By Elizabeth Prata
Johnny Cash wrote a novel on the life of Paul. Yes, THAT Johnny Cash, known as the Man in Black. (1932-2003).
It shouldn’t really be a surprise, because although Cash was known for his singing, he was also a songwriter. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977. He wrote over a hundred songs. He was also an actor, appearing in television shows and movies, more of them than you think. He was creative.
Cash also is famously known for his struggles, his Christianity, and his marriage, usually all tied up on one knot.
He began drinking and using drugs in the late 1950s when his career took off and he needed to stay awake on the punishing long tours. He drank. He became drug addicted. He smuggled drugs, caused a terrible forest wildfire that nearly killed him, was arrested several times, divorced his first wife, and spun out. He sobered up stayed in control for some years in the 1970s, and got addicted again winding up in the Betty Ford clinic for drug rehabilitation in the 1980s. His final rehabilitation was in 1992.
Cash was raised by Southern Baptists. He claimed to be a Christian throughout his life. With wife June, Johnny completed a two-year course of study in the Bible through Christian International Bible College, receiving a theology degree. He and June made a pilgrimage to Israel in November 1978. He was also ordained as a minister around that time.
Johnny Cash was a creative Christian man interested in the things of Christ, so it’s no wonder he wrote a novel about the Life of Paul. It’s called “Man in White.” I looked at the question of “Is novelizing a book of the Bible or a Bible character’s life adding to scripture?” here. Some believe yes others, no.
I appreciated Cash’s preface to the book. In it, Cash described his research process, his interviews with Jewish rabbis and biblical scholars, and his trip to Israel. He described his thoughts about why he wrote the book. He explained it humbly, too, another thing I liked about the introduction. His explanations satisfied any lasting qualms I had about a novelization of a Bible character’s life.
In reading Man in White, it seemed to me that Cash took what was known about Paul, the culture of the day, the temple, the Pharisees etc, and depicted it accurately. We know of Paul’s zeal for Christ as one of Paul’s endearing and awe-inspiring character traits. We also know that Paul prior to conversion was zealous for the Temple and that he was fervent in killing Christians. Cash took that personality trait of Paul’s – his unswerving religious zeal and his staunch commitment to God – and aptly showed how the Lord turned murderous zeal into a Gospel fervor for Jesus.
For example, we know Saul had a letter from the High Priest allowing Saul to kill Christians. Cash did a good job of showing Saul’s irritation at Christians over time turned into an almost unmanageable zeal and how it seemed to be unbalancing him. Saul ignored warnings from friends and the High Priest alike. Cash used the Bible’s letter scene by showing Saul committing to a 7-day fast in preparation for putting into action his commitment to wipe out Christians everywhere he found them. Yet also sensitively showed Saul’s niggling doubts, and how he suppressed the truth in unrighteousness every time his conscience reared up.
We know that Paul had a father who was a Pharisee. (Acts 23:6). We know he had a sister and a nephew, mentioned in Acts 23:16. We also know that Jesus said he would cause division in families. (Luke 12:49-56). So Cash took that concept and made an issue with Saul’s conversion from zealous Pharisee to fervent Christian and depicted a split in the family between his sister and her husband. Cash created a fictional but plausible scenario where after Paul’s sister might have converted, and her husband then sought a bill of divorcement and also split from Paul. The sister’s resulting struggles as a hunted single Christian woman were similar to struggles we know Christian characters had with converting during that time of persecution.
I also thought Cash’s depiction of the three days of blindness Saul/Paul had after encountering Jesus on the Road to Damascus was plausible. He wrote what Paul must have been thinking, of the fears of Christians to have Paul in their midst, and so on.
Where it depicts biblical events, it’s accurate. Where it shifts into novelization, it’s plausible, staying true to the concepts of the time. All in all, my opinion is that “Man in White” is a worthwhile book.