The spirituality of Springsteen

That was the topic of an unusual workshop held last month at  St. Barnabas parish in New Jersey last month, where  Augustinian friar Fr. Kevin Keelan spoke about the religious threads running through the writings of Bruce Springsteen.  (One of those in attendance was Springsteen’s mother, Adele, shown above with the priest.)

From the Trenton Monitor:

Over 150 people, including Bruce’s mother Adele Springsteen, tapped their toes, nodded their heads, and silently mouthed lyrics as Father Keelen played the singer’s music to illuminate his assertions. “Every indigenous tribe has music. It’s part of being human,” the priest began. “Tonight’s about Bruce and us. He evangelizes in a different way.” Father Keelen, an Augustinian friar, cited the lyrics from “Hungry Heart” as he quoted from his saintly mentor, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, God.”

Through anecdotes culled from his years of friendship with the singer, known as “The Boss,” Father Keelen wove a picture of a deeply spiritual musician whose faith is reflected in his extensive music portfolio. The priest recalled standing before the stage at Giants Stadium listening to “Land of Hope and Dreams,” with imagery of a train barreling down the tracks carrying sinners, gamblers, the broken hearted, thieves and sweet souls departed and feeling the energy of the crowd. “This train: all aboard!’” Father Keelan exclaimed as he quoted the refrain. “That’s the image of salvation, that’s Gospel. It’s incredible poetry and melodic music. That’s what takes it to another place.”

Father Keelen played excerpts from the 1995 Springsteen album “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” named after the protagonist in John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” As the audience heard the title track, whose lyrics declare Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand/Or decent job or a helpin’ hand/Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free/Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me., Father Keelen reminded them about the tenets of Catholic social teaching. “The moral test of a society is measured on how it treats it most vulnerable,” the priest said. “On Judgment Day [Matthew 25:34-40], our fate will be determined by how well we cared for our fellow man.”

The album’s songs discuss the plight of war veterans, former inmates, homeless nomads, and illegal immigrants; Father Keelen summarized the underlying theme of the works as a show of solidarity with his fellow, underprivileged man. “ ‘Joad’ takes the form of solidarity: social justice ministry,” the presenter said.

While “The Ghost of Tom Joad” focuses upon the timeless issues of poverty and man’s injustice towards man, the album “The Rising” (2002) takes the form of bereavement ministry at a specific time in American history. Written during the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Springsteen uses the imagery of the Easter Triduum to take the listener on a journey through grief to redemption, Father Keelan maintained. The priest recounted his many visits to homes of grieving parishioners; “You’re Missing” describes the detritus of daily life awaiting the return of their now-deceased owners. Mentioning by name the Rumson parish where Father Keelan served as parochial vicar that fall, “The Fuse” details the long black line in front of Holy Cross where many funerals of World Trade Center victims took place. “Like a good liturgist, you can see, hear and taste the suffering of the musty tomb,” the priest said, “but through it all comes the experience of resurrection and redemption.”

The song “Into the Fire” addresses a firefighter mounting the doomed towers because love and duty called you someplace higher/Somewhere up the stairs into the fire. The song continues: May your strength give us strength / May your faith give us faith / May your hope give us hope / May your love give us love. “[Springsteen] ripped that right out of the Bible,” Father Keelan exclaimed. “In 1 Corinthians 13:13, it says ‘there are but three things that last Faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.’”

Years ago, in homiletics class, one of our assignments was to do a Good Friday reflection based on one of the Seven Last Words of Christ, and I spoke about “Into the Fire” and quoted from it.   Below, here’s Springsteen performing that song in 2002 in Barcelona:

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45 responses to “The spirituality of Springsteen”

  1. Nice to see this in print:

    Father Keelen reminded them about the tenets of Catholic social teaching. “The moral test of a society is measured on how it treats it most vulnerable,” the priest said

    Who could deny that the most “vulnerable” are the lives in the womb, the bellwether of ALL social justice.

