Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

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Songs That Save

  • Dr. James Emery White

    The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of CrosswalkHeadlines.

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and…

  • Updated Feb 11, 2013

Some movie scenes stay with you for a very long time.

I was reminded of this last week when, on a long flight home from London, I watched (again) the critically acclaimed 2005 film on the life of Johnny Cash, Walk the Line.

The scene that always stays with me is when Cash – played by Joaquin Phoenix – makes his first audition to the legendary record producer Sam Phillips with a couple of friends by singing a tired old gospel song from his childhood.

They aren’t allowed to finish.

"Hold on. Hold on. I hate to interrupt, but do you guys got something else?"

There’s a long, awkward pause. It’s obvious they don’t.

“I'm sorry. I can't market gospel no more.”  

Johnny then seems to mumble, “Is that it?”

“I don't record material that doesn't sell, Mr. Cash,” Phillips explains, “and gospel like that doesn't sell."

"Was it the gospel or the way I sing it?" asks Cash.

"Both," Phillips answers.

"Well, what's wrong with the way I sing it?"

"I don't believe you," Phillips replies.

"You saying I don't believe in God?”

His friends see the confrontation coming and step in and say, “J.R., come on, let’s go.”

Cash won’t leave.

“I want to understand. I mean, we come down here, we play for a minute, and he tells me I don't believe in God."

"You know exactly what I'm telling you," Phillips says. "We've already heard that song a hundred times, just like that, just like how you sang it."

Cash pushes back. 

"Well, you didn't let us bring it home."

"Bring it… bring it home?” Phillips says in disdain. 

“All right, let's bring it home.

“If you was hit by a truck and you were lying out in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song, one song people would remember before you're dirt, one song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth, one song that would sum you up, you telling me that's the song you'd sing? That same Jimmie Davis tune we hear on the radio all day? About your peace within and how it's real and how you're gonna shout it? 

“Or, would you sing something different? Something real, something you felt? Because I'm telling you right now, that's the kind of song people want to hear. 

“That's the kind of song that truly saves people."

And then Cash says he did have a couple of other songs, ones he obviously never considered sharing. But somehow the words of Sam Phillips tell him they are the ones he should have sung.

Then he rips into the now legendary “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Here’s the deal: We all have a song to sing that is ours alone. The key is to do it through who, and how, God made us. 

Phillips Brooks once famously defined the best of preaching as “communicating truth through personality.” I believe he was right. However, this goes far beyond preaching. It’s more about our sense of calling, or vocation, as a whole, which Frederick Buechner once defined as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

In other words, the song you would sing if it was your one and only song to offer the world.

And yes, that’s the kind of song that saves people. 

James Emery White



Walk the Line, DVD scene 8; 23:50 – 26:05.

Phillips Brooks, Lyman Beecher Lectures in Preaching, Yale University.

Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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