Back in black: Rare triple Cash plug

041129oucosl walk07When it rains it pours. This is the day when most American news outlets will be doing their Walk the Line coverage, a subject already discussed on this blog here, here and way back here.

Yes, GetReligion is rather fond of the music and legacy of Johnny and June Carter Cash. Sue us.

I mean, what can you say about a man who once described his taste in music this way: “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And mother. And God.”

So, folks, what we have here today is a rare triple plug of writings by friends of this blog concerning this man and this movie. I won’t feature a lot of quotes, since I primarily hope that other journalists will check out the information in these pieces. One crisp quote from each will do.

• One is by Frederica Mathewes-Green (yes, OK, the wife of my parish priest) of NPR, Beliefnet and elsewhere and it just went up at National Review Online. Look for the headline: “Cash’s walk with women.” The big idea here is that the film basically had to choose between three different themes to stress — rebellion, romance and faith. Guess which two they picked? The rebellion theme is real, but handled as a mere stereotype:

A department store employee, for example, coldly tells Carter that her famous singing parents are “good Christians” and that she’s surprised that they still speak to her after her divorce. “Divorce is an abomination,” she intones. This is the kind of tin-ear dialogue that results when a disapprover, usually Christian, has to be dragged onstage in order to make the rebellion engine work. Such stereotypes have as much to do with real Christians as Stepin Fetchit had to do with the real condition of African Americans in the 1930′s.

• Also up at NRO is this essay by Steve Beard of Thunderstruck.org (A truck stop for the soul), titled “An Incomplete Cash: Walking into a ring of fire.” Beard has been writing about the Cash story for years and knows his stuff.

Beard is frustrated with the pre-conversion timeline issue, but knows why the movie did what it did with one side of Cash’s soul. Thus, he notes: “In the film, you see plenty of the pill popping but none of the Bible-thumping.”

• The third essay is featured at Beliefnet, with the headline “A Faith-Life Johnny Cash.” This essay is by Mark Joseph, who has written a number of books on religion and rock & roll and works on a wide variety of projects in Hollywood. Here is the heart of his piece, which ends up quoting Cash on the redemption of Johnny Cash. Quoting Cash is never a bad idea:

The key moment in Cash’s turnaround happened when he tried a unique method of suicide — crawling through a cave hoping to never make it out alive. Cash wrote:

The absolute lack of light was appropriate, for at that moment I was as far from God as I have ever been. My separation from Him, the deepest and most ravaging of the various kinds of loneliness I’d felt over the years, seemed finally complete. It wasn’t. I thought I’d left him but He hadn’t left me. I felt something very powerful start to happen to me, a sensation of utter peace, clarity and sobriety. I didn’t believe it at first. I couldn’t understand it … the feeling persisted though and then my mind started focusing on God … there in Nickajack cave I became conscious of my destiny. I was not in charge of my own death. I was going to die at God’s time, not mine. I hadn’t prayed over my decision to seek death in the cave, but that hadn’t stopped God from intervening … I told my mother that God had saved me from killing myself. I told her I was ready to commit myself to Him and do whatever it took to get off drugs. I wasn’t lying.

The big question: Where is Nickajack cave in the timeline of the Walk the Line movie? That sounds like it would have been a rather dramatic scene, to me. Maybe it would have been too dark, or too light, or too something else.

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Update on the preacher in black

The folks at CT have an interesting feature online that addresses many issues related to the role of faith in the Walk the Line biopic of June and Johnny Cash.

witherspoon phoenixThe story includes some commentary from director James Mangold, actor Joaquin Phoenix and self-proclaimed church lady (sort of) Reese Witherspoon. Here’s an interesting, to say the least, detail from a post-dinner encounter with the Cashes in their home, beginning with the Johnny and June singing a duet:

The song was “The Far Side Banks of Jordan,” and Phoenix says he was amazed by the “profound sense of love” he witnessed between the Cashes. “And then, moments later, he quoted to me my most sadistic dialogue from Gladiator, saying it was his favorite part of the movie.” (The line: “Your son squealed like a girl when they nailed him to the cross. And your wife moaned like a whore when they ravaged her again and again.”)

Phoenix says the experience encapsulated the two separate forces that lived within Cash: “It really is night and day. You wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it. And he seemed to relish that dialogue as much as he relished looking into June’s eyes and singing this song.”

