THE READING ROOM: A Study of ‘The Gospel According to Johnny Cash’
Johnny Cash embodied the lyrics in the chorus of his friend Kris Kristofferson’s song “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33”: “He’s a poet, he’s a picker / He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher / He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned / He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.”
The story of Cash’s addictions is well known, and the details of the difficulties his growing fame brought to his first marriage to Vivian Liberto are now amplified in the new movie, My Darling Vivian, which premiered this year at the SXSW Film Festival (and is now in a limited run on Amazon Prime). Here was a man who never got over his older brother Jack’s horrific death, who always lived with some measure of guilt over that death, and who vacillated between the debaucheries of Saturday night and the earnest repentance of Sunday morning. Not only did he write a novel about the Apostle Paul, Man in White, but he made a film about the life of Jesus called The Gospel Road. To many, Cash himself was a “walkin’ contradiction.”
Not so for Richard Beck, a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University who leads a weekly Bible study at a maximum-security prison near his home. In his new book, Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash (Fortress), Beck testifies to his own conversion experience to Cash’s music — listening to At Folsom Prison for the first time while driving one afternoon to the prison — and discovers the key to Cash’s lyrics and music in their juxtaposition of sin and suffering, murder and love. In Trains, Jesus, and Murder, Beck weaves personal stories of the inmates with whom he shares these weekly Bible studies into reflections on, and analysis of, 15 of Cash’s songs. Each chapter takes its title from one of the songs and focuses on the ways that the song reveals elements of Cash’s theological or biblical nimbleness.
“The contrast between Jesus and murder, between gospel hymns and odes to a criminal mentality — there is nothing like this contrast in the whole of the music industry — is what fascinated me about the music of Johnny Cash,” Beck writes, though “nothing like” is a little too overzealous a generalization since Beck forgets the Louvin Brothers, who were doing this before Cash. “ … Pick up any Johnny Cash album, and you’ll likely find a hymn of praise next to a murder ballad. Saints and sinners all jumbled up together. … Faith shines bright in the darkest of places.” Beck discovers that Cash’s music mirrors his own experience of working with prisoners and the “seams of gold run[ning] through the blackest of hearts.”
Beck doesn’t set out to reduce Cash simply to his Christian core, but wants to call attention to what he sees as a neglected theological reading of Cash’s life and music. Fortunately for us, Cash doesn’t come off as a one-dimensional caricature of Christian faith, and, to his credit, Beck resists trying to read too much into Cash’s words. In the chapter on Cash’s song “The Man in Black,” for example, Beck reads Cash’s lyrics through the lens of liberation theology, in which biblical stories center on a preferential option for the poor. In “The Man in Black,” Cash reels off a litany for the reasons he wears black. He wears black not only for the “poor and beaten down,” but also for the “sick and lonely old,” for the “ones who are held back.” He wears the black mourning garments for “the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold / …for lives that could have been / Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.” The song may be Cash’s loudest, angriest, and starkest protest against the injustices of a society that pushes large groups of individuals to its margins as it seeks the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. When the song came out in 1971, it offered an insight behind the legend of the outlaw country singer garbed in black, but the song was an act of solidarity with the poor, hungry, addicts, prisoners, and the hundreds of soldiers killed in Vietnam.
At the close of the book, Beck returns to his beginning: “If you doubt any of this, just listen to At Folsom Prison. Listen to that simple, understated introduction, ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.’ Listen to the Tennessee Three start in with that unmistakable boom-chicka-boom sound, letting you know something is chugging toward you, just ’round that bend in the railroad tracks — a voice like no other coming to hit you like a freight train. But, mostly, listen to the audience of prisoners. Listen to the cheers of the forsaken, the lost, and the damned. They have been seen. They have not been forgotten. The have been told, ‘I love you.’ And somewhere in that roar, if you listen for it, you’ll hear the gospel according to Johnny Cash.”
Trains, Jesus, and Murder won’t appeal to all Johnny Cash fans, or to all country music fans. Each chapter opens with a focus on Cash and the song under consideration in the chapter. In the middle of the chapter, though, Beck breaks away into expositions of biblical stories or explorations of theological ideas. For readers unfamiliar with the Bible or with theology, such narrative lines can be intrusive and break up an otherwise coherent narrative. In addition, even though Beck tries his best not to read biblical ideas or theological concepts into Cash’s songs, he doesn’t always succeed; yet, the fault is not Beck’s since any book like this one faces such dangers. At least he chose a singer who wore his theological struggles and his Christian faith on his sleeve and whose songs are often transparent. For fans of Cash interested in the singer’s struggles with faith and doubt, sin and suffering, Trains, Jesus, and Murder offers a starting place and encourages them to listen to these songs for new insights.