Saturday, February 25, 2012

Johnny of the Cross

My first confession in this article is that I have been a lifelong fan of Johnny Cash, who was born eighty years ago today. 

In my youth I played the keyboard in a number of country gospel groups; I also learned to play some Bach on the organ (as well as being involved in the production of Palestrina, Mozart and other great composers of the Catholic tradition, and, to top it off, I often accompanied worship songs in the large charismatic renewal gatherings of the time). 

Mixed up, you might say, but I am cursed or blessed, according to your perspective, with the ability to love opposite kinds of music. At school in the wild west of Sydney I tended to conceal my love of "classical" church music in order to survive. In other circles I found it necessary to conceal my love of country gospel and soul music for the very same reason! 

So, when I'll Walk The Line came to the cinemas a few years ago, I was eager to see it. I had prepared myself to be disappointed - just in case - but as you will agree if you have seen the film, it is incredibly powerful. Faithful in its characterisations, it faces our human flaws, the imprisonment of our souls, the ugliness of sin, the breakdown of relationships and the struggles we have in responding to grace. 

But it also manages to capture, without descending to cliches and "easy-believe-ism," the fundamental fact to which Johnny Cash's life bears witness: the possibility of redemption. 

Some Cash fans have complained that there is not more specifically Christian content in "I'll walk the Line". But the film finishes at the point where Johnny's 35 year marriage with June Carter begins, coinciding with the renewal of his faith. Anyway, for those with eyes to see, there are clusters of symbols which relate both the past (especially Cash's childhood) and the future (the Gospel dimension to his marriage with June and the music he subsequently performed) to the period on which the film concentrates.

Writers and editors constantly wrack their brains for compelling headlines. How I would love to have come up with "Johnny of the Cross"! My second confession to you in this article is that I stole that headline from an article Peter Candler wrote for the December 2003 edition of FIRST THINGS magazine, just two months after Johnny Cash's death (June Carter had died in May of that same year). Candler wrote: 

"Johnny's virtues were just as hard-fought as his vices. In life Johnny Cash struggled for and against the God whose grip on him was so frustratingly and thankfully relentless that it was able to absorb all that fierce rage and all those addictions. Johnny could sing about murder and God in the same song and with the same voice because to do otherwise would have been dishonest. At the same time, he let that despair, agony, and rejection stand on their own - he lent them integrity . . . A God who could not stomach the darkest moments of his creation was not worth our worship, much less a song." 

Cash's live concerts at Folsom and San Quentin - the "prison" albums - have been re-released on CD, including some previously deleted Gospel songs that are clearly the climax of each performance. The amazing chemistry between Cash and his captive audience still surprises the listener. Most significantly, however, according to Merle Haggard, who first heard Johnny Cash when he himself was an inmate at San Quentin, Cash "brought Jesus Christ into the picture, and he introduced him in a way that the tough, hardened, hard-core convict wasn't embarrassed to listen. He didn't point no fingers; he knew just how to do it." 

Throughout his career Johnny Cash recorded a wide range of songs encompassing country, folk, blues, gospel, pop, and rock. It has been observed that his music even influenced the development of punk, grunge, and rap! After the renewal of his faith he was genuinely troubled about his repertoire, but the evangelist Billy Graham, with whom Cash had built up a close friendship, encouraged him to sing about ALL of life as a way of "connecting with real people right where they are," and then "when you get to singing the Gospel, give it all you've got." This is just what he did, even though his determination to sing the Gospel some of the time (to "tithe my music" as he put it) brought him into frequent conflict with the recording companies. 

So, in the words of Steve Beard, Cash's appeal 

" . . . is recognized by everyone from gangsta rappers to roughneck steel workers . . . His charismatic magnetism spanned five decades of popular culture. 'Locust and honey . . . not since John the Baptist has there been a voice like that crying in the wilderness,' is how U2's Bono summed it up . . . 'The most male voice in Christendom. Every man knows he is a sissy compared to Johnny Cash.' 

