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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
“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
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
“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.
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
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
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
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
“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.”