The key, again, seems to be the movie’s timeline. It stops precisely at the moment Cash’s faith revived so strongly. However, it does seem to downplay the tensions about faith, sex, marriage, divorce, fidelity and everything else that so shaped the courtship of June and Johnny.

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Walking the line with God?

carterfold3Friends of mine who have seen the new Walk the Line biopic on Johnny Cash say it is a strong movie, but totally misses the strong role Christian faith played in the life of this extended family. Yes, I know all about the wild side of his life. Here is how I summed some of that up in a column two years ago:

For years, Cash prowled the stage on amphetamines and wept as he sang “The Old Rugged Cross” — often in the same show. Things got better after he married June Carter in 1968, a meeting of souls made in heaven, but worked out in the flesh under the parental gaze of Ezra and Maybelle Carter. These country-music pioneers not only prayed at Cash’s bedside while he kicked drugs, but hung on through years of front-porch Bible study as he walked the line toward redemption.

Cash was in a spiritual war and he knew it.

That’s the key. The struggles went on, with the victories and the failures influencing the art and talent of the same man. It seems that the filmmakers did not realize, or elected to overlook, the point at which Cash’s religious conversion began.

Anyway, here is one of my shameless plugs. My good friend Prof. Jim Dahlman teaches at Milligan College, where I taught for six years, which is in the mountains of Tennessee right down the road from the musical stomping grounds known as the Carter Family Fold. If you love music and you haven’t been there, well, you need to go. This is where Johnny Cash gave his last performance.

Dahlman also is a columnist in the local daily newspaper, and he decided to talk to this generation of the Carter family before they see the movie. I hope he follows this snapshot up with another column after they see the flick. These folks are the real deal. Here’s a sample from family member Rita Forrester:

Fellow musician Kris Kristofferson called Johnny “a walking contradiction,” and by all accounts that wasn’t in spite of his faith but often because of it. … That openness and authenticity — a common description — not only brought new fans, it also gained a respectful hearing for their faith.

“They witnessed to people who never would have known anything about Jesus,” Rita says. They didn’t preach or “make judgments about other people. Their Christianity was just obvious. It was about the way they chose to conduct their lives.”

Rita is eager to see those lives portrayed on the screen next week, and she expects to cry when she does. “I’m sure it will be a bittersweet experience,” she says. “I’m hoping it will bring a real sense of what good people they were. I hope their faith comes through strongly.”

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Bono on sex, God and rock & roll

BonoInRSOne of the more endearing things about Jann Wenner is that he still writes for Rolling Stone nearly 40 years after founding it. His pieces are memorable: a lengthy Q&A with John Lennon shortly before Lennon’s murder, a gang interview with presidential candidate Bill Clinton at Doe’s Eat Place and off a one-page editorial endorsing Al Gore. Whenever Wenner contributes again to the pages of his flagship, you can be sure he’ll bring passion to it.

Who can blame Wenner for claiming some of the best assignments for himself? His cover story for the Nov. 3 Rolling Stone, based on roughly 10 hours of interviewing Bono, is one such assignment, and this time he’s sharing some of the audio in a podcast series.

The first podcast, and an excerpt of the cover story, give Bono another chance to discuss his faith. It’s one of the lengthier and more relaxed conversations Bono has engaged in about religion. (The book Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas offers more.)

One of the most fascinating segments concerns Bono’s understanding of, to turn a phrase of tmatt’s, sex, salvation and rock & roll:

Here’s the strange bit: Most of the people that you grew up with in black music had a similar baptism of the spirit, right? The difference is that most of these performers felt they could not express their sexuality before God. They had to turn away. So rock & roll became backsliders’ music. They were running away from God. But I never believed that. I never saw it as being a choice, an either/or thing.

You never saw rock & roll — the so-called devil’s music — as incompatible with religion?

Look at the people who have formed my imagination. Bob Dylan. Nineteen seventy-six — he’s going through similar stuff. You buy Patti Smith: Horses — “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/But not mine . . .” And she turns Van Morrison’s “Gloria” into liturgy. She’s wrestling with these demons — Catholicism in her case. Right the way through to Wave, where she’s talking to the pope.

