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When Johnny Cash Was Weakest, He Was Also His Strongest


In “Crime and Punishment,” Fyodor Dostoevsky—a man who would have recoiled in horror at the therapeutic overtones much of American Christianity adopted—wrote, “The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.” This particular line resonates as I listen to the 20-year-old American recordings of Johnny Cash.

These albums resurrected the career of an old, wise-to-the-world country music heavyweight, and introduced Cash to a whole new audience. Producer Rick Rubin wanted to work with Cash to strip away the pomp and circumstance of earlier eras that had often confined the artist’s music to a small audience. This odd-couple relationship, with Cash playing baritone singer and washed-up country musician and Rubin the producer who solidified the hybrid of rock and rap as a musical genre, was forged with a string of critically acclaimed albums. They were all recorded as the singer grappled with bouts of severe illness and the transience of life on earth.

My introduction to Cash, as for many angst-ridden, self-styled grunge kids from the late nineties, was through his intimate cover of the Nine Inch Nails classic “Hurt.” For Trent Reznor, the mind behind Nine Inch Nails, the song offered a view into the life of a rock star losing a battle with heroin addiction and the damage it had inflicted throughout his life.

For Cash, it hauntingly laid bare the awkward paradox of a man both hopeful and aware of his impending death. His wife, June, died three months after the release of the video for “Hurt,” and Johnny died just four months after that. Although other connections between Reznor and Cash are tenuous, they share a hard-found gift in enlightening the darker themes of life such as addiction and loss, which makes them relatable to a very wide audience.

This talent will likely also solidify their music as timeless, since the human condition dictates man will always struggle with those very themes. But while Reznor’s tunes often leave the listener feeling a nagging sense of hopelessness, Cash takes his listener on a journey through the gamut of pain, loss, sorrow, hope, love, and faith.

Johnny Cash: Faith Amid Despair

This is where Cash, as evident in his final offering to humanity, is in a league of his own. The American recordings are Dostoevskian in their delivery of a tired, world-weary soul coming to terms with the contradictory nature of life. The songs encompass a wide range of old spirituals, covers from various contemporary artists, and some retreads of old Cash favorites. But the artist’s manner makes them all his own.

An hour after June had passed away and shortly before recording the songs that inhabited the album “Ain’t No Grave,” Rubin says Johnny said, “You know I’ve been through tremendous pain in my life, and I have never felt anything like this.” Rubin followed up by asking where he was with his faith, and Cash answered, “My faith is unshakable.”

In an industry where so much of the media offered to Christians has been hijacked by self-help gurus and charlatans wanting to make a buck, Cash’s songs of raw humanity amidst deeply existential yearnings are certainly still relevant. The songs are indeed a journey of hope, but it is an explicitly Christian hope, forged from character developed in hard times, that springs from the faith in God’s promise that His Kingdom will be fully realized.

Cash stands in the image of Saint Paul, who wrote in Second Corinthians “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ: for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).” In his long journey, Cash was able to breathe life into the gravity of Paul’s words, through his gift of song, with anyone willing to listen.

Our ‘Best Life Now’ Can’t Exist Without Suffering

The expression of the Christian faith in culture is a very complicated game. The temptation abounds to intermingle God and mammon. This means much of our representation of faith is designed specifically for consumption. Tragically, too often, Christianity is simplified down into one of many systems of self-help, and viewed as little more than an idea neatly arranged among others for the consumer to choose.

This becomes most abundantly evident in marketing for Christian books and music. Aside from the problem of “serving two masters” of which Jesus warns, when the consumer is searching for a just-add-water approach to happiness, the Christian experience becomes a one-dimensional therapy pinned solely on the good feeling it offers the practitioner. The cross then becomes a fashion one wears rather than carries, and God becomes some transcendent daddy whose sole mission is to offer you, the individual, your best life now.

Of course, for the Christian, the gospel is one of joy and freedom, but it comes through sacrifice, humility, faith, and the difficult willingness to accept hardship when it occurs. These are hardly the traits of a system selling itself on giving you your “best life now.”

A deeply baritone voice whose travails emanate in Cash belting out “Sea of Heartbreak,” in a world where there is always another “Sailing on the Sea of His Love,” gains anthem status for the person who has been shaped by the full humanity expressed in the Psalms. In his simple way, Cash reminds us that Christian freedom is accessible in “I See a Darkness” just as it is in “This Little Light of Mine.”

Although 20 years have come and gone, Cash’s final albums still offer the listener a vision into what it means to live a life of faith. It journeys through the hardship of fear and doubt exemplified in Christ’s agony in the garden, and hearkens to the joy of the resurrection. As man is an integrated whole—body and soul—who knows pain, sorrow, beauty, and hope, so is this final testament from the Man in Black who composed a work for the whole person of faith.