Johnny Cash, Benedict XVI & the Authority Problem – Part 2 of 2


Alright, so we ended Part I of this post with Johnny and il papa in conversation.  And it was a nice conversation maybe, straightforward and edifying even.  But, still I wonder, why is it that what Johnny did in that video – getting all of those secular saints to listen – why did it speak so strongly to me?  Or, perhaps “why” is the wrong question.  Maybe we should ask: Johnny, how’d you do it?

I’ve got one idea, and you can find it in the second half of the title I’ve given this post: the authority problem.  Give me a second to set the problem up if you will; take a look at the video again too if that helps:

Okay, the problem: It’s a sociological sine qua non that the locus of religious authority has shifted from institution to individual in our time.  And this shift – in both its strengths and weaknesses – at the very least means that the authority to minister can no longer taken be taken for granted in the 21st century west.  Now, I’m not talking about the authority of a boss who says “do this” or “don’t do that.”   What I’m trying to put a finger on is authority as the power (the capacity, maybe) of a minister to interact with a person such that s/he is opened up a bit to the grace of God.  Ministerial authority like this is a beautiful and dangerous power.  But regardless, it seems evident that in our times – love it or hate it – people can only be ministered to if they are willing cede to another the power to minister to them.

As ministers (and lay or ordained or in-process we have all been baptized as prophets of the Good News), I think we have to face this reality in both its freeing and constricting dimensions.  We must recognize that ministerial authority is something given to us as a gift by the very people we seek to serve.  For me it’s this reality, and not any relativity in the truth of our message, that explains why we must adapt the presentation of the Good News to the context of those to whom we minister today. I think this is what St. Paul saw so clearly when he described himself as “becoming all things to all people so that by all means I might save some.”

So as I listen to Johnny sing I feel like he knew what St. Paul was about, knew what I’m trying to get at here.  At the very least he knew that there were some things, some jagged, honest things, that allowed people to face up to their need for the Good News.  At the very least he knew that presenting himself in the sincerity of his belief and his strength and his weakness (all three), could allow others to cede to him the precarious authority of a minister.  He certainly understood, like the quiet monks of old whispering “memorare mortis, frater” as they passed one another in the dark halls of an Advent monastery, that “remembering death” could be the trigger that allowed Johnny to take on the role of minister.  It’s almost like with each verse Johnny sings, he’s requesting something of us who listen, asking those secular saints: let me minister to you.  Let me open you up to living “under the challenge of eternity.”

But, as Aquinas said, that which is received is received in the mode of the receiver.  That is, the Good News isn’t received in the mode of the one who gives (of the minster), but in the mode of the other (the minister-ee, if you will).  The question for we would-be ministers then becomes: how do we best request of others that they cede to us the authority to minister to them?  This is a complex and malleable question, but its inner simplicity is just what’s captured in Johnny’s song.  It’s what’s captured in the subtext of his question: “will you let me minister to you with these words?”  Johnny didn’t know how what he offered would be received and neither do we.  Instead of assuming that he already possessed the authority to be minister to us, he asked.  And not in words, but the question is there in his vulnerability.  And like Johnny we must recognize that religious authority has shifted from the institution to the individual, and that if we want it back we must ask for it.  We ask.  We make the same request that Johnny makes of us.  Like him, we try to communicate what we believe with charismatic power and with the utter vulnerability of people who know that we lie under the same judgment that we proclaim.

Johnny knew just what our Pope meant when he wrote that we should all “live under the challenge of eternity.”  And it’s the call to live under that challenge – the call to live under the message of the Good News – that Johnny is issuing when he sings “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.”  And maybe a few of the pop-culture saints who lip sync those words of Johnny’s are hearing that call afresh, are allowing themselves to be ministered to by a man to whom they’ve ceded their religious authority.

So finally we come back to the video.  I watch it again.  I listen.  Sure, those actors might be just acting and those singers just singing, but I’m sure Johnny wasn’t.  And even more I’m sure they know he wasn’t.  That’s a new ministerial reality for our times.  We’re living in a 21st century West in which vulnerable sincerity still gets a hearing, and while that can be both a good and a bad thing, it shows that its our job as ministers to handcuff vulnerable sincerity to truth while making the request that we be allowed to be the ministers we’re called to be.

Anyway, I’m sure grateful for you ministering to me, Johnny.  I’ll give you that authority anytime.

— PG, SJ

4 Responses to Johnny Cash, Benedict XVI & the Authority Problem – Part 2 of 2

  1. mike kennedy says:

    You wrote a great piece. Cash’s old timey, protestant message is sort of in the vein of Jonathan Edward’s “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God”. It is scary, it challenges, it makes you gulp – but it resonates with truth and that is why it has so much traction. You are correct when you say that there is a part of us that wants to hear this type of message. A lot of us need to hear this type of message Thank you and good luck with your ministry. mike kennedy

  2. Sam says:

    Thanks for this — it rang true as to experience, but I wasn’t sure about “authority” as the proper word for Johnny’s “solution” (though it is surely the right word for the problem). “Authority,” like “authenticity,” is one of those words that has been greatly reduced by the insistence on having’s one’s autonomy be the source and measure of one’s self.

    So I mulled on that for a while, and what I found Johnny doing in issuing the call to “live under the challenge of eternity”. Then I re-read 1 Corinthians 9, where “human authority” (at least in the NRSV translation) shows up only in the negative — and the categories for ministry are commission, obligation, and freedom, and what authority there is (for ministry) is always derived, always referenced — always “pointing” back to God.

    So I wonder if we might not be better off to talk about ministerial freedom, as freedom to offer one’s self “according to the mode of the receiver,” becoming “all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22).

    Paul’s not asking — at least not primarily — for the Corinthians to recognize his authority — he’s asking them to recognize that he ministers from a fundamental freedom, and inviting them to respond to that freedom in kind. And maybe Johnny Cash is doing the same.

    • Patrick Gilger, SJ says:

      Sam, great response as always. Thanks for the thoughtfulness especially.

      You’re certainly right about a number of things here, the problem of measuring self by autonomy and the fact that all authority points back to God (in 1 Cor) especially. I think I would defend the use of the word authority, however, precisely because I think authority takes at least two forms: charismatic and institutional. I think it’s relevant to use Paul in discussing authority in those different forms (especially in Corinthians) because he’s dealing with the transition between these two kinds of authority in his budding Christian community at Corinth. I mean that, when he started all these communities he did so basically based on his charismatic authority, but in ch.9 I think he’s writing trying to preserve the institutional authority he’s birthed out of that initial authority – and preserve it with good reason, for the good of the community that is criticizing his evangelical methods.

      Anyway, what I think I’m really trying to point to is both what I take you pointing at in the phrase ministerial freedom – i.e., the freedom of the minister (e.g., Paul) to take on different roles – and how that process of taking on different roles (taking a different “tone” maybe) opens a “dialogical” space where a person can allow their self control to be relaxed…

      Hope that is making sense!

      Prayers hermano.

      PG, SJ

  3. I have read a number of posts on your blog now and wanted to point out that I really enjoy how you find a way to phrase and also describe every thing, it makes it very easy to read. I should also say that I totally agree with every little thing you have stated in this article, these type of things are vitally important to the planet and the earlier all of us realize the better we will be off in general.

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