The Greatest Catholic Poet of Our Time

Some people pray, some people play music.

Bruce Springsteen

One story Bruce Springsteen often told in his early concerts was about how his parents were worried about his fixation with rock and roll, which they felt was no way to make a living. His father, a bus driver, thought he should be a lawyer; his mother, a secretary and homemaker, thought he should become a writer.

      “My mother, she’s very Italian,” he told a roaring crowd in Phoenix years ago. “She says, ‘This is a big thing, you should go see a priest.’” Bruce goes to the rectory and talks to Father Ray, but Father Ray says “This is too big a deal for me. You gotta talk to God.’”

      Bruce has no idea where to find God, but his sidekick and saxophone player Clarence Clemons does: God lives in a house at the edge of the woods. Bruce and Clarence drive to God’s house. Music blasts through the door of the house as they approach.

      “Clarence sent me,” says Bruce to the Lord, who is seated behind a drum set. Springsteen explains his career dilemma.

      “There was supposed to be an eleventh commandment,” answers God. “It’s Moses’ fault. He was so scared after ten, he went back down the mountain. You shoulda seen it—great show, the burning bush, thunder, lightning. You see, what those guys didn’t understand was that there was an eleventh commandment...

let it rock!”

      It’s helpful to point out what doesn’t happen here: this is not a story in which a young man denies the  existence of God, or angrily rejects Him, or is disappointed by what he finds. This is a story about a man who seeks and receives divine approval for doing what he most wants to do. Which is, in effect, to become a missionary. The man whose parents fear he does not want to work ends up doing the most important work of all: God’s work.

The devil appeared like Jesus through the steam in the street
Showin’ me a hand I knew even the cops couldn’t beat
I felt his hot breath on my neck as I dove through the heat
It’s so hard to be a saint when you’re just a boy out on the street

Bruce Springsteen went to Saint Rose of Lima Catholic elementary school in Freehold, New Jersey. He describes his experience, cheerfully, as a disaster. “I spent half of my first thirteen years in a trance... In the third grade a nun stuffed me in a garbage can because, she said, that’s where I belonged...

I also had the distinction of being the only altar boy knocked down by a priest during Mass. The old priest got mad. My mother wanted me to serve Mass, but I didn’t know what I was doin’ so I was trying to fake it...” Throwing in the towel, Springsteen’s parents sent him to the public high school in Freehold. But his Catholicism was deeply rooted. Jesus and Mary and the Holy Ghost figure heavily in his early lyrics, and the 1975 hit “Thunder Road” is rife with Catholic imagery:

You can hide ’neath your covers
And study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers
Throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a savior to rise from these streets
Well now I’m no hero
That’s understood
All the redemption I can offer, girl
Is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now?

And, by the time of Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), it is clear that Springsteen has read the Bible very carefully indeed — note the songs “The Promised Land” and “Adam Raised a Cain,” for example:

In the Bible Cain slew Abel
And East of Eden he was cast
You’re born into this life payin’
For the sins of somebody else’s past

But the major turning point in Springsteen’s career is The River (1980), in which his Catholicism is no longer merely a matter of metaphor or humor. The mature artist is now interested in spirituality and hope, resurrection and faith, grace and dignity. Ordinary objects are endowed with sacred intensity, and the ragged, anguished quality of Springsteen’s voice forcefully endows everything with an almost religious aura. And he is now in direct confrontation with the psychological dimensions of sin and human mortality. While the characters of Darkness wrestle with burdensome legacies in the struggle to realize their aspirations, many of those on The River actually lose the fight. In early Springsteen songs, characters respond to such adversity with renewed determination. The truly scary songs of The River are those, especially on the last half of the album, in which individuals realize that they’ve come up against something much larger than they can handle.

But I ride by night
And I travel in fear
That in this darkness
I will disappear

The next step along Springsteen’s spiritual road is the record Nebraska (1982). If the characters of The River veer toward a spiritual abyss, those of this album plunge into it. Nowhere is this clearer than in the title track, whose protagonist (based on Charlie Starkweather, a man who went on a notorious murder rampage in the 1950s) reveals much about the mood of the album. Tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, he is informed that his soul will be hurled into “that great void.” Unlike the characters of “Stolen Car” or “Wreck on the Highway,” however, he receives this news with an almost unnerving lack of affect. Asked why he has committed such monstrous crimes, he offers an explanation that looms over the album as a whole: “Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

      The disembodied quality of “meanness” is crucial. At the time of its release during the worst recession since the Great Depression, reviewers of Nebraska wrote a great deal about the political critique embedded in the album. Far less has been said about the religious foundation of that critique, which rests on a confrontation with the problem—and nature—of evil. While some might project their darkest impulses on to a particular group of people (blacks, Jews, immigrants) and others single out more abstract, socially determined institutional forces (inequality, economic dislocation, homophobia), Springsteen posits evil as a force that defies demographic specificity or rational explanation.

      And evil is everlasting. This is the message of “My Father’s House,” Springsteen’s most conventionally pious song. An adult son dreams of being lost in the woods with the devil snapping at his heels. He desperately seeks, and finds, his father—only to awaken to a powerful sense of guilt and longing over their broken relationship. Impulsively, he dresses and drives to the house, only to learn he no longer lives there. The concluding verse sounds a collective indictment:

My father’s house shines hard and bright
It stands like a beacon, calling me in the night
Calling and calling, so cold and alone
Shining ’cross this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned

Yet Springsteen suggests that there is a flip side to transcendental sin: “Everything dies baby that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies some day comes back,” speculates the narrator of “Atlantic City.” If sin permeates every action, so, too, may grace. Or, as the very last song of the record (“Reason to Believe”) has it: “... At the end of every hard earned ay/People find some reason to believe...”


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