Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction

Stephen Nichols Articles
Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of a Nation
By Rodney Clapp
Westminster (February 2008)
192 p.

Country music megastar John Rich enlisted Johnny Cash on the side of McCain during the 2008 presidential election.  "I'm sure Johnny Cash," Rich told a crowd of Florida concert goers, "would have been a John McCain supporter if he was still around."  Rosanne Carter Cash, who is still around, doesn't quite see her father in the same way.  She shot back, "It is appalling to me that people still want to invoke my father's name, five years after his death, to ascribe beliefs, ideals, values and loyalties to him that cannot possibly be determined and try to further their own agendas by doing so."  She herself "would not presume to say publicly" for whom Johnny would vote.

Setting Rosanne Carter Cash's protestations aside for a moment, it is at least a little telling that John Rich felt the need to invoke the ghost of Johnny Cash.  Cash has, what the kids call these days, street cred.  He earned it.  Cash, who grew up scratching the Mississippi Delta dirt on the Arkansas side of the River, knew about poverty and hard work.  In church he added God and music to the mix, learning about both right out of his mother's hymnbook.  He served in the military.  He failed his stint as a door-to-door appliance salesman.  As a kid he spent the evening hours listening to the new country sounds over the radio, dreaming a dream that for him would become a reality.  When Cash died, his music career spanned six decades.  Some decades, admittedly, were better than others, but six decades of recording hits is hard to match.  Johnny Cash was a star unlike many other stars, which goes a long way in explaining why John Rich felt so compelled to enlist him for a cause.

Showing much more subtlety, caution, and nuance than John Rich, Rodney Clapp, who has written a spate of fine books and serves as editorial director at Brazos Press, has also enlisted Cash for some cultural and political, and even economic, conversation in Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction:  Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of a Nation.  One suspects that were Rosanne Carter Cash to read Clapp's book on her father, she wouldn't be releasing any stinging press releases.  She'd likely be pleased.  Clapp may have accomplished a rare feat.  Not only would the daughter be pleased, but one suspects that Cash himself, the man in black, would be pleased too.

Clapp's thesis is that Cash is both a Christian and an American.  That much anyone can prove by spending time listening to or reading about Johnny Cash and by looking at his birth certificate.  What makes Clapp's thesis so compelling, and what makes the central character of the book so compelling, is the way these two identities come together.  They don't always come together, Clapp points out during his tour through Johnny Cash's life and music, neatly.  They don't even in themselves always look so neat and coherent either.  Both - and here's one of the key words from the title - both sometimes have contradictions, complexities, and nuances.  It would be hard to enroll Cash for any current political battle precisely because Cash can't be contained in a soundbite.  Neither can being American nor being Christian.  At least, that's what Clapp hopes his readers will get.

That Cash is the embodiment of what Clapp calls "The Great American Contradiction" comes to the surface rather easily.  Cash himself titled the three-disc compilation project he supervised "God, Love, Murder," and there you have a fair summary of the Cash repertoire.  But what is the American contradiction that Clapp speaks of?  A slave holder writing "all men are created equal" is a start.  But as Clapp unfurls it, it includes a series of contradictions that become chapter titles for Clapp's exposition:  "Lonesomeness and Community" (chapter two); "Holiness and Hedonism" (chapter three); "Tradition and Progress" (chapter four); "Guilt and Innocence" (chapter five); and "Violence and Peace" (chapter six).

Contradictions provide the fuel on which most country music runs.  In one song, it's "Daddy's Little Girl," honored and protected.  In the next song, "daddy's little girl" is all grown up and out on a back road getting "checked for ticks" by a guy she just met at a bar.  Contradictions indeed.  The type of contradictions Cash explored in his music, that he lived in his life, are a bit more profound.

At his San Quentin Concert, on the heels of the success of the Folsom Prison concert, Cash relayed to these hardened souls his trip from Jericho and the writing of his song "He Turned the Water into Wine," sounding more like a Baptist preacher than a recovering drug addict music star.  And then he prominently and rather enthusiastically gave the camera man the middle finger.  Buy the CD.  Cut through the cellophane, open the case, and remove the disk.  Staring back at you will be the same Johnny Cash that the camera man saw.  Cash was a family man, who spent the first decade of his career on the road far from his home and from his first family.  Cash's music can sometimes revel a bit too much in sin, while it always gives a nod to redemption.  American V, produced by Rick Rubin and released posthumously, says it all in the first two tracks:  "Help Me" and Cash's cover of "God's Gonna Cut You Down."  The first is about mercy, the second has to do with wrath.  Both are about the same God.  Cash gives a riveting performance in "Mercy Seat" on American III:  Solitary Man.  The electric chair becomes the mercy seat of the Lord.  If there is profound irony, Cash can find it.

