Are You Smoking What You’re Selling?

Listen to this piece.

WARNING: Not smoking what you’re selling severely harms you and those around you.

This post is not about the legalization of marijuana or what smoking can do to one’s lungs, but about the authenticity of one’s faith. I wish we could make it illegal to smoke anything other than what we ourselves are selling.

A while back, I asked one of my seminary classes to reflect upon a movie clip from Walk The Line and to relate it to our Christian witness. The movie is about the life and music career of Johnny Cash. During the discussion, I asked my students to consider with me traits about Cash that appealed to people. One of the students remarked, “Cash smoked what he was selling.” What the student intended by his comment was that Cash was genuine. He didn’t claim to have it altogether, but he was singing from his heart. There was congruence.

The movie scene in question takes place in Sam Phillips’ recording studio. A young and not-yet discovered Cash is auditioning for the great record executive and producer. He sings a well-known gospel tune in hopes that Phillips will record him. Phillips is unimpressed. Gospel music like Cash sings doesn’t sell, Phillips remarks. Cash needs to come up with something that’s real—something that goes to the very depths of his being and expresses his heart cry to God. From all appearances, Cash had chosen to sing that gospel tune because it was safe. It was quite popular. But it wasn’t authentic. It was canned the way Cash sang it. Just as Phillips is about to bring closure to the session and say goodbye to Cash and his band and their lone audition, Cash decides to risk it and share a song that he had written, and which came from his heart. After all, he was desperate—his one chance to audition was up. Cash’s band did not know the song—he had never shared it with them, but had kept it to himself until now. Now everything was at stake, for Cash had to put not only his singing and guitar playing on the line, but also a song that he had written from the heart based on a painful past experience. The song was Folsom Prison Blues. Well, the rest is history. As you likely know, it became a big hit. But it really would have been history for Cash if he had not chosen to risk it all and sing that unknown song.

We may never make it big by being authentic and singing our own music and from the heart, as was the case with Cash. More important than making it big, though, and/or playing to opinion polls and to a fan base as many do, is speaking and singing and smoking what we’re selling. We may be selling something. But are we really smoking that brand when no one else is watching, or listening, as the case may be? Cash wasn’t smoking the gospel tune that he sang for Phillips that day. But when he sang Folsom Prison Blues, it was obvious that he was smoking its brand when no one else was around.

Do we smoke what we sell or do we smoke a different brand than the one we sell? In Christian witness to the gospel, and in various other spheres of life, do people really see us, hear us, know what we think, or are we hiding behind some generic or popular brand, playing it safe, all in the effort to protect ourselves from getting hurt? Do we say and sing we love Jesus, when deep down inside we don’t? Do we say everything’s wonderful about our lives, when we actually hate them? Do we share only our successes, and never our failures? Do we fail to share truth in love with others because we fear that they will reject us, if we do? Do we fail to share with others that we love them because we’re afraid of appearing like fools? In the end, when we play such games of incongruence, we really do hurt ourselves and those around us.

So, what brand are you smoking today? Is it the one you’re selling? If not, kick the habit and start smoking your name’s brand.

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About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • christopher erik

    Man, there are so many things I like about his article – so many crucial questions. That Cash story is a gold-mine from which you’ve pulled out some real nuggets. I’ve heard this story several times before but I’ve made a new discovery tonight. I hear you saying that the song that the world needs to hear, the one that has been growing in our hearts, is a “costly” song. It’s costly because it’s forged in the crucible of our hardships and heart ache, or hopes and our fears; and it’s costly because by the very act of “singing” we are putting ourselves “out there.” It’s risky, and it’s unnerving. Wouldn’t it just be easier to sing that “Jimmy Davis” tune? This reminds me of something I heard Brenon Manning say: quoting an elderly black preacher, “You’ve got to be who you is because if you aint who you is then you is who you aint.” The world and for that matter, my friend Paul, doesn’t need to hear me sing another “Jimmy Davis” tune. Hey brother, you got a light?

  • Matthew Farlow

    Your latest blog posting is “smokin!” We can never have too much authenticity with our faith and Lord knows too many Christians are blowing smoke as opposed to truly living out the authentic reality of the Jesus brand!
    How many people live their lives like Cash sang the gospel song: “safe, following popular culture, inauthentic and canned lives?” Truth be told as Lewis wrote in The Chronicles of Narnia, Jesus (Aslan) is not safe, but He is good. Thus, the question remains, “Who do we say Jesus is and how do we live out His love?”

    Sure we can continue to smoke the cultural brand but is this what we are called to do as followers of Jesus? Thanks for keeping it real for Jesus!

  • Kenny c.

    Business metaphors are unfitting for the relationship between God and humans. Drug metaphors even worse. Are we really selling ideas about god, just think about how crass that idea is and the absurity of the concept should cause one to stop using these horrible metaphors. The added absurity in this post is that the focus of the story is on Jonny CASH, who was a drug addict, strange subconscious connections going on here.

    • B.D.

      Hi Kenny,

      As the student that said this in class, I wish to provide some clarification of the metaphor. As with all metaphors it is limited in it’s scope of usefulness, but here’s my intent. Clearly proclaiming the Jesus story is a proclamation of the who and not the what. Yes, we are not selling ideas. However, I can tell you in my context – a lower middle-class urban neighborhood with few Jesus followers that core of this metaphor holds true. Our unstated, lived values heavily outweigh our proclaimed values, so when I talk to friends that are beyond skeptical about Christianity and I am proclaiming a story that does not line up with how they see me live on a regular basis, it is akin to not smoking what you are selling. Clearly the limitation to the metaphor is similar, but you never trust a car salesman that drives a different brand than he sells, and you don’t take a recommendation on what to smoke from someone who smokes something else. It is that core which I was getting at in commenting on Johnny Cash’s life and particularly the scene Dr. Metzger mentions, and it is this truth beneath the metaphor that I know Dr. Metzger is also driving at. Either way, the metaphor is not meant to say that we’re selling God but is to ask a question about our proclamation and living, if they aren’t lined up there is very little draw with the type of not-yet-Christian friends that my ministry focuses on. I hope that this can perhaps clear up a little bit of the misunderstanding towards what Dr. Metzger is getting at here.

  • christopher erik

    @ Kenny, you’re right in describing Paul’s language as metaphorical. Of course the nature of metaphor is that it imports pictures and values from foreign landscapes. I would agree that certain metaphors are more effective than others but can we rightly say that one category, such as business, is categorically “unfitting” for symbolic usage as it relates to the relationship of God and man? Are not the parables of Jesus replete with metaphors of commerce (lost coins, treasure in the field, unfaithful accountant, labor disputes, etc?). Clearly there are limits to metaphorical language and no one metaphor is capable of doing everything. In the case of the above article, Metzger is using the story of Cash in Sam Philip’s studio as a metaphor or a parable (it may be a bit inside for those who are not familiar with the story). As for Cash’s drug addiction, his battle against drug addiction drove the man to Christ and the explicit expressions of faith that characterized Cash’s music were undiminished throughout his long career. Two notable songs in this vein, taken from Cash’s recordings just years before his death, are “When the Man Comes Around” (concerning the return of Christ) and “Hurt” (a reflective song on sorrow and regret – the YouTube video is spectacular).