Andrew Greeley on the Catholic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen
The imagination is religious. Religion is imaginative. The origins and the power of both are in the playful, creative, dancing self. Once influenced by Catholic imagery, that self is forever Catholic. Hence, the popular rock star Bruce Springsteen, perhaps without knowing or understanding it, is a Catholic meistersinger.
This essay is the third and final installment of an investigation I began last summer of the relationship between religious imagination and the persistent loyalty of American Catholics. ...In this essay, I want to complete the cycle by suggesting that there is a powerful link between religious imagery, which is created by the Sacraments, and works of artistic and literary creativity. I will do so by analyzing the most recent work of Bruce Springsteen and argue that a) his work is profoundly Catholic, and b) it is so because his creative imagination is permeated by Catholic symbolism he absorbed, almost necessarily, from the Sacraments.
Springsteen is a liturgist, I propose, because he correlates the self-communication of God in secular life with the overarching symbol/narratives of his/our tradition. Moreover, I also propose that he engages in this "minstrel ministry" without ever being explicit about it, or even necessarily aware of it, precisely because his imagination was shaped as Catholic in the early years of life. He is both a liturgist, then, and a superb example of why Catholics cannot leave the church.
A word about the Catholic imagination: Unlike the other religions of Yahweh, Catholicism has always stood for the accessibility of God in the world. God is more like the world than unlike it. Hence Catholicism, unlike Protestantism, Judaism and Islam, permits angels and saints, shrines and statues, stained glass and incense and the continuation of pagan customs—most notably for our purposes here, holy water and blessed candles.
The point is not that the Catholic sensibility is better or worse than other religious sensibilities, but different. Nor is the point that any of the sensibilities can survive provided they are integrated with the others. Finally, the point is not that Catholicism has any monopoly on light and water symbolism, but rather it emphasizes them more strongly than other traditions. No one else has holy water or blessed candles.
Why did James Joyce use such rich Catholic imagery in his work (in, for example, the encounter with the girl on the beach at Clontarf), when he rejected the Catholic religion he learned in school and the Catholic Church he thought was destroying his Irish heritage? The answer is that he had absorbed much earlier in life a more primary, a more pristine and, yes, a more powerful and more benign version of Catholicism.
In the context of religion (in its origins) as an exercise of the metaphor-making dynamisms, Bruce Springsteens album Tunnel of Love may be a more important Catholic event in this country than the visit of Pope John Paull! The Pope spoke of moral debates using the language of doctrinal propositions that appeal to (or repel) the mind. Springsteen sings of religious realities—sin, temptation, forgiveness, life, death, hope—in images that come (implicitly perhaps) from his Catholic childhood, images that appeal to the whole person, not just the head, and that will be absorbed by far more Americans than those who listened to the Pope.
I intend no disrespect to the Pope or to the importance of his trip. I merely assert the obvious: Troubadours always have more impact than theologians or bishops, storytellers more influence than homilists.
Some rock critics contend that Springsteen has turned away from the "positive" music of Born in the USA to return to the grimmer and more pessimistic mood of Nebraska. It might be debated how optimistic USA really was. But, while there is tragedy in Tunnel of Love, there is also hope. The water of the river still flows, but now it stands, not for death, but for rebirth. Light and water, the Easter and baptismal symbols of the Catholic liturgy, the combination of the male and female fertility principles, create life in Tunnel of Love.
Religion is more explicitly expressed in Tunnel of Love than in any previous Springsteen album. Prayer, heaven and God are invoked naturally and unselfconsciously, as though they are an ordinary part of the singers life and vocabulary (and the singer is the narrator of the story told in the song, not necessarily Springsteen). Moreover, religion is invoked to deal precisely with those human (as opposed to doctrinal) problems—love, sin, death, rebirth—that humankind in its long history has always considered religious.
On the subject of human sinfulness, Springsteen sounds like St. Paul, who lamented that "the good which I would do, I do not do; and the evil which I would not do, that I do."
In "Two Faces" the singer complains that he is two men, one good, one evil; one sunny, one dark; one that says "hello" and one that says "goodbye." He fears that the evil face may deprive him of his love. He tells us that at night he gets down on his knees and prays that "love will make that other man go away," but admits that the other will never leave. For nearly 2,000 years in Western culture that experience has been called Original Sin—the only Christian doctrine, as the Lutheran church historian Martin Marty has remarked, for which there is empirical evidence.
