Cash & Kierkegaard

It’s the 4th of July, so I did the most American thing I could think of today: I went out and bought the new Johnny Cash CD, A Hundred Highways. It’s appropriate that the final recordings of the quintessential American, Johnny Cash, should be released on the 4th of July.

Here’s the editorial review of A Hundred Highways.

The ethical questions surrounding this final album in the American Recordings series are as unavoidable as they are, ultimately, peripheral. While the vocal tracks were recorded in the months just prior to Johnny Cash’s passing in September 2003, the arrangements weren’t undertaken until two years later. And though producer Rick Rubin had become a trusted friend, the Man in Black wasn’t around to approve or disapprove, let alone guide, the final sessions. However, if the pure power of these recordings doesn’t quiet the skeptics, nothing will. With Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench and slide guitar session pro Smokey Hormel on board (all three of whom appear on earlier Cash albums), along with guitarists Matt Sweeney and Johnny Polansky, the sound is stately and acoustic, but rarely staid, even as the dynamics of earlier recordings in the series are absent. Instead, the songs have a measured, elegiac intensity, the sound of musicians choosing their notes carefully and making just the right choices.

The songs Cash sings are, unsurprisingly, confessional and reflective: his mortality and his mistakes, his maker and his salvation.
The loss of his wife June and the end of his career may have weighed on his mind, but in these songs he both embodies and transcends his personal history. On “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” as the musicians clap and stomp behind him, his voice cuts through the air like that same avenging hand. On the new original “Like the 309”–the last song Cash ever wrote–he cops to being short of breath, and that voice becomes a metaphor for what each of us will one day face. On Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Read My Mind,” Rubin flirts with overwhelming the damp bittersweetness of Cash’s phrasing in tasteful atmospherics, but the voice is implacable, hitting and finding notes one never expected he’d have the will to find. Likewise, it’s hard to believe this is his first recording of Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds”; the elemental narrative seems to have been written for him. Two songs, however, Cash has recorded before: the born-again hymn “I Came to Believe” and the final spiritual, “I’m Free from the Chain Gang Now.” The latter especially is a definitive testament, as is his version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Further On (Up the Road).” “One sunny morning we’ll rise, I know / And I’ll meet you further on up the road,” he sings. If only, John, if only.

If you’re interested in Johnny Cash the Christian — an imperfect, but very real Christian — I would recommend, The Man Comes Around: The Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash. I read it a couple of years ago and thought it was excellent. I liked it way better than the movie Walk the Line.

What am I reading right now? A nuclear bomb of a book: Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard. It’s some of the hardest hitting stuff I’ve read in a long time. If you decide to try to tackle this book (and I’m not necessarily recommending it), keep in mind two things: 1) Reading Soren Kierkegaard can be hard work. 2) Kierkegaard’s audience (or I might say, target) was the 19th Century state church of Denmark which was in a deplorable condition. But if you can plow through Kierkegaard’s dense writing and make allowances for him being a man of his times and keep in mind who he was writing to, Provocations yields some tremendous rewards. The book is certainly aptly titled; it is definitely provoking me. Jason Upton recommended this book to me and I have thanked him for it.

Here’s a sample “provocation”…

“The greatest danger to Christianity is, I contend, not heresies, heterodoxies, not atheists, not profane secularism — no, but the kind of orthodoxy which is cordial drivel, mediocrity served up sweet. There is nothing that so insidiously displaces the majestic as sentimental cordiality. Perpetually polite, so small, so nice — the result is that majesty is completely defrauded…Christianity does not oppose debauchery and uncontrollable passions and the like as much as it opposes this flat mediocrity, this nauseating atmosphere, this homey sentimentality, where admittedly great crimes, wild excesses, and powerful aberrations cannot easily occur — but where God’s unconditional demand has even greater difficulty in accomplishing what it requires: the majestic obedience of submission.”

Whoa! Here’s another one…

“A sparrow is an object of God’s concern. It is not a wasted or lost life. But masses of mimickers, a crowd of copycats are wasted lives. God has been merciful to us, demonstrating His grace to the point of being willing to involve Himself with every person. If we prefer to be like all the others, this amounts to high treason against God. We who simply go along are guilty, and our punishment is to be ignored by God…What faith it takes to believe that one’s life is noticed by God and that this is enough!”

Rock on Kierkegaard!

So on the 4th of July it’s Johnny Cash and Soren Kierkegaard. That’s the eclectic Kingdom of Jesus for you. An American iconic Country singer and a Danish eccentric philosopher. I’m going to enjoy meeting both of them some day.


I’m preaching Wednesday and Thursday at Church on the Rise in Cleveland. I’ll see you Friday.