August 13, 2017: Working on a Dream – The Theology of Bruce Springsteen by Trevor Malkinson (Romans 7: 15-20; Revelation 21: 1-5)

There’s no one dead or alive who’s inspired my life more than Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s music has taught me to dream, has raised me out of a hundred dark places, and has fed me with the courage to keep fighting for the Promised Land, even in a world so broken and full of pain. Springsteen’s music has taught me about joy, and it confirmed for my young soul that “it ain’t no sin be glad you’re alive”. It’s taught me about the importance of community, of “the ties that bind”, and of caring for the least of these among us. It’s taught me that redemption is found in this world, in love, in relationships, in life right now. Springteen’s music has never shied away from the darkness in this world, but it’s also filled with a powerful hope, a relentless current of energy that no matter what troubles the world might be facing, there’s a more beautiful world waiting “further on up the road”.

If some of these themes- community, joy, darkness, hope, justice for the downtrodden- sound familiar to those of us who are churchgoers, it’s because these are deeply biblical themes. Springsteen was raised a Roman Catholic in New Jersey, and went to a Catholic school. And as the old saying goes, one that Springsteen himself has said in interviews, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic”. But it would be a mistake to reduce Springsteen’s music to this upbringing. As though somehow he’s just playing out old themes that were pounded into him as a child. Great artists have a way of grasping the potent themes in religion, the archetypes, the powerful symbols and stories that can still open us up to depth, to mystery, and to the current of Spirit that runs throughout cosmic life. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen made powerful use of biblical themes and imagery in their music, and Bruce Springsteen has done the same. So today I want to look at five major biblical themes in Springsteen’s work, and see what they have to offer our spiritual lives.

The one I want to begin with isn’t the sexiest. In fact, it’s something that ‘progressive’ Christians like to steer clear of. But it’s important. It’s the reality of what the Bible calls sin. The word sin literally means, “to miss the mark”. It signifies a broken relationship with God. Or put another way, it signifies actions in which we fall short of coming from our highest selves. We just heard that famous passage from Paul, where he talks about the battle within him between two forces. One part of him sees the good, sees where God or his higher nature is calling him, and yet he often still chooses the opposite course of action. One that harms people. That harms himself. One that’s coming from the lower parts of his nature. That struggle is real, and it’s portrayed through many characters in Bruce Springsteen’s songs. In a song called ‘Straight Time’, the song’s protagonist has gotten out of prison and is trying to walk the straight and narrow (Matt. 7:14). But it’s hard. He sings:

Got a job at the rendering plant, it isn’t going to make me rich
In the darkness before dinner comes
Sometimes I can feel the itch.
I got a cold mind to go tripping across that thin line
I’m sick of doing straight time.

Springsteen’s song ‘Two Faces’ closely resembles the words from Paul. It goes:

Sometimes mister I feel sunny and wild
Lord I love to see my baby smile
Then dark clouds come rolling by
Two faces have I

One that laughs one that cries
One says hello one says goodbye
One does things I don’t understand
Makes me feel like half a man

At night I get down on my knees and pray
Our love will make that other man go away
But he’ll never say goodbye
Two faces have I.

I think this tension within us can best be understood from an evolutionary point of view. I don’t think we need the myth of ‘The Fall’ to explain it. Our evolutionary past persists within us. Evolution doesn’t proceed by deleting earlier stages of development, but by enfolding them into more complex entities. So within all of us is our reptilian and our mammalian history. There’s a cold world of violence, of predation, that lies dormant within us all. It still exerts a great pull. The right life conditions can set it loose with great fury, as happened during the Rwandan genocide for instance. Jesus called us into being fully human. He showed us what our evolutionary future might look like. But that’s not an easy path. We must constantly struggle with these dual forces as we walk the long road to the Promised Land. Bruce Springsteen’s songs are honest about this reality. They’re not afraid to say that there’s a darkness in this world, a darkness on the edge of town, a darkness that could swallow any one of us.

