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The Boss and Catholicism: Springsteen’s memoirs

By Neil Dhingra

If we could spatially represent the difference in excitement for a new Bruce Springsteen album and for an addition to the scholarship on Springsteen, it would be as large and mysterious as New Jersey. But, now, in the middle of that otherwise lunar landscape may be Springsteen’s brilliant memoirs,[1] published last year. Some analyses of Springsteen’s religious imagery see him in terms of a distinctly Roman Catholic imagination; others, as the representation of a universal experience of hope and despair. In his memoirs, Springsteen clarifies his relationship to his Catholicism and helps us make sense of his last full, original album, Wrecking Ball (2012), as well as the nature of hope itself.

At first, Springsteen seems to have transferred his childhood religiosity to an affirmation of the world as it is — those “precious gifts of earth, dirt, sweat, blood, sex, sin, goodness, freedom, captivity, love, fear, life and death … our humanity and a world of our own.”[2] But Springsteen has said of Roman Catholicism, “I’m still on the team.”

Why? Springsteen describes the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic world as one of “risk.” He “knew” and knows that this is true. Springsteen’s world remains one of “great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward.” The world is “dark and beatific,” a place of intense grace but also where we can turn into devils. His songs have featured self-destructive characters or those poised on the precipice; he had seen the “power to not love” in his father’s taciturn anger, and later saw it in himself, as he encountered “the hard blues of constant disaffection” in his inherited fears of intimacy. Risk pervades Springsteen’s memoirs to the end, as he pictures himself on a motorcycle, braving the winds that are “subtly threatening to blow me off six hundred pounds of speeding steel,” scanning for deer on a dark road, before mercifully arriving home.

If the Roman Catholic Church revealed a world of risk, the church of Springsteen’s youth seemed so fascinated with the haunting prospect of damnation that the faithful were often cruel to those who came close to the line. A nun instructed a “beefy little enforcer” to discipline the wayward young Springsteen, and Springsteen noticed his “cuff link reflecting the sun upon the wall.” Light imagery has gone terribly wrong. Springsteen, an inept altar boy, was once dragged by a “grumpy, eighty-year-old monsignor” to the “gasping shock of all, facedown on the altar.” Others showed stunning generosity. Still, Springsteen does not believe in a Jesus who damns: “enough of that.”

If the institutional Roman Catholic Church seems all too human, immersed in the same world of risk as the working-class neighborhoods and bars, the reality of risk shows why Springsteen’s songs have emphasized hope. This is not hope in a physical resurrection. In his memoirs, Springsteen suggests, “Renewed sight is the hero’s last loving gift to those left behind.” This is hope in the telling of stories — sometimes, dark and painful stories —that carry within them “the rebirthing seed of renewal.” “Slowly, a new story emerges from the old, of differently realized lives, building upon the rough experience of those who’ve come before and stepping over the battle-worn carcasses of the past.” This is the possibility of radical mercy for ourselves and others; Springsteen remembers saying the Lord’s Prayer as an adult “in the shadow of the steeple” of his hometown for “all of us, forever and ever, amen.”

In an article on Springsteen and hope in the Biannual Online-Journal of Springsteen Studies (BOSS), Andrew Gardner,[3] writing without benefit of the memoir, notes that Springsteen deviates from Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of the theological virtues insofar as he stresses hope instead of faith. Springsteen sees “hope as the virtue that sustains and carries faith through the dire straits of life.” Hope is directed toward the realization of love, and we might have faith in ourselves, our communities, and God, as all these forms of faith may realize in love.

But Gardner notes, Wrecking Ball, written in the midst of recession, shows a winnowing of objects of faith. “We Take Care of Our Own” swings disturbingly from triumphalism to bitter irony depending on its context. The narrator begins, biblically enough, “I’ve been knocking on the door that holds the throne,” and ends with pointed questions such as “Where’s the love that has not forsaken me?” One imagines thousands of fans shouting the chorus back with Bruce, “We take care of our own.” But have they taken care of their own “from the shotgun shack to the Superdome”? And who are their own?

Other songs on the album show the collapse of human agency. The rapper in “Rocky Ground” pronounces, “Only silence now meets your prayers.” The narrator of “This Depression” says, “And all my prayers gone for nothing.” In “Swallowed Up” we hear the lament, “We trusted our skills and our good sails / Our faith that with God the righteous in this world prevail.” As Gardner points out, “Throughout Wrecking Ball, Springsteen roundly rejects government as an institution deserving of either confidence or devotion.”

“The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone,” says a line in “We Take Care of Our Own.” That’s exemplified in “Jack of All Trades,” in which the narrator pledges to work at whatever task is available, tells his lover that it will “be alright,” and says that the world will change. Then, he proclaims with curious hesitance, “We’ll start caring for each other like Jesus said that we might,” and succumbs to a lurid revenge fantasy about shooting “the bastards” responsible for his financial plight. Spencer L. Allen has noted that American audiences start cheering at this point as if at a football game, while European audiences remain more thoughtfully silent.[4] (That American response likely calls into question that line, “We take care of our own.”)

