222: Conversation about Springsteen’s TEN Spiritual Commandments

uthor Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz argues persuasively that Bruce Springsteen has been writing his own “Gospel” for 35 years, ever since the release of his first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.”
    Now, what Jeffrey has done for the benefit of all of us is assemble Springsteen’s various psalms, prophetic words and epistles into this paperback overview of his overall message. It’s excellent for individual reflections — and also is great for reflective small-group discussion.
    (Plus — depending on your age, you get to pull out all your old Springsteen vinyl, cassettes, CD’s or MP3 files — and possibly even play them during your book-study group. How cool is that?)
    Jeffrey, who is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and a Unitarian Universalist minister in Massachusetts, laughed at one point during our interview. He said, “You know, my congregation is thrilled I finally wrote this book — so I don’t have to just keep telling them all about Springsteen’s Gospel,” he said. “Now, someone else gets to hear about it.”

    Skeptical readers may think about this as a gimmick of some kind, but if you’re a regular reader of our online magazine, you know that virtually everything we do involves discerning the spiritual messages in the people, the emerging voices and the media all around us.
    Jeffrey began listening to Springsteen’s voice as far back as the night of his wife Elizabeth’s senior prom in the mid 1970s — and he’s still listening to that voice decades later. He writes about the startling impression Springsteen’s music can make even when Jeffrey and his wife are traveling far, far from the U.S. — and they hear those songs in distant lands.
    Click on the book or album covers today to jump to our review of Jeffrey’s book — and you can order copies of the music as well via Amazon, if you wish. (Purchasing through our site gives you the regular Amazon discounts but also helps our ongoing project.)


    DAVID: Considering the huge spiritual content of Springsteen’s music, not much is written about his religious life. A good example is his Wikipedia page, full of material about his life, but there’s only one paragraph on the religious context. It says:
    Raised a Roman Catholic, Springsteen attended the St. Rose of Lima parochial school in Freehold Borough, where he was at odds with both the nuns and other students, even though much of his later music reflected a deep Catholic ethos and included many rock-influenced, traditional Irish-Catholic hymns.
    It’s mighty short — but is it fairly accurate?
    JEFFREY: Yes, that’s very accurate. He was raised Catholic and grew up in parochial schools -– and he hated them. He either left or was thrown out and ended up in the public schools. He has a love-hate or sometimes even a hate-hate relationship with organized religion. But he also has a deep sense of the images and underlying reference points in Catholicism.
    There are some reports he started going back to church after 9/11, but a lot of people went back to church for a while and then left church again. I think that’s where he is these days. He’s not a “Catholic Artist,” but Catholicism shapes his work. As he’s gotten older, he’s developed a deeper respect for spirituality and also for religious imagery and you can see a deeper religious sensibility in his music.
    In some of his earlier works, like the song “Lost in the Flood” on “Greetings from Asbury Park,” there’s an open mocking of religion. He’s got a line in the song that goes: “Nuns run bald through Vatican halls, pregnant, pleading Immaculate Conception.” That’s a caricature of Catholicism. As he gets older, largely around the time he has children and is well into his second marriage, a deeper respect for religious imagery and even explicitly “church” imagery emerges.
    But is he drawn back to organized religion now? I don’t think there’s any evidence of that.

    DAVID: Your book takes us through all of Springsteen’s major albums, inviting us to revisit the themes and songs in light of what was happening in his life, at the time, and in our lives as a country. Then, at the end you include a few pages in which you distill his “Ten Commandments for Spiritual Living,” but the book has a correction printed on the page in which “Commandments” is scribbled out in favor of “Suggestions.”
    As a way to invite our readers, today, to understand something about Springsteen’s spirituality, let’s walk through these 10 affirmations and you can tell us what you mean — and what the Springsteen soundtrack behind each point would be. OK?
    JEFFREY: Sure.
    DAVID: So, a couple of the first ones sound almost Buddhist in their affirmation that there’s going to be trouble in life — but we have to begin by seeing life clearly, no matter how painful that might be. So, No. 1 in your book is: “The world has gone awry.” What’s that mean? And what’s that sound like from Springsteen?
    JEFFREY: From the beginning, there was never much of a romanticized view of life in his songs, even though he is a prophet of hope and, in a certain sense, he’s a prophet of faith.
    But he doesn’t have a romantic view of the world. He keeps telling us: This world is tough. Even if our lives may not reach the level of Job, life will wound us and life will take its toll. To borrow from another musician: No one gets out of her alive.
    In Springsteen’s music, the world is many ways is full of terrible people doing terrible things to each other. Life is not a pretty thing.

