The Man in Gray

Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction
Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of a Nation
Rodney Clapp
Westminster John Knox Press, $16.95, 192 pp.

When the editors of Relevant, a magazine for Evangelical hipsters, spun off a series of spiritual biographies of musicians a few years ago, they went straight for the most problematic Christians they could find: Bob Dylan, whose dalliance with Jesus in the 1970s was hot, heavy, and apparently short-lived; the Irish rock group U2, whose lead singer Bono flirts constantly with believing fans in his lyrics and coy statements about his faith (“I’m a fan, but I’m not in the band”); and Johnny Cash, who made no bones about his allegiance to Christ yet identified with sinners to the point of glorifying sin in his songs.

With their nubbly covers and chunky, sparsely printed pages, Relevant’s quickie bios were reminiscent of those pop-psych-for-teens books you used to find in church narthexes in the ’70s, and they had similar aims: to nudge readers toward Christ by showing them that Christians can swim in the currents of ambiguity, alienation, and experimentalism of modern American adolescent culture.

When I first spotted Rodney Clapp’s new book, Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of a Nation, it looked to me like a similar exercise, albeit for adults. Clapp, editorial director of the Christian publishing house Brazos Press, has a reputation for intellectual irreverence—throwing Elvis Presley into an Augustinian...

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About the Author

Paul O’Donnell is a freelance reporter who often writes about religion and pop culture.