  2. The most vulnerable are not just babies, but everyone who is powerless and defenseless against cruelty being executed against them. Many babies, even in the womb, are quite well protected; many who have been born, nonetheless, end up quite vulnerable and many turn a blind eye on them — homeless people living on the streets, trying to live one more day; the poor “illegal” hiding out in the US, afraid of being sent back to a homeland they would be abused or killed, afraid of those “helping” them who are also using and abusing them, afraid to go to the authorities because of their experiences in their homeland and fear of being sent back there. The most vulnerable are many, not just one class.

  3. Henry I would agree with that many are vulnerable, however none AS vulnerable as innocent, totally defenseless lives in the womb, the 2nd most vulnerable being the sick and elderly, who can no longer do a thing for themselves.

    Both JPII in Evangelium Vitae and Pope Benedecit XVI in Deus Caritas Est make this more than clear. You don’t have to take my word for it, but as Catholics we do have to take their word(s) on it.

    Common sense alone alone dictates that IF life is eliminated in the womb, NOTHING else matters. Do you not think that the 53 million lives, legally aborted in this country, would have loved a “shot at life even in poverty or sickness?”

    I’m not directing this specifically at you Henry, but if I had to pick the number one path that “liberal catholics” go down, it’s this one, be it outrage at waterboarding terrorits or a “women’s right to choose”, it instantly becomes hyprocrasy when the same outrage isn’t afforded to the unborn. If you don’t believe me, test it out youself, it’s actually very easy. For every “social justice savior” out there, as them one question, the right of the unborn. That’s all you need to know. If they are not passionate about protecting ALL of the unborn, they are a driven not by “social justice” but another agenda, most often, their own. Test it out, it works every time.

  4. Klaire

    Many who are in the womb are quite well protected and not so vulnerable. This is just reality. So many women protect their babies, and so they are quite well defended. Some are, to be sure, quite vulnerable and need to be protected; but to think they alone must be the focus is not what the Church teaches. This has nothing to do with “liberal.” It is easy to see when people ignore the dignity of life itself, anywhere, finding one kind of life alone to defend while finding excuses to ignore others, they are not pro-life; they might be anti-abortion, but they have not yet grasped what it means to be pro-life in any sense the Church teaches. Those who ignore social justice seem to do so at the expense of the meaning of life itself; they show they can’t grasp the Catholic principle — they look at it as politics or utility, but not to the Catholic dignity of all life.

  5. As long as people try to make abortion separate, as long as they fail to grasp the dignity of the human person, as long as they try to make excuses to ignore the plight of those who are seen before them, they are not pro-life; being anti-abortion is not the same thing as being pro-life. Steve Taylor did a great video on that — “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good.” Being pro-life is principled, and requires one to stop making excuses to justify torture, or neglect of the homeless, or support unjust wars. And if you read EV, you will see Pope John Paul II making this very point, that the dignity of life is ALL life. If you read Pope Benedict, he continues this. In other words, those who focus solely on abortion and show disdain for social justice might be doing evil under the guise of a good, using abortion to justify support against life itself!

  6. I always cringe when someone says “I’m spiritual but not religious.” That’s my thought here with Springstein. There’s no evidence in Springstein’s songs he’s a religious believer. Plus his music is so overrated.

  7. And yes Henry, the Catholic dignity of ALL life STARTS IN THE WOMB. The fact that we as a country allow the legal killing of any life in the womb, is exactly why we are now a morally bankrupt country, soon to go over the cliff, where EVERY life in America will suffer the consequences. How’s that for “social justice?”

    As Abe Lincoln was famous for saying, “If destruction be our lot, we will have done it to ourselves.”

  8. I agree Manny, the “I’m spiritual thing” is almost always a form or narcissim. However, I think it’s clearly evident that somewhere deep in Springstein’s heart, he is clearly hungry for God. Just like Steve Jobs, I think he found God but just didn’t know it was He!

    Like all of us, Bruce is a work in progess, but I think far more along than many of the satanic rappers.