And yet, despite this theme in Springsteen’s music, he doesn’t just dwell there. It’s not simply a pessimistic vision of a depraved humanity that only an interventionist God can save. Springsteen’s music is also filled with hope, and hope is central to the biblical vision. Biblical hope is a deep intuition that despite what we see around us, the universe is going somewhere, and somewhere good. Despite the cruelty and the war and the inequality, something sacred is at play in this world, and a new earth awaits humanity in the future, a world of justice, nonviolence and love. A world where all beings will flourish. Springsteen’s music is filled with this message and with a sonic energy that communicates this story. Listen to some of these lyrics and song titles- I’m waiting on a sunny day; I’m countin’ on a miracle; we’re just around the corner to the light of day; no retreat, no surrender; I’m working on a dream; I’ll meet you further on up the road; keep pushing until it’s understood, and these badlands start treating us good; I got high hopes; keep your eyes on the prize, and hold on; I believe in the Promised Land; let’s see what you got, take your best shot, bring on your wrecking ball.

The four lines that have probably meant the most to me in my life are these ones from the song ‘Badlands’:

Well, I believe in the love that you gave me
I believe in the faith that can save me
I believe in the hope and I pray
That it may one day raise me
Above these badlands

Those four lines, and the general energy of hope in Springsteen’s music, have pulled me out of many dark moments in my life. In my twenties I struggled with an enormous amount of anxiety. There was even a day where I contemplated suicide, and thought about it as a serious option. I’ve flirted with addiction, and I’ve worked dead end jobs in kitchens where I could feel that my purpose in this life was being wasted. There have been some dark times. But there’s been no experience that I’ve had that could not be overcome by putting on Springsteen’s music. It would always pull me back, always lift me out of the grave and into new life. No matter how dry the bones, Springsteen and the E Street band could always make them rattle again. I saw Jon Stewart interview Springsteen on The Daily Show once, around 2012, and he told a similar story. Stewart is a huge Springsteen fan, and jokes that the only band he’s seen more than Springsteen is a Springsteen cover band from Jersey. Near the end of the interview Stewart got serious for a moment. He wanted to thank Bruce. He told the story of being a young struggling comic, working crummy jobs to make ends meet, driving home alone on the Jersey highways at night in a beat up car. It was bleak. But he said to Bruce, there wasn’t one moment that putting on his music could not make him hope again, could not inspire him to hold out and keep working for a different future. Springsteen’s music has that kind of power. I thank him for it, and I wouldn’t be standing here today without it.

Springsteen’s music and his live performances are also filled with joy. Springsteen loves to goof on stage, to make jokes, to dance funny and have a blast with his band and the audience. He often brings fans on stage to dance with him or sing the chorus of a song. A Springsteen concert is many things, but it’s definitely joyous. Scripture abounds with passages calling for joy as part of the spiritual life. Psalm 47 says to “shout to God with cries of joy” (47:1), and many Psalms urge us to rejoice in the Lord and in life (Ps. 32:11). Paul tells us in his letter to the Thessalonians to “rejoice always, pray continuously, and give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). And the sage Ecclesiastes, writing under the conditions of subjugation by a foreign empire, in a time that looked hopeless, says that even under those conditions we should, “Eat our food with gladness, and drink our wine with a joyful heart” (Eccles. 9:7). That’s interesting advice to consider, especially since we live in a time of empire every bit as grim as the one Ecclesiastes lived under, with our rampant inequality, the constant surveillance of our lives via our technology, the militarization of our police forces, and the cracking down on whistleblowers and dissent. Even under these conditions, perhaps especially under these conditions, we must never forget joy. We must never forget to rejoice in a meal, in community, and in life. Much of Bruce Springsteen’s music, and certainly his live shows, are healing balms of joy.

