Johnny Cash, Outlaw, Sufferer, and the Gospel

Richard Beck’s latest posts on Johnny Cash reminded me of a very similar piece I wrote about five years ago on my old blog site. Like Richard, I have had times of fascination with Cash and his attempt to hold together the images of outlaw and saint that occupy his music. Anyway, as this post reveals, I mark a late shift in Cash’s life where the image of outlaw is less pronounced, and I think this in turn makes for both better theology and music.   


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 particularly 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 and his life was a mess.

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 try to engage in public speech, often we divide the world around the issue of guilt (it would be an improvement to talk about shame, though this is another post for another time). This leads us into the often confusing and potentially hypocritical dichotomy of sinner and saint. It can be a tough conversation to get off of the ground, and one that in my opinion misses the real significance of the gospel. We run into the same confusing categories that Cash did in his lost middle years.

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.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Johnny Cash, Outlaw, Sufferer, and the Gospel

  1. jeffwisch says:

    I’m late to the part after being out of town a couple of weeks, but could you reflect on why you think talking about shame would be an improvement over talking about guilt? Psychologically speaking, I think most therapists would try to move us the other direction (i.e. “This thing I did was bad.” vs. “I’m a bad person.).

    • Mark Love says:

      Because shame is the bigger threat to us. I agree that its important to say I did a bad thing vs. I’m a bad person. But the second statement stays with you no matter how many times you say the first. And I think the narratives of the cross are more concerned with the shame of the cross than our guilt. So, it’s the issue that will truly free us (not guilt) and one the Bible seems more concerned with.

      • jeffwisch says:

        And as Fay Vincent was fond of saying, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

        Is your experience that recentering the conversation around shame actually helps people deal with it in constructive ways, or does it inadvertently produce people who are more likely to be shame-oriented rather than guilt-oriented? Or do you think there are better ways to move forward that try to sidestep both guilt and shame?

        I’m just thinking out loud here…

      • Mark Love says:

        yeah, the first. As your quote indicates, secrecy is the refuge of shame. I don’t think we need any help experiencing shame. And focusing on guilt doesn’t help us much with that. Are there risks? Of course. I had a therapist once who kept me in crisis the entire time I saw him. I relived shame every session. So, there are healthy ways to deal with it, unhealthy, etc.

      • jeffwisch says:

        I can’t reply further in the thread, it seems. So I’ll do it here.

        I realize your original post detailed that this is a topic for another post entirely, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it, particularly in what ways you think narratives of the cross are more concerned with shame than guilt (I think I agree with this statement, but haven’t fully thought through the implications… in any case, I certainly agree that guilt isn’t the primary issue being dealt with…).

        I think it’s correct to say that ancient cultures were far more honor/shame based than our current guilt/innocence frame – but I wonder to what extent that actually changes the way “shame” functions as a social and individual concept. In other words, does ancient shame (which in some sense the narratives of the cross speak to) mean something more like “bringing dishonor upon one’s self and community” whereas our modern notions are more tied to personal-status-as-perpetually-broken-and-guilty? I’m not sure that would be a dealbreaker from an interpretive perspective, but again, thinking out loud and interested in what you’d say.

        And of course, you can always say “I’ll take that up in a later post…” 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s