This piece on Johnny Cash is fantastic:
The tragic, doleful Cash had returned. On his own compositions and covers, he sang of a cold-blooded killer haunted by his deeds, a convict known only by the number tattooed on his neck, an aging Vietnam veteran trying to forget the awful things he’d seen, a wild rambler amazed he was still alive, and a dying young cowboy pleading for proper burial but discarded instead in a shallow grave. Celebratory patriotism had subsided, and Cash was again giving voice to stories from the rougher, uglier edges of the national experience.
And in the religious songs — more successfully woven into the artistic whole than on any Cash album before — salvation didn’t belong to the upright and pious. It was for the broken-down and bereft, who achieved it through loneliness and lament. Cash sang of a mystical salvation train with seats for egregious sinners like Judas Iscariot and John Wilkes Booth. He voiced plaintive prayers for God to “help the beast in me” and of “Lord help me, Jesus, I’ve wasted it so.” And, in the spirit of “Were You There,” he meditated on Jesus’ cross as a “tree of life” with sustaining fruit to fend off lures from “my old friend Lucifer.”
One of the things I have been thinking about lately is the role that apology, repentance, and a frank acknowledgement of failure play in the daily life of faith. There are ways of getting this wrong, of course–wallowing around in one’s sin permanently without ever turning to Christ not only as a future savior, but as someone who delivers us from sin today. But if that is one error, another is to be permanently triumphant, wholly liberated from the struggles associated with sin. And I think Cash’s best work captures that dual reality, saint and sinner, better than most can. I’m grateful.