|Synopsis||Saul of Tarsus is a Jewish zealot living in the time of Christ who finds himself haunted by visions and nightmares of a 'Man in White.'|
|Publisher||Harper and Row Publishers|
|Release Date||January 1, 1986|
I was considering making this book my next Classic Review, but upon examination that would be an oxymoron. Johnny Cash’s novel Man in White is not a classic. It is all but totally forgotten by anyone but the most devoted fans of 20th-century gospel music. I only discovered it recently when I visited the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, TN, where an original copy of the book was sitting next to copies of the great country music legend’s autobiographies Man in Black and Cash. It probably says something that I was able to buy a first edition of the book used for less than $20. Even so, the premise alone was enough to draw me in, that being a dramatization of the life of Saul of Tarsus.
Spiritual Content: The book is explicitly Christian, from a Southern Baptist perspective, and explores the lives of Jesus, Paul, and the Apostles in the first century, while facing oppression from Jewish authorities
Violence: Characters are murdered in cold blood, and descriptions of crushed bones and blood are vivid
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: A character tells Paul that he needs to take a wife
Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters drink alcohol
Other Negative Themes: None
Positive Content: Themes of redemption, joy, and the transformative power of faith
It is a somewhat underrated aspect of the life of Johnny Cash that he was a prominent evangelist. I say that mostly in the sense that this aspect of his life is one that seems to get glossed over by pop culture. In James Mangold’s critically acclaimed biopic Walk the Line, Cash’s faith is hardly mentioned at all. The movie instead focuses on his relationships, drug addiction, and the inspiration behind his country songs.
This representation ignores just how deeply faith was in his life. Cash was a devout Southern Baptist who regularly toured with the great evangelist Billy Graham. In 1973, Cash even shot a musical-drama film in Israel called Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus.
Like Man in White, the film is mostly forgotten and hasn’t been released in physical media in decades (although it has been uploaded to YouTube several times). Unlike his legendary singing career, Cash never quite managed to branch out and produce successful films or books, beyond a handful of notable cameo appearances and acting roles. That doesn’t mean he didn’t try. Man in White was a decades-long effort he made in conjunction with correspondence seminary courses to explore and explain the life of Paul the Apostle, a figure that Cash clearly identified with, given Paul’s radical conversion story.
The result is a book that is unpretentious, plainspoken, and lacks a certain literary depth that really digs deep into the mind of its subject. As far as Biblical dramatizations go, it’s merely mediocre. But it is notably vivid in its richness of detail and historical footnotes, which almost justify reading it. Cash seems to have put almost all of his effort into the setting and flavor details, and the result is a book that feels like a brisk stroll through a well-trodden land.
The Story of Man in White
If you are already familiar with the story of Saul of Tarsus and his conversion in the Book of Acts, then you already know the outline of this book. Saul is a young radical zealot working as part of the Sanhedrin, a council of powerful Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem who have taken up persecutions of the followers of Christ, in fear that they are spreading heresies and blasphemies that will embarrass the nation and bring about the wrath of God.
Saul is a particularly radical young man who lives in the basement of the temple and finds himself daily enraged with the pride and open evils he sees coming out of the mouths of Christ’s followers. Even as other members of the Sanhedrin consider him overly zealous, violent, and self-destructive; he is still awarded a commission to purge local synagogues of Christ followers, taking temple guards and arresting anyone who breaks the laws of Moses.
Saul finds himself disturbed during the first major execution brought down by the Sanhedrin, against a young man named Stephen.
Saul pointed to Stephen and said sharply, “Kill him!” The first stones missed; then a large stone hit his shoulder and broke it. Still Stephen was upraised, his face covered with blood but his countenance joyous. Cononiah held a large, sharp stone and as he raised it to throw it, Stephen cried, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” The stone found its mark, crushing the skull, and Stephen was dead. “I’ve never seen one die like that,” thought Saul.Man in White, First Edition, Page 45
Saul is unsettled by the reality of how far his opponents are willing to go. Regardless, he seals himself away to fast for an entire week in his room alone, spiritually preparing himself for the mission he has been assigned. He sits alone in silence, starving and praying, while the city of Jerusalem faces stress and tension as Christ’s followers flee underground. All the while, Saul finds no peace. He is nightly faced with vivid and horrific dreams, foreshadowing his conversion and hinting at the torment and uncertainty beneath him. He is zealous for God but he does not understand what that means and how he is harming God’s children.
