Johnny Cash and King David: Seeing Bible Heroes in Modern Times
The rapper Kanye West received a great amount of criticism for telling ContactMusic.com that he belonged in a revised version of the Bible, due to his contributions to society (ContactMusic.com). Although most everyone agrees that Kanye West is not exactly Biblical in nature, it does bring to mind the question: Are the characters of the Bible relatable to people in our own lifetime? Sometimes Biblical characters are fantastical, but even if no one knows a talking snake, they know someone who is manipulative like the snake. Samson, who sounds incredibly unreal, might be equally baffled to hear how many Japanese were killed by Harry Truman, with atoms instead of ass bones. Although there are many comparisons that can be made, one of the more interesting ones is comparing the Bible’s David with country music singer, Johnny Cash. Characters from the Bible often seem larger than life when compared to people of the modern era due to an unwillingness to compare saintliness with normalcy, but often they’re very similar when considered from outside the reverence given to religious texts.
One of the first things that might cause objections to this comparison is their place in life; David is a King, Johnny Cash is a country music star. The positions are certainly different, but they both lend themselves to financial wealth, fame, and adulation. In a land without kings, we find people to admire in a similar fashion. For example, Elvis Presley was called the King of Rock and Roll, and Michael Jackson was called the King of Pop. This is not by accident; it actually explains the level of esteem the famous are held in. Once it was royalty, and now it’s just royalty with a different name. America seems to have found a psychological replacement for the appreciation of royalty, and often admire the wealthy in their place. Paris Hilton, as flawed as she may be, is almost a wayward princess whose activities simply must watched by the masses. Coincidentally, in the first paragraph of Cash’s autobiography, he states that he is, “descended from King Duff, the first king of Scotland” (9). Johnny’s bloodline is painted to be an honorable one, much like David.
Despite the bloodline of their ancestors, neither David nor Cash come from wealth. David’s first appearance in the Bible comes with him being fetched from the pasture. “Samuel said unto Jesse, Are here all thy children? And he said, There remaineth yet the youngest, and behold, he keepeth the sheep (1 Sam. 16:11). Cash was raised by a farmer, one of seven children, who “all grew up working the cotton fields” (Cash 16). Both coming from humble beginnings, their stories require that their road to prominence is paved by their own virtue and the help of the Lord. Even in a capitalist society where most believe anyone with enough determination can be anything they would like to be, economic mobility doesn’t leave much wiggle room to rise to the top.
On David’s journey to becoming king, he first becomes a warrior when he fights Goliath, the giant Philistine. Johnny Cash was in the United States Air Force during the Korean War, and although he didn’t see a tremendous amount of action, he was a radio interceptor and happened to be the first radio operator to pick up the death of Joseph Stalin (Cash 164). At this point, they both are locked into a service they don’t particularly enjoy, but they also proved they were not afraid of battle. After the victory against Goliath, Saul kept David in his service and “would let him go no more home to his father’s house (1 Sam. 18:2). It would be in military service that they would become men.
After military service, both characters live a transitional position that is not the happiest time for either of them. David works for the slightly batty Saul in his court, assisting him with torments and avoiding volatile attacks (1 Sam. 19). Johnny worked in Memphis as a door-to-door appliance salesman (Cash 17). During this time, both of them worked on a shared passion: music. David played music to calm Saul from the tormenting spirits sent by God, and Johnny played gospel music with Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant. (Coincidentally, Johnny’s manager was a man named Saul Holiff.) Through music their poetry was expressed, as many of the Psalms were arranged to be put to music. There is an apocryphal story that Johnny Cash only wanted to play gospel, and Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records told him, “‘Johnny, go sin a little bit, (then) come back and sing me some songs…’ You didn’t have to say that to Jerry Lee Lewis” (Edwards).
The Greeks believed in a concept known as metempsychosis, where souls migrated or were reincarnated as different people (or animals), and although to a modern westerner this might sound silly, we will accept that genius happens, and every so often someone comes along who is similar to another person that came before them. It’s easy to point out humble upbringings and music to create a kinship between David and Johnny Cash, but it doesn’t end there. The Bible gives God credit for the turmoil caused by David’s sin, and in the case of Johnny Cash we can only speculate. We’re certain that Bathsheba played a part in David’s downfall, and to some extent it could be argued that June Carter played a part in Johnny Cash’s worst times.
Johnny admits in his autobiography that he was married when he began to court June Carter. The first time he spoke with her, he told her he was going to marry her – even though she was married at the time (448). Neither her marriage nor his own deterred him from this courtship, which nearly all theologians will agree is a sin in the eyes of God. It is after Bathsheba that David’s life is thrown into a whirlwind of chaos and sorrow. The adulterous Johnny Cash has to deal with his darkest times while forming his relationship with June, a time of drug abuse and violence. Both David and Johnny would rise out of these depths, but they would rise out of them as changed people. Older, wiser, and more appreciative of the blessings that the Lord bestowed upon them.
David says in Psalm 51:
Against you only have I sinned
and done evil in your sight:
so that you are justified in your sentence,
and blameless in your judging.
Evil have I been from my birth:
sinner I am from the time of my conception.
But you desire truth in our inward being:
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. (Psalm 51)
And Cash sings on “Unchained”:
I have been ungrateful,
I’ve been unwise.
Restless from the cradle,
Now I realize, It’s so hard to see the rainbow,
Through glasses dark as these.
Maybe I’ll be able,
From now on, on my knees.
Oh, I am weak.
Oh, I know I am vain.
Take this weight from me,
Let my spirit be unchained. (American Recordings II)
Bathsheba and June Carter may not be the first wives of their respective husbands, but it is through the marriage to them that the family name lives on. Solomon is David successor and he is born through his union with Bathsheba, and John Carter Cash, Johnny’s only male child, was born through his marriage to June Carter. This proves that although there is punishment for sin, there is also forgiveness. Out of sin comes sorrow, but eventually joy is returned with the relationship to God being repaired.
The significance of these similarities is important. The further removed characters of the Bible are from our reality, the harder it becomes to relate to them. Whether studying the Bible as literature or for religious reasons, once the characters become less than human, the story loses its integrity and the message becomes blurred and confusing. Being able to see King David in Johnny Cash, Wilt Chamberlain in Solomon, or Doubting Thomas in a skeptical friend from high school — each enriches the stories from the Bible. When a reader sees things they already know reflected in the text, they begin to see truth in the story, and truth in literature and religion is what many of us are looking for in the first place.
Cash, Johnny, and Patrick Carr. Cash: The Autobiography. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. Print.
Cash, Johnny. “Unchained.” American II: Unchained. Rick Rubin, 1996. CD.
“Cocky West: ‘I Should Be In The Bible’.” ContactMusic.com. ContactMusic.com Ltd, 09 Feb. 2006. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.
Edwards, Bob. “NPR – Morning Edition – Sam Phillips, The Legacy of Sun Records.” National Public Radio 28 Nov. 2001. Web. 12 Oct. 2011.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1997. Print.