Believing in Johnny Cash: An Open Letter to Atheists

A few months ago in this magazine Peter Laarman 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…”

This 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.

Before I say why, I need to say a few words about Johnny Cash, who died on September 12, this week, eight years ago.

Why Johnny Cash Matters

What 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.

Years 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.

Few musicians have been as successful as Johnny Cash. In a career-spanning six decades, he became more than a household name; he became a legend. 

What 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.

It was the 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 of others.

Several 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. 

What 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?

What Kind of Truth?

“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, and for better or for worse you can’t really get a good fix on the truth of stories.

An 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.

It’s very frustrating to novice skygazers, 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.

There 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 it.

Sue and His Old Man: One Small Truth?

In 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.”

As 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.

Just 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,

I 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!

The humor here is delivered atop a dark urgency—there’s more here than laughs.

Or 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.

Freud 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?

And 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.

The Truth of Stories—Or Not

I should also make clear what I mean by “stories.” Stories are not “just the facts.” In fact, that is precisely what they are not.

For our purposes, “the facts” are the empirical facts of science: evolution, the big bang, genetics, geology, 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 facts.

So 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 of science.

Beyond 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.

If 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).

What 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.

Put 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.

I fear 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.

Some 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:

Christians and 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.

We’ve 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.

Now, 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.

The 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.

Most stories are spiced with irony, but not this one. Here, irony is all you get.

Living with Stories in an Age of Irony

Just 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.

I am 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.

And 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,

There 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.

So, Jesus tells us, the prodigal comes back home in shame and is welcomed as the beloved, the guest of honor.

Can 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.

But, 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.

Irony 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.

If 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.

More 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?

If 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?

And that’s an honest, non-rhetorical, 100%-irony-free question.