Johnny Cash was called “The Man in Black,” known for the raw honesty and storytelling in his songs. But later in life, he also felt compelled to tell another story… in the form of a novel about the Apostle Paul, for whom Cash felt a deep affinity. He called his book “The Man in White;” it’s a compelling look at Paul through the creative imagination of Johnny Cash. This excerpt is his account of Paul’s conversion.
The Damascus Road
And the noonday sun — the heat was exhausting. Homes, farms, and flocks were numerous now alongside the road through the irrigated plain. Cattle rested in the shade of the scattered trees. Not a breeze moved. The crops in the fields beside the road stood motionless. No birds were in the sky. They were all in their nests somewhere waiting for the passing of the heat of the day.
The earth shuddered. Or did it tremble in fear and wonder? The ground shook; the stones moved. Limbs fell from trees, and dust quickly arose from the ground in every direction. Before he could cry out, he was overwhelmed by pure light. The awesome brilliance of a light far greater than the sun burst through the gulf between heaven and earth. The Shekinah glory streamed with such force that Saul and his companions fell to the ground. The nucleus of the light’s power appeared before his eyes in such splendor that instant prostration was the result. One moment he was on his feet; the next he was on his back, his face blistered and his hair singed. Though the center from which the light emanated had been before him, he felt its heat all over his body. He quivered in shock.
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.
He raised his head from the ground to try to look again at the Man in White, but he was blind. On the back of his eyelids was a negative of the Man. He would never forget the image. In startled wonder he recalled the magnificent sight that struck him blind. The man’s bare feet shone like gold, much, much brighter than the polished brass lamps that hung from chains in the synagogue. There was a well-healed wound on the arch of each foot — even the wounds sparkled and shone.
His robe was long and flowing and whiter than any earthly fuller could make cloth. It appeared to be a one-piece robe, hand-woven of linen, but what wonderfully white linen! Around his chest was a golden mantle. Signifying what? Saul wondered. Certainly a priestly piece of apparel. Or covering… what? The gold, a symbol of God’s purity covering bloodstains that had fallen from his brow, which was banded with a golden crown. He knew, but would not, could not yet accept the fact of the identity of the Man in White. His arms were outstretched, and on his beautiful hands were wounds, one in each palm.
Saul could not distinguish the features of the Man’s face. The light had prevented it. But his hair was as snow-white as his robe. His mouth was open, ready to speak. The man’s eyes pierced through the light and touched Saul to the depths of his being. Eyes of love. Eyes of sorrow. Eyes of compassion, of understanding. Terrible, captivating eyes.
The light bridged the void, the unbreachable time-space from heaven to earth, and in the instant that Saul had seen all this, he saw also that around, above, and for endless reaches of space behind the Man in White were angels — thousands of angels, tens of thousands of angels.
Saul had once heard that Jesus of Nazareth had claimed that he could call down twelve legions of angels to assist him if he so desired. He had made that statement to the Temple guards the night of his arrest in Gethsemane. There were more than twelve legions of angels accompanying the Man in White. Seventy thousand? There were more, countless more. As if seventy thousand were a small number. It was. For the angels ascended through the breach, in the void all the way to the infinite reaches of holy heaven. There was an endless, countless number of them beginning at his feet and ascending as his train through timeless time and endless space. He lay on the hard ground of the Damascus road, thinking he was dead, that he had been cast into everlasting darkness. Then the sound began — the sound of water. From where comes the sound of running water on this hot Syrian plain? Then he knew that this sound was coming through the breach between heaven and earth where the Man in White had stood before him. He realized then, in his blindness, that the unworldly, celestial experience was continuing and the sounds he was hearing were not of this world. He was in the presence of divine direction, and he lay dazed but transfixed upon everything that came to him. This was the ancient sound of the creative work of the water that divided the land masses when the earth was created. It was the sound of the water that parted to make way for Israel to cross the Red Sea. This was the sound of eternal water, living water, the water that flowed from the rock at Moses’ hand. The roaring and rushing fury grew in intensity. Ocean waves crashed on rocks. He heard the sound of heavy seas rolling, the rippling and whirling of streams and rivers. The water fell, splashed, churned, and boiled in sheets, sprays, funnels, and seas of water.
And along with the sound of water, he heard the voices again calling his name, “Saul! Paul! Pol! Paulus! Paolo!” The Gentiles of all the earth were calling him.
He was wide awake, he knew, for he could feel the hard, hot stones on his back where he lay and trembled in greater fear. Then he sensed the warm presence flowing over his senses, the glory of the Divine filling his very being, touching him, yet he could still feel the spiritual gulf between this world and the higher one. Then the presence spoke to him.
The soft, loving voice spoke to him through the sound of the water, and it was meant for his ears only. It was a stern but kind voice, piercing yet consoling. It was a friendly voice of love, of familiarity, of brotherhood and compassion. A voice as ageless and endless as creation, coming all the way from the divine dwelling place, through the gulf, bridging the eternal with the temporal, came to the ears of the persecutor.
“Saul,” it said.
He listened. He tried to raise his head, but he could see nothing. He wanted to cry, “I’m blind,” but would not attempt to shout over the roar of the water. He could not yet speak.
“Saul,” came the kind voice again, calling his name in Hebrew. Not in ages had the Voice called to a mortal man from the dwelling place of the Most High. He trembled so much that he could not answer. He waited, unable to reply.
Could it be the echo of the Divine Voice, the Bat Kol? he wondered. I am not worthy to hear the echo of the Divine Voice.
But the Voice was not an echo. In childlike loving-kindness, warm and pleading, it said,
“Why do you persecute me?”
And then he knew. Although he asked, “Who are you, Lord?” he knew. It was the glorified human voice of the living water, the resurrected and ascended Son.
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Excerpted with permission at FaithGateway, from Man in White: A Novel About the Apostle Paul by Johnny Cash, copyright John R. Cash.