Bruce Springsteen’s music is also political, and has become increasingly so as his career has unfolded. In this Springsteen embodies what the biblical tradition calls prophetic witness. Cornell West defines prophet witness like this:

Prophetic witness consists of human acts of justice and kindness that attend to the unjust sources of human hurt and misery. Prophetic witness calls attention to the causes of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery. It highlights personal and institutional evil, including the evil of being indifferent to personal and institutional evil. (1)

 Springsteen’s more overt political activity began with taking part in a No Nukes concert in 1979. Soon after he began to take a serious look at the troubles of returning soldiers from Vietnam, and started to advocate on their behalf. In fact, it was the song ‘Born in the USA’ that created a major roadblock to many liking Bruce Springsteen’s music, because for a long time it was seen as an uber patriotic flag waving song. That couldn’t be further from truth, however, as it’s a song about a Vietnam soldier returning to his country, only to be shunned and tossed aside by his society. He shouts in protest, “But I was born in the USA!” The B-Side to ‘Born in the USA’ is a song called ‘Shut Out the Light’, a harrowing and gut wrenching song about a Vietnam soldier returning to his life in the USA, and suffering from PTSD. Springsteen has long had stations at his concerts for donations to local food banks, and has taken part in many fundraising concerts over the years, often in tiny venues.

Springsteen is in a lineage of 20th century American artists who have voiced a deep concern for the working class and the exploited. This includes John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. What’s interesting is that all those people grew up in or around the church, and some even went from time to time as adults. But they all certainly resonated with the biblical call for justice, and carried that forward into their work. In the Hebrew Bible, God commands the Israelites to take care of widows and orphans, two of the most vulnerable people in that society (Psalm 68:5; Ex. 22:22-23). God also commands that they take care of strangers in their midst, a moral ethic way ahead of its time. And given the way strangers are being treated in some countries today, maybe ahead of our time too. Leviticus 19 says, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself” (19:24). Jesus carries this ethos strongly into his own teachings. Late in Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells his disciples that if someone is hungry and they give them food, if someone is thirsty and they give them drink, if someone is naked and they give them clothes, if someone is a stranger and they welcome them, when they do this, they have done it to him. Jesus identifies with all human beings, and if his disciples have served those in need, they have served him. It’s a powerful teaching.

In 1996 Springsteen wrote a song and an album called The Ghost of Tom Joad, a reference to the main character in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s novel was about the ravages of the Great Depression, and it was very critical of the role banks and other powerful industries played in the plight of so many people. In his song Springsteen quotes the words of Tom Joad from the novel verbatim. It goes:

Now, Tom said: “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight against the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom, I’ll be there.
Wherever there’s somebody fighting for a place to stand
Or a decent job or a helpin hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin to be free
Look in their eyes mom you’ll see me”.

Springsteen has continued his prophetic witness, often at the risk of losing significant parts of his audience. In 1999 Springsteen wrote song called ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ about the police killing of Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea. In a case of mistaken identity, four plain-clothes officers shot Diallo forty one times on his doorstep, after Diallo had reached into his pocket to pull out his wallet to show identification. When Springsteen began performing the song live there was outrage from police officers, and the Patrolmen Association of New York, the largest labour union representing police officers for the New York City Police Department, called for boycotts of Springsteen’s shows. When Springsteen’s tour hit New York’s Madison Square Garden for a ten-night stand, Springsteen played the song every night fearlessly, despite being booed. The same thing happened during 2007’s tour for the album Magic, when Springsteen would nightly make a speech condemning what was happening in George W. Bush’s America after 9/11. His speech was met with booing and anger. I know this firsthand, because I saw him in Los Angeles on two nights back to back on that tour, and the intensity of the booing surprised me. But Bruce didn’t flinch or respond. He just kept making his speech as he slowly walked back and forth across the stage. The speech went like this:

“Along with all the things we love about America, we’ve had to add to the American picture of the last six years, rendition, illegal wiretapping, the rolling back of civil liberties, no habeas corpus or the right to defend yourself if charges are brought against you, we watched the destruction of one of the countries culturally most important cities [New Orleans]. And because of the color of your skin, the circumstances of your religion or your life, you might not feel these things have an affect on you. But all these things are an attack on our constitution, which means they’re an attack on our very selves, and who we are”.

