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: