BELIEVING IN JOHNNY CASH
Wallace teaches physics at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia.
He is also a regular contributor at Religion
Dispatches and blogs
for the Huffington Post.
has been pointed out that arguing doesn’t change people’s
views: “Hearts and minds don’t change that way.
They change when we share our stories.”
seems true to me, but I found myself wondering if a scientifically-motivated
atheist would feel the same way -- I have long suspected that
some atheists may be ill at ease with stories.
I say why, I need to say a few words about Johnny Cash, who
died on September 12, 2003.
JOHNNY CASH MATTERS
is your earliest musical memory? Mine is: One evening in about
1973 my dad put Johnny Cash’s “The Wreck of the
Old 97” on the turntable just before bedtime and let us
run fast around the den-living-room-kitchen loop. He turned
it up. We ran faster and faster as the nearly out-of-control
sound of Old 97 pushed us forward, wrecking finally in a joyous
three-child pile on the den floor. We did it again and again
until Dad finally sent us to bed.
later, when I was in college, I found Dad’s old guitar
under his bed and pulled it out and began messing with it. Once
I began to play, what came out was not Led Zeppelin or the Replacements
or any other music I had listened to relentlessly throughout
my formative years, but the boom-chicka-boom of Johnny Cash
and the Tennessee Three. It was natural as a heartbeat. Cash
had gone in and he had stayed -- and every September 12 since
he died, I think of him.
musicians have been as successful as Johnny Cash. In a career-spanning
six decades, he became more than a household name; he became
was behind this success? It wasn’t his skill as a musician,
or his music industry savvy. It wasn’t even his voice
-- although few voices can match Cash’s for emotional
authority. I would argue that it was the stories he told. More
to the point, it was his telling of those stories with that
voice. His stories are humorous (“A Boy Named Sue”),
frighteningly violent (“Delia’s Gone”), darkly
romantic (“Long Black Veil”), playfully optimistic
(“Tennessee Flat Top Box”) and emotionally wrenching
(“Jacob Green”). Yet they all have something in
common: they are all simple, direct and palpably real.
was his own story that gave him authority to speak the truth.
“The Man in Black” was not a manufactured image,
but grew out of the story of his life. He was jailed seven times,
attempted suicide at least once, and was in and out of rehab.
Cash’s dark clothes and simple style marked the kinship
he felt with the imprisoned, the old, the destitute, the poor,
the forgotten. Without his own story, Cash’s music would
not be what it is: filled with the compellingly-told stories
days ago I was in the car, listening to songs shuffled at random.
Just as I pulled into the parking lot I heard the opening lines
of “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer,” recorded
at one of Cash’s famous 1968 Folsom Prison shows. Transfixed,
I sat and listened to the whole seven-minute song, which tells
the story of a man who, after winning a heart-pounding spike-driving
competition against a machine, lays down his hammer and dies.
It is a great story that may be read as a warning to those who
equate scientific and technological advance with human progress.
I’d like to ask is this: do stories point us, in even
the smallest of ways, toward anything that might be described
as the truth?
KIND OF TRUTH?
is, of course, a dangerous little word. The truth I am talking
about is not something that can be formulated or systematized
or falsified. That is, I am not talking mainly about scientific
or literal or historical truth -- although the truth I am talking
about is related to those kinds of truth. Nor am I talking about
the truth of the fundamentalist, religious or otherwise. The
kind of truth I am talking about cannot be used as a weapon.
It cannot be used by any debate team. I am talking about the
truth of stories, when, for better or for worse, you can’t
really get a good fix on their truth.
illustration may prove helpful. As an astronomy professor I
spent many nights under the night sky with my students, pointing
out stars and planets and galaxies. And they would regularly
strain and squint, trying to see dim stars I could see easily.
This is not because they were blind or my vision was excellent,
but because there’s a trick to it. The thing is, to see
a dim star you can’t look straight at it. But once you
relax and look a little to the side of it, it pops clearly into
view. Of course once this happens you reflexively focus on it
again in an attempt to see it even better, but when you do --
poof -- it disappears.
very frustrating to novice sky gazers, but once you get the
knack of it, it’s nearly automatic. This is what the truth
of stories is like: the harder you try to focus on it, the more
elusive it gets.
are small truths and there are big ones. And in my view (it
is perhaps more of a hope) all the truths are somehow related
to all the others. Somewhere in there, maybe containing them
all somehow, is ‘the’ truth, whatever it is. This
biggest truth is reality. It’s what’s true about
us, about God if there is a God, about death, about life. Whatever
this bottom-level truth is, I like to think that all lesser
truths hold our interest only insofar as they are related to
AND HIS OLD MAN: ONE SMALL TRUTH?
