Johnny Cash’s ‘What Is Truth,’ adapted for 2017

By G. Travis Norvell

Twenty years ago, I was driving a church bus full of youth from Toronto back to Rochester, NY. Somewhere on the thruway east of Buffalo, NY, I told the kids to hush up and listen. I pulled out the mix tape I made for the trip (church vans did not have CD players back then), pushed the tape into the slot, and turned the volume up.

I knew the van of youth would giggle and make fun of my personalized Johnny Cash greatest hits selection so I started the tape with the one song I thought might get their attention, “What Is Truth.” At first the youth giggled, but as the song played on the van went silent. When it was over, they asked me to play it again and after that one more time.

One bit of truth from my life touched one bit of truth in theirs. It was a beautiful moment. We are forty-years removed from Cash’s song. The sentiment is still present, but the situations have changed. In light of fake news, Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, threats of mass deportation, saber rattling, loss of health care and more, I tried to envision how the Man in Black might have reimagined the church’s role through his classic song.

Young woman lays her smart phone aside
’tween real and fake news it’s hard to decide
The news sure sounds weird these days
they report it in the strangest way
Said, it looks to me like the world’s gone awry
Looks more and more like eye for an eye
How can the church hear all of our girls and boys
who are trying to be heard above all the noise
Does the church hear the voice of youth cry, “What is truth?”
A little boy of 3 in between bites
says, “Daddy, what is ICE?”
They’re the people who may take us away
Little boy of three says, “Papá, por qué?”
A black youth of 17 in Sunday school
being taught the golden rule
And by the time another year goes around
he may have his life taken down
Can the church blame the voice of youth for asking
“What is truth?”
Young man at school gets a tweet
“Leave class, we’re gonna block the street
Nobody seems to hear us anymore
Even when we march, we organize, we roar.”
Young people camped at Standing Rock
Oil and greed they wanted to block
Said, “Water is Life”; it’s what we all share
we all need clean water, clean soil, clean air
And the lonely voice of youth cries
“What is truth?”
The young trans girl looking for a safe door
Can’t find a safe place anymore
The young man speaking in the city square
Is trying to tell somebody that he cares
Yeah, the ones that are calling us out
Are going to be the leaders shortly about
This old world’s wakin’ to a newborn day
And I solemnly swear that it’ll be their way
And the church better help the voice of youth find
“What is truth”