The Theology of Johnny Cash: Part 2, Sinner & Saint

Martin Luther's famous formulation was simul justus et peccator. We are simultaneously both sinner and saint. We are sinners but we are also righteous in that we are saved by grace.

And while I might be stretching the idea beyond what Luther intended, I think simul justus et peccator is a great summary of the theology of Johnny Cash.

In 2000 Cash put out a 3-album compilation of hand-picked songs looking back over his career. The compilation was entitled Love God Murder. (A fourth album Life as added later.)

Few recording artists could have produced such stark juxtapositions looking back over their career.

For the Love album Cash picked love songs like his big hits "I Walk the Line" and "Ring of Fire."  But I want to focus on the other two albums, God and Murder.

From the beginning Johnny Cash recorded gospel songs. The first one was "Belshazzar" recorded in 1957 with Sun Records, the only gospel song Sam Phillips allowed Cash to record. Once Cash left Sun to join Columbia Records he had more liberty to record gospels songs and albums. He quickly exercised that artistic freedom in 1959 to record an entire album of gospel music Hymns By Johnny Cash. For the rest of his career Cash included gospels songs on his albums as well as recording many more gospel albums. Noteworthy among these is The Gospel Road (1973), the soundtrack to the movie The Gospel Road. The Gospel Road was a musical documentary of the life of Jesus that was produced and narrated by Cash and shot on location in Israel.

All that to say, Cash's body of work features a great deal of gospel material, even a movie, all of which is very devout and earnest. The God album of Love God Murder features many of these songs.

And the Murder album features, well, all the songs Cash sang about murder.

As with Cash's gospel songs, this dark impulse was there from the very beginning. The second big hit recorded by Cash with Sun Records (the first was "Hey, Porter") in 1955 was "Folsom Prison Blues." The second verse of the song contains the chilling, sociopathic lines:
When I was just a baby my mama told me. Son,
Always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns.
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.  
I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. When they recorded the song in 1955 Cash and Sam Phillips weren't sure if radio stations would play the song because of that line. But the song did get played and became one of Cash's biggest hits.

Such are the songs on the Murder album. Songs like the traditional murder ballad "Delia's Gone," a song Cash originally recorded in 1962 but one he revisited late in his career in 1994 on the first album he did with Rick Rubin, American Recordings. "Delia's Gone" tells the story of a man shooting his girlfriend and later being haunted by her ghost in prison:
Delia, oh, Delia Delia all my life
If I hadn't have shot poor
Delia I'd have had her for my wife
Delia's gone, one more round Delia's gone

I went up to Memphis
And I met Delia there Found her in her parlor
And I tied to her chair
Delia's gone, one more round Delia's gone

She was low down and trifling
And she was cold and mean
Kind of evil make me want to Grab my sub machine
Delia's gone, one more round Delia's gone

First time I shot her I shot her in the side
Hard to watch her suffer
But with the second shot she died
Delia's gone, one more round Delia's gone

But jailer, oh, jailer Jailer,
I can't sleep 'Cause all around my bedside
I hear the patter of Delia's feet
Delia's gone, one more round Delia's gone

So if you woman's devilish
You can let her run
Or you can bring her down and do her
Like Delia got done
Delia's gone, one more round Delia's gone
That's a dark, dark song.

All told, these are the sorts of songs on the God and Murder albums, and they help illustrate a juxtaposition that I'd like the draw out about Cash's music. This is the startling moral juxtaposition of God and Murder, the juxtaposition of all those dark, sociopathic songs with all those gospel songs.

Saints and sinners held simultaneously in the same artistic vision. And embodied by the artist himself.

Consider, for example, the moral contrast found in Cash's concert performances. Listen to At San Quentin, the live concert album recorded in San Quentin prison. (I'll talk more about this album and the epic At Folsom Prison album later in this series.)

Early in the San Quentin concert Cash is cussing and joking about his own stints in jail and his own drug use. This is the "bass ass" Johnny Cash. This is the concert where Cash gave the finger to a photographer and was captured in an iconic photo.

This is Johnny Cash the sinner.