Clapp argues in chapters 2 through 6 that these types of contradictions and ironies wash over American culture like the rising waves of the Mississippi River in flood.  Clapp unravels these contradictions, sometimes challenging them outright, as in the case of our hyper violent American culture and even American Christian culture.  Clapp does tilt toward pacifism, of a Yoder/Hauerwas variety.  But Clapp is also careful to see how it's not as easy as seeing these contradictions cancelling each other out.  And he also sidesteps simply calling for balance.  Instead, Clapp wants us to think about how we live within these contradictions, what it means to be a disciple and a church within a culture of these contradictions.  Sometimes we assume the role of prophet, a role Cash took on from time to time.  Cash would wear black, he declared, as long as there are people out there who don't have a voice. 

As one more example from these chapters, consider Clapp's take on the "insistent bearhug of both tradition and progress" in American culture (65).  Cash's train songs provide the fodder for this discussion.  Train songs, hearkening back to a simpler past, evoke nostalgia and tradition.  But those same train songs "lionize transience, not permanence, and times ahead, not times before."  Trains allow for their passengers to leave their past (tradition) behind, as they push ahead for something new and, presumably, better (progress).  In the early twentieth-century, trains moved people all around the United States, and, arguably most often, moved people from southern towns to northern cities, from old to new ways.  For some the trains even became messianic.  Crooners would dream of grabbing a handful of freight train, which would allow for an escape to a better life.  Cash's inmate in "Folsom Prison Blues" reaches his deepest lament when he hears the train whistle:  hope just out of reach.  Amidst all of this, Clapp puts in a word against those who tend to pin messianic hopes on progress.  He uses none other than Christopher Lasch to challenge this so American doctrine of progress, formerly known as Manifest Destiny or simply Modernity, American Style.  In the place of this misplaced belief in progress, Clapp reminds us of tradition, not to be confused with nostalgia.  Why is it that progress can have a down side?  Clapp, using Lasch, explains:  "Taking the measure of the American enthrallment to modern progress, Christopher Lasch lamented that both the political left and the political right refuse to countenance talk about scientific, technological, and practical limits" (77).  Against the enthrallment of progress, Clapp reminds the church not only of the limits of the human condition, but also the dangers of leaving the past behind.  He reminds us of the communion of the saints, of tradition, which provides "for a valuable vantage point outside imprisonment to the present" (80).

These chapters exploring the great American contradiction are bookended with a chapter exploring the hold of southern culture on American culture at the beginning and a discussion of a public theology at the end.  In the first chapter, titled "Southern Accents" after Cash's cover of the Tom Petty original, Clapp offers a provocative thesis, "The South did not lose the Civil War" (2).  Of course, it lost.  But it won in terms of the hold of southern ideology on American culture.  Carl Perkins, rockabilly pioneer who for a time played in Cash's band, referred to this as America getting Dixie fried.  Clapp sees this resulting in, among other things, revivalism's influence on both church and culture.  He speaks of revivalism spilling over to create a revivalistic democracy, which "cripples itself and the country with its overweening inclinations to individualism, schismatic divisiveness, a yen for nostalgically and falsely conceived past golden age, and anti-intellectualism" (16).  "Thems fighting words," someone may say, but Clapp is worth hearing out here.  In addition to all of this philosophizing about America's "southern accent," Clapp also makes a more basic point:  country music is popular, maybe even ranking as the vox populi of not just the south but of all fifty states and even some territories.  Good theologizing and philosophizing about country music, in other words, is long overdue.  

Equally engaging is the last chapter, where all the musings on culture come under some decisive theological analysis.  While Christians are indeed citizens of heaven, we are also citizens of a secondary polity.  For Cash and Clapp that's America.  Clapp finds the dynamic to living as good citizens of both from baptism and from the word patriot, deriving as it does from the Latin pater.  He puts it this way, "Asked how I might suppose a baptized Christian could also be an American patriot, I would reply:  in the same way one is a baptized Christian and strives to be a loyal mature son to his elders" (126).  This provides Clapp with a different way to talk about being a Christian and an American than either the docetist, who can't connect Christianity to culture, or the triumphalist, the diehard proponent of the "Christian America" thesis.  Through Cash, Clapp has found a middle way.     

This book has all the makings of a fine read:  a good subject, good music, good thought, and good writing.  As for the latter, my favorite line in the book comes on the first page, when Clapp refers to the organ on Cash's cover of "Southern Accents" as it "begins to wend and twirl in and above the song, eventually unfurling like a flag or the tail of a kite."  Not to detract from Clapp's writing, the greatest of these good ingredients making up the book is hands down the subject.  Cash's voice has aged well, sounding as good today as it did in the 1950s.  Track down the old Sun Recordings and listen and you'll see.  But more than good music, Cash still has something to say to those who sometimes find it challenging to be both Americans and Christians.  Track down Clapp's book and read it and you'll see.                 

Stephen Nichols is research professor of Christianity and Culture at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School in Lancaster, PA.