Springsteen returns to this theme in "One Step Up." The singer and his wife are alienated. She is no longer the girl in white outside the church, and the church bells are not ringing any more. The singer does not know who is to blame, but he is caught in his own guilt. He is not the man he wanted to be; somehow he has slipped off the track. He is trapped, "movin one step up and two steps back."
In "Cautious Man" the singer (Billy) has tattooed the word "love" on one of his hands, and "fear" on the other. In autumn he marries his spring lover because he always "wanted to do what was right." But, "alone on his knees in the darkness for steadiness hed pray / for he knew in a restless heart the seed of betrayal lay."
One night, the fear tattoo got the better of him and he stole away from his marriage bed and strode down the highway. The road, in the symbolism of earlier Springsteen lyrics, is always the way to freedom. Now, when he gets there, "he didnt find nothing but road."
And in the title song of the album, the singer realizes how difficult married love is: It ought to be easy when a woman and a man fall in love, but they live in a haunted house and their ride in the tunnel of love is rough, rough, rough.
In all these songs the singer discovers the tragedy of life in the conflict between the two men that St. Paul described 1,900 years ago. Tragedy, however, is not pessimism, not despair. It is still possible to fight back.
Possible, but not easy. Love dies. "When it goes, its gone gone." And "when youre alone, you aint nothing but alone."
Despite his "Brilliant Disguise" the singer knows in the wee hours that he is not the good husband he swore to be at the altar, but a harsh doubter whose bed is cold. He invokes Gods mercy "on the man who doubts what hes sure of." And he knows he is a fool. He may have all the riches in the world but he lacks his beloved: he “Aint Got You."
If Springsteen left us there, the charge of despair might be appropriate. Theologically he might well be characterized as a Manichee, one who believes that human love is perverse and evil. But he does not stop at either sin or the difficulty in fighting sin. He sings of renewal, each time using the Easter/baptismal renewal symbols of light or flowing water—usually both of them.
In the song "Spare Parts," Janey, a young mother deserted on her wedding day by her childs father, bemoans her fate: She is young and misses the party lights. She hears of a woman who has put her baby in the river "and let the river roll on." She is tempted to do the same, she kneels before his crib and "cried till she prayed."
Then, despite her prayer, Janey brings her son to the river. As in every case where he sings of hope, Springsteen becomes poetic: Waist deep in the running water, with the sun shining brightly above her, she lifts her son up to the sky and then carries him home. She lays him in his bed, takes her wedding dress and ring to the pawnshop and returns home with good cold cash.
The story of the young mother, holding her son in the waters of the river under the bright sun, then lifting him up and carrying him home, now sanctified for life, is surely a baptismal image. How could it be anything else? Could someone not raised in the traditions of blessed light and holy water, not exposed as a child to the light and water of Easter, have produced such a scene?
But the point here is that Bruce Springsteen did acquire this imagery in his Catholic childhood. Even if he is not aware of the Catholic symbolism of light and water (and I suspect that he may know what he is doing, but not quite know that he knows), he is using in Catholic fashion these profoundly Catholic symbols of his youth: He is using light and water as symbols of rebirth.
Billy does not desert his wife. Knowing that he will always be caught between fear and love, he returns to his marriage bed and brushes the hair from his sleeping wifes face, which the moon has turned to white. Her glowing face fills the room with the beauty of Gods fallen light. The light now becomes quite explicitly Gods light—it is a sacrament, a hint of a power that, together with his wifes beauty, enables him to fight his fear. And the singer, who knows that he has two faces, will not give up his woman. He defies the evil man he would not be. He will not deprive the singer of his love. Let him go ahead and try!
Why such confidence? The most "liturgical" of all the songs in Tunnel of Love invokes a saint in the song "Valentines Day"-the Catholic feast (abandoned by our own prudish liturgical purists) of the renewal of romantic love.
The singer is driving home, pondering the truth that in independence there is freedom and reveling in the excitement of the road. Yet he has just spoken to a friend who has become a father. The friends voice sounds like the light of the skies and the rivers and the timberwolf in the pines. Maybe, the singer admits, he travels fastest who travels alone; but tonight, as his big car rushes down the highway, he misses his girl and he misses his home. Now that might not be quite your man Seamus Heaney, but its not bad poetry either. And it also has light and flowing waters.