  9. Klaire,
    Are you pro-life or just anti-abortion? From the way you are attacking social justice I can’t tell if you understand that pro-life is a seamless garment.

  10. It doesn’t end in the womb, and when there are vulnerable before us outside of the womb, their life is just as important and we can’t just ignore them. And one can say we are a morally bankrupt nation because it is pandering to selfishness, and many of the so-called anti-abortion arguments are promoted by people supporting the systematic sin which creates abortion in the first place. If you want to promote the dignity of life, you can’t just deal with life in the womb, and you can’t accept markets and libertarian ideologies as one’s moral grounding. We need to work together as a community, to know as a community, to deal with social structures of sin as a community because they affect the community and then, we will see the selfishness put in place from such structures will slowly be pushed back, and with it, the selfishness which creates abortion will also end.

    Ever note so-called conservatives get so worked up about “illegals” in the US and how, since the law is the law, the US can do anything to them, ignoring their rights (despite the Declaration of Independence)? Did you know many who support abortion follows the same ideology, but says the illegal entry is the one in the womb, and the one who controls that space has a right to control it? If you want to stop the abortion ideology, you have to look to the larger narrative which it is using and work to stop that, too. And that larger narrative is exactly the kind which so-called conservatives create.

  11. those who focus solely on abortion and show disdain for social justice might be doing evil under the guise of a good, using abortion to justify support against life itself

    Henry you just made my point in reverse, as the same could be said for those who cry ” help the poor”, while at the same time, fighting tooth and nail to keep abortion legal. I think we are on the same page, just in different directions, and that’s a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say!

    Social justice and pro life is indeed ALL life, I’m just making the point that it HAS to start at the earliest form of life, the womb, to the very end, the sick and dying. If any is ignored, it’s all a big phoney agenda driven scam.

  12. I’m staunchly pro life all the way Barbara, only making the point that to be that, it has to START in the womb.

  13. Say folks!

    How about getting back on track. Was Springsteen narrowly “pro-abortion”? or maybe even wider “pro-choice”? Never once, EVER, did I ever see evidence of either in his music or public comments.

  14. I just wanted to add one more thing in regards to why we ALL (by all I mean all who fight for social justice and the dignity of life) have to respect the earlieset form of life, the fetus.

    Here’s why:

    Remember the big embryonic stem cell research debate, where those in favor, from Nancy Regan to the Hollywood A list, were telling us that not only would those in wheelchairs be no longer needed then, but that it was the “cure all?” Well, as a scientist, I fought embryonic stem cell research tooth and nail. The reason I fought it so hard was not only because I understood the perils of using embryonic stem cells in the human body (which has all proven to be true, to date, NO progess what so ever in esc research, while just this week another major breaktrough was announced using ADULT stem cells in heart reversing heart falure), but because I also understood that there was a bigger agenda.

    That bigger agenda, is/was no other than “desensitivity” to the fetus. You see, evil works best when it’s nicely package, like in “cures for gradma and helping the blind to see or the unable to walk.” After all, how could we be against “killing a few cells, regardless if human, IF it could do all of THAT? Besides, someday those same cells could save OUR lives.

    As we move further along to socialized medicine, where big government will make the end of life decisions most near and dear to our hearts, justified by costs, it can only work if we as a country are not uptight about life itself, regardless of at what state that life might.

    The bottom line is this: The more we get “ok”, with killing human life, be in vitro fertilization, embryonic stem cell research, or abortion, the more we are going to be ok with, God forbid, the government to decide who lives or dies.

  15. Fiergenhohld I would argue that we are on track. It was the Springsteen Priest who brought out the morality of human life. This all started with his quote.

    The fact that Bruce never mentioned it I think is a good thing; better not to have mentioned it than have been against it, perhaps another thing deep in his heart of which he pondered.

  16. FWIW …

    I don’t think Springsteen has claimed that there’s any spiritual element to his work. But others have found it and commented on it. You never can tell how the Holy Spirit will work, or what instrument He will use — and I think there’s enough evidence to suggest that one of His instruments, in ways the artist himself may not realize, is Bruce Springsteen.

