The following article is adapted from The Man Comes Around: The Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash (Relevant Books), which explores Cash's raw and sometimes messy faith.
A writer once tried to paint [Johnny] Cash into a corner, baiting him to acknowledge a single denominational persuasion at the center of his heart. Finally, Cash laid down the law: "I—as a believer that Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew, the Christ of the Greeks, was the Anointed One of God (born of the seed of David, upon faith as Abraham has faith, and it was accounted to him for righteousness)—am grafted onto the true vine, and am one of the heirs of God's covenant with Israel."
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"What?" the writer replied.
"I'm a Christian," Cash shot back. "Don't put me in another box."
Despite his Baptist/Pentecostal upbringing, Cash was never terribly concerned about denominations. Or about nickel-and-dime theology. Or about tedious doctrinal parsing. "In my travels to Europe, Asia, and Australia, many times I have remembered and realized more fully that the gospel is the only doctrine that really works, and it works for all men," he once declared. "But when this or that denomination begins to feel, or still worse, begins to teach that their particular interpretation of the Word opens the only door to heaven, then I feel it's dangerous."
So, exactly what "kind" of Christian was Cash?
A staunch, conservative, Bible thumper? It sure seems so if you read the introduction to his 1986 novel about the life of the apostle Paul, Man in White: "Please understand that I believe the Bible, the whole Bible, to be the infallible, indisputable Word of God. I have been careful to take no liberties with the timeless Word."
But based on a passage from his 1997 autobiography, Cash doesn't seem as steadfast: "Once I learned what the Bible is—the inspired Word of God (most of it anyway) … " (To be fair, he continues this shadow of doubt with a gushing endorsement of Scripture, noting how "truly exciting" it is to discover new interpretations and applications to his own life.)
Further, it certainly can be argued that Cash was a private man and preferred to keep his faith to himself. Stu Carnall, an early tour manager, recalled, "Johnny's an individualist, and he's a loner. He's also unpredictable… . He's a talker, and he can talk plenty about anything—but not about religion. We'd be on the road for weeks at a time, staying at motels and hotels along the way. While the other members of the troupe would sleep in, Johnny would disappear for a few hours. When he returned, if anyone asked where he'd been, he'd answer straight faced, 'to church.'"
"I don't compromise my religion," Cash once declared. "If I'm with someone who doesn't want to talk about it, I don't talk about it. I don't impose myself on anybody in any way, including religion. When you're imposing you're offending, I feel. Although I am evangelical, and I'll give the message to anyone that wants to hear it, or anybody that is willing to listen. But if they let me know that they don't want to hear it, they ain't never going to hear it from me. If I think they don't want to hear it, then I will not bring it up."
In short, "telling others is part of our faith all right, but the way we live it speaks louder than we can say it," Cash said. "The gospel of Christ must always be an open door with a welcome sign for all."
But put Cash in front of a microphone … and, as you might have guessed, anything could happen.
"I'm not here tonight to exalt Johnny Cash," he told an audience during a show following his dramatic rededication to Christ in the early '70s. "I'm standing here as an entertainer, as a performer, as a singer who is supporting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I'm here to invite you to listen to the good news that will be laid out for you, to analyze it, and see if you don't think it's the best way to live."
Cash also made major headlines when he shared his faith on The Johnny Cash Show, a popular variety program on ABC that ran from 1969 to 1971: "Well, folks," he began, "I've introduced lots of hymns and gospel songs on this show. I just want to make it clear that I'm feeling what I'm singing about in this next one. I am a Christian … I want to dedicate this song to the proposition that God is the victor in my life. I'd be nothing without him. I want to get in a good lick right now for Number One." (Yet there are those in the Church who questioned his decision, during one momentous episode of show, to sing the controversial lyric, "wishing Lord that I was stoned" from Kris Kristofferson's hit "Sunday Morning Coming Down.")
And while Cash longed to play only gospel music from the start—and would have if Sam Phillips hadn't nixed his desires as economically unfeasible for Sun Records—he never shied away from performing secular-themed songs in the studio or on the concert stage throughout his career.
A huge influence on Cash in this potentially problematic area was, believe or not, evangelist Billy Graham, who sought out Johnny in the early '70s when he heard of his commitment to God.
"He and I spent a lot of time talking the issues over, and we determined that I wasn't called to be an evangelist …" Cash recalled of his first face-to-face conversations with Graham. "He had advised me to keep singing 'Folsom Prison Blues' and 'A Boy Named Sue' and all those other outlaw songs if that's what people wanted to hear and then, when it came time to do a gospel song, give it everything I had. Put my heart and soul into all my music, in fact; never compromise; take no prisoners. 'Don't apologize for who you are and what you've done in the past,' he told me. 'Be who you are and do what you do.'"
"I think I just like to share my faith, you know?" he said in recent years. "I don't preach to people. I don't ever push it on anybody, and I wouldn't sing a gospel song on any show if I didn't think the people would enjoy it. They seem to enjoy those as much or more than anything else. It's not that I'm proselytizing. I'm not out there tryin' to convince people, just to spread a little good news."
As it turns out, Cash quickly became a welcome figure at both Billy Graham Crusades and on the ostentatious stages of Las Vegas. And while he insisted that these (seemingly) diametrically opposed venues were equally home in his heart and mind, U2's Bono wasn't convinced: "Johnny Cash doesn't sing to the damned, he sings with the damned, and sometimes you feel he might prefer their company … "
A Walking Contradiction
Cash's daughter, singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, once pointed out that "my father was raised a Baptist, but he has the soul of a mystic. He's a profoundly spiritual man, but he readily admits to a continual attraction for all seven deadly sins."