The music that really turns me on is either running toward God or away from God. Both recognize the pivot, that God is at the center of the jaunt. So the blues, on one hand — running away; gospel, the Mighty Clouds of Joy — running towards. And later you came to analyze it and figure it out.

The blues are like the Psalms of David. Here was this character, living in a cave, whose outbursts were as much criticism as praise. There’s David singing, “Oh, God — where are you when I need you?/You call yourself God?” And you go, this is the blues.

I’ve sometimes expressed dismay about Bono’s sense of the ribald. This interview helps me understand it better. Thanks to Wenner for sharing his celebrity access with the rest of us, and for engaging Bono on a topic that’s always sure to satisfy those of us who love both U2 and God.

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Holy Ghost in the Cash story

walk the lineFirst of all, I need to state the obvious. A long time ago I was I was a rock columnist in a mainstream newspaper, and you only have to do that job for, oh, a week or so to learn that Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times is one of the giants. So that is a given.

I also realize that Hilburn’s recent feature story about Joaquin Phoenix was a story about the young actor and his craft. But this story was also about the actor’s attempts to submerge himself into the larger-then-life persona of the late Johnny Cash while filming the Oscar-hot movie Walk the Line.

Hilburn — who actually attended the legendary Cash concert in Folsom Prison — knows he is dealing with material soaked in faith, sin, grace and redemption. At least, I think he does.

But he ended up writing a story that talks about how Phoenix looked into the soul of the country-rock-folk-gospel legend, but never gets around to telling us much about what he saw in there. He says that Phoenix was having trouble shaking loose from some parts of Cash’s story and personality, now that the movie is done. OK, that’s interesting. Like what?

There is even hint that the actor’s own background may have a religion ghost or two in it. For example:

“I’m into exploring characters, exploring the human condition,” he says, squinting from the afternoon sun. “I’m into psychoanalyzing people. I think it’s something I grew up around.”

He was one of five children in a hippie-styled, missionary family that traveled extensively during his early childhood before settling in Hollywood in the early ’80s.

“In the early days, we were definitely poor,” he says. “We didn’t have video games or TV or any of those things. We barely had toys. So I think that forces you to rely on your imagination a great deal. You make up games and act out skits. We were encouraged to express ourselves. I don’t recall ever being told to shut up when I was growing up.”

Now one rarely sees words like “missionary” and “hippie” in the same sentence, but the story of the Children of God — church, cult, movement, all of the above — includes many plot twists and turns. Suffice it to say that Joaquin Phoenix comes from interesting stock. It would have been nice to see Hilburn explore that issue.

Cash, of course, was a famous sinner as well as an evangelist, a man always aware of the blackness of his own heart. This is a key element in his life and legend.

Does Walk the Line explore this side of Cash? How did Phoenix wrestle with those lively angels and demons? It turns out that the iconoclastic Christian T-Bone Burnett helped the actor learn how to handle the musical side of this difficult role. Did they talk about the role that faith played in Cash’s life and music?

Hilburn is a great writer. Maybe he’ll get around to the Holy Ghost side of the story of Cash and Phoenix in another article. Frankly, I have no clue how he avoided it.

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I don’t mean to bug ya

BonoAndBushI should have highlighted this article a week ago, but I’ve confirmed that it’s still available online (and, thanks to a tip from Avram, we now have a non-expiring link). In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, James Traub wrote about Bono, debt, economics and political lobbying, and he kept it all interesting for more than 9,000 words. Then again, it’s hard to be dull when Bono is part of the story.

The profile shows Bono as a pragmatic lobbyist, a rock star willing to work, despite the advice and the disapproval of many around him, with the Bush administration. Traub doesn’t take long to deliver the sort of condescension toward Bushies that seems de rigueur in the Times:

When I went to meet Bono at the bar of his hotel, I saw Richard Gere seated at a table with a gorgeous woman in a little fur jacket and a leather cap. Bono, on the other hand, had removed himself to a quiet back room, where he was keeping company with a plump, middle-aged white guy in a suit and tie. (Bono was wearing a T-shirt and a fuzzy sweater whose sleeve needed mending.) This was Randall Tobias, head of the Bush administration’s AIDS program. The administration had just announced that the program was providing antiretroviral drugs to 155,000 Africans with AIDS. Another kind of activist might have said, “That leaves 25 million more to go.” But not Bono: he looked his cornfed interlocutor in the eye and said, “You should know what an incredible difference your work is going to make in their lives.” Tobias looked embarrassed. Bono said various wonderful things about President Bush. Tobias beamed.