    DAVID: And, very much like that No. 1 statement is this one: “The world is as it is.”
    JEFFREY: Right. We have to see the terrible things in life, but ultimately this means that, when we can find meaning and purpose in our lives — then there’s real joy in that.
    He never tells us that things will be easy or that they’ll turn out the way we expect. And, when I think of this point among the 10, I think of “Lost in the Flood” again. That’s his view of life in which everything seems to be falling apart — the center doesn’t hold.
    DAVID: So, we’re moving into Yeats for a moment? I hear that theme in your book and his music.
    JEFFREY: Listen to his “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” There’s this simple song, “Factory,” a very stark picture of people getting up and going off to work and not even caring so much about victory in life –- just trying to survive life. And you hear this even more clearly on “The River,” which is an album that flows like a river. That means there are good times and there are happy songs –- and there are sad songs as well –- and the two things come right after one another. It’s an epic album –- a whole panorama of life from its highs to its lows and the way that they often come right after one another.

    DAVID: So, here’s another one: “There is a power within the souls of men and women to transcend the world, and to achieve real victories in spite of the world.” The message there?
    JEFFREY: The message is that even though there are all these downtrodden people in life -– and even though many of them may lead uneventful lives, in some ways -– they still are able to make it through life and, often, they’re able to break through their difficulties into a new and better stage of life. They may even struggle toward great victories.
    A good example of that is what he does in “The Rising” in 2002. He’s calling on us to tap into the power that’s in all of our souls to rise up. He’s calling us to use the strength and power and wisdom we have within us. Instead of just letting life force us along, we can tap into that strength that is right there in our souls.
    It always comes down to hope with Springsteen. It comes across very clearly in “The Rising.” In his new song, “Long Walk Home” from the “Magic” album, he talks about this town where everything is closed and everything is falling apart. It’s obviously a metaphor for where he sees America standing at the end of the Bush era. But instead of going home, turning off the lights and getting lost in your own concerns -– he says it’s never too late to start the long walk home. It’s a long walk. It isn’t easy. But we need to make the walk.

     DAVID: Once again we’re hearing themes that cut across religious traditions. There are Christian traditions like this -– but we’re talking about an almost Buddhist approach to these themes as well.
    And No. 4: “Life without connections is empty and dangerous.” What’s this about?
    JEFFREY: He realizes that the line dividing any of us –- the line dividing winners and losers in life, let’s say -– is a very fine line, indeed. And what really distinguishes a good life -– what marks a winner — is our relationships with one another. The question we should be asking isn’t: How much money can I make? But: How connected are we with each other? How do we deal with other people? Is there justice for the people around us?
    A good example of this is “Hungry Heart” from “The River.” It’s about this guy who leaves his wife and kids high and dry –- and decides to live for himself alone. He’s not going to worry about any of his connections in life. He doesn’t end up a winner in any sense of the term winner. He winds up alone again.
    You hear this in “Devils and Dust,” which was in 2005 a couple of years before “Magic.” There’s a song there, “Long Time Comin’,” about a man who grew up as the son of an absent father. Now, he’s sleeping outside one night with his own family and his wife is about to have another baby and he looks up into the stars in the sky and he says, “I’m not going to mess this up.” He doesn’t say the word “mess,” but I won’t use the word Springsteen uses there.
    That song is about someone truly wanting to meet the calling of his life — and it’s not any bigger in that moment than just meeting the responsibilities he has to the connections in his life. The connections around us can become the proof of whether our lives are redeemed or not.
    DAVID: No. 5 is: “Our stories symbolize something deeper.”
    JEFFREY: According to Springsteen the Big Lie is that only celebrities and rich-and-famous people have stories worth sharing. As a prophet, Springsteen is our culture’s greatest exploder of that lie. His songs, like the one we just talked about, are all about ordinary people who offer us immense wisdom from their experiences.