 Prophetic witness takes courage. It can often get you ostracized, arrested, or even killed, such as in the recent cases of Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Oscar Romero. Springsteen has maintained his moral vision and his care for those suffering from unjust circumstances, despite the possible costs to himself personally, and this dimension of Springsteen the artist has long inspired myself and countless others.

The last biblical theme in Bruce Springsteen’s work I want to touch on- and there are several more possibilities to chose from- is one that might seem a little unusual, or a little farther down the rung of notable biblical themes. But I think it’s an important one for the current moment we’re in. And I would call it perseverance. Springsteen is notorious for the length of his live shows and for his relentless commitment to giving a 110% every time he’s on stage, with zero exception. It’s remarkable to behold. By the end of the show Springsteen and the band are drenched in sweat, and the crowd is weary from an ecstatic kind of exhaustion. Springsteen shows average about 3 hours minimum, and just a few years back, in his early 60s, Springsteen played his longest show ever in Helsinki, clocking in at 4hrs and 6mins. These athletic feats seem bound up with Springsteen’s hope, and his fierce commitment that there’ll be no surrender when it comes to fighting for the coming Promised Land. The electricity is infectious.

This reminds me of a theme in Paul’s letters. In the ancient Greek and Roman world of Paul’s time, athletics were a big deal and a big part of society. And so was the military and military strength. Paul takes metaphors from both of these places and redirects them to spiritual ends. He talks about fighting the good fight on behalf of the Gospel, or this future just society. But he thinks that this work is a marathon and not a sprint, so he talks about finishing the race well. The battle we’re in demands a lasting and lifelong commitment, not a one off explosion. In 2nd Timothy, Paul says, “Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” (4:2)(2). Keep going no matter what you’re faced with. This is Christian hope. In a famous passage from Ephesians, Paul uses a whole series of military metaphors when talking about our spiritual struggle against the forces of injustice and destruction. It’s as relevant to our time as it was to his. It says:

Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places… Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephes. 6:11-17)

We live in a very troublesome time. Everywhere the forces of darkness have gathered around us. We have the sabre rattling of Trump and North Korea. Just two nights ago there was a march in Charlottesville, North Carolina by white supremacists and KKK members, as hatred and division continue to erupt in our era. Add to this the spectres of climate change, terrorism, and more economic instability, and we’re walking into quite a maelstrom. It will take all the courage we can muster if the better angels of our nature will be able to guide us to the other side. Bruce Springsteen has an image in his song ‘Promised Land’ that I think captures our moment and our calling well. It says:

There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That don’t have the faith to stand its ground.

Friends we have been called to our greatest hour. The forces of history have put us in a position of great peril, but also of great promise. For out of destruction often comes creation. So let’s grab on to our deepest currents of hope, and fight the good fight with the sword of Spirit and the armour of God. If we can reject the forces that try to divide and conquer us, and come together collectively, as the body of Christ, as one humanity, I believe that we’ll come on up for the rising together. If we remember joy, even amidst our coming hardships, I believe that we’ll reach the new earth that’s calling to us from our blessed future. So let’s keep our eyes on the prize, and hold on. Amen.

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Paul and Silas thought
They lost
Dungeon shook and
The chains came off
Keep your eyes on the prize
And hold on

Freedom’s name is mighty sweet
And soon we’re gonna meet
Keep your eyes on the prize
Hold on.

– ‘Eyes on the Prize’, Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band

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Endnotes

(1) Quoted in: Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, Prophetic Preaching, p.9.

(2) Scholars now know that not all these letters were written by the historical Paul, but that Ephesians and Colossians, as well as 1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus, were written by authors coming after Paul but working in the Pauline tradition. For the sake of simplicity in this sermon, I just proceeded as though this was all Paul of Tarsus. However, the athletic and military metaphors run throughout all of the letters or the whole Pauline tradition. See Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s book The First Paul for a more detailed breakdown on the ‘three Paul’s’.