Bruce Springsteen's Spiritual Vision for America
But what happens when there is no work available? What happens when the ground that we walk is so "rocky" that work is impossible to find. This is where Springsteen addresses one of the great paradoxes of the human experience—the co-existence of tragedy and hope. He understands the tragic dimension of human life. He understands the sinful world in which we live (although he might not put it in such theological terms). Anyone who has listened to Springsteen for a long time knows that this is a theme in all his recordings.
But Springsteen's music is also about hope. Though we are drowning in "Noah's flood," and our prayers seem to be going unanswered, and "hard times come and hard times go," Springsteen tells us to "hold tight to your anger and don't fall to your fears." He asks us in "We Are Alive" (which draws on the mariachi band sound of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire") to remember the laborers, civil rights workers, and immigrants who have struggled to overcome injustice on the road to American happiness.
Wrecking Ball is an album of hope amid "this great depression." We are told in "Land of Hopes and Dreams" that "faith will be rewarded." Though such faith might be "shaken" by troubled times, we should not feel "hopeless" or "forsaken." Like his song "Waiting on a Sunny Day," which offered a refreshing dose of optimism amid the tragic songs on The Rising, Springsteen tells us in Wrecking Ball that the "morning sun is breaking" and a "new day is coming."
We can also trust in God's goodness to us. Consider the words of the rap (certainly a first for Springsteen) embedded in the lyrics of "Rocky Ground."
You use your muscle and your mind and you pray your best
That your best is good enough, the Lord will do the rest
You raise your children and you teach them to walk straight and sure
You pray that hard times, hard times, come no more.
This is one of the most explicitly Christian lyrics in the entire Springsteen songbook. Indeed, Springsteen is coming of age. His spiritual vision is maturing with every album. He seems to be searching for answers to questions of life that take him beyond being "sprung from cages on Highway 9" or jumping in a car with Wendy and cruising down Thunder Road. Everybody has a hungry heart. Even the Boss.
In the end, Bruce Springsteen loves America. One of the last songs on the album is "Land of Hope and Dreams," an uplifting song that has long been a staple of Springsteen concerts. It celebrates American "losers and winners" and "saints and sinners" and "whores" and gamblers" and "lost souls." I often play the live version in my course on the American immigrant experience.
Springsteen loves his country so much that he is no longer satisfied with the great distance that now exists between American reality and the American dream. He wants to shorten that distance and he believes that preaching the virtues of Christian faith is one way to do it. Wrecking Ball is an album that we all need to come to grips with.
John Fea chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and is the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). He blogs daily at philipvickersfithian.com.