The Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts has loved Bruce Springsteen’s music since before his ordination to the priesthood. As with many other baby boomers, the often shouted lyrics on Born to Run (1975) brought Springsteen to Fisher’s attention. But the spiritual themes of Springsteen’s lyrics have turned Fisher into a deeply loyal fan.
On March 8 Bishop Fisher joined the Rev. Canon Rich Simpson and the Rev. Laura Everett of the Massachusetts Council of Churches in presenting an “unquiet day” of reflections on “Bruce Springsteen: Prophet of Hope.” The workshop, held at St. Mark’s Church in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, drew a capacity crowd of about 75 participants. Bishop Fisher has conducted such reflections before during his years as a parish priest in New York.
The workshops draw devoted Springsteen fans, to be sure, “but then you get other people who know nothing about Springsteen but are wondering why the bishop likes Springsteen’s music so much.”
“What really put me onto his having a gospel vision was his album The Rising,” Fisher said. He remembers that his daughter Grace, then an elementary student, remarked that he played it in his car every time he drove her anywhere.
“Of course he does,” an aunt told Grace. “The whole album is a prayer.”
The Rising was Springsteen’s first album after the terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001. Springsteen said then that fans along the roads of New Jersey had asked for new music from him to help them cope with the emotional wounds of that violence.
Springsteen’s song “My City of Ruins,” which he wrote for an Asbury Park Christmas show in 2000, became an anthem for a post-9/11 New York City: “Now the sweet bells of mercy / Drift through the evening trees / Young men on the corner / Like scattered leaves / The boarded up windows / The empty streets / While my brother’s down on his knees.”
That song’s refrain of “Rise Up” is “certainly resurrection language,” Fisher said. “It’s all going to crumble and fall apart without God helping us.”
In the lyrics of “Radio Nowhere,” Fisher says, “I find a lot of resonance with St. Augustine and his observation that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” A sample of those lyrics: “I was spinning ’round a dead dial / Just another lost number in a file / Dancing down a dark hole / Just searching for a world with some soul / This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there? … I want a thousand guitars / I want pounding drums / I want a million different voices speaking in tongues.”
Bishop Fisher believes that in both his personal life and his social vision, Springsteen expresses an ever-expanding circle of care. “There’s a constant quest for community, a constant searching for that,” Fisher said.
He contrasts the anger of “Thunder Road” (“It’s a town full of losers, and I’m pullin’ out of here to win”) with the self-awareness and generosity of “Land of Hopes and Dreams” (“Well, this train carries saints and sinners / This train carries losers and winners / This train carries whores and gamblers / This train carries lost souls.”
Fisher cites Rabbi Azzan Yadin-Israel of Rutgers, who believes Springsteen’s work represents a North American liberation theology, especially as it “explores the distance between the American Dream and the American reality,” as Springsteen says. Yadin-Israel points out that Springsteen quotes more from the Old Testament than from the New Testament.
“Theologically, I would say the most dominant motifs are redemption — crossing the desert and entering the Promised Land — and the sanctity of the everyday,” Yadin-Israel has said. “Springsteen tries to drag the power of religious symbols that are usually relegated to some transcendent reality into our lived world. In his later albums he also writes very openly about faith.”
Fisher has seen Springsteen in concert. He appreciates that Springsteen cooperates with soup kitchens to help feed people in the cities where he plays. And he sees a Communion of Saints element now that Springsteen honors two members of the E Street Band who have died: keyboardist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemmons. Lights shine on their empty places onstage. “We’re here, you’re here, and they’re here,” Springsteen says.
“There’s definitely a religious revival feeling to it — but not a phony one,” Fisher says of Springsteen’s concerts. “It’s always hopeful. His songs never end in despair.”
Fisher will not be present, though, when Springsteen plays a concert near the bishop’s see city of Springfield. The hitch? Bishop Fisher is an outspoken opponent of casino gambling, and Springsteen’s outlet for the night is the Mohegan Sun Arena, adjacent to a casino with seven-figure slot payouts.