Traub does not write at length about Bono’s faith, but he does mention in passing that Bono’s children attend the Church of Ireland. (Interpreting the world through an excessively American lens, Traub calls that church “Episcopalian.” It’s the other way around: The Church of Ireland is, like the Episcopal Church, Anglican.)

He also delivers the most tender description I’ve ever read of Bono’s first visit with Sen. Jesse Helms, one of his several surprising allies in the ONE Campaign:

In mid-2000, Bono received an audience with Senator Jesse Helms, viewed by Bono’s fellow lefties, including members of the band, as the archfiend himself. Bono quickly realized that his usual spiel about debt service and so on wasn’t making a dent. So, he recalls: “I started talking about Scripture. I talked about AIDS as the leprosy of our age.” Married women and children were dying of AIDS, he told the senator, and governments burdened by debt couldn’t do a thing about it. Helms listened, and his eyes began to well up. Finally the flinty old Southerner rose to his feet, grabbed for his cane and said, “I want to give you a blessing.” He embraced the singer, saying, “I want to do anything I can to help you.” [Former Congressman John] Kasich, who was watching from a couch, says, “I thought somebody had spiked my coffee.”

Finally there is this wonderful image of how Bono mixes stubborn negotiation skills and evangelical piety as he works with the Bush administration:

Bono told [Condoleezza] Rice that he would appear with Bush at an event promoting the president’s development-assistance program if Bush would also commit to “a historic AIDS initiative.” The day before the planned appearance, in March, Bono learned that the president would not do so. He was now playing for dizzyingly high stakes. Virtually everyone around Bono despised Bush; and now some of his most trusted advisers urged him to deny the administration his precious gift of legitimacy. And Bono, in an uncharacteristic act of confrontation, called Rice and said he was pulling out of the joint appearance.

Rice was very unhappy. She recalls telling him, “Bono, this president cares about AIDS, too, and let me tell you that he is going to figure out something dramatic to do about AIDS.” But, she added, “You’re going to have to trust us.” Bono accepted her pledge. According to Scott Hatch, a former aide to the Republican House leadership whom Bono hired to help him gain access to conservatives, “Bono really took it on the chin from the left for dealing with a Republican president.” But Bono says he felt that the administration deserved praise for the aid package; and he trusted the Bush White House, though his friends thought him ludicrously naïve. He says that he has not regretted his trust. “I have found personally that I have never been overpromised,” he says. “In fact, the opposite — they tell me they won’t do something, and finally they do it.”

As he was being taken to meet Bush, Bono recalls, he told the driver to circle the block a few times while he sat with a Bible in his lap, hunting frantically for a verse about shepherds and the poor. He was getting later and later. Finally he found a passage to his liking, and he went into the Oval Office. There he recited the passage he had chosen from the Gospel of Matthew: “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in. . . .” Bono then presented Bush with an edition of the Psalms for which he had written the foreword.

The Bono of this profile is not as politically pure as the rock star who once hectored his audience in the film Rattle & Hum (Traub recounts Bono’s famous “Am I bugging you?” moment.) He’s a whole lot more interesting, open-hearted, creative — and effective.

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iPod, therefore iAm (what iAm)

I had one of those moments of techno-transcendence this morning on the MARC train as I rolled into Washington, D.C.

So the mass-media side of me is looking around the train, noticing that about half of the people are wearing iPods or iPod wannabees. The older iPod people are listening and reading — books or newspapers. The younger people are just plugged in.

Then the journalist in me notes a Jose Antonio Vargas story that someone is reading in The Washington Post. You can guess the topic, and the headline sort of says half the equation in a blunt, materialist fashion: “The iPod: A Love Story Between Man, Machine.”

I, of course, start thinking again about the role music plays in self-identity and, thus, in religious faith. GetReligion has visited this topic before, of course.

Please understand that I am interested in some of the openly religious commercial applications of this new form of personal technology. I am even interested in the religious leaders who have started thinking about the implications of the iPod for religious expression in this age (check this out, on a slightly different topic). I am not even talking about the neo-cult status of Steve Jobs and Apple, although the last Windows machine in my personal life should leave the house within a matter of days.