1969 Cash recorded a song called “A Boy Named Sue.”
In it, he tells the story of a three-year old child whose father
abandons the family, leaving the boy with the name ‘Sue.’
the song unfolds, the boy named Sue grows into a man named Sue.
The name ensures that along the way, Sue gets laughed at and
bullied. It ensures that his “fists get tough and [his]
wits get keen.” Sue roams from town to town in search
of old Dad, looking for revenge. Eventually he catches up with
him in a Gatlinburg bar and throws himself onto him with all
the stored-up fury of a lifetime.
as Sue has his father in his gun sights the old man looks at
him, smiles, and explains that he gave him the name to make
him strong. After all, his father knew he wouldn’t be
around to teach him anything. He figured if he survived with
a name like that he’d be strong indeed. In
the last verse of the song Sue recalls,
got all choked up and I threw down my gun
And I called him my pa, and he called me his son,
And I came away with a different point of view.
And I think about him, now and then,
Every time I try and every time I win,
And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him
Bill or George! Any damn thing but Sue! I still hate that name!
humor here is delivered atop a dark urgency -- there’s
more here than laughs.
is there? When you find yourself captivated by a song like “A
Boy Named Sue,” is it because it points you toward the
truth about real fathers and sons? If so, perhaps one small
truth contained in Cash’s song may be expressed: Fathers
always come to fear their sons.
may nod approvingly, but does this small truth (if it is indeed
true) stand on its own, cut off, independent of all else? Or
might it, if we dwell on it and ask some questions about it,
take us to other truths -- perhaps bigger, perhaps smaller --
about the world? Or is it related only to mere neurons and chemical
reactions and so makes us laugh for a time but is ultimately
about nothing at all?
if you think this is the case (and here I’m addressing
myself to my confirmed atheist readers) -- that the only true
truth is energy and matter in motion -- how did you come to
believe that? I’m betting that you came to believe it
because you believed in the truth of another story.
TRUTH OF STORIES – OR NOT
also make clear what I mean by stories. Stories are not ‘just
the facts.’ In fact, that is precisely what they are not.
our purposes, the facts are the empirical facts of science:
evolution, the big bang, genetics, geology and physics. These
theories and disciplines are about the facts. Not in a simple
way, granted, but in the same way that economics is about dollars
and cents. The best science is securely grounded in empirical
far as I can tell, (and again, addressing my atheist friends)
the scientifically motivated among you believe that, in the
end, empirical facts are all the truth we can ever have. And
this is so not because science is limited but because, in the
end, facts are all there are. Put another way, if one wants
anything that goes by the name of truth (as opposed to feelings
or hunches or anecdotes or just plain guesses) then one must
not venture beyond the circle defined by the (current) frontiers
that circle lies everything from weeping statues of Mary and
the resurrection of the dead to Sasquatch and alien abductions.
It is a land of phantasms and superstitions of the grossest
kind and has nothing to do with reality. Reality lives exclusively
inside the circle of empirical facts and the sciences that build
on them. And since God does not reside within that circle, God
has nothing to do with reality. I hope this is a fair representation
of scientifically motivated atheism.
facts are what define that circle, stories are what is added
to the facts. Stories take you outside that circle. In my use
of the word, stories are interpretations of the facts. (Therefore
scientific theories, being interpretations, are themselves stories
of a kind. But I am thinking of interpretation in the less radical,
more colloquial sense of the word).
I propose is that no one lives, or can live, or has ever lived,
within the circle of empirical science. I propose that no matter
who we are or what our beliefs might be, we have always had
to deal with the question of interpretation. And that question
is not whether to interpret, but ‘how.’ No one fails
to interpret. Interpreting is what human beings do.
another way, we cannot avoid believing in stories. We can only
hope to choose the best ones. How to do this? I propose that
good stories are stories that tell the truth, and bad ones are
ones that do not.
that I may have lost some of you just now. In particular, most
atheists I know would be quite critical of the idea that stories
are related in any meaningful way to the bedrock truth about
the world. So in the interest of keeping everyone on the bus,
let’s back up and assume that the stories we tell are
unrelated to anything that could pass as true.
