The Man in Black and the Gospel of Light

An Appreciation for Johnny Cash

Todd Statham is Interim Minister at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Fort Frances, Ontario.

Todd StathamI remember the voice from my childhood. By no means were my parents country music fans, but we, like many homes, had a Johnny Cash album on our record shelf. It was an LP of old-time gospel tunes. It was cased in black, with Cash's face prominently figured in partial light, as if shadows had carved deep crags and lines across his face. And the voice: a deep, gravelly baritone that seemed to rise up "from the middle of the earth," as his friend Bob Dylan remarked in a eulogy in Rolling Stone magazine. When that voice sang, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me," I knew he meant it.

Johnny Cash died in a Nashville hospital on September 12, 2003. The official cause of death given was complications from diabetes, but Cash had suffered for years from poor health. His 71-year-old body had been broken down from years of booze and drugs; his heart was broken down when his wife and soul-mate, June Carter Cash, died in May.

When I heard on the TV of Cash's death, my thoughts jumped back to those first memories of the voice and the music. They were the earliest memories but by no means the only ones. I discovered Cash for my own when I was sixteen — certainly not a normal age to be a Johnny Cash fan! Yet, I heard in him what I did not hear among much of the sacred-pop cluttering up the airwaves of Christian radio — an authentically Christian voice that bled integrity from every song. My appreciation for Cash grew throughout my university studies and into my studies at seminary. Snatches from his songs sometimes punctuated my essays and even found their way into my sermons, usually without me knowing it. I have had a wonderful opportunity at seminary to study most of the "greats" of theology, from Augustine to Luther to Barth, but still prefer Cash as a commentator upon the Christian faith. Cash is a preacher's companion. His songs — so simple in rhyme and style, so stark in content — serve as a salutary reminder for preachers that our presentation of the faith in sermon and teaching does not have to be muddled in academic jargon or smooth words to be profound or relevant. Complaining about the "polished oratory sometimes heard in pulpits," Regent College's Gordon Fee writes:

    The danger [in preaching] always lies in letting the form and content get in the way of what should be the single human concern: the gospel proclaimed through human weakness but accompanied by the powerful work of the Spirit… (God's Empowering Presence, p. 890).

Cash would concur: Christian truth is best served up in an earthen vessel.

Cash's music encourages me to look at the world both honestly and hopefully. I am finding both to be indispensable as a Christian involved in ministry. Without honesty, I don't own up to the tragedy; without hope, I cannot rise above the tragedy. Cash's music plumbs the tragic depths of sin and the life-sustaining hope of Divine grace. He sings from within a fallen world and his songs dare the listener to look upon it with an unflinching gaze. The pervasive evil rooted in society and lodged in the human heart is never played down — the Devil is most certainly not imaginary. "The beast in me," sings Cash, with Calvinist severity, "is caged by frail and fragile bars." Sin abounds in his music — capital "S" Sinners populate his songs: wife beaters and adulterers, corrupt hanging juries and ruthless judges, drunks and addicts, murderers. Their sin is usually violent and often senseless: "I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die," brags one character, famously, in Folsom Prison Blues — yet never lacks moral consequences. Cash songs take the perspective of the condemned approaching the gallows who feels the crush of regret for a life littered with blown chances. "They'll take me in the morning to the gallows just outside / And in the time I got there ain't a hell of a lot I can look back on with pride." His are the songs, as in I See a Darkness, of men who know that their chasing after sex and drink is but a futile attempt to fill the lonely void in their hearts.

Yet, no matter how deep the darkness is that his songs climb down into, no matter how real the evil is, Cash's music impressed upon me that grace shines brighter, and God's love is more real. Mercy is never withheld from the fallen in the Cash canon. God always (and perhaps especially) turns his ear to the kneeling drunkard's plea and hears the condemned murder's last-ditch prayer. In a cover of Down there by the Train, God's grace is available for all who want to climb aboard the train of salvation:

    all of the shamefuls, and all of the whores
    and even the soldier who pierced the side of the Lord
    Are down there where the train goes slow.

And Cash sang of this grace in the old dialect of Canaan and Zion. In a day of theological language revision, Cash — like an old-time Baptist preacher — favoured the ancient Christian vocabulary of redemption. It is the blood of Jesus that saves the sinner, the cross of Jesus that vanquishes Satan, and only Jesus who can bring grace and hope into a tragedy-marred life. "Jesus," cries out the song Spiritual.

    Jesus, I don't want to die alone
    My love wasn't true.
    Now all I have is you.

I find that this balancing act between the reality of evil in our lives and world, and the greater reality of God's grace, makes Cash an authentic witness to Christian truth. Much of this authenticity was burned into his own soul. He grew up dirt-poor on a hard-scrabble Arkansas farm, endured a life long struggle with drugs, and honestly accepted his own foibles and finitude. That made his music credible, even despite millions of albums sold and dual membership in both the Rock and Roll and Country Music Halls of Fame (the only person besides Elvis Presley to be inducted into both).

I wish I could write sermons that are so authentic! Bono, the outspoken lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, noted that Cash's songs had a "covering of dust" on them. They grew out of the heart of a man who spent much time tramping in the dust of the wilderness, searching and struggling, hoping and doubting. An early classic like I Walk the Line is a well-known example of that struggle in the wilderness — a struggle to remain faithful to a lover in the face of temptation. But dust covered all his songs. In one of his final albums, Unchained, Cash humbly sings of his soul's conflict:

    I have been unfaithful,
    I have been unwise
    Restless from the cradle….
    O Lord, let my spirit be

Indeed, the whole persona of the "Man in Black" was carefully and deliberately constructed as Cash's identification with those who struggle: the poor, weak, powerless, and rejects. Cash's black apparel tied him to those who had to dwell in the darkness of an unjust world. For me, a newly minted Presbyterian minister, this is striking. So often the black Geneva gowns we Presbyterian ministers favour — or the black clerical shirts and suits found in other churches — serve to set us apart from our congregations. What if, following Cash, our black attire revealed not our separation but our affinity with the suffering of the world and those people who have been discarded as worthless by our society? My seminary professors might call this "incarnational ministry." Cash would simply say:

    I'd love to wear a rainbow every day
    And tell the world that everything's okay
    But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back.
    'Til things are brighter I'm the man in black.

The Man in Black sang the gospel of light. Because his eye was ever upon Jesus, the crucified but resurrected Lord, hope is present in Cash's music. Through Jesus, the hope of new life is real.

    I'm like a soldier getting over the war
    Like a young man getting over his crazy days
    Like a bandit getting over his lawless ways
    Every day gets better than the day before.

It is no surprise, then, that among the last songs Cash recorded a few days before his death is a version of an old African American Spiritual, Ain't no Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down. Amen.