"Cash wrote songs the man on the street - or perhaps more appropriately, the guy hanging out in the alley - could relate to. He loved prisoners, the working man, and the welfare mother - those found on the outskirts. 'Those are my heroes: the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the disenfranchised,' Cash told No Depression magazine. 

"His songwriting orbited around the universal human condition of sin and redemption, murder and grace, darkness and light. What you saw is what you got with Cash. There was never a manufactured feeling to his art. When he sang, you could almost taste the hillbilly moonshine, smell the gunpowder of a smoking revolver, and feel the drops of blood off the thorny crown of a crucified Christ." 

Those are powerful words, and they are more than supported by his last album "The Man Comes Around," which is really a meditation on death. Again, an astonishing mixture of songs, Gospel and otherwise, climaxing with "We'll Meet Again Someday." (I know it sounds corny, but it works!) 

Never was there a more gutsy song than the title song of the album, all about the return of Christ - the coming of "Alpha and Omega's kingdom." - judgment, the day of reckoning, but also "a golden ladder reaching down." It's thrilling and haunting, even terrifying. And it demands a decision from each of us:

". . . will you partake of that last offered cup, 
Or disappear into the potter's ground. 
When the man comes around. 

"Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers. 
One hundred million angels singin'. 
Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum. 
Voices callin', voices cryin'. 
Some are born an' some are dyin'. 
It's Alpha and Omega's Kingdom come. 

"And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree. 
The virgins are all trimming their wicks. 
The whirlwind is in the thorn tree. 
It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks. 

"Till Armageddon, no Shalam, no Shalom. 
Then the father hen will call his chickens home. 
The wise men will bow down before the throne. 
And at his feet they'll cast their golden crowns. 
When the man comes around." 

Obviously those of the Catholic tradition will differ with the Baptist Johnny Cash on aspects of the Faith. But when we get down to the question of who Jesus is, and the power of his saving death and resurrection, we find ourselves singing from the same hymn book, so to speak. Jesus is alive; he is the King of Glory, our Alpha and Omega. But for Cash this is not escapist, nor a way of glossing over the depths of human suffering and pain. In fact, he talks and sings about Jesus as a Catholic would. His religion is supremely incarnational. I venture to suggest that it is, in fact, instinctively Catholic, as Peter Candler points out: 

"For Cash there was no empty cross but a crucifix, which neither concealed the horrors of suffering nor prematurely removed the bleeding Christ to a higher plane. In the end, it seems all his life's vices - and even his virtues - were consumed by the blood of Christ. The truth of Cash's music, and of his life, lies in the image of the crucified Jesus - who dies alone and forsaken, simultaneously consummating the whole creation and crippled by its weight. For Cash, redemption was not won without a fight: 'Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins' (Hebrew 9:22)." 

Back in 2003 Johnny Cash recorded his song Redemption which, in my opinion, illustrates what Candler wrote. It is also a powerful testimony to Cash's spiritual journey. A testimony of grace and redemption. It is lyrical, but also somber, and, perhaps surprisingly, not lacking in eucharistic imagery:

"From the hands it came down 
From the side it came down 
From the feet it came down 
And ran to the ground 
Between heaven and hell 
A teardrop fell 
In the deep crimson dew 
The tree of life grew 

"And the blood gave life 
To the branches of the tree 
And the blood was the price 
That set the captives free 
And the numbers that came 
Through the fire and the flood 
Clung to the tree 
And were redeemed by the blood 

"From the tree streamed a light 
That started the fight
'Round the tree grew a vine 
On whose fruit I could dine 
My old friend Lucifer came 
Fought to keep me in chains 
But I saw through the tricks 
Of six-sixty-six 

"And the blood gave life 
To the branches of the tree 
And the blood was the price 
That set the captives free 
And the numbers that came 
Through the fire and the flood 
Clung to the tree 
And were redeemed by the blood 

"From his hands it came down 
From his side it came down 
From his feet it came down 
And ran to the ground 
And a small inner voice said 
'You do have a choice.' 
The vine engrafted me 
And I clung to the tree."


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