A month after celebrating his 71st birthday, Bruce Springsteen will release his twentieth studio record on October 23rd. In honor of this milestone, I want to offer a few thoughts on why the Boss’s music continues to mean so much to me.
Well there’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
Bruce Springsteen was raised in a large Catholic family in working-class Freehold, NJ. More interested in music than in the working life, Bruce made it clear even in his early music that he wanted to get out—he longed to get away and make a name for himself.
In one live recording of this early semi-autobiographical song “Growin’ Up,” he talks about his parents’ wishes that he find a normal career and “get a little something for yourself.” “But what they didn’t understand,” he says, “is that I wanted everything.”
Honestly, there’s part of me that’s somewhat repelled by this statement, and I always wince a little when I hear it on the live recording. It smacks of youthful pleasure-seeking and naïvety. However, it seems to me that the desire for “everything” that Springsteen articulated as a bright-eyed twenty-something has remained a driving force in his career, changing and re-forming itself in ever-interesting ways.
Springsteen’s desire—his longing for something better, something else—was a defining characteristic of his early albums. A kid from New Jersey writing about love and heartbreak and the desire to break away, the defining fixtures of the world around him were dying factories and the mazes of intersecting concrete that make up North-Central Jersey. And he realized early on that life in a place like this gradually wears people down inside. Regardless of prosperity, the desire or imagination that there could be anything more is slowly snuffed out.
Powerless to change the deep-seated cycles of cruelty and despondency in the world around him, Springsteen, in his music, transforms the world into a theater for the profound drama of the human soul. He turns boring, ordinary, even ugly places into an alluring stage where angry drivers on Route 1 become “broken heroes on a last-chance power drive.” In his hit “Jungleland” he sings,
There’s an opera out on the turnpike
There’s a ballet being fought out in the alley
And so he transforms ordinary spaces into the settings for soul-wrenching dramas of love and loss. His ability to do this hangs only partly on his skill as a musician and poet. It hangs equally, if not more, on the sheer force of his urgent desire for such a transformation—a desire that can only be heard in the timbre of his desperate, strained shout-singing. His lyrics have a certain artistic legitimacy on poetic merit alone, but I sense that their timeless status in rock history owes partly to the fact that they’re sung with such raspy lust for a better world.
Of course, all this desire for a new world—one transformed by love and lust and beauty—cannot be totally realized. To desire as deeply as Springsteen does in his music is a risky thing, as he leaves himself vulnerable to the disappointment and pain of unmet craving.
So Springsteen’s music is also filled with stories of people beaten and broken by a world that is as yet untransformed. His characters suffer loss, economic devastation; they kill and steal, living unredeemed lives in an indifferent world.
And yet, for decades Springsteen’s longing for the redemption of politics, families, economies, and sex has remained a common thread throughout all of his music. The stories of suffering not only coexist with the desire for redemption but somehow seem to make it stronger. In this way, Springsteen embraces as much brokenness as he can in an attempt to incorporate its bluesy inflection into the hopeful tune he is trying to sing. (Though I admit that being a multi-millionaire rockstar might help, too.)
Recently I was having a conversation with a friend about Christianity and its relation to other faith traditions. I was interested, I said, in all that a Christian might be taught by Buddhist practice—especially by the Buddhist who, grounded in the recognition of their tendency to cling to the world’s fickle impermanence, seeks to let go of their attachments and experience the diminishment of craving itself.
Especially today, when my moods so often depend on the latest world and national news, I’m attracted to a path that would allow me to be unaffected by such things.
Now, there’s a lot in Christianity that resonates with this Buddhist path—the Stoic influence on Paul being perhaps the most notable. Certainly the now-cliché Serenity Prayer, first penned by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, sheds light on at least some shallow commonalities between the Buddhist path and the Christian.
However, since this conversation I’ve been stuck on what seems the unavoidable centrality of desire in Christian faith—specifically, our desire for God’s kingdom to come.
Though no one seems to be on the same page about it, most Christians hope in some way for the parousia, or the “Second Coming.” Whatever this coming may look like, the existential belief in parousia seems to be something like a stubborn longing that God’s kingdom come. A desire somehow universal, oceanic, that love’s endeavor on earth is suddenly, totally realized “in the twinkling of an eye.” If hope is love’s desire, then I think faith in parousia breeds in us an intense desire for a kind of universal renewal—a redemption of things material and immaterial.
As far as I know, it’s been a long time since Bruce has identified as any kind of Christian. I don’t know what Springsteen’s faith looks like these days, but I’m sure that it’s quite different from mine. Though God is ultimately a mystery to me, I have committed myself in belief in Jesus Christ, in the Creeds, and so on.
But when I listen to Springsteen, I’m reminded of the intensity of my ache for parousia, the “being-there” of God in all things. And also that, paradoxically, the object of my desire is at the same time the well from which my desire is replenished.
Bruce’s music stubbornly longs for parousia, the “being-there” of God—whatever God might mean to him. And this deepens a desire I have, too, for my hope to be realized and for the world to be transformed in the twinkling of an eye. I’m not sure how else to put it.
Klaas Walhout graduated from Calvin in 2016 with majors in philosophy and religion. He has lived on the East Coast since then. He currently lives in Philadelphia, PA, where he spends his days (and sometimes nights) working as a hospital chaplain.