    For more, check out this web page and this article.

    Dcn. G.

  17. I’ve always detected a thread of religion and belief in Bruce’s music. Just listen to The Rising. He references “spirits” and “precious blood.” I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that was an allusion to the suffering of the Cross and then the next line he squarely addresses the Lord:

    “Spirits above and behind me
    Faces gone, black eyes burnin’ bright
    May their precious blood forever bind me
    Lord as I stand before your fiery light”

  18. Also love his line in that song, “Sky of mercy, sky of fear.” To me you can almost see people that day looking upwards to God asking for mercy a thousand different ways, either the ones whose lives were being taken from them, or those who were witnessing it.

  19. I’d guess that Bruce Springsteen is either in the “1%” or close to it. In any event, he’s a very rich man. But when it comes to paying taxes, he enjoys loopholes just like a wealthy republican:

    Through a trust, Bruce Springsteen owns more than 200 acres in Colts Neck. the taxes for his house and three acres are more than $138,000. But because of the farm tax break, the tax bill on a little more than 200 additional acres is less than $5,000. Town officials say he has horses and an organic farmer working some of the land. A lawyer for the trust had no comment.

    Farm Tax Breaks for N.J. Celebrities
    Updated: Thursday, 10 Feb 2011, 1:08 PM EST
    Published : Wednesday, 09 Feb 2011, 9:29 PM EST
    myFOX New York

  20. It just makes me sad that a post on listening for God’s word in the voices of the times gets hijacked–like every post these days, it seems–by prolife protestations or political posturing. The rest of you can wrangle all you want. I’m going to thank Deacon Greg for passing along one more example of how we can listen for the “still, small voice,” whether on the mountainside or in an arena. God has chosen (often against their will) weirder prophets than The Boss, and will do so again.

  21. Well, you can also look at it another way jkm. If one reader who thought he/she was the pillar of social justice while ignoring the unborn has a change of heart from something read on this thread, than kuddos to Springsteen, for God has used him well, subsequently using Dcn. Greg to post it and all that followed.

  22. Respectfully, your comments about “social justice saviors” seems to minimize the call to work for social justice. The needs of the marginlized and the poor of whatever age must be addressed with the same vigor as the work to end abortion. To say that 53 million souls would have loved a chance at life even if it meant a life of poverty without at the same time recognizing that we as a people and as a government have an obligation to address the social causes of that poverty and try to alleviate that poverty does not sound to me like pro-life.

  23. I think it’s about the whole “seamless garment” someone mentioned earlier. I admit I don’t know anything about Springsteen’s charitable giving and it may be significant for all I know. But he does like to be seen as just one of the people, not one of the priviledged rich.

    Let’s face it, in this country it takes money to make money and take advantage of loopholes in the tax laws. Just because something is legal (tax write-offs) in no way makes it moral. Taking your ‘due’ even when you don’t need it isn’t moral. Raising a cry against gov’t waste and debt seems hypocritical when you are paying lawyers and accountants big bucks to find every legal tax loophole and shelter to your advantage. In the same article some celeb, it might have been Springsteen was making (or saving) a bunch of gov’t money because they were raising bees on their property. Now do you suppose they have an interest in beekeeping or did they pay some tax specialist to discover that windfall for them?

    That was the message I took away from Frank’s comment. We should all walk our talk.

  24. Well, I agree, at least he’s not satanic. But elements of spirituality are not really faith. I can find elements of spirtuality in lots of pop singers. heck, Paul McCarthy wrote Let It Be about our Blessed mother. Paul McCarthy is not a religious person. Songwriters write about a variety of themes, many of which they really don’t have any philosophic attachment. Writing a song is not writing what you believe, especially if you write hundreds of them.

  25. To be honest Deacon, I’m not seeing a lot of religious themes in the examples they cite. Writing about a generic good and evil is so commonplace that it’s not really referring to a religious source. Even most atheists maintain a set of moral codes. I can find values of right and wrong in almost all song writers, believers or not.

