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By Tom Murphy
In the theological canon, there's probably no sect quite as unwaveringly dour as Calvinism. Predicated mostly on the idea that human beings are fundamentally bad, Calvinism sums up its doctrine with five main points: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints.
Just the fact that it starts out with "total depravity" is probably enough to convey an idea of how unrelentingly depressing this religious philosophy is, but it gets even worse when you break those ideas down — basically, that 1) You are a shitty person, but 2) God will redeem you, 3) Maybe, 4) If you are predetermined to be redeemed, but 5) If you're not predetermined to be redeemed, then tough shit, asshole: See you in hell.
I was raised Calvinist, and that's a fact that rates highly on my list of Reasons Why I'm So Fucked Up. But it's also, I think, one of the reasons I've always felt a kind of spiritual connection with Johnny Cash.
Johnny Cash is far from the only figure in popular music to wear his religion on his sleeve — from the uplifting (Al Green) to the bizarre (Bob Dylan) to the borderline retarded (Creed), the Lord makes frequent appearances in pop, and a lot of them aren't even ironic. But unlike Al Green, who always kept a clear barrier between his gospel and secular outputs, or Dylan, whose religion was more like a phase than a conviction, Cash's religion was integral and constant: Even while he was writing "Folsom Prison Blues" and shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die, Cash was working on severing his contract with Sun Records because legendary producer Sam Phillips wouldn't let him record gospel music. And Johnny Cash was going to have to record some gospel music.
Of course, a song like "Folsom Prison Blues" is also a prime example of the outlaw image that Cash carefully fashioned; he was a guy who wrote a lot of songs about prison even though he'd never been to a prison for any other reason than to put on a concert (the recordings of which were meticulously punctuated with totally false, edited crowd noise). But however cultivated, there's no denying it was an image that felt more true than most, perhaps because of his own continuing battle with excess, addiction and sin – the facts of which, in turn, never made his prodigious morality any less authoritative.
There were plenty of contradictions in Johnny Cash's life, but they never came off as phony or hypocritical. They were honest. They were real. Even while doing the late-career series of covers albums that aging, mega-famous pop stars so often do, Cash imbued those songs with a heartbreaking gravity that pap like Paul McCartney's Kisses on the Bottom can only dream of.
My own spiritual connection with Johnny Cash is nothing special. A million people have it — all, most likely, for reasons completely different from mine. Cash was born nearly eighty years ago this month, and it's been close to a decade since his death, but he's just as powerful today as he ever was; his striving and his failure ensure it.
If the Lord has indeed predetermined the redeemed, I hope Johnny Cash is one of them.
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