His family roots were dirt-poor sharecroppers of the rural south. His brother Jack died when Johnny was ten years old. Johnny Cash never gained the approval of his own father. He went to jail seven times, got addicted to drugs, quit drugs, was divorced and remarried along the way. He nearly went broke a few times and had to pawn his wife’s jewellery to pay the bills. He knew moments of extraordinary pain. Any close up of Johnny Cash’s face tells the story of a man haunted by the duality of flesh and spirit. Johnny Cash was the quintessential everyman.
To be ordinary, and extraordinary at the same time was Cash’s true gift according to Bono. He was a living contradiction of humanity and faith. Going to lunch with Bono, Cash bowed his head and said, “Shall we pray?” When he was done, he looked up and winked, “Sure do miss the drugs.”
Whatever his earlier life had been, Johnny Cash ran like the prodigal son to the Gospel in middle age and beyond. He never looked back. Cash was re-baptized at the age of 39 in the Jordan River, and fully embraced his Christian faith, releasing a number of gospel albums, a gospel film, and authoring a book on the life of Paul the Apostle, entitled “The Man in White”.
Little known fact: Johnny Cash earned a degree in theology and was ordained as a minister. He was an ardent student of the Bible. One fishing companion noted that Johnny Cash kept a Bible in the trunk of his car and would read while fishing, even if he had company. Part of every day was devoted to Bible study.
Though Cash never had a chart hit past the1990’s, he still enjoyed a resurgence to his career. The ineffable Man in Black connected with the equally unquantifiable Generation X. He taped the bare bones American Recordings (1994) in his living room, accompanied only by his Martin Dreadnought guitar.
The album American IV featured the apocalyptic song, “The Man Comes Round” about the return and judgement of Jesus Christ. It also included an assessment of his own legacy with a re-release of the Nine Inch Nails song, “Hurt”. The lyrics are the statement of a fallible man.
“Everyone goes away in the end. You can have it all - my empire of dirt. I will let you down. I will make you hurt.”
Set against this bleak self assessment, words of a greater hope adorn Johnny Cash’s gravestone. “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).
The words of his mouth and the meditations of his heart do live on, and I am betting anyone who can sing along with “One Piece at a Time”, also knows that Johnny Cash was a Christian. It's the irony of the deposit of faith. Whether we live well, or clumsily with blunt humanity exposed, we confirm the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ with every day of our lives.