  26. Let’s debunk one popular myth.

    McCartney did not write “Let It Be” about the Blessed Mother. He wrote it about his own mother, who happened to be named Mary.

    Read more here.

    Dcn. G.

  27. There’s no evidence that Springstein is a religious person. Compare Dion DiMucci from Dion and the Belmonts. He had a religious conversion in mid life and talks about his faith. And some of his post relgious experience songs are clearly faith based; there is no ambiguity. Bruce Springstein does no such thing. People are reading tea leaves from his songs and projecting what they want to see. Until Springstein makes a public statement of faith, then he’s just another rocker.

  28. Yes, but there is too much of a coincidence. “Let it be done onto me” are our Blessed Mother’s words. The song carries a double meaning like some poetry. The versus are even stronger in support of our Blessed Mother than his mother. Look at all the lyrics. Actually it might even carry a third meaning, though not as strong as the other two: Mary Jane is one of Paul’s favorite indulgences.

    I’m not saying Paul was a believer. Actually just the opposite. But when you sit to write something, it doesn’t have to be what you believe in.

  29. Springsteen’s song “I’m on fire” is certainly not religious, and in fact seems to be about an adult lusting after a young girl. Not a very healthy attitude. I have never been much of a fan of his, but many people can find healthy spiritual messages in a variety of music whether the artist intended it or not. If we are truly open to the Holy Spirit, we will get the message through a wide variety of delivery modes.

  30. If you read about his personal life it doesn’t sound especially religious or spiritual. He started in Catholic HS and resented the strictures and went to public school. He married and was divorced by his wife after an affair. He moved in with his new girlfriend, they had a child and eventually married. Don’t know if he wrote a song about that but it would be interesting to put a spiritual spin on it.

  31. One omre thing on that Deacon. I just played the song. The melody played by the piano at the openning is very churchy music, and the organ comes in as accompaniment also creates a church music feel. Paul is clearly alluding to religion.

  32. I remember attending the papal Mass at Yankee Stadium in 2008. One of the performers who sang for the crowd before the liturgy was Stephanie Mills, who performed her big hit “I Never Knew Love Like This Before.” My wife was a little shocked, and didn’t think it was appropriate. But listen to the lyrics. They could be taken another way.

    Go figure. To each his (or her) own.

    But truly, God’s imagination and creativity are limitless. And, as I indicated earlier, you never know how He will try to reach people.

    Dcn. G.

  33. A great example is the movie Penguins a few years back. That movie was/is SOoooo God, that relgious groups started to reference it, only to the horror of the non-believing authors.

    A good example that God can use anybody.

  34. Clarification on my previous comment:
    “Jon Bon Jovi paid property taxes of only $100 last year on his extensive real estate holdings in New Jersey that he uses to raise bees. At the same time, Bruce Springsteen received farm subsidies because he leases his property to an organic farmer,” the report explains.

    Read more:

    I’m far from being rich enough to pay only $100.00 in taxes, even on my few thousand square feet of property. That’s why I’m considered one of the 99% that helps the rich get richer.

  35. It’s hard to be a saint in the city. But growing up, we are all kind of blinded by the light, aren’t we? All of us who were born in the U.S.A., all of us who celebrate Independence Day and travel through the Badlands and know that it’s no sin to be glad that you’re alive. At the same time, many of us sometimes feel that we are on a downbound train, as though we are locked into living in the darkness on the edge of town; and we pine for those glory days we recall so well. If we move to someplace like Luckytown, we MIGHT just find better days.

    In the Eucharist, we find living proof — and we find the strength to live in the light of day, not just in my city of ruins. Ultimately, of course, we are all about the rising.

    (Okay, sorry — no sacrilege intended. Just couldn’t resist some song play!)

  36. Funny.

    Springsteen also arguably delves into the Theology of the Body with “Human Touch,” and touches on the Fall and Redemption with lines such as “All the redemption I can offer, girl, is here beneath this dirty hood.”

