Johnny Cash, Flannery O’Connor, and the Fiery Gospel

If, as it is reported in some circles, Elvis is still alive, then it would make sense that Johnny Cash would still be as well. After all, Cash just released a new album on July 4th, three years after his death.

I’ve been listening to Johnny Cash’s American V: A Hundred Highways for about three weeks now, and I can’t make up my mind whether or not Cash is more haunting dead than alive. Producer Rick Rubin reportedly recorded the voice tracks shortly before the Man In Black’s death, and added instrumentation later. The result is a brand-spanking-new album that feels oddly like your granddad’s worn-out leather Bible.

Every song on the album that doesn’t directly speak of death speaks from the vantage point of a man preparing to meet his maker. The songs — written by various musical luminaries, including two penned by Cash — are far from the pop ear candy that is found on top forty lists today. Cashophile–extraordinaire Russell Moore observes:

This isn’t some New Age ode to the “seasons of life.” Nor is it the typical Christian triumphalist jingle about “moving on up” to a heavenly reward. It is instead the songs of a man who recognizes the horror of death, and who is focused on what every man thinks about at such times: judgment. There is something especially powerful in Cash’s warning in the song “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” directed toward a murderous Klansman but applicable to all of us have sinned against an omniscient God:

Well you may throw your rock and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s down in the dark will be brought to the light
You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down…

The Johnny Cash of his latter years is like a character you might find in a Flannery O’Connor story (see here for a good intro to O’Connor). Songs which one might expect to be an old man crooning take a turn to the grotesque. There’s a certain rough, violent edge to the songs that startles the listener to life.

Like in O’Connor’s work, the Gospel is present in Cash’s songs, but it’s there in a hellfire-and-brimstone sort of way that 21st-century Reformed evangelicals like me typically cast aside as tent-revival carnival fare. It calls to mind that kind of emotional hack-preaching that often consists of more theatrics than substance.

Emotional manipulation should always be avoided, but we must remember that the Bible is certainly not devoid of emotion. Proclamation could, and can, assume a rather fiery nature. Take, for example, the prophet Jeremiah:

For whenever I speak, I cry out,
I shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.
[Jeremiah 20:8-9]

The Gospel is, after all, a gospel of grace. The problem is that we don’t often enough address exactly what it is that we are saved from. God indeed does love us, but he also will indeed “cut us down.” It’s that fiery wrath of God which gives his grace its power. Without God standing in violent opposition to the sinner, the grace found in Christ is reduced from a powerful, transformative force to something more along the lines of niceness.

From time to time we need a reminder from a Johnny Cash or a Flannery O’Connor or a prophet Jeremiah that sometimes the Gospel is decidedly not nice, breaking in upon us at the most inconvenient moments. In these times, the Gospel may not be nice, but it is gracious all the same.