Skin in the Scholarly Game

Skin in the Scholarly Game January 16, 2019

I, just like John Fea, thought the Bruce Springsteen Broadway show was terrific, and I am not all that big a Boss fan. John saw the show in person. Hillsdale doesn’t pay as well as Messiah so I had to wait for it on Netflix. But it was a highlight of between-semester viewing. It showed what a great lyricist Springsteen is. I wonder if the E Street Band went for too big a sound, one that competed with the song’s poignant words. The show also revealed a man coming to the end of his career, reflecting on his past, making sense of influences, looking back fondly even about circumstances that at the time were painful — something to avoid. I highly recommend Springsteen on Broadway.

At the same time, I am going to push back on Fea’s piece at Religion News Service about the show. The religion thread in Springsteen’s biography is that he grew up in a Roman Catholic family and went regularly even if reluctantly to the local parish in Freehold, NJ. Here is what caught Fea’s eye:

Springsteen’s show is saturated with references to the Catholic God. He describes his childhood home as “spitting distance” from St. Rose of Lima Church, the parish that shaped the daily rhythms of his boyhood. He “literally grew up surrounded by God,” he said, but he was also one of St. Rose’s “unwilling disciples.”

His real salvation, at least as he tells the story, came from watching Elvis Presley perform on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. His “staff of righteousness” was his guitar.

Yet, as Springsteen knows all too well, escaping a Catholic past in the Irish and Italian enclaves of working-class New Jersey is not easy. “You know what they say about Catholics … there’s no getting out … (the priests and nuns) did their work hard and they did it well.”

Springsteen understands that the past often has its way with us — shaping us, haunting us, defining us, motivating us and empowering us. Like a priest conducting Mass, he asks the audience to receive the Lord’s Prayer as a “benediction” — perhaps a final blessing from a music legend who was never quite able to outrun the sound of the church bells.

Fea concludes:

It is unclear whether the regular visits to his childhood congregation are inspired by mere nostalgia or an honest desire to reconnect with the spirituality of the church of his youth, but one thing is clear: Springsteen continues to yearn for something deeper, something real and something transcendent. And we yearn with him.

As St. Augustine taught us in his “Confessions,” “our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

Here’s the thing. This rendering of Springsteen is full of adoration, understandably so. It contrasts sharply, though, with Fea’s take on a Messianic Jewish man whom Mike Pence introduced at a campaign rally. The words come from another source, the New York Times, but the post is clear in its suspicions about the faith of this man:

As he began his prayer, it became immediately clear that the rabbi, Loren Jacobs of Congregation Shema Yisrael in suburban Detroit, would not be considered a Jew by any of the four major denominations of Judaism. In his prayer, he mentioned the “saving power” of the Lord and concluded, “In the name of Jesus, amen.”

Rabbi Jacobs believes that Jesus is the Messiah, a conviction that is theologically incompatible with Judaism. Some Jews believe that the movement the rabbi represents, Messianic Judaism, is not only antithetical to Judaism but also hostile to their religion because its goal is to persuade Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah, and by doing so convert Jewish people to Christianity.

Rabbi Jacobs, a leading figure in the denomination colloquially known as Jews for Jesus, quickly came under criticism on Monday for appearing to represent Jews at the rally and for leading the only prayer by a religious figure at the event for the 11 people and six others injured in the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday.

Here is the push back: What if Fea regarded the Messianic Jewish man as a sympathetic figure, akin to Springsteen struggling with his doubts and spiritual longings? Of course, disassociating Loren Jacobs from the political purposes to which Vice President Pence was putting him is difficult. At the same time, why not go after Pence and leave the civilian alone? And why even allow such a dismissal of Messianic Judaism? Isn’t academic distance supposed to check personal biases?

And it is not as if the faith that Springsteen continues to ponder is free from scorn. Roman Catholicism is going through one of the most difficult controversies in recent history thanks to sexual scandal and episcopal cover-up. That is not to say that Springsteen deserves disrespect for not condemning his former church or not distancing himself from it. Nevertheless, if you object to the Trump administration, how do you ignore the Vatican administration?

Fea and I have gone around this before. But I still wonder. If you can allow for warm memories of a Christian institution that has almost as much baggage as Mike Pence, can’t you allow for the faith of a Messianic Jew after a tragedy that affects both ethnic and religious Jewish American?


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