It has been almost 70 years since Hank Williams recorded one of his most well-known songs, “Lost Highway.” Thus it has been nearly 70 years since the term “rolling stone” has infiltrated the American vernacular. This expression has been used by musicians including Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones (naturally), Emmy Lou Harris, and even Green Day.
Although the expression’s genesis goes much further back than Williams’ song, the meaning it has come to represent can be found in the lyrics. “I’m a rollin’ stone all alone and lost. For a life of sin I have paid the cost.” In other words, a rolling stone is a lonesome traveler not anchored to any one place.
So when we hear Dylan ask, “How does it feel to be a rolling stone?” We already know what this means, even if we have never heard Williams sing his ever so dark lullaby. The phrase has taken hold in this culture and now carries its own weight in our lexicon.
This is how language evolves. A word or phrase comes to represent a series of ideas, then those ideas are given life with as little effort as saying a few words. If an American traveled to the Middle East and told the locals he was a rolling stone, the response might be confusion. The same thing can be said for a phrase like “love is love.” When an acquaintance uses this to end a discussion, we know what he or she means. We also know the phrase is not being used to its extreme conclusions. But if it was said in a Greek town—where they have six different words for love—the people in that community may wonder how much lead Americans drink.
Christianity in America has had a similar effect in underpinning our public life. This seems to go without saying, but examples abound of people from every social class who seem to not have a clue. Even if a person does sincerely believe the role of religion in our lives is anachronistic, he still draws deeply from Judeo-Christian beliefs to make value judgments.
The Residue Is Still Here
We are long past the days where citizens would spend an afternoon at the Circus Maximus to watch gladiators fight to the death, in no small part through Christian ethics. The Bill of Rights were written by proponents of natural law, a system conceived by the Greeks but developed by Christian thinkers, who believed a well-functioning government does not grant human rights—God does that—rather, it ensures them. The effect of Christian thought in our lives is so ubiquitous that, even as controversial as they are in our public discourse, the injunctions of the Ten Commandments appear obvious. This includes the ever-controversial first and second commandments. These moral laws are so wound up in our social fabric, and our being, that they are self-evident.
In the same way that language evolves to reflect cultural values, or as the expression “rolling stone” settles into the way we collectively think, the mind of a Christian organizes itself around the image of the cross. We are nurtured on stories of the little guy overcoming the worst type of odds to slay the philistine, or on the legend of the eccentric old man who builds a boat large enough to accommodate the roots of a new civilization. We learn a metropolis that is consumed with its own selfish ways will inevitably crumble, or that men who make gods of themselves will find difficulty divorcing their good names from the regrettable moniker of Nimrod.
Most importantly, we come to understand our existence in relation to a personal God who loved us such that he took on flesh to conquer death. To free us from the bonds of sin and death, God became man that he would be hung on a cross at the hands of a government more concerned with keeping the peace than hearing the truth.
You Can Only Draw from the Bank What Someone’s Put In
But while we may jam to Dylan’s iconic hit “Like a Rolling Stone” or the Rolling Stones’ melancholy tune “Wild Horses” without connecting their work to Hank’s (though I do not recommend it), our ability to maintain the cultural values we take for granted seem fleeting as we divorce ourselves from the foundation of the cross. For the Christian, attempting to live as a witness to the truth should be held in much higher regard than any transitory opportunity for a dopamine bath.
This is important because as cultural norms are loosened, and more avenues become available for temporal gratification, the shocking image of the cross provides a clear path forward. Without it, one may wonder why not commit adultery, theft, or lie if it feels good and achieves a goal? One may also be inclined to confuse the concept of capital “T” truth, a notion that rarely receives the popularity it deserves, with democratic preference. Unrestrained, and without a solid concept of redemptive suffering, the pearls of the common good—and, for that matter, the personal good—are tossed away to the swine of human appetite.
Williams paradoxically lived as both a testament to the tragedy of intemperate passions and as a witness to the redemptive nature of the cross. Unfortunately, these two conflicting themes would never reconcile, and he ultimately perished from a drug overdose in the back of a car at age 29. His music often came to reflect the eschatological battle he fought to the death within himself, and for this reason it inspired an entire generation of musicians the world over.
If only at the end of his iconic lost highway this rolling stone could have truly experienced the transformative power of Christ crucified and risen, perhaps his story may have had a different end. Nonetheless, his dialect changed the way we think and relate ideas. This is no small feat, as seen on a much larger scale in the power of the cross to alter the trajectory of western civilization.
But while Hank’s legacy may recede in the background with little effect on the way society moves forward, I fear we are already harvesting the rotten fruit of a culture detached from the framework of its Christian legacy.