A Feature Review of
Trains, Jesus, and Murder:
The Gospel According to Johnny Cash
Reviewed by Robert D. Cornwall
You needn’t be a country music fan to know the name of Johnny Cash. You may know his music. You may know parts of his life story. Maybe you saw the movie starring Joaquim Phoenix as the “The Man in Black.” But do you know Johnny Cash? More specifically do you know where faith comes into play? It is fitting that he was known as the man in black, the distinctive clothing choice he made early in his career, for he was a complicated man, whose flaws were many but whose faith ran deep.
It’s fitting that Richard Beck has taken up the story of Johnny Cash’s life. Beck is a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University who combines his expertise in psychology with a love of theology and the church. This provides a firm foundation for exploring a life such as Cash’s, as do his previous books, which include Reviving Old Scratch and Stranger God (both from Fortress Press), as well as the provocative Unclean (Cascade). What is perhaps most pertinent for this book (as well as Reviving Old Scratch), is the many years he has spent leading Bible studies at a maximum-security prison in Texas.
Beck begins the book with Cash’s opening line at Folsom Prison: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” (1). This line came through, Beck recounts, as he listened to the Folsom Prison Live album, as he drove to the prison where he led his study. He reports that he bought the album because of the men who participated in his study group. Listening to Cash’s concert at the prison, with its songs about crime and murder, mixed with humor, provides the context for a book about Cash’s life and the light it shines into the often dark side of human life.
Our Review of
Reviving Old Scratch
by Richard Beck
The title of the book comes from a comment made to Beck by his son Aiden, who upon listening to Cash’s music declared: “Johnny Cash sings about three things: trains, Jesus, and murder” (5). If you pay attention to Cash’s music, not only does he sing about trains, but the booma chicka feel of the music speaks of trains. It is the contrast between songs about murder and drugs, which speak to the realities of Cash’s prison audience, and Jesus that makes Cash so intriguing. He can go from “Cocaine Blues” to a Gospel song with little transition. The juxtaposition between murder and Jesus might seem odd, but Beck helps us understand how they belong together. He writes that the “contrast between Jesus and murder, between gospel hymns and odes to a criminal mentality—and there is nothing like this contrast in the whole of the music industry—is what fascinated me about the music of Johnny Cash.” (5).
Beck notes that when he first heard the Folsom Prison Live album he didn’t know a lot about Cash’s life. When I came to Beck’s book, I can say that I was in the same place. I knew parts of his story. I had listened to some of his songs (I’m not a country music fan, so I don’t go there often). I had seen the movie about his life, and so I knew he struggled with drug addiction. I knew he tried to bring his faith into his performances (I had seen his Jesus movie The Gospel Road). But I didn’t know Johnny Cash until I read Beck’s exploration of his life. led with drugs even as he sought to make his Christian faith part of his performances, there is more to Cash that I didn’t know about until reading Beck’s book.
The fifteen chapters that make up the book are divided into four parts. Part 1, which comprises the first two chapters, introduces us to his family and the role that faith plays in his life. Perhaps the defining event in his life was the death of his brother Jack in a horrific accident, for which Johnny’s father blamed him for not preventing, inducing life-long guilt on Johnny’s part. At the same time, he felt this need to carry on in his own way Jack’s desire to be a preacher. Thus, guilt and calling combined to drive Cash’s life.
Chapters three through ten comprise part 2: “Sinners and Solidarity.” Here is where we engage Johnny the sinner who felt solidarity with those on the margins. Beck takes us to Cash’s concerts and introduces us to important songs that reflected this solidarity, including an important chapter concerning an album that spoke for the rights of Native Americans, a chapter that features the song “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” the Native American hero of Iwo Jima. We also learn that Johnny often provided financial support to those who came to his concerts and carried messages home from those in prison. Both the guilt and the faith contributed to this sense of solidarity that emerges in his life and in his music.
If Johnny felt solidarity with those on the margins, he also had a deep love for his country. We see this explored in the two chapters of part three. His music celebrating the nation was often nostalgic, even as it pointed to the nation’s faults. This is revealed through his solidarity with Native Americans, opposition to the Vietnam War, and calls for prison reform, among other justice concerns. Regarding war (chapter 12), Beck writes of Cash: “So the gospel according to Johnny cash is this: violence is always tragic. Christians can never cheer, applaud, or baptize a nation’s use of force. Such uses are only and always tragedies that must be grieved and mourned—and most importantly circumscribed and limited” (140).
The final section of the book is titled “Suffering and Salvation.” In these three chapters, we learn more about Johnny’s later life. We learn that the 1980s were a difficult time for him, as his popularity waned. But after losing his Columbia Records contract, which he had for more than twenty-five years, he found a new lease on life with a producer known for working with hip-hop artists. Thus, a new era emerged.
As we hear the “Gospel according to Johnny Cash” through the words of Richard Beck, we encounter a man who loved God, wanted to fulfill his brother’s calling to be a preacher (though using music as the vehicle), but who too often failed to live up to the standards that Cash himself believed his brother would have held up. We learn about his failed marriage to Vivian, the drug addictions, the near suicide, and the marriage to his great love, June Carter Cash, which helped give him stability.
The book’s epilogue carries the subtitle The Gospel Road, a take on Johnny’s 1970 Jesus movie that featured his music and narration. Beck uses this movie as a vehicle to summarize Cash’s life: “the gospel according to Johnny Cash in The Gospel Road comes out most clearly in the crucifixion and death of Jesus.” In the movie’s closing scenes, Cash shared the message that “this sacrifice isn’t an ancient story, a legend, or a myth. This sacrifice of love is a living, contemporary reality.” (187). The Gospel of Johnny Cash is one of grace, even for the murderer living in prison. With those who live on the margins, Cash stood in solidarity.
If you’ve read any of Beck’s previous books, you know he is a great communicator. I don’t think you will be disappointed with this book. If you don’t know Beck, in my opinion, you should know him, and this is a great place to start. Again, you won’t be disappointed.
Robert D. Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, MI, and editor of Sharing the Practice (Academy of Parish Clergy). He blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com