The Man Came Around
The following article is adapted from The Man Comes Around: The Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash (Relevant Books), which explores Cash's raw and sometimes messy faith.
A writer once tried to paint [Johnny] Cash into a corner, baiting him to acknowledge a single denominational persuasion at the center of his heart. Finally, Cash laid down the law: "I—as a believer that Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew, the Christ of the Greeks, was the Anointed One of God (born of the seed of David, upon faith as Abraham has faith, and it was accounted to him for righteousness)—am grafted onto the true vine, and am one of the heirs of God's covenant with Israel."
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"What?" the writer replied.
"I'm a Christian," Cash shot back. "Don't put me in another box."
Despite his Baptist/Pentecostal upbringing, Cash was never terribly concerned about denominations. Or about nickel-and-dime theology. Or about tedious doctrinal parsing. "In my travels to Europe, Asia, and Australia, many times I have remembered and realized more fully that the gospel is the only doctrine that really works, and it works for all men," he once declared. "But when this or that denomination begins to feel, or still worse, begins to teach that their particular interpretation of the Word opens the only door to heaven, then I feel it's dangerous."
So, exactly what "kind" of Christian was Cash?
A staunch, conservative, Bible thumper? It sure seems so if you read the introduction to his 1986 novel about the life of the apostle Paul, Man in White: "Please understand that I believe the Bible, the whole Bible, to be the infallible, indisputable Word of God. I have been careful to take no liberties with the timeless Word."
But based on a passage from his 1997 autobiography, Cash doesn't seem as steadfast: "Once I learned what the Bible is—the inspired Word of God (most of it anyway) … " (To be fair, he continues this shadow of doubt with a gushing endorsement of Scripture, noting how "truly exciting" it is to discover new interpretations and applications to his own life.)
Further, it certainly can be argued that Cash was a private man and preferred to keep his faith to himself. Stu Carnall, an early tour manager, recalled, "Johnny's an individualist, and he's a loner. He's also unpredictable… . He's a talker, and he can talk plenty about anything—but not about religion. We'd be on the road for weeks at a time, staying at motels and hotels along the way. While the other members of the troupe would sleep in, Johnny would disappear for a few hours. When he returned, if anyone asked where he'd been, he'd answer straight faced, 'to church.'"
"I don't compromise my religion," Cash once declared. "If I'm with someone who doesn't want to talk about it, I don't talk about it. I don't impose myself on anybody in any way, including religion. When you're imposing you're offending, I feel. Although I am evangelical, and I'll give the message to anyone that wants to hear it, or anybody that is willing to listen. But if they let me know that they don't want to hear it, they ain't never going to hear it from me. If I think they don't want to hear it, then I will not bring it up."
In short, "telling others is part of our faith all right, but the way we live it speaks louder than we can say it," Cash said. "The gospel of Christ must always be an open door with a welcome sign for all."
But put Cash in front of a microphone … and, as you might have guessed, anything could happen.
"I'm not here tonight to exalt Johnny Cash," he told an audience during a show following his dramatic rededication to Christ in the early '70s. "I'm standing here as an entertainer, as a performer, as a singer who is supporting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I'm here to invite you to listen to the good news that will be laid out for you, to analyze it, and see if you don't think it's the best way to live."