“The Boss” on Gethsemane

14 August, 2005 at 8:46 pm 10 comments

Devils & Dust, the latest Springsteen album, is a “must buy”! Bruce has gone theological on us, and the critics are debating whether he’s finally “got religion”. The good Catholic boy, whose childhood was blighted and faith shattered by the nuns who ran his school, has consistently embraced Christian values but repudiated faith and institutional church. Until now.

Springsteen’s concerts – especially on his native American soil – have always been stunning examples of secular evangelism. His gospel is a re-visioning of the American Dream. It is the Good News that, although the Dream has been betrayed by greedy, self-serving politicians and the dominance of the American Right, there is an alternative – an America where the poor, the dispossessed, the working classes and the no-hopers are the significant shapers of a new society.

Bruce doesn’t just produce a playlist for his concerts. He crafts a story – a journey. “Covenant to come with me,” he tells his audience at the outset, “and I’ll take you somewhere good. Come with me and I’ll show you the Promised Land – the Land of Hope and Dreams!” His songs tell the story of hope betrayed, of corruption and war-mongering. They move through to hope and new possibilities. They end, standing, Moses-like, on the threshold of the Promised Land.

Get hold of the DVD of The Rising. Watch “Land of Hope and Dreams”. The metaphor is the traditional gospel train. In fact, he closes with a two-line reprise of the black spiritual, “People Get Ready”: “People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’/Don’t need no ticket – you just get on board!” Yet while the spiritual belongs in the holiness tradition, and excludes unworthy passengers, the train that journeys to the Land of Hope and Dreams is different: “This train/carries saints and sinners/this train/carries whores and gamblers/this train/carries lost souls.” It’s a radically inclusive vision. And it goes on: “This train/dreams will not be thwarted/This train/faith will be rewarded …” I defy anyone to listen and watch and remain unmoved.

And, having preached the gospel and presented the vision, there’s the “altar call”. “Come and be born again! Come down into the river! Be baptised!” Bruce struts the stage, calling to would-be converts. Ever the satirist, he deliberately mimics the stage antics of evangelists like Jimmy Swaggart. Yet the satire only underlies his own passionate seriousness.

His music and metaphors have always been steeped in the Bible and in traditional gospel spirituality. Devils & Dust moves into explicitly Christian, theological territory, however. The title track is an anti-war song, decrying the ways in which war dehumanises the participants: “It’ll take your God-filled soul/and fill it with devils and dust!” It’s not clear whether this song was written before or after 9/11. Is it the Vietnam war he is on about, or Iraq? Whichever, it was Iraq that took Springsteen off the political fence and he campaigned actively against George W Bush. In a masterpiece of political irony, Bush wanted to use Springsteen’s best-known anthem, “Born in the USA” as a Republican campaign theme song. He obviously hadn’t listened to anything other than the chorus, because the song is a vitriolic denunciation of Vietnam and the militarism of the Republican government … DUH!

But it’s “Jesus was an only Son” that gets my vote as something worth serious theological attention. The second verse goes like this:

“In the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed for the life he’d never live/He beseeched his heavenly Father to remove the cup of death from his lips/And there’s a loss that can never be replaced, a destination that cannot be reached/a light you’ll never find in another’s face, a sea whose distance cannot be breached”

“… he prayed for the life he’d never live”? Wow! I’d never thought of that, nor seen it in any exegesis of the agony of Gethsemane (though it was the theme of Scorsese’s account of the cross in The Last Temptation of Christ). But it’s true, isn’t it? Death means a life that cannot now be lived. It’s the death of possibilities, joys, sadnesses, meetings, partings, experiences, relationships. And it was for Christ just as much for anyone else. More familiarly, it was the death of the possibility of the coming of the Kingdom – all that Jesus had lived for. Yet somehow, phrasing it as he does, Springsteen adds so much more to the agony. He reclaims the humanity of Jesus, which can so easily be obscured by the divine significance of this encounter between Son and Father.

And isn’t it true, too, that there is a loss that can never be replaced? Resurrection (and eschatology) may make possible something good and wonderful and new, but it doesn’t undo or make good the loss of the life never lived. A different future is a marvellous gift, because it is a future born out of the ashes of the old life, but it is a different future and precludes ever reaching the original destination.

