catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 6 :: 2010.03.19 — 2010.04.01


High fidelity

This week, I experienced an unexpected convergence of pop culture and the spiritual life — and the most unexpected part is how good it’s been.  I’ve been reading the Bible with Johnny Cash.

I could tell you various stories about how I arrived at this spiritual kinship with the legendary country music singer-songwriter popularly known as “The Man in Black” (1932-2003).  One (reasonably true) version would be rooted in my fascination, since my early teenage years, with country music as a way of connecting to my family’s working-class and agricultural backgrounds.  Another (cooler and less true) version would attempt to link my renewed interest in Cash with the most recent posthumous release in his series of American Recordings albums, the great crossover hits that made him the darling of hipsters everywhere (think of his Grammy-award-winning cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” included on the 2002 release American IV).  But the simplest truth is that it was an act of mild desperation.

I’d fallen woefully behind in the Bible reading I had committed to for the season of Lent, which included reading the gospel of Luke and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, one chapter a day and two chapters on Sundays.  (It works out to 52 chapters, which exactly spans the 40 days and six Sundays of Lent.)  It was an elegant and simple enough plan, I thought, but life and its cares and commitments had gotten in the way, and I was on the verge of just admitting defeat at yet another well-intentioned spiritual discipline.

And then I remembered that, wedged somewhere behind the seat of my old Ford pickup truck, there was a box of CDs containing Johnny Cash’s reading of the entire New Testament.  Released in 1990, four years before the first of the hipster-beloved American Recordings, these 16 discs — a total of 19 hours — feature the simple, unadorned voice of Johnny Cash, patiently and lovingly reading his way through the New Testament.  I had asked for and received the recordings several years ago as a gift, but had never made it very far into listening to them (another example of the previously mentioned defeat at well-intentioned spiritual disciplines).  I dug out the boxed set, found batteries and the tape-deck adapter for my old Sony Discman, and started listening as I drove back and forth to work each day.

I’ve been gently and gratefully astonished at how good it is.  Forget whatever corny associations you may have with the idea of a recording of a country singer reading the Bible; I actually can’t imagine a better audio recording of these texts.  I tend to shy away from recordings of the Bible — maybe it’s the memory of the Bible filmstrips I watched growing up in Christian schools, or the voice-over prayers during the broadcast celebrations of the Eucharist on the Eternal Word Television Network, but I usually expect Bible recordings to be overdone in some cheesy, holier-than-thou, Christian-radio kind of way.  But Johnny Cash reads the Bible as himself — in his own confident, well-modulated voice and mildly American accent (Southern, but not too Southern, if you know what I mean), and with all the darkness and light of his own spiritual journey somehow in the background without ever being put out on display.  He writes in the liner notes:

As I read the words of the Lord I prayed to feel and show only His love with a clear deliverance of His messages, constantly aware that He is speaking to me, and that when I am reading His words, I am not Him.  I have strived against reading any personal interpretation into the Scripture.  The most powerful, uniquely dramatic words ever written do not need any special attempt on my part to ‘sell’ them.  

These recordings offer not the sanctimonious tones of a professional Christian, but the words of life delivered by another sinner like me.

An added gift for me has been a fresh encounter with an old translation.  Johnny Cash grew up reading the 1611 Authorized (“King James”) Version, and for these recordings he chose the lightly updated New King James Version published by Thomas Nelson.  As a Protestant Christian of a certain age, I grew up reading and memorizing the New International Version; when I went to college, I studied Greek, and discovered how tenuous the connection is between the Greek text and the NIV’s rendering When my homework for Greek class was to translate a portion of the New Testament, the NIV did more harm than good as a study aid, so I migrated to the New Revised Standard Version.  Both my NIV upbringing and my NRSV adulthood have made me tend to look down my nose at all those (supposedly) retrograde fundamentalists who still cling to the King James tradition.  But listening to Brother Cash read it, I’m astonished to realize how closely the Authorized Version cleaves to the Greek text — in many cases, the word choices and sentence structures make it possible for me to translate backwards into Greek with reasonably accurate results.  Against all the expectations of my well-educated disdain for this old translation’s folk status, it turns out to be deeply right and true, just like Johnny Cash’s gravelly Arkansas baritone.

On the cover of his recording of the New Testament, right above the reproduction of his signature, Johnny Cash is quoted as saying: “I wear the black for those who’ve never read or listened to the words that Jesus said.”  Thank God that he did — also for those who have read and listened, but never heard in quite this way before.

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