Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash by Richard Beck – Book Review

Johnny Cash was a farm boy from a small town in Arkansas who sang for and about the people on the margins of society: the imprisoned, the sad, the addicted, the disenfranchised, the oppressed. In fact, Cash performed and recorded some of his most famous albums in prisons for prisoners.

Richard Beck, the author of Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash, is a Psychology professor who leads Bible studies for inmates at a maximum security prison in Texas. He is uniquely qualified to have written this devotional book that uses the life and the lyrics of the man in black to point to the gospel of Christ.

The old Erbie church in Arkansas. Sun is shining brightly at the back of the church.

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Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash

Cover of Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel according to Johnny Cash by Richard Beck

I read Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash a few months ago, but picked it up again in light of recent events. One of the main themes of this book is that the gospel of Christ is about solidarity. Because of that, it seemed appropriate to take another look. The principles espoused in this book resonated with me even more strongly as I read it this time around.

This is not just a wonderful devotional book, it is also a great read. It is an interesting mix of music history, the biography of a fascinating man, psychology, and theology. Each chapter takes one of the songs of Johnny Cash and unpacks the meaning of it based on the faith and life of the singer as well as verses and Biblical principles.

Cash was an interesting dichotomy of sinner and saint, fallen and risen. We all are. However these opposing forces were particularly striking in Johnny Cash. Was he a Godly man or an outlaw? He was a man who struggled with drug addiction, rebellion, unfaithfulness to God as well as to his wife and children. He was also a man who helped the poor, who actually saw and connected with the downtrodden, and who gave to “the least of these.”

Throughout it all Johnny Cash preached sermons in his songs and in his art. He is quoted in the book as saying, “The times when I was so down and out of it were also the times when I felt the presence of God…I felt that presence, that positive power saying to me, ‘I’m still here.'”

Johnny Cash lost his brother, Jack, in a horrific accident at a young age. Mr. Beck’s background in psychology is evident throughout the book and never more so than when he writes about the impact that Jack’s death had on Johnny. Jack was the golden boy of the family who wanted to be a preacher. Unfortunately, Johnny’s father, Ray Cash, blamed Johnny for Jack’s death simply because Johnny hadn’t been able to convince Jack to go fishing with him that terrible day…the day of the accident. His father’s reaction was something that Johnny carried deep inside throughout his life. Mr Beck says, “The paradoxes and contradictions that transfix us about Johnny Cash – the jarring mixture of light and dark, saint and sinner – all flow out of the trauma of Jack’s death.”

My favorite parts of the book, especially on a second reading, were the sections about solidarity. I knew that Cash had performed for prisoners, but I had no idea that he had used his musical variety show to challenge the racial prejudices within the country music industry by inviting black artists to the Ryman Auditorium stage. I had no idea that he had released an entire album of Native American protest songs. The album is called Bitter Tears and the liner notes read, “Hear the words well and you will discover that simply because we are white, that does not make us pure.” Wow. The relevance of those words from 1964 still today is astounding.

Mr. Beck says, “That is the gospel according to the Man in Black: drawing near to and loving the lost, unnoticed, unremarkable, excluded, powerless, broken, condemned, and despicable. Solidarity is a love that grows warmest in the coldest places.” Isn’t that a picture of Christ and the way he ministered to the broken? Here is one of the most relevant quotes from the book that is so fitting at this time when we need to rise up together, “Solidarity is more than a hashtag or a Facebook post.”

There is much more depth to this book than even what I’ve mentioned here. Mr. Beck addresses additional themes found in the music of Johnny Cash including family, suffering, love for country, and salvation. I highly recommend this book! Of course, it is going to appeal mostly to a Christian audience. I think that it will especially be appreciated by those who long for something less superficial than the status quo of the contemporary American church, those who are seeking, those who are trying to understand the turmoil of the world, or even just those who love the music of Johnny Cash.

Thanks so much for stopping by,


Here is a list of some of my favorite southern contemporary fiction that you might want to check out. Or you might prefer a list of some of my favorite classic southern literature. If you are in the state of Arkansas I have written a post about the boyhood home of Johnny Cash in Dyess, Arkansas.