But halfway through the concert (if you listen to the 2000 release of the full concert) Cash changes and shifts into gospel mode. In the second half of the concert Cash sings three gospel songs "There Will Be Peace in the Valley," "He Turned Water Into Wine," and "The Old Account Was Settled Long Ago." Before singing "He Turned Water Into Wine" Cash shares with the inmates about how he composed the song in the town of Cana while he was in Israel preparing for The Gospel Road album and movie.

This is Johnny Cash the saint.

Which brings us back to Martin Luther's simul justus et peccator.

I think one of the most interesting things about the music and life of Johnny Cash, something very unique about him, is this mixture of light and darkness. There's a lot of dark, murderous music out there. And there's a lot of devout, earnest Christian music out there. And most artists sing one sort of music or the other.

But Johnny Cash sang both.

Johnny would sing about sociopathic killers and Jesus in almost the same breath. And Cash himself exhibited this mixture of light and darkness. Cash was a devout Christian who read his bible daily. Even in the midst of deep drug addiction.

Saint and sinner.

And this is, I think, a huge part of the appeal of Johnny Cash, his life and his music. Cash's music and his life, very much like the Psalms, speak to both the light and the darkness in each of us in equal measure.

Simul justus et peccator. 

We are, simultaneously, both sinner and saint.

Part 3: The Man In Black

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4 thoughts on “The Theology of Johnny Cash: Part 2, Sinner & Saint”

  1. David Broder wrote a column a long while back in which he briefly traced two incompatible ethical views running through Western culture: one with its roots in Greece, the other, primarily in the bible. That would make, I think Jesus and Odysseus the most likely paradigms. But the schemes in Homer's epics would get the conspirators arrested for murder today... What was interesting about Broder's column--why I recall it here (lots of writers have pointed out the twins roots of Athens and Jerusalem, after all)--is that he claimed that the views must be held in balance. One can claim that, or one can claim that "justus" must prevail (not too many persons would argue for an untempered "peccator"). Cash puts that dilemma under a spotlight. I think that the answer to it must be considered a foundational take on whatever is held forth as a christian take on Truth.
    So once again you're onto something very interesting. Thanks for that.

  2. Wow - outstanding!!!! This is the appeal of artists like Cash and Willie Nelson - they owned their darkness. Christians don't have problems singing spiritually uplifting gospel songs and neither did Cash or Nelson. The difference, however, is they didn't shrink from or deny their dark sides. They had the willingness to write songs and say the things most of us think and feel in our "dark places", but don't have the courage to speak out loud. Johnny Cash not only wrote and sang the dark songs, he sang with a deepness and passion that makes you believe he very well could have shot a man in Reno.

  3. I attended a Jungian seminar back in the 80's where the lecturer asked "in the Star Wars movies, who represented 'light' and who represented 'dark'- or 'shadow'?" Unanimously, we cited Darth for the dark character. No- she said, "Hans Solo" is the shadow to the light character of Luke Skywalker... Luke revered the Princess, Hans wanted to lay her. It was a revelation to me. She continued that Darth Vader was something beyond shadow and is better thought of in terms of evil.

    In a similar manner, Christian thought commonly links or conflates sin with evil. But the word sin is a metaphor based on the concrete event of an archery tournament; the contestant takes aim and shoots; when he missed, the Greek umpire, translated into English, would yell out "sin"! A sinner then, would be a consistant target misser- or maybe a willful misser. Evil is something else than missing targets even though one is aiming for them.

    Whatever "dark or "shadow" is in relation to "light," I think it has to do with how, we who are human, have to embody infinitude along side our finitude. Take away either though, and human life is removed from this reality. Out of our infinity, we aspire for perfection. Out of our finitude, aspirations can bring frustration. The easiest way out of ambiguities such as this is to break it apart and grasp to only one side of it and disparage the other: this move is commonly held by those who seek perfection in their God, and can't wait to leave this dreaded place and live in Heaven where it's always clean and tidy.

    And then there's those who get the structural quality of the above ambiguity and work to hold our place in infinity and finitude together, and instead of seeking heaven, seek Beauty here and now- despite an inherent messiness.

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