Finding Jesus in our cultural pain

Kristyn Komarnicki, Evangelicals for Social Action, ePistle for August 12, 2009

12 August 2009

JohnnyCash.jpgSeveral years ago, driving alone one evening, I heard for the first time Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt”: I hurt myself today / to see if I still feel / I focus on the pain / the only thing that’s real. / The needle tears a hole / the old familiar sting / try to kill it all away / but I remember everything. / What have I become / my sweetest friend? / Everyone I know / goes away in the end. / You could have it all / my empire of dirt / I will let you down / I will make you hurt.

I was mesmerized…and mystified.  Clearly the song was about heroin addiction and desolation, but it was also compellingly beautiful.  I raised the volume and stumbled along with the lyrics, tears streaming down my face. By the song’s last mournful strain, I felt as if I had just emerged from deep, soul-searching prayer.

It wasn’t until I viewed the accompanying video—made the year before Cash’s death in 2003—that I gained some insight into why the song had moved me so profoundly. In it, the weary-faced singer sits surrounded by the trappings of wealth, with footage from his long career interspersed with clips of Jesus being nailed to the cross. Cash appropriates the excruciating lyrics of addiction and regret and uses them to sing to his Savior of his own sin, pain, and loss. With only his “empire of dirt” to offer, Cash empties himself at the foot of the cross—and in so doing touches at the heart of who we are as broken beings before a holy God.

What would happen if we, too, took the pain so prevalent in our culture, plumbing it for truth, appropriating it for our lives, and offering it back to God for redemption? Everywhere we look we see the church succumbing to the culture. Churches strive to be “relevant,” pastors yearn to “maximize their impact,” and investors scramble to cash in on the now coveted “Christian movie-going demographic.”  But surely, deep in our hearts, we recognize that it is the culture that must yield to the revolutionary love of Christ and not Christianity to the culture.  

This happens when Christ-followers lay the culture—and by that I mean all that is dark and painful as well as all that is good and glorious——at the foot of the cross, just as Johnny Cash did with his “Hurt.”  It happens when, instead of dedicating ourselves to producing Christian equivalents of everything that already exists out there (music, movies, fashion, theme parks, resorts), we roll up our sleeves and engage with what’s already there—incarnationally, Jesus-style.  It happens when we, like the Apostle Paul, go out into the marketplace and meet people where they are, using their own arguments, desires, and values to point them towards Christ. It happens when, instead of being afraid of dirtying ourselves in the world, we delve headfirst into the world and——without succumbing to its lies——use its own language to uncover the kingdom of God.

That’s what Jesus did. He used the stuff of this world to tell the whole truth about sin/forgiveness, darkness/light, death/life. He didn’t sanitize humanity into family-friendly characters when he told his parables; in fact, he chose some of the rottenest types to show how God works: absentee landlords and evil tenants, profligate sons and unmerciful servants, lazy workers and foolish architects, priggish priests and wretched beggars, grasping thieves and greedy workaholics.

Christ is in the movie theaters; he’s on the radio and on the street corners. We don’t have to drag people to church to find him. Once we’re redeemed, what we do have to drag is ourselves--to the streets and the cinemas, to the prisons and the boardrooms—bringing our broken but transformed lives out into the world to mingle and meet with the broken but not-yet-transformed. It’s just as Jesus said to his disciples: “Go out into the world” (Mark 16:15). 

Kristyn Komarnicki
Editor, Christ & Culture community
Editor, PRISM Magazine