“Exploring the Essence of a Place”
A Review of
Johnny Cash and
the Great American Contradiction:
Christianity and the
for the Soul of a Nation,
by Rodney Clapp.
By Chris Smith.
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
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
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
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