atheists take this assumption -- that stories are not meaningfully
related to the truth -- and run with it. But when they do they
immediately leave behind the circle of empirical science by
making up stories of their own. Here’s a dazzling example,
blogger PZ Myers on the metaphor of God the Father:
Muslims and Jews have been told from their earliest years
that God is their father, with all the attendant associations
of that argument, and what are we atheists doing? Telling
them that no, he is not, and not only that, you don't even
have a heavenly father at all, the imaginary guy you are worshiping
is actually a hateful monster and an example of a bad and
tyrannical father, and you aren’t even a very special
child -- you’re a mediocre product of a wasteful and
entirely impersonal process.
done the paternity tests, we've traced back the genealogy, we’re
doing all kinds of in-depth testing of the human species. We
are apes and the descendants of apes, who were the descendants
of rat-like primates, who were children of reptiles, who were
the spawn of amphibians, who were the terrestrial progeny of
fish, who came from worms, who were assembled from single-celled
microorganisms, who were the products of chemistry. Your daddy
was a film of chemical slime on a Hadean rock, and he didn’t
care about you -- he was only obeying the laws of thermodynamics.
this is a story just as surely as any other. Don’t get
me wrong -- I don’t for a moment doubt the basics of evolution
and thermodynamics. But Myers was not forced by the facts of
nature into these beliefs he so forcefully espouses. Instead,
he has done exactly what storytellers do: He has told us a story.
That is to say, he has added his own stuff.
problem is that not that Myers is telling us all a story, but
that he insists he is not. “Reality,” he writes,
“is harsh.” His story is the story you absolutely
must believe if you absolutely insist on not believing in stories.
stories are spiced with irony, but not this one. Here, irony
is all you get.
WITH STORIES IN AN AGE OF IRONY
a moment. I’d like to fill my lungs with some blissfully
unironic air and speak plainly about stories. Because to believe
in the truth of stories is to, at least for a moment, abandon
our ironic reflexes and accept the possibility of genuineness.
a Christian. Why? Because I find the stories Jesus tells --
his parables -- to be compelling. They speak not only to my
greatest joys and hopes but to my frailties and fears. They
resonate powerfully with what I believe to be my deepest self.
But there is more; like Johnny Cash and his songs, there is
truth to be found not only in the stories told by Jesus the
storyteller but in the story of Jesus the storyteller.
like Johnny Cash, Jesus has some things to tell us about fathers.
For example, there is the father who, at his son’s request,
gives him his full inheritance early. The boy immediately squanders
it, lands in the gutter and ends up looking hungrily at pig
slop. In the words of Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner,
writing here from the prodigal’s perspective,
wasn’t anything to do that I had not done. There wasn’t
anything to see that I had not seen. There wasn’t anything
to lose I hadn’t lost. I envied the pigs their slops because
at least they knew what they were hungry for whereas I was starving
to death and had no idea why. So I went back [home. And when
I did] he held me so tight, I could hear the thump of his old
ticker through his skimpy coat.
Jesus tells us, the prodigal comes back home in shame and is
welcomed as the beloved, the guest of honor.
we really live with such a story in an age of irony? It is not
easy, for it is in our bones to pass it off as a sweet heartwarming
tale made to comfort us in the darkness of a cold and meaningless
universe. That is what it is, and nothing more. So our citified
and suspicious selves conclude.
if we are able to check our self-conscious impulses just long
enough, might this story reach us as an echo of a hint of something
really real? If not about God, then maybe about fathers and
sons? On my best and most unironic days I think so.
is good. It can be magical in small doses. All the great storytellers
know this. What could be more ironic than a steel-fisted fighting
machine named Sue? What could be more ironic than a rich boy
pining for pigs’ food? But irony is like curry or ginger,
made to give a story bite and astringency, and can’t be
the whole meal.
you cannot accept that stories may have something to do with
what’s really real, you end up with a single-ingredient
offering of solid irony. That is, you end up with the story
based on the premise that all stories are false. That galling
story, the necessary and logical result of seriously not taking
stories seriously, just isn’t good enough.
importantly, this doesn’t match life as I know it and
live it every day. Nor, I dare say, does it match the lives
of anyone who has ever lived. Is this not a piece of evidence
worthy of consideration?
you think not, if you think there’s nothing about stories
that relates to the actual truth of things, I’m not sure
how you get through your days. I really don’t. I am not
making a joke. How can you remain fully committed to whatever
story your own human subjectivity has latched onto, knowing
all the while there’s nothing there? Is it possible to
live happily on a diet of solid irony?
that’s an honest, non-rhetorical, one hundred percent
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