"There's nothing hypocritical about it," Johnny Cash told Rolling Stone scribe Anthony DeCurtis. "There is a spiritual side to me that goes real deep, but I confess right up front that I'm the biggest sinner of them all." To Cash, even his near deadly bout with drug addiction contained a crucial spiritual element. "I used drugs to escape, and they worked pretty well when I was younger. But they devastated me physically and emotionally—and spiritually … [they put me] in such a low state that I couldn't communicate with God. There's no lonelier place to be. I was separated from God, and I wasn't even trying to call on him. I knew that there was no line of communication. But he came back. And I came back."
Years after his return to the land of the living, Cash once got a visit from U2 members Bono and Adam Clayton who were driving across the U.S., taking in the local colors. The three of them sat around a table before their meal, and Cash floored the two Irishmen with an incredible prayer of thanksgiving to God. Then, without skipping a beat, he raised his head and quipped, "Sure miss the drugs, though."
Cash sums up his soul's murky landscape—if that's possible—better than anybody else: "I'm still a Christian, as I have been all my life. Beyond that I get complicated. I endorse Kris Kristofferson's line about me: 'He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.' I also like Rosanne's line: 'He believes what he says, but that don't make him a saint.' I do believe what I say. There are levels of honesty, though."
At this juncture, you may be asking why the book you're holding is attempting to figure out the spiritual nature of this man. A puzzling personality who once implored, "Please don't tell anybody how I feel about anything … unless I told you in the last few days."
The answer? It's attempting nothing of the sort. The sole purpose of this book is to focus on the wild, incredible ups and downs of Cash's spiritual journey. It's a chronicle of his highs and lows, a record of the ebb and flow of his soul's story.
And like many such journeys, Cash's was a roller coaster experience—though his twists and turns and plunges have been more intense than the average person's … and, well, there were a lot more of them.
Cash began life close to church, close to the earth, and close to gospel music; but his earliest singles for Sun Records hit the secular path rather than the gospel road he hoped Sam Phillips would let him follow; Phillips' preference for the former led to big hits from Cash right from the start, and he immediately became a slave to the road, soon making millions of dollars and winning over millions of fans; he battled through a lot of death through the years—including his big brother Jack's, his parents', his longtime guitarist Luther Perkins', and especially his wife of 35 years, June Carter Cash's—but Cash somehow eluded the Grim Reaper's snares despite feeding his frame with truckloads of uppers and downers over the better part of the 1960s; he enjoyed a creative and spiritual renaissance in the late '60s and early '70s, a run that not only sealed his status as the father of American music but proved a blueprint for what would soon become contemporary Christian music; and then, just when it appeared his career was sputtering to a halt in the late '80s and early '90s, Cash confounded everyone by becoming the "it" artist once again, boldly interpreting eclectic song mixtures that mined alternative rock and bygone standards.
And while his body suffered recently under the strain wrought by years of abuse, Cash's mind stayed strong … and his spirit stayed stronger.
"Being a Christian isn't for sissies," Cash said once. "It takes a real man to live for God—a lot more man than to live for the devil, you know? If you really want to live right these days, you gotta be tough."
What's more, he was intimately aware of the hard truths about living God's way: "If you're going to be a Christian, you're going to change. You're going to lose some old friends, not because you want to, but because you need to."
"I Don't Give Up"
Especially since June's death in May 2003, many wondered how much longer Cash could hang on to life—it's not uncommon, after all, for longtime spouses to die in close succession to each other. And that's exactly what happened.
But you have to admit those were fightin' words to Cash. In fact, shortly after June's death, Cash headed back into the studio to begin work on more songs with fellow rebel and producer of nearly a decade, Rick Rubin. (Truth to tell, Cash's last two albums, American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around, were both reckoned as his farewell offerings.)
"He kind of made a decision," Rubin told Billboard. "He called me a couple of days after June passed and said that he really has dedicated his life to work and wants to be busy all the time and focused on songs. That's what he wants to do, so that's what we're going to do [and] that's what we've been doing."
And in his final days, despite moment-by-moment battles with diabetes, glaucoma (which cost him well over half of his vision), asthma, and a progressive, debilitating case of autonomic neuropathy (which deadened his nerve endings, complicated his other ailments, and pretty much confined Cash to a wheelchair during his waking hours), the Man in Black was anything but in a black mood. In fact, he was celebrating life—sopping up every second he could, while he could.
"I'm thrilled to death with life," he told Larry King during a recent interview. "Life is—the way God has given it to me—was just a platter. A golden platter of life laid out there for me. It's been beautiful."
Observers were continually amazed with the grace Cash exuded despite the legion of forces working against him. "He looks more frail than imposing, propped up in his black leather recliner," one writer noted. "Yet … it's remarkable just how vital, even unassailable, Cash and his craggy baritone remain … and while Cash's stentorian vocals may sound tattered, they still convey an almost biblical authority, a reverberant mix of judgment, hope, and, above all, steadfastness."
"I don't give up," he told Larry King. "I don't give up … and it's not out of frustration and desperation that I say 'I don't give up.' I don't give up because I don't give up. I don't believe in it."
Amen to that.
© 2005 Relevant Media Group. Adapted from The Man Comes Around: The Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash (Relevant Books) by Dave Urbanski. Used with permission. www.relevantbooks.com.
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