Featured Reviews, VOLUME 1

FEATURED: Rodney Clapp on Johnny Cash and America [Vol. 1, #28]

“Exploring the Essence of a Place”

A Review of

Johnny Cash and

the Great American Contradiction:

Christianity and the Battle

for the Soul of a Nation,

by Rodney Clapp.

By Chris Smith.

Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction.
Rodney Clapp.
Paperback. WJK Books. 2008.
Buy now from: [ Doulos Christou Books $14 ] [ Amazon ]

Clapp - Johnny Cash

Rodney Clapp’s newest book Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction is a wonderful little book, but I must warn expectant readers that the book’s focus is on the latter part of its title, not the former. I picked up the book expecting a thorough examination of Cash’s music – like, for instance, Jonathan Gould’s recent Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America – so I was a bit disappointed to find that Cash’s life and works were merely used to illustrate the book’s larger themes of American cultural history. To be fair, Clapp does, in the introduction, do a good job of presenting Cash as a prime example of the sort of contradictions that he will explore throughout the remainder of the book. Unfortunately, however, after the brief introduction, Johnny Cash is relegated to the status of an occasional reference throughout the remainder of the book. Additionally, as a Gen X-er who has only re-discovered Cash in the last decade and who must admit the gaping holes in my knowledge of his work, I often wished that this book came with an accompanying cd, so that I could listen to the songs as they were discussed. It was only after I approached the book’s end that I realized that Clapp had provided a valuable appendix in which he compiles a list of many of the songs discussed and notes that he has set up an iMix list in iTunes that offers for download many of the songs listed in this appendix.

However, with these caveats out of the way, there was little else that I found disappointing about this book. Once I resigned myself to the fact that this was a book on American cultural history, and not music history, I was drawn into the story of our land that Clapp weaves here. As one who is very familiar with both the contradictions in my own life and the philosophical tradition of dialectic that names such tensions in the human experience, Clapp’s use of contradictions to portray American culture had a resounding ring of truth to it. Ultimately, however, Clapp reveals that the primary impetus for his choosing this method was neither psychological nor philosophical. It is not until the end of the book that Clapp makes explicit that his lens for scrutinizing American cultural history has been the person of Jesus Christ; he says “Christ provides Christians with a kind of hermeneutic through which we read and interpret the world” (131). Indeed, it is in the light of Christ that we see both that the depths of our sin and the great hope of our transformation into Christ-likeness.

In the book’s first chapter, Clapp details the great extent to which American culture has been influence by the South, or in his words how “America now speaks with a Southern accent” (1). Flannery O’Connor once made the keen observation that “while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” Clapp undoubtedly demonstrates throughout the course of this book that America, like its southern regions is “Christ-haunted,” but in yet another contradiction is certainly not Christ-centered. The South was the birthplace of both country music and evangelical right-wing politics, both of which have been of great importance to America’s recent cultural history, and Clapp sets the tone for the remainder of the book by examining these two movements and other facets of southern culture that have washed over our land as a whole. In the five chapters that follow, Clapp proceeds to spell out five prominent contradictions that have defined recent American cultural history.

The first contradiction that Clapp names is that of lonesomeness and community. In this chapter, Clapp uses the history of country music – from its roots in the hills of Appalachia – to explore these themes. The focus in the second chapter is the contradiction between holiness and hedonism. Clapp suggests three ways in which these values are held in tension: hypocrisy, assuming a false role of faith in order to mask one’s hedonism; idolatry, having held a genuine faith, but then wandering from it; and “the sinner first and foremost,” who genuinely adheres to his/her faith, but is never able to fully embody that faith (58-59). The third contradiction that Clapp explores is that of tradition versus progress. His work here, albeit brief, is a fine introductory critique of the notion of progress. Personally, I appreciated his lengthy use of railroad history as a depiction of the dangers of progress. Perhaps the next contradiction, between guilt and innocence, is the one most rooted in Johnny Cash’s story. The final contradiction that Clapp offers is that of violence and peace. This chapter brought to mind Walter Wink’s notion of “the myth of redemptive violence” – i.e., that violent means can be used to establish peaceful ends. Clapp and Wink concur that this myth runs deep in the American social conscience. In the book’s final chapter, Clapp works from the position that he established in his classic A Peculiar People, and raises the question of how we are to live as the church in the midst of all these deep-rooted contradictions in American culture. Clapp is clear that our allegiance to the culture of the church is primary, but he insists that for the sake of our neighbors we should be publicly engaged in cultures in which we find ourselves (local, state, national, etc.).

I was recently listening to the audiobook version of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and was impressed by the intense effort that he invested in trying to understand the essence of folk music. Similarly, Clapp has here captured his significant efforts to understand the essence of American culture, and his work is an extraordinarily valuable one for those of us who seek to be the Church in a way that is engaged with the American public. However, of equal – if not greater – benefit is his methodology. Given that many of the ERB’s readers have a deep appreciation for the work of Wendell Berry, allow me to suggest that a substantial part of Berry’s oft-repeated call to be deeply rooted in a place, is precisely the sort of frank reflection about the essence of a place that Clapp has offered here. Clapp, perhaps unintentionally, has provided us with both a method for such reflection and a striking example of that method in action. In other words, if we are going to be a Church that is publicly engaged, we need to reflect theologically – and more specifically christologically – on the essences of the publics in which we are engaged. Furthermore, discussing the essence of a place in terms of its contradictions sets us on a course for a perspective that can be neither too critical nor too rosy.

I highly recommend this book for the pointed narrative of American cultural history that Clapp deftly spins. However, I pray that we do not miss the book’s deeper implications about the importance of deep reflection on the essence of a place and the method that it suggests for such a task!

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

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