No, I am talking about the spiritual implications of people — supposedly secular people, even — making statements such as this:

“If a song represents a memory in your head, then you listen to your life’s memories — faster than a mixed CD, definitely faster than a mixed tape — as you listen to your iPod,” says the affable, fast-talking Berkowitz, a project manager for a software company, as he sits in his downtown Washington office. “It becomes an extension of you,” he says. “It’s like a window to your soul.”

And then again there is this issue, which raises issues of cultural assimilation and cultural isolationism — at the same time. Does the iPod make you a part of a culture or does it help you avoid it? What if the answer is “yes”?

Fatima Ayub, wearing a white chiffon hijab that matches her iPod’s white earphones, is walking briskly on R Street in Northwest Washington on her way to work. You’d hardly ever see her, she says, without her 15-gigabyte iPod, which has more than 1,300 songs on it.

“Your taste in music is something very personal, very emotional. So when you have an iPod and you’ve got all your music on it, you’re trying to say something about yourself,” says Ayub, 22, an associate for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch and a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. She’s listening to “A Perfect Sonnet” by the indie rock group Bright Eyes as she sits on a curb near 18th and R streets. Her boyfriend, Imran, learned to play that song on his guitar for her, she says, cracking a shy smile. “You’re making a little collection of emotions and memories for yourself and you stick them all in this little machine and you carry it around with you wherever.”

Has anyone seen someone sitting in a religious sanctuary with an iPod on? Or have many people already chosen a congregation that fits in with the style and content of their iPod? Questions, questions.

P.S. tmatt’s iPod mix for this morning’s ride was the Byrds, with a heavy emphasis — I confess — on spaced-out David Crosby tunes. I don’t think “Triad” is about the Nicene Creed.

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Sight and sound with Pete Seeger

PeteSeeger2Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News offered an amazing package about Pete Seeger on Saturday and Sunday, including a Q&A about his nominal Unitarianism, another Q&A on his standing up to the House Un-American Activities Committee and his life as a happy lefty; and still another brief feature on his strawberry shortcake recipe.

Better still, a DallasNews.com/extra sidebar offers several MP3s in which Seeger, 86, performs at the Beacon Sloop Club’s Strawberry Shortcake Festival, voices his disapproval of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and offers his advice for reforming the U.N. This package is a good example of how reporters can combine writing and sound without pandering.

Two segments are especially striking. First is the pleasant surprise of Seeger’s respect for two staples of modern evangelical music-making — projecting lyrics onto a wall, and repeating lyrics over and over and over:

Question: Other than performing, what message did you have for the Unitarian Universalist convention in Fort Worth?

Answer: The point I wanted to make to Unitarians is, too often you ask your congregations to sing, and they’re supposed to open the hymnbook and turn to page such-and-such. With their noses buried in their hymnbook, they aren’t really singing. They’re kind of mumbling. I want them to start doing what some evangelical churches do — they project the words on the wall and everybody has their face up and they’re singing out!

Also I’ve tried to persuade them to have songs with more repetition. This is the great thing about spirituals and gospel songs. More repetition.

And in these paragraphs, Seeger reflects on communism and moral equivalence:

Question: How did you become a communist?

Answer: I joined the Young Communist league in 1937 in college — because Hitler was helping Franco take over Spain. And [Maxim] Litvinov stood up in the League of Nations — he was the Soviet representative in the League of Nations — and said all aggressors should be quarantined, that is, boycotted. He was talking about Japan in Manchuria, Italy in Ethiopia and Hitler and Franco and so on. Well, they just laughed.

Question: But didn’t Stalin turn out to be one of the worst despots of the 20th century?

Answer: Well, when it comes to big ones. But there’s bad ones all over. And, you know, for 50 years, the United States has helped control the politics of Latin America. And they have the School of the Americas, they call it, in Fort Benning, Ga. Training military — Latin American military men — how to torture, how to massacre, how to assassinate.

Question: But the U.S.S.R. really was an enemy of the U.S.A., yes?

Answer: Not necessarily. The communists claimed, I won’t say they all believed it, that they would encourage revolutions all around the world. But the people of each country had to make their own revolution. It wasn’t Soviet soldiers helping Mao Zedong take over China. They could applaud them and perhaps even help them. But they didn’t likewise in Vietnam or Cuba.

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