Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Johnny Cash, Outlaw, Sufferer, and the Gospel

Rick Rubin is one of my heroes these days. He's a record producer who makes everyone sound great. I'm enjoying Jakob Dylan's solo cd these days, a Rubin product. Though I haven't heard it (really, I haven't), he also did the new Neil Diamond cd that debuted at #1 (I did see Neil Diamond at Starbuck's in Malibu a few weeks ago. So, there's that).

To me, however, Rubin's most amazing achievement was with Johnny Cash, late in Cash's life. Rubin produced the American Songbook series. There were some Cash originals in the mix (e.g., Unchained, The Man Comes Around), but most were covers, and some were spectacular. He covered acts as diverse as U2 (One), Depeche Mode (Personal Jesus), Soundgarden (Rusty Cage), Tom Petty (Won't Back Down), and Nine Inch Nails (Hurt). Cash's version of Hurt is unbelievably gripping.

I'm of the opinion that the American collection is Cash's best work. I like the early Cash (Walk the Line, Still Miss Someone, Ring of Fire) and the later Cash. The middle years, I can do without. And part of it, I think, is due to the conflicting images Cash tried to hold together. He cultivated both his image as an outlaw and a saint. He sang Folsom Prison Blues and Rock of Ages, trying to be simulataneously sinner and saint. As a result, in my opinion, he couldn't find his voice.

I'm currently studying at a Lutheran seminary. I know the way that a particular reading of justification by faith has produced a strong theological tradition that emphasizes humans as simultaneously sinners and saints. At one level, this is undeniable, and there are healthy gains that come from regonizing both.

This is a tough tension, however, around which to sustain an identity. The outlaw image tends to prevail. Romans 7 typically kicks Romans 8's rear, experientially speaking. Moreover, guilt and shame are not the only human issues addressed by the cross. Which brings me back to Cash.

Rubin has written about the first time he ever saw Johnny Cash. Cash had to be carried down a set of stairs into the recording studio. He was crippled and nearly blind. Rubin thought he had made a mistake to throw his lot in with Cash. Until they handed Cash a guitar and he started singing. Those who have listened to the America cd's know that his voice is not the same. It's not as strong. It's a little ragged at times. But it is nonetheless powerful. It carries forward all the years and experiences of his life. You can hear both the pain and the hope.

Over the later years of his life, pain was Cash's constant companion. And his song choices dealt less and less with the theme of the outlaw, and more with the image of the sufferer. As a result, Hurt and When the Man Comes Around sit comfortably together on the same CD. They are of a piece. And they carry deep pathos. You don't doubt that Cash is singing about something real.

When Christians tries to engage in public speech, often we want to talk about guilt (it would be an improvement to talk about shame). It's a tough conversation, one in which we're classifying sinners and saints (even if we don't intend to). Even if we have good news about all of that, its a tough convesation to get off the ground.

The gospel of a crucified God, however, has great resonance with suffering, and suffering cuts across every human life in ways that demand an account of God's presence in the world. Part of Cash's appeal in his later work was due undoubtedly to Rubin's genius as a producer. But part of it has to do with his move away from outlaw/saint to sufferer/saint. I think we might learn a thing from Johnny Cash.


Cheryl Russell said...

I enjoyed this post Mark. I am also a fan of Rubin and Cash's early work. I enjoyed the parallel that you drew between Cash's "identity issues" and our own. I like Paul's statement in I Timothy 1. "15Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life."

Indeed, there are healthy gains that come from recognizing both, of course we are outlaws, sufferers, and sinners, but it is here that Christ displays His power and love!

Mark Love said...

Thanks, Cheryl.

Glad you found the blog. I guess what I'm struggling to say is that the question of gospel and identity is easier to navigate around the issue of suffering than around the issue of guilt.

The two passages we have brought to the front are the classic ones appealed to when the sinner-saint category is the primary way of defining Christian identity. There's considerable debate about what Paul means in those texts,particularly Romans 7-8, and the simultaneous sinner-saint is only one way of understanding that (a particularly Lutheran way). Regardless of who is correct, Cash has a hard time holding outlaw and saint together both professionally (as a sound, or a voice) and personally (the outlaw seems to win).

He's stronger when the issue turns from good and bad to suffering and healing. He can still sing about the grittiness of the world, a place where his voice is true, and the hope of a God who suffers with others. He finds both a voice, and a more consistent way to live.

Anyway, thanks for giving me a chance to clarify. And I love your blog.

Cheryl Russell said...


I'm with you. It is easier to navigate in terms of suffering, it's also incredibly freeing. I grew up Catholic, it's almost too easy for me to think of the Gospel in terms of good and bad. BUT, I know and love seeing it in terms of suffering and healing.

Kristi said...

I have nothing deep and theological to say here. Sorry - it's too late and the Olympics are on.

But, as someone who shares his name, and heard at least on a weekly basis, "So you related to Johnny Cash?", I spent much of my life cringing a little as I answered. He was just so much more crass than the clean Cashes we pride ourselves in being. But that last record redeemed him with this girl (his 14th cousin). It is a thing of beauty.

Mark Love said...

Hey Kristi. The reason I never associated you with the man in black is because I knew the NW Cash boys. Let's just say Gene and Glen aren't in the outlaw category.

Glad you found the blog.