Johnny Cash, Benedict XVI & the Authority Problem – Part 1 of 2

12.17.10

This Advent has found me listening to a lot of music by the late great Johnny Cash. Johnny’s one of my favorites, and there are so many things to love about him – his honesty, his fire, the prophetic depth of his voice. I love it all. I love that Bob Dylan once said of Johnny, “he sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest… Johnny’s voice was so big, it made the world grow small.” I love how Johnny’s is a perfect sound for a cold winter, and for bringing Jesus’ impending arrival to mind.

But the thing I love the most about him is the rough honesty of his faith; how Jesus outlines all the jagged edges of the man’s life. I love how he wasn’t ever ashamed to lay that faith on the table for all to see. Damn the consequences. Rick Rubin (the great Hip Hop producer; the one who deserves my ceaseless praise for giving us Johnny’s last six American Recordings albums) tells an anecdote that captures what I love about the man. Rick said:

“I remember we had a dinner party at my house one night with Johnny and [his wife] June… and before dinner Johnny had everyone hold hands and he said a prayer and he read from the Bible. And I know some of the people at the table had never experienced that before. And I know some of the people at the table were even atheists. But his belief in what he believed was so strong that what you believed didn’t matter so much. Because you were in the presence of someone who really believed. And that felt good.”

As Emeril would say: “Bam!” As I would say: “Preach on, Johnny.”

Anyway, I’ve been listening over and over to a song that, like Johnny himself, pulls no punches. It’s rough and jagged and honest and it’s called “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” Here’s the video. It’s worth 2.8 minutes for sure.

I know it’s presumptive to speak for the man, but I think Johnny would be proud of that video. I think he’d love the effect his song had on all those saints of pop culture. It’s like he’s been able to reach out from beyond the grave and say to them: “I’ve been where you are – I’ve been at the top of the word. And I got one thing to say: memorare mortis, friends, memorare mortis.”

To me, Johnny sounds in song a lot like Benedict sounds in prose. They echo each other in my heart like friends crying across a great canyon…

Johnny: “You can run on for a long time, run on for a long time… Tell the rambler, the gambler, the backbiter – tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut ‘em down.”

Benedict: “In practice [one]… should live quasi Deus esset – as if God really exists. He should live subject to the reality of truth, which is not our own creation, but our mistress.”

Johnny: “I been down on bended knee, talking to the man from Galilee. He spoke to me in a voice so sweet, I thought heard the shuffle of angel’s feet. He called my name and my heart stood still, he said ‘John, go do my will’.”

Benedict: “[We] should live subject to the love that awaits us and that loves even us. Live under the challenge of eternity… And one who – even if perhaps at first only hesitantly – entrusts him/herself to this difficult yet inescapable as if… will know profoundly and indelibly why Christianity is still necessary today as the genuinely Good News by which we are redeemed.”

I listen to these two talking, listen to that song, and I feel my own heart opened up this Advent. I feel myself a little more ready to welcome the little one who is my Savior. Because while I can run on for a long time, sooner or later…

Preach on Johnny. Preach on Papa mea.

– PG, SJ

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5 Responses to Johnny Cash, Benedict XVI & the Authority Problem – Part 1 of 2

  1. Rudolph Carrera says:

    That was a lovely read. I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian fan of Johnny Cash, and he speaks to me in the same way.

  2. jp says:

    I love how he can take even songs not about God and make them sound like a prayer. Example: his covers of “hurt” and “in my life”.

  3. Chuck says:

    Liked the comments about Johnny Cash and Pope Benedict. Not sure I understand the “Authority Problem” reference in the title of the article.

    • Chuck, you’re right to point out that I hadn’t made any points about authority – but luckily I’ve just finished the second part of that post which is all about authority. Thanks much.

      PG, SJ

  4. John Henry says:

    Very nice post. Thanks. It is interesting how differently people can serve the Body of Christ. Benedict lacks the force of personality and charisma of Cash; and Cash lacks Benedict’s subtlety. But both are reminding us of what it means to be Christian and fully human.

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