To me, that says something vitally true about human bereavement. It reminds me, too, that God in Christ has entered into the human experience of irredeemable loss that accompanies every human death – both for those who die and those left behind. God is marked by loss as we are. These insights into the reality of bereavement are so important pastorally and as part of our theology of the cross. They’re so much more gritty and real than the Christian guff we often pump out over bereavements and at funerals, that balks at giving expression and reality to the agony of loss. Darn, Bruce, but you’re good …


Entry filed under: bruce springsteen, christology, music.

Emerging Bible pay ’em a visit

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Janey_R  |  16 August, 2005 at 9:04 am

    I don’t usually go out and buy an album after listening to a couple of tracks…. and I wouldn’t normally go to the “Springsteen” section in HMV but having listened to ‘Devils and dust’ driving through the Lakes trying to catch up with some fellow wholequest folk out orienteering… I decided that’s good stuff!

    I like “Long time comin'”

    “I’m riding hard carrin’ a catch of roses…. Tonight I’m gonna get birth naked and bury my old soul and dance on its grave”

    Wow! Powerful stuff!

    Never thought I’d say it Lawrence… but I’m converted!!

  • 2. Nick  |  17 August, 2005 at 7:39 am

    A Pedant Writes: I think it was actually Reagan back in the mid-80s who wanted to use ‘Born In the USA’, wasn’t it? Apparently the Boss’s response was along the lines “I really think the President should listen to the words more closely”. Which would go for Dubbya too of course . . .

  • 3. Wol  |  17 August, 2005 at 2:23 pm

    Thanks, Nick, for getting me straight here. I’m the victim of an apocryphal story. Would that it were true! I do know George tried to commandeer Bruce as a supporter, though. What do you amke of the album?

  • 4. Nick  |  17 August, 2005 at 2:52 pm

    Wol – to my shame I’ve yet to catch up with Devils & Dust, but ‘Born In the USA’ ranks very high on the all-time list. Springsteen’s managed that very difficult trick of being an absolutely enormous star at the top of a deeply phoney profession while remaining utterly authentic to his core. I admire him immensely.

  • 5. Wol  |  17 August, 2005 at 3:08 pm

    Ah Nick! A fellow-traveller! Couldn’t begin to put as clearly what I feel myself. Can arrange a listen for you in exchange, maybe, for the Dylan album…?

  • 6. Lindyloo  |  19 August, 2005 at 9:06 am

    A note for all Bruce Springsteen fans – BBC Radio 2 8.30 on Tuesday 23 & 30 August and 6 September The Bruce Springsteen Story – enjoy!

  • 7. Nick  |  19 August, 2005 at 9:20 pm

    Wol – I’m working on it. Will be in touch.

  • 8. Craig  |  1 June, 2006 at 2:36 pm

    Hadn’t spotted this before – though how I could miss a discussion about Bruce and the wonderful “Devils & Dust” album I really don’t know. But glad I found it because “Land of Hope and Dreams” is the perfect song for Sunday – the vision and dreams of a Spirit-empowered Community – now just need to get it passed the organist! or buy a new a copy as I’ve just realised that it was amongst the cd’s that were recently nicked from the car – just hope the thief hears the gospel in it!

  • 9. Lawrence  |  2 June, 2006 at 1:23 am

    Let me know how it goes, Craig! There’s a great rendition of it on The Rising DVD if you can play it in church – very evangelical!

  • 10. Craig  |  5 June, 2006 at 10:07 am

    Well I enjoyed playing it – you can see where it fitted in on the usual site – not sure about anyone else as I was playing away at one of the Methodist Chapels so had the usual “very nice” “interesting” type thank you’s and one who felt the Spirit was present – which is good but I’m not claiming credit for myself or Bruce in that regard.

    In the end I used the version from Live in New York City as I wanted to show the words on the screen and that is too tricky whilst showing a DVD – and it’s easier to turn down and talk over once he moves onto 4 minutes of instrumental – great when listening for myself but not needed on Sunday.

    The bonus was that whilst in Music Box finding the DVD- “The Seeger Sessions” slipped into my hand as well – brilliant Bruce goes folk and it is wonderful!


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