September 14, 2014


Johnny Cash in the Holy Land : The country singer--and a founding father of American Christian Zionism--died 11 years ago this week (Shalom Goldman, September 11, 2014, Tablet)

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.

Posted by at September 14, 2014 7:48 AM

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