Making Friends with the Beast: Hamartiology in Johnny Cash & Eminem
I am definitely not okay. You probably aren’t either. Welcome to the human condition.
The Christian faith has always taught that something has gone wrong in us; something, we followers of Jesus claim, is broken, and though we may find it difficult to explain it, we are nonetheless unable to fix ourselves. The traditional name for this is sin. Sin infects both individuals and communities, which is to say that it is personal and systemic. This brief piece will focus on the former, in conversation with two musicians: Johnny Cash and Eminem. For those who like fancy theological terms, this is a post about hamartiology (the study of sin).
In Eminem’s “The Monster,” performed with Rihanna, we hear:
Maybe I need a straightjacket, face facts
I am nuts for real, but I’m okay with that
It’s nothing, I’m still friends with the
I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed
Get along with the voices inside of my head
You’re trying to save me, stop holding your breath
And you think I’m crazy, yeah, you think I’m crazy
Johnny Cash, under the watchful eye of Rick Rubin, wrote and performed some of the best music of his career in the twilight of his life. One example of that rich collaboration is a song found in their first album together titled “The Beast in Me,” in which Cash confesses, with his characteristic lack of sentimentality:
Sometimes it tries to kid me
That it’s just a teddy bear
And even somehow manage to vanish in the air
And that is when I must beware
Of the beast in me that everybody knows
They’ve seen him out dressed in my clothes
If it’s New York or New Year
God help the beast in me
The eminent psychologist Carl Jung made famous the concept of “the shadow,” that dark aspect of ourselves that must be acknowledged in order for one to mature and be healthy. The Enneagram makes space for this concept too, as it describes persons, using its 1-9 numbering system, in both healthy and unhealthy states. The unhealthy state, I would venture to argue, is akin to Jung’s “shadow” self.
Thus, many voices, secular and theological, artistic, spiritual, and psychological, converge on this same central idea: something has gone wrong. As they say in 12 Step circles, the first step is admitting you have a problem.
Note how, both for Eminem and Cash, the shadow is something immediate and near, something perhaps even intimate. For Mr. Mathers, the Monster is “under my bed,” and for the Man in Black, the Beast is within him. There is no attempt to separate themselves or to put a false distance with the shadow. There is an unrelenting spiritual integrity at work here.
This is critical because both artists remind us of a crucial aspect of reality: that which is unacknowledged cannot be healed. Like a small scrape that turns into a life-threatening infection, sin does not heal on its own. Unchecked, evil will only continue to divide homes, communities, nations, and the church. The cure does not come from any machinations of our own devising. Rather, the Father acting through Jesus in the power of the Spirit redeems, restores, forgives, and sets us free – something we cannot do for ourselves.
Of course, even acknowledging the “beast” or “the monster” is itself an act of grace; in particular, this is the work of the Spirit to convict us, so that we seek out the medicine from the Physician of our souls. A scene from C.S. Lewis’ classic The Great Divorce vividly portrays this dynamic:
GHOST: What do you keep on arguing for (says the Ghost) I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anyone’s bleeding charity.
BRIGHT MAN – Oh then do (said the Bright man) – at once. Ask for the bleeding charity. Everything is here for the asking and absolutely nothing can be bought.
As Johnny Cash well knew, the “bleeding charity” of Christ’s love, poured out on Calvary for sinners like me (and you), can be asked for but never bought, received but never deserved. Sin thus becomes something, as John Wesley said, “that remains but no longer reigns.” Acknowledged, confessed, and healed by God’s grace, the Beast under our beds and in our hearts becomes a reminder of and vehicle for the mercy that has claimed us, as Paul discovered with the “thorn in the flesh” that so vexed him:
Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:8-10, NRSV)
The Beast and the Monster are no match for Christ who is the Lion and the Lamb, who became sin and died our death in order to vanquish them. The Beast can be caged, and the Monster can be befriended, because we know the savior who alone has broken their power on the cross and in the empty tomb, and will one day utterly destroy every power and authority that stands against God’s purposes.
Thanks be to God!