  37. One of the first of Dcn. Greg’s posts I read was several years and blog iterations ago about…Bruce Springsteen. I still have it bookmarked–somewhere!

    Henry K and Klaire? Did Vox-nova shut down?

  38. Barbara what makes you thing I don’t care about the social causes of poverty?

    In this country entitlement that encourages money for babies and keeps many on welfare is a big one, and sadly, all for political gain.

    There are lots of causes of poverty, here and elsewhere. That said, Jesus told us that the poor would always be among us.

  39. “Catholic Social Teaching” is a term which is loosely tossed around by many who have absolutely no idea of what they are talking. To suggest that Springsteen is advocating Catholic Social Teaching reveals serious ignorance about authentic Catholic Social Teaching (See the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church ).

    Authentic Catholic Social Teaching has the sanctity of each and every human life (from the very first moment of fertilization till natural death) and marriage/family at its very core. Springsteen has a very public history of embracing political candidates who reject that very heart of Catholic Social Teaching.

    Idolizing poorly catechized celebrities does no one a service – particularly the poorly catechized celebrity!

  40. Actually, take this from the biggest Springsteen fan on earth ( Im as well a traditional catholic) who happens to follow and pray for the man who is certainly a work in progress.
    AND yes he has talked of the elements of faith in his works,in his book of songs that came out a few years ago, he recounts the Rising (which I am surprised not to see written of in this article!) as a “secular stations of the cross” and in many other venues he has also alluded to I said though-fallen away he is, his theology is not always correct but I enjoy seeing him put his struggles into words,as I think he is a true seeker.and we all are,some just more obedient than others.But his struggle can help people.
    The Rising, as my husband pointed out to me (I never thought I could enjoy Springsteen anymore than I already did.but it happened!) is, as he hears it-

    “Cant see nothing in front of me-Jesus beginning the Way of the Cross
    cant see nothing comin up behind” (-think of how miserable and weary he was in The Passion of the Christ..)
    Make my way through this darkness
    Cant see nothin but this chain that binds me.

    Lost track of how far Ive gone
    How far Ive gone an dhow far Ive climbed
    On my back’s a sixty pond stone -the cross
    on my shoulder a half mile line-whip mark where hes been beaten

    Come on up for the Rising-His rising,(obviously)
    Come on up lay your hands in mine-I always think of this as an invitation to “place my hands in His” on the cross
    Come on up for the Rising
    Come on up for the Rising tonight

    Left the house this morning
    Bells ringing filled the air-foreshadowing His victory over death on what would be that afternoon
    Wearing the cross of my calling-He was born to die
    On wheels of fire I come rollin down here-He ran to His cross,couldnt wait to save us,and would do nothing different.


    Spirits above and behind me-those waiting for Him in teh abode of teh fathers,in limbo
    Faces gone black eyes burning bright-
    May their Precious blood bind me
    Lord as I stand before your fiery light

    I see you Mary in the garden
    In the garden of a thousand sighs
    There’s holy pictures of our children (-as if shes cheering Him on,reminding Him of who He is saving,and the fruit of His passion as He endures it.)
    Dancin’ in a sky filled with light
    May I feel your arms around me
    May I feel your blood mix with mine-another invitation for us to sacrifice ourselves as He did,and offer our sacrifices with His
    A dream of life comes to me
    Like a catfish dancin’ on the end of the line-an image of birth and life and victory

    Sky of blackness and sorrow (a dream of life)-as He is on the Cross in His last hour,in a miserable haze, He looks towards heaven..)
    Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life)
    Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life)
    Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life)
    Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life)
    Your burnin’ wind fills my arms tonight
    Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life)
    Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life (a dream of life

    Just a reflection..for what its worth.***

  41. Very good analysis. I actually didn’t make the connection in the first stanza to Jesus, but it makes perfect sense. 3000 people had their way of the cross that day. I don’t know if Bruce is religious or not and it’s not my business of course but he is a tremendous lyricist.

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