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A small but intriguing book just arrived in the mail: Rodney Clapp’s Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of a Nation . Known for such legendary songs as “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line,” Cash, particularily in his final years of life, brilliantly expressed the Christian mystery of suffering and redemption through his work. The fall of Cash’s death, Peter M. Candler Jr. wrote on ” Johnny of the Cross ” for our pages. Here’s a taste:

Cash’s voice . . . had a weakness stronger than others’ strengths. Nowhere is this more clear than on the music video for “Hurt,” directed by Mark Romanek. As with most of the songs on American IV , the vocals for “Hurt” were recorded dry—without the use of reverb, delay, or other effects. That in itself is remarkable, because recording a voice that way reveals all the idiosyncrasies and flaws that a digital effect might otherwise cover up. Nowadays almost no one records vocals this way. The unadorned character of the voice is echoed visually in the film by Cash’s refusal to conceal, with the use of makeup and other gimmickry, the fact that he is dying. No attempt is made to shoot his face from the most flattering angle, no effort to shun the ravaged face of a once indomitable figure now consumed by disease.

Towards the end of the video, the song crescendos to an intense height, accentuated by the repetition of a single note on the piano. Superimposed on all of this is a rapid montage of footage from Cash’s prime, when his hair was still black and his jaw still square. Juxtaposed beside flashes of his successes are images of the Cash museum in a state of disrepair, broken shards of those successes whose significance is now altogether subverted by the figure of Cash himself, sitting at the head of the festal table. And in between visions of the spry young superstar and the remnants of fame is the recurring image of the crucifixion. The climax of the film comes when Cash, with a crystal goblet full of red wine lifted and trembling in his enfeebled right hand, turns the cup over and empties its contents over the table, baptizing the sumptuous banquet laid out before him.

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).

Candler concludes: “In his living, playing, loving, and singing, [Cash] sounded out the timbre of the Christian faith and showed how it ought to be lived: stammeringly, tunefully, with no overdubs and no effects. But most of all, with soul.”

First Things readers interested in music and, more broadly, American culture will want to take a look at Candler’s full essay , and Rodney’s Clapp’s insightful new volume .



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