The Man in Black and the Promised Land

A Duke professor illustrates the unlikely connection between Johnny Cash and Zionist history and imagery

Shalom Goldman, who teaches religion and Middle Eastern Studies, has studied Christian Zionism, a movement that heavily influenced the late Johnny Cash. Photo by Duke University Photography.
Shalom Goldman, who teaches religion and Middle Eastern Studies, has studied Christian Zionism, a movement that heavily influenced the late Johnny Cash. Photo by Duke University Photography.

The Man in Black had a thing for the Promised Land.

Johnny Cash, the iconic American songwriter who died in 2003, was a child of the Christian Zionist movement, and his popular music was influenced greatly by trips to Israel, said Shalom Goldman, a Duke professor of religion and Middle Eastern Studies.

Goldman discussed Cash's life and work Thursday night in talk titled "Johnny Cash in the Holy Land," which explored the effect of Christian Zionism on American popular culture throughout the 20th century.

Born into a Baptist family in Arkansas, Cash's first musical experiences were with his mother's favorite hymns. He later compiled these pieces into My Mother'' Hymn Book, his favorite album of the 200 he recorded in his lifetime.

After marrying June Carter in 1968, the couple honeymooned in Israel, the first of many trips to the Holy Land. Their five other trips to Israel included baptisms in the Jordan River and produced albums, travelogues, and "Gospel Road", a documentary tracing Jesus' life that starred June Carter Cash as Mary Magdalene. The image of the "Promised Land" rubbed off onto Johnny Cash's music as well, especially after his faith helped him overcome habitual drug abuse.

"Cash said that out of every 10 songs he recorded, one had to be gospel," Goldman said. "In a way, he was tithing music. He said that his gospel records were his form of giving back to God. About half the [gospel] songs [Cash recorded] used the image of the Promised Land or Zion. All of these use the Holy Land as a metaphor for Paradise."

To complement Goldman's analysis, Georgia folk singer Lisa Deaton and a band of Duke Divinity School faculty members performed some of Cash's most well-known gospel tunes. The evening's repertoire included "I Shall Not Be Moved," "Never Grow Old," and "Western Wall," a more contemporary piece written by Johnny Cash's daughter Roseanne. The members of the audience were encouraged to sing along to the performers, who wore black in honor of Cash.

Deaton, who performs in numerous folk bands in northern Georgia and met Goldman through a mutual friend, has joined Goldman in previous presentations of "Johnny Cash in the Holy Land," including large events hosted in Dallas, Asheville and Atlanta. She said she was eager to contribute to the event because she has long been a huge Johnny Cash fan and became interested in Christian Zionism after meeting Goldman and reading his book Zeal for Zion.

"I grew up attending a little country Methodist church, so these songs are very familiar and dear to me," Deaton said. "It's important for people to be aware of history and heritage and how different cultures intersect. Learning about others can teach us a lot about ourselves."

After singing along to a rousing rendition of "I Shall Not Be Moved," first-year student Walt Moczygemba said Goldman's synthesis of religion, history, and pop culture made the lecture one of the most engaging university events he has attended so far.

"I enjoyed how he incorporated music to further his points," Moczygemba said. "[It was] a more interesting way to learn about Christian Zionism and Johnny Cash's life."