     DAVID: And No. 6  is: “Life is embodied.” You write in the book, “There is in Springsteen no strict dichotomy between body and soul, no denigration of human sexuality, no minimizing the importance of physical intimacy in the development of a healthy, whole being.
    JEFFREY: My dear mother in law, when she read that, said: “So, there is sex in your book.” I said, “Well, yes, there has to be some.”
    There is in Springsteen’s music, too. He’s trying to heal the split between body and soul. He’s saying we’re integral beings with bodies and souls — and neither one is good or evil. It’s what we do with both of them that matters.
    It’s this part of his message that is so wonderful and lifts it above just a talking head making music. His music is exciting, exuberant, alive, embodied. That’s why his music has lasted so long.
    DAVID: And No. 7: “It’s all about change.”
    JEFFREY: One reason I like Springsteen is that, as I’ve gotten older — his music grew up with him and, so, it was able to grow up with me, too.
    He doesn’t try to sing like he’s 24 anymore. He sings with experience now. He sings like a grown up –- not just driving around in a car all night even though it’s still great to hear him sing that earlier stuff. The point here is this: If we don’t cling to the past in a negative way, then the past can bless us in memory and it can still be a healthy, living presence in our memories. It’s when we try to cling too completely to living in the past that we get strangled by it.
    A great example of this idea is “Long Walk Home” or some of the other later songs like that.
    This idea starts to come through his music a lot more when he has children and he begins to sound more like a person who’s ready for middle age. We begin to hear more of his social conscience emerging. We hear more about our responsibilities as citizens of the world.

    DAVID: But there’s No. 8, almost looping back to where we started: “There is no guarantee of success.”
    JEFFREY: Right, this does loop back to the earlier ideas we talked about. He sings about good people who sew seeds and they don’t come up. That’s the truth of what can happen. We can really work hard in life — and still not realize our dreams. There’s no guarantee of success. This life is hard.
    DAVID: And, No. 9: “Hope is resilient.”
    JEFFREY: Well, hope is a lot of what Springsteen is all about. There’s a lot of despair and depression in his songs. A  lot of things don’t work out in his songs, but in his world despair is seldom if ever given the final note. There are a few songs that end on a downer, but by the end of most of his albums we’re back hoping again. This is a very resilient hope –- it’s not a pie-in-the-sky optimism that everything will just somehow turn out right. This is a deeper, adult faith we’re talking about here. He’s saying that, even though you’re an adult and know about all the terrible things in the world, you still can believe in a promised land. In “Darkness on the Edge of Town” he really sings about this resilient hope — almost in defiance of all the negative stuff he sees around us.

    DAVID: And, No. 10: “There is always something more.”
    JEFFREY: We know he’s very good at painting an honest picture of life. As an artist, he’s a realist, who shows us life in both its dark and its light — but he’s also able to point us to a deeper reality.
    Emmerson said that, in life, a wise person is the one who can see the miraculous in the commonplace and that’s what Springsteen does. On the surface, most his songs can look like just another bunch of blue-collar ballads -– but he’s always pointing us toward the higher meanings in all of this.
    Even when things look darkest, there is always something more.

    We’ve got an interesting theme unfolding on the OurValues.org landing page this week. The site is run by Dr. Wayne Baker, a researcher from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research who is trying to re-examine how sociologists and other researchers study American values. This week’s theme is “happiness / unhappiness” — almost an extension of the Springsteen themes today. Visit Dr. Baker’s landing page and tell him what you think.

    Remember, you can click on any cover today and jump to our bookstore. You can pick up Jeffrey’s book right now via Amazon — or order any of these Springsteen albums you may have missed. (Today’s photo of the author courtesy of Ronald W. Fontaine.)
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