In the final verses of the song—and of the album—Springsteen closes the circle of sacramentality: Light (Gods light again) and the river and the bride and God become one, an irresistible symbol and story of the rebirth and renewal of life and love. He wakes up from a nightmare and finds "Gods light came shinin on through." He is scared and terrified and also born anew. The water rushing over him is not the cold river bottom, the wind rushing through his arms is not the bitterness of a dream that did not come true. No, the wind and the water and the light is his wife. So he quietly asks her to be his Valentine.
If thats despair, Im the Dalai Lama. Rather, it is Catholicism, pure and simple.
Rock critic Steve Perry notes that throughout his career Springsteen has been obsessed with the themes of community (which is what one would expect from a person steeped in the Catholic imagination). On the one hand, he laments the death of his communities of origin; and on the other, he strains for the freedom of the river and the road. The advantage of such a position is that one can combine nostalgia with freedom from intimacy. Now in marriage he finds that he has created a new community of his own with its demands, frustrations and disappointments. He can still escape from it to the road. He can still flee from complexity and intimacy and human frailty to the power of the high-speed car.
Only mostly he does not want to, not for long, because it is at home with the beloved that one finds healing water and Gods holy light. And the Valentine.
The cover of Tunnel portrays the singer leaning, rather ruefully, against the Big White Car. It is not as much fun as it used to be. A car is an easier and a less demanding joy than a woman. But not nearly so rewarding.
The piety of these songs—and I challenge you to find a better word—is sentient without being sentimental, an Italian-American male piety not unlike that found in some of the films of Martin Scorcese (especially "Mean Streets"). It is, perhaps, not Sunday Mass piety, but it is, if anything, much richer and deeper and more powerful. It is the piety of symbol rather than doctrine. (Most of the rock critics, by the way, agree that in terms of lyrics, music and singing technique, Tunnel is the most important artistic stride in Springsteens life.)
I have no desire to claim Springsteen as Catholic in the way we used to claim movie actors and sports heroes. I merely observe that this is (not utterly unique) Catholic imagery on the lips of a troubadour whose origins and present identification are Catholic. I also observe that the Catholic origin of the imagery serves to explain them. I finally observe that the critics seem to pay no attention to the images, perhaps because without a Catholic perspective one has a hard time understanding where they come from and what they mean.
So if the troubadours symbols are only implicitly Catholic (and perhaps not altogether consciously so) and if many folks will not understand them or perceive their origins, what good are they to the Catholic Church? Surely they will not increase Sunday collections or win converts or improve the churchs public image. Or win consent to the pastoral letter on economics.
But those are only issues if you assume that people exist to serve the church. If, on the other hand, you assume that the church exists to serve people by bringing a message of hope and renewal, of light and water and rebirth, to a world steeped in tragedy and sin, you rejoice that such a troubadour sings stories that maybe even he does not know are Catholic.
From my analysis in this article I draw the following conclusions:
I) Grace is to be found in popular culture (but not in all forms of popular culture) if one is willing to look for it. In some cases, one need not look very hard.
2) The failure of the church to understand Springsteens importance and to embrace him (even, indeed, to provide him with the religious support to which he has a right) shows how profound is the alienation of the church from the fine and lively arts, most of which it created and nurtured for a thousand years. There was a time when we really appreciated a meistersinger.
3) Those Catholics who speak to the meaning of life out of the (perhaps) unselfconscious images of their Catholic heritage have a more profound claim to be liturgists than diocesan liturgical directors, for example, who gather to devise ways to use the liturgy to brainwash the laity into accepting the social action views of those who draft pastorals. (I do not know whether the assumption that this can be done is more hilarious than the attempt to do so is obscene.) The Catholic minstrels, such as these may be, are the true sacrament-makers because they revive and renew the fundamental religious metaphors. We must treasure them rather than ignore or denounce them. Or impugn their motives.
4) If religion, in its raw and primal origins and power, is imaginative, and especially if it is the ultimate-meaning metaphors we absorb early in life, and finally if it is these meaningful metaphors that hold Catholics (like Springsteen himself) in the church, then the personages of the institutional church (bishops, priests, theologians, teachers, etc.) ought to be much more concerned about the imagination than they are.