The famous conversion on the road to Damascus takes place at the book’s halfway point. Following Saul’s efforts to break up Christian services hosted by followers Barnabas, Aristotle, and Joseph of Arimathea, the church falls further underground. Saul takes up a commission to move his mission to Damascus. As he nears the city though, he finds himself blinded by the image of a “Man in White,” who speaks to Saul and completely changes the direction of his life.
The light, the beautiful, horrible light. And there before his eyes manifested physically in glorified reality, for just a split second, was the figure of the Man in White. The Man, carried to the earth to appear before Saul in a stream of wonderful, dazzling beauty, a flowing stream of divine substance, came in a white so white, so pure, so brilliant that his eyes were seared and scaled over … on the back of his eyelids was a negative of the Man. A negative so clear that his inner vision strained against looking at even the negative.Man in White, First Edition, Page 118
Saul of Tarsus, not yet identifying as Paul the Apostle, spends the rest of the novel coming to terms with his mission, conversing with the Holy Spirit, and attempting to dialog with the surviving Apostles Peter, John, and James. He prepares to begin his mission across the sea, one that will define his life before his eventual martyrdom in Rome, dying with the same joy Stephen felt decades before.
I’m Calling This One A Mixed Bag
One shouldn’t be surprised that the great Johnny Cash is a good writer, at least lyrically speaking. What he lacks in structure or literary depth, he makes up for in his excellent control of language and his ability to probe the minds of people for curious motivations.
At times, the book does skew a bit overly speculative. In one potentially contentious moment, Paul and James engage in an ecumenical disagreement about the role of faith and works in salvation. Being a Southern Baptist, Cash readily gives Paul’s explanations preferential treatment and toes the line of overtly explaining the Protestant defense against works — which even I as a Liturgical Protestant would consider an indulgent story beat to add.
“Even David in his time spoke of the blessedness of the man to who God imputes righteousness without works,” said Peter. “Faith without works is dead,” said James, his voice rising steadily… “Yes,” said Saul. “But to win certain converts we must ask them to come on faith alone, then teach them the duties of following the Master. Works will follow.” “I do not agree with you,” said James… “So you say you have faith, and I say I have works. Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” “All right brother,” said Saul, “Your point is made and accepted. My point is that converts must know that in coming to our lord they are justified by faith in him, that the righteousness of the law is attained by total faith in him.”Man in White, First Edition, Page 205
By the time Saul has converted, the book loses a lot of momentum. The ending chapters meander a bit with short digressions about various characters being converted by Saul or facing persecution briefly from the Sanhedrin. Then the book more-or-less ends without much of a crescendo.
The early chapters have an emotional rawness to them, which I suspect is quite personal for Cash himself. As we all know, he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. He struggled with drug addiction and relationship issues. He lived a complicated and messy life by the standards of a Baptist. I think anyone who has lived a troubled life would look at those early chapters and see just how much Cash saw himself in a pre-conversion Saul.
The transformation we do see is notable and shocking, to the point that the Saul of Tarsus we see after the conversion feels like a completely different person — appropriate given how much weight Southern Baptist theology puts on the importance of the “born-again” experience. I do suspect that these are chapters Cash most struggled with writing, falling back more heavily into direct quotations of the King James Bible and digging less deeply into Paul’s motivations.
I’m glad I read Man in White, even if I don’t think it’s a great book overall. I recognize a lot of the depth and effort that went into it. More importantly, I see it as a historical artifact by a great artist struggling to process some of the most challenging aspects of his faith and life.
Personally speaking, Paul the Apostle is my favorite character in the entire Bible because his transformation and gift for words are unmatched. Paul’s vision of Christianity IS Christianity as we understand it today because the words he wrote in his seven letters to the early churches have become the way we learn to follow and apply Christ’s words. Paul said it best when he said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1 NIV). Seeing how Cash saw that example in himself and tried to unpack it is fascinating, even if he doesn’t come to any greater revelation.
+ Beautiful Language
+ Sporadic Interesting Insights
- Overall Weak Story and Structure
- Lacking Revelations and Character Depth
The Bottom Line
Man in White is a fascinating relic of a great life and career but doesn't aspire or achieve anything more than being a vivid and plainspoken retelling of a popular story.