Johnny Cash’s empire of dirt and the truths that make us human
The other day I was in great need of some inspiration, and I found it in the most unlikely of places: the video for Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt.
I know. When someone says “Johnny Cash” and “Nine Inch Nails” in the same sentence, combined with references to songs that talk about someone cutting himself and lamenting his “empire of dirt,” you don’t immediately think: INSPIRING!
But it was. And I spent all weekend wondering why.
This happens fairly regularly: A book or a video or a movie or a song leaves me bubbling with excitement, overflowing with inspiration, feeling like I’m ready to go out and be the best woman and mother and wife and Catholic that I can be. Yet when I consider its message I see that it’s not exactly straight out of Chicken Soup for the Soul. It may even involve some profanity or depictions of people doing stupid and immoral things, which makes it all the more perplexing that it would inspire me to be a better Christian.
I watched the video of Cash’s Hurt a few more times, soaking in his soulful and weary voice as he sung a tale of disappointment and futility, and each time I asked myself why such a video would seem to be of God in some way. After about the fifth time I watched it, it finally clicked:
This video speaks the truth about what it means to be human.
Throughout the song, the visuals cut back and forth between grainy clips from Cash’s glamorous rockstar heyday, and recent shots of the abandoned and crumbling Johnny Cash Museum. We see the legendary Man in Black looking old and feeble, his hands visibly shaking in some of the scenes (he would die only seven months after the filming). In a series of images starting at 1:20, we see the young Johnny Cash up on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans. We see the superstar in action, and understand on a visceral level how this good-looking, vital, talented young man could become such a powerhouse that he would have his own museum. Then, only seconds later, as current Cash draws out the line My empire of dirt, we cut to the museum today. It’s abandoned. Posters, autographed pictures, and other memorabilia bearing the young Cash’s image have been tossed in a heap in a corner. Glass shelves are empty and covered with dust. A framed collector’s item record sits behind shattered glass. A 1970s-style cash register sits silently on a countertop, a cruel reminder of the years when the world still adored Johnny Cash.
This video speaks the truth, and it speaks the truth in a particularly Christian way. This is not to say that the song’s lyrics would make good instructional material for catechism class; rather, it is its theme that does the truth-telling. It depicts an accurate spiritual landscape upon which the human life plays out.
You can achieve the height of worldly glory and fame, and it won’t last, Johnny Cash tells us through this video. It’s an empire of dirt. And that is true. It makes us feel more human, because it’s an articulation of spiritual realities that only humans know about.
Imagine a movie whose theme was, Sometimes it’s good for married people to have affairs, or Smoking crack can make your life better. Even if such a film tried to be positive, it would ultimately have a dispiriting, dehumanizing effect, because it lies about the truths of the human experience. The closer we get to God, the more human we become; but we can’t get closer to God if we don’t understand the spiritual landscape in which our souls move and live.
I often fantasize about starting an arts patronage fund to help out artists who create work that brings people closer to God. (The fact that I have no money and have no idea what such an organization would look like does not deter me at all — hey, it’s fantasy!) I’ve given out millions of dollars in grants as well as multiple prestigious awards in my imagination, and the process has led me to ask over and over again: What constitutes God-glorifying art? Certainly the Sistine Chapel is a prime example, as is Fr. Robert Barron’s stunning Catholicism series. But can art that is not overtly religious be God-glorifying too?
I think I finally found my answer in Hurt. In the song and the accompanying video, Cash took a murky, invisible spiritual reality, and defined its edges and polished it up for us to behold. By taking such an honest look at the fleetingness of fame and worldly glory, he delved into the cauldron of the human experience and came out with a red-hot truth, even at great cost to his pride. And in the end he made for himself the most worthy legacy an artist could ever have: He created something that makes us more human.
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The video is below, but first watch this one-minute excerpt from one of Cash’s final interviews:
And do click the button on the bottom right to watch this one in full screen mode: