Johny Cash finger


By David Brinn, The Jerusalem Post, Israel News, June 16, 2012

Johhny Cash Western Wall 1977

Professor Shalom Goldman makes a strong case for Johnny Cash being the forerunner of the American Christian Zionist movement.

Way before the modern-day Christian Zionist movement became a bastion of American support for Israel, there was the Man in Black.

Johnny Cash, the all-American country music great whose career spanned six decades, carried on an ardent love affair with Israel for most of that time. Cash, a devout Christian who died in 2003 at the age of 71, visited the country five times from 1966 through the mid-1990s along with his wife June Carter Cash and their children. And it wasn’t only with his footsteps that he he demonstrated his connection to the country – he recorded complete albums of inspirational hymns about the holy land and made films about his journeys to Biblical sites.

Cash’s ties with Israel have long fascinated Shalom Goldman, a professor of religion at Duke University. The author of the book Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land, Goldman theorized that Cash symbolized American Christian enthusiasm for Israel before it became labeled as a far-Right movement.

For the last year, he’s been giving a presentation mostly on college campuses: In The Holy Land with Johnny Cash: Christian Zionism and American Popular Culture, a lecture about the religious aspects of Cash’s life and work – including his baptism in the Jordan River – augmented by slides of his pilgrimages to the holy land and live performances of a selection of his Zion-flavored gospel songs.

“Cash was a Christian Zionist for at least a decade before the Christian Right moved into a place of political power in the late 1970s,” said Goldman, speaking from a summer cabin in Georgia last week before heading to Israel, where he’ll give his Cash presentation on Tuesday evening at the Tmol Shilshom bookstore in Jerusalem, accompanied by local folk singer Hila Tam.

“On an academic level, I wanted to distinguish him from evangelical Christian Zionists, although he did have many ties to evangelicals. But his politics weren’t the same as, for example, Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. Mostly, he sang, and didn’t make political statements. His personal enthusiasm for Israel was reflected in his visits.”

Goldman explained that though today’s thriving Israel-Christian alliance – with millions of Christian Zionists visiting and supporting the country and presenting a second front along with American Jewry in fighting for Israeli interests in Washington, wasn’t nearly as developed in the 1960s and 70s. However, even David Ben- Gurion understood the importance of Christian support to Israel, by sponsoring the World Pentecostal Conference in Jerusalem in 1971.

The government, realizing that Cash could be a PR asset to the country, also aided his trip here in 1971 with his family and a large entourage to film a movie called The Gospel Road, a walk through the Christian gospels narrated by the singer.

While the movie was not originally successful, it has become a cult favorite and according to Goldman, Cash considered it to be one of his most valued works.

“In his second biography, Cash wrote about how he and June came on that trip for their honeymoon as a promise to her,” said Goldman. “She had a dream in which Johnny was preaching to the multitudes at the Sea of Galilee, and she was intent on seeing him do it for real. So they reenacted that scene for the film ‘Gospel Road.’ The film flashes back between him narrating, dressed in black, and scenes of ancient Palestine. It’s a big hit among evangelicals.”

Cash’s big hits – from “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk The Line” to “Big River” and “A Boy Named Sue” may have made him known to millions, but along with his badboy, rockabilly image, augmented by the Joacquin Phoenix portrayal of him in the biopic I Walk The Line, there was another side to Cash which focused on hymns and spiritual tones and produced albums like The Holy Land.

“Johnny said once that out of his 200 albums he was part of, his favorite was My Mother’s Hymnbook, a collection of songs based on the hymnbook his mother gave him from her church in 1954,” said Goldman.

“Among the song titles are ‘Crossing Jordan’ and ‘Coming to the Promised Land,’ and the concept I’m using in my talk is that for Johnny’s mother, those phrases were a metaphor, but for Johnny Cash, they became linked to a reality and relate to the whole question of what Israel and Zion mean in American Christianity.”

Those songs will be performed by Tam at Tmol Shilshom along with other selections like “The Man Comes Around” (called by Goldman “a reworking of the Book of Revelations”) from his acclaimed American Recordings series Cash produced later in his life with Rick Rubin, and “Western Wall,” a song by Cash’s daughter, Roseanne Cash.

“I knew some of his songs, but not the ones I’m going to be singing,” said Tam, a student at the Jerusalem Academy of Music.

“I never knew about his religious, Zionist side.”

With a background in classical, jazz and Yemenite music, Tam has been impressed with the songs she’s received from Goldman to learn, and he in turn, is excited about her involvement in the evening.

“I have a singer I work with in my presentations in the States, but I’m really looking forward to working with an Israeli artist,” said Goldman, adding that the presentation would be enhanced by the visual aids he’s providing.

“There’s a fabulous photo of him at the Western Wall – the man in black at the Kotel.”

Goldman said he’s been a fan of Cash’s music since the 1960s and lived in Israel in 1969 when Cash arrived to record his gospel album The Holy Land.

“Through that album, I realized how strong his connection was to Israel,” Goldman said. “I kind of forgot about it until I wrote my book on Christian Zionism. I tried to convince my editor to include a CD of his music with the book, but when he showed me how expensive it would be, I put that idea aside. Instead, I came up with the idea of the lecture, a way to speak about Christians and Zionism through popular culture.”

“Cash presents an interesting case study in Christians who are Zionists but not necessarily the Christian Zionists as we know them today.”

Another reason to focus on Cash? His name still attracts a crowd.

“I tried the talk out first at Emory in Atlanta and then at Southern Methodist University, where 400 people showed up,” said Goldman. “I learned there’s a real resonance to this focus. I’m a college teacher and we’re always interested in what the students know about the past. Generally, it isn’t very much, but they all know who Johnny Cash is.”


The country singer—and a founding father of American Christian Zionism—died 11 years ago this week

By Shalom Goldman, Tablet, September 11, 2014

Johnny Cash Jerusalem 19771025

[Photo: Johnny Cash in Jerusalem, Oct. 25, 1977]

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash were deeply religious people whose personal and professional lives were imbued with a sense of spiritual struggle and religious engagement. The 2005 biopic Walk the Line was very good at depicting the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll aspect of Cash’s life and art, but, like almost all Hollywood movies, it steers clear of religion in general and of evangelical Protestant religion in particular. Also left out the film was the story of Johnny and June Carter Cash’s passionate engagement with Israel, an engagement that grew out of their religious beliefs. John’s interest in Israel started with a wish to visit the Christian holy sites and “walk where Jesus walked.” Cash’s initial visit to the Israel in 1966 was followed by a trip with June in 1968 and developed into a lifelong project to serve as advocates for the State of Israel, even when such advocacy was unfashionable among American performing artists.

Brought up in a devout Baptist home, Johnny Cash was introduced to music through the local church choir in which his mother sang. She taught Johnny scores of hymns and songs, and it was at age 10, in order to accompany his mother, that he learned to play the guitar. Many decades later, Cash told an interviewer that, of the over 200 albums that he had recorded, his favorite was “My Mother’s Hymn Book,” in which he plays songs that his mother sang in church.

Among those moving songs is “I’m Bound for the Promised Land,” which opens with an evocation of the singer standing on “Jordan’s stormy banks.” For Cash’s mother and the other members of her rural Baptist church in Tennessee, the view from “Jordan’s stormy banks” to “the tranquility of the Promised Land” to which they were bound was a metaphor for the heavenly reward that awaits the righteous when they cross the threshold of death and enter paradise.

“Promised Land” and many other songs that refer to “Canaan,” Jordan, Gilead, and Zion would have all been understood in the 1930s and ’40s as rich metaphors that evoke biblical places in the service of spiritual ideas, a tradition that has deep roots in both the white and black churches. And the promised-land idea informed the thinking of the early American colonists and the Founding Fathers, who spoke of the American experiment as providing a promised land for refugees from the tyranny of the “English Pharaoh,” George III.

But for generations of American, among them the Cash ancestors, Zion, the Promised Land was much more that a metaphor: It was “Jesus’ Land.” In the period after the Civil War many among the American Christian elites flocked there. Steamship travel made it possible to sail from New York, Boston, or Charleston and reach the port of Jaffa in three weeks. Among some American Christians “Zeal for Zion” ran so high that they attempted to create colonies in Palestine. In the second half of the 19th century, before the major era of Zionist settlement, at least four such colonies were founded. Most of them failed, but the American Colony of Jerusalem, co-founded by Swedish Christians, left its mark on Jerusalem.

Many writers on the subject of Christians and Zionism tend to emphasize the “End Time” theology of supporters of Israel. But the long view of American religious and social history reveals that American Christianity, in its many persuasions and denominations, has a very long history of engagement with the idea and reality of Zion. Eleven years after their deaths, Johnny and June Carter Cash stand as exemplars of the complexity and depth of the American connection to both the idea and reality of the promised land.


Initially, Johnny Cash’s ties to Israel were more musical than political. The same was true of June Carter, who also grew up with many of the same biblically referenced references and songs, some of them recorded by her family, including her mother Maybelle Carter and related members of the renowned Carter musical family. Gospel songs and hymns remained at the core of June and Johnny Cash’s musical endeavors, though they eventually became icons of what was later dubbed “country” music. In the early 1970s, when Johnny Cash was “reborn” as a Christian, he offered up an unusual form of tithing; every 10th song that he recorded would be a hymn or gospel song.

“Zion” and “Canaan” might have remained only a rich American metaphor. But the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 changed all of that—though the changes in Christian America weren’t immediately apparent. As historian David McCullough noted in his biography of President Harry Truman, most American Christians were enthusiastic about the establishment of the state of Israel, and, in granting diplomatic statehood to Israel just minutes after statehood was declared, Truman was following the will of the American people. For the many Americans who were avidly following world events in the postwar period, the “return of the Jews to their land” was understood as the fulfillment of the biblical promise. To those less devout and less theologically inclined, Israel’s creation may not have been understood as a divine act, but it made sense to many because the metaphor of the promised land was so deeply embedded in American culture and religious thought.

Johnny Cash’s life and career exemplify this biblical understanding of modern history. In the 1960s, Cash became intrigued by the possibility of visiting the Holy Land, and in 1966 at the age of 34, he made the first of many visits (or as he termed them, “pilgrimages”) to Israel. The popular Pentecostal preacher Oral Roberts had been on his first pilgrimage to Israel a few years earlier, and this influenced Cash in his decision to visit the Holy Land and to see the Christian holy sites. It was a brief visit and might have been the singer’s only visit to Israel, but only two years later his religious, personal, and professional lives were to converge in a way that would make Israel the country an abiding focus in his life.

Johnny Cash aficionados are certainly familiar with the performer’s struggles with substance abuse, depression, and the “temptations” of the wilder side of the country music industry. The story told in Cash’s autobiographies, and in Walk the Line, are that Johnny Cash crawled out of his cave (both real and metaphorical) with the help of June Carter Cash, to whom he was married in 1968. What is not as well known (and is not depicted in Walk the Line) is that June insisted that they take their honeymoon in Israel: As June understood Johnny’s destiny, he could only be fully redeemed by being in the Holy Land. June told Johnny of a dream she had in which she saw him standing on a mountain in Galilee preaching to the multitudes with a Bible in his hand. One might say that in June Carter Cash’s view or understanding her new husband could be saved by Jesus only if he were to actually walk in Jesus’ footsteps.

On that 1969 “honeymoon pilgrimage,” Johnny and June recorded an album titled In the Holy Land for Columbia Records. It is a curious but quite effective combination of songs about sacred places in Israel woven together with snippets of sightseeing observations by the Cashes and their Israeli tour guide. East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, areas conquered by the Israelis in the 1967 war, were by 1969 thronged with Christian visitors from Europe and the United States. Johnny and June Carter Cash, like thousands of others, sought to “walk where Jesus walked,” and one can sense their excitement and enthusiasm in the songs and pilgrimage narratives of the In the Holy Land album. Like their close friend Rev. Billy Graham, the Cashes saw Israel’s takeover of Jerusalem as having religious significance. God’s hand could again be seen moving in history.

On a subsequent visit to Israel, Cash and his wife were inspired to make a film set in the biblical landscapes they had described on their Holy Land album. The film, Gospel Road, made in 1971, was a documentary-style narration of the life of Jesus. Cash was the narrator, and June Carter played Mary Magdalene. Though it was a commercial flop on its 1972 release in the United States, Gospel Road, with music by Kris Kristofferson, Cash, and other songwriters, had a long “afterlife” on college campuses in the South and the Midwest. The film, whose screenings were sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ, was seen by many evangelical Christians in the 1970s and ’80s. The recordings from Folsom Prison and San Quentin had made millions of dollars for Johnny and Columbia Records, while Gospel Road, a religious recording, lost money. As Cash told an interviewer: “My record company would rather I be in prison than in church.”

In the opening moments of Gospel Road, Johnny Cash reenacts his wife’s vision of him preaching to the multitudes in Galilee. We see him on a mountaintop (it is Mount Arbel near the Sea of Galilee) holding a Bible and inviting the film’s viewers to join him in a journey through the Holy Land in the footsteps of Jesus. The film then moves to the retelling of Jesus’ life. But Cash’s introductory remarks serve to remind us that American evangelical enthusiasm for Israel was about Jesus and the history of Christianity, not about the modern Jewish experience—though the Jewish “return to the land” is understood by many Christians as the fulfillment of prophecy. For the hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims who visit Israel each year, the Holy Land is primarily a Christian Holy Land and only secondarily a Jewish homeland. For these Christians the state of Israel is significant because of the Bible, not because it is the realization of the ideas of Zionist thinkers like Theodor Herzl.

A few years after Gospel Road was released, Johnny and June returned to Israel. They were joined by their children, who were baptized, like their parents, in the Jordan River. The Cash family visits, and their increasing prominence in the American music industry, brought them to the attention of Israeli government officials, who treated them like visiting royalty and facilitated their travel within the country.

In the mid-1990s, when Israeli cities, and particularly Jerusalem, were attacked by Palestinian suicide bombers, tourism to Israel fell off sharply. The Cashes, now in their sixties, returned to Israel for a fifth visit, and with their own money produced a TV film titled Return to the Holy Land. Throughout the film—a musical travelog through pastoral, bucolic sites associated with the life of Jesus—the Cashes assured their American viewers that Israel was as beautiful and tranquil as ever, and they should not hesitate to visit it soon. There is no mention in the film of the conflict with the Palestinians, nor of any internal debates or dissension within Israel. Despite the changes in Israel, and in world attitudes toward the Jewish state, Johnny and June Carter Cash’s zeal for Zion remained intact.

Johnny Cash’s children, who accompanied them on some of their five pilgrimages to Israel, have in their own ways kept alive the Holy Land legacy of their father. John Carter Cash, who has been supervising the reissues of many of his parents’ recordings, has written about his attachment to Israel, which he visited when he was 13 years old. And in the mid-1990s John’s daughter Roseanne Cash wrote a haunting song titled “Western Wall,” which opens with these evocative lines:

I stand here by the Western Wall,
Baby, look at that wall, standin’ silent an’ tall.
An’ I shove my prayers in the cracks.
Got nothin’ to lose, no-one to answer back.
All these years I’ve brought up for review,
Wasn’t taught this but I learned somethin’ new.
Had to answer a distant call,
At the Western Wall.

Roseanne’s song echoes a song titled “Come to the Wailing Wall” that was recorded 30 years earlier by her father on his In the Holy Land LP:

Bring the lost ones homeward
Lead them to this shore
The city gates are open
Heaven’s blessing o’er
Come to the Wailing Wall.

Western Wall

By Roseanne Cash

I stand here by the Western Wall
maybe a little of that wall
stands inside of us all
I shove my prayers in the cracks
I got nothing to lose
No one to answer back

All these years I've brought up for review
I wasn't taught this, but I learned something new
I had to answer a distant call

At the Western Wall
I've got a heart full of fear
and I offer it up
on this altar of tears

Red dust settles deep in my skin
I don't know where it stops
and where I begin

It's a crumbling pile of broken stones
it ain't much but it might be home
if I ever loved a place at all
it's the Western Wall

I don't know if God was ever a man
But if She was, I think I understand
Why He found a place to break his fall
near the Western Wall

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