What is left for hope to sustain? The final song of the album, “We Are Alive,” evokes what Gardner calls “communities of resistance,” as the narrator listens to past voices: from a labor strike in 1877, the civil rights movement, and present-day migration.  He imagines others eventually listening to his own voice from the grave (“The earth rose above me, my eyes filled with sky”). Again, this isn’t a physical resurrection. Springsteen begins by singing, “There is a cross up yonder up on Calvary Hill,” but the realism is muted by talk of “a slip of blood on a silver knife” and “A dead man’s moon.”

As Springsteen writes in his memoirs, “We Are Alive” is about our capacity to “listen and learn from the souls and spirits who’ve come before,” to imagine what they would say. It is about our ability to sing their songs — as Springsteen sings in “Death to My Hometown,” to “Sing it hard and sing it well / Send the robber barons straight to hell.” There is something undeniably moving about this. As Jacqueline E. Lapsley writes,[5] the psalmist experiences a profound reorientation in the act of “public witness” in otherwise unchanged darkness: “It is good for me to be near to God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works” (Ps. 73:28).

As we listen to Wrecking Ball, do we miss the hope that is bound up with a faith in the God who will raise us from the dead? Of course, there’s fragility in relying on human memory. The dead in “We Are Alive” seem barely remembered; their outlines lack the illuminating points of detail characteristic of Springsteen songs. But I think that there is also a tension in the album that suggests an absence. Springsteen speaks of a beautifully inclusive community; “this train,” in “Land of Hope and Glory” carries “saints and sinners” and “whores and gamblers” and “losers and winners.” Nevertheless, “bankers” appear in the album as little more than dark forces of nature. Alexis Petridis of The Guardian writes, “Anyone hoping for a set of complex, difficult, nuanced songs in which Springsteen suggests bankers have feelings, too — admittedly a fairly improbable state of affairs, but you never know — is going to go home disappointed.”

The possibility of bankers in “this train” seems improbable. Springsteen has written movingly about forgiveness and the capacity of a flawed human being  to “transcend his circumstances.” His quietly glowering father once drove to Los Angeles to say, “And I wasn’t very good to you” — searching, Springsteen says, “to settle a new sum from the dark and confusing elements that had been our lives.” “That was it.”  In  “Galveston Bay” (The Ghost of Tom Joad, 1995), the hostile white shrimp boat captain “took a breath” and, as the Vietnamese-American captain walked by, “let him pass.” But, tellingly, Springsteen’s father only made the drive just before Springsteen became a father, when they suddenly had something in common. And the shrimp boat captains, despite their seemingly insurmountable differences, both “cast their nets” upon the waters of Galveston Bay.

In contrast, it isn’t clear where the slightest embers of a changed relationship between the bankers and the working class may glow. If a character in Wrecking Ball were to seek a transformed relationship with the unnamed bankers, would that be more than a sad, desperate, and even self-destructive act?. The lives of Wrecking Ball’s protagonists and their communities seem shadowed by the inexplicable, unassimilable danger of “Banker’s Hill,” whose opaque presence may cause them to, like the narrator of “Jack of all Trades,” desire bloody revenge; or, like the criminals in “Easy Money,” justify their comparatively minor malfeasance: “And all them fat cats, they’ll just think it’s funny.”

The characters in Wrecking Ball may have to somehow forgive these bankers. And such forgiveness may only become possible with a specific faith in a God who will raise the dead. One of the most moving recent examples of such forgiveness is the last testament of the Trappist monk, Christian de Chergé, written before he was murdered in Tibhirine, Algeria, in 1996. His killer would be unknown to him. The murderer’s motives, rooted in Islamist extremism, would border on the unimaginable, and, in being so, invite only hostile response. De Chergé’s testament is not grounded on a common point of understanding with his killer.

Instead, it is grounded on the hope that, in eternity, there is a perspective — the “gaze … of the Father” always seeking to “reestablish likeness, playing with differences,” in which an impossible reconciliation may become possible. De Chergé’s “piercing curiosity” about that possibility can only be satisfied at the moment of his own death. The only conceivable “place” for relationship with his killer would be in that gaze of “our common father” in which they are nothing more or less than “two penitent thieves, in Paradise.” By imagining the possibility of relationship in impenetrable darkness, De Chergé, Angelo Scola writes, “involves the perpetrator, in spite of himself, in his, De Chergé’s, act of witness, in some sense robbing the evil performed by his murderer of its unjustifiability.”[6]

Of course, nobody wants to hear a song imagining the actual meeting of the “two penitent thieves,” which would be offensive in its likely sentimentality and idealism.[7] But a hope against hope that such a thing is possible, not here and now, but in a real but unimaginable eternity in the gaze of the Father, may be our only way of fathoming a train that carries not only “whores and gamblers,” “saints and sinners,” “losers and winners,” but also “bankers.”


[1] Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (Simon & Schuster, 2016).

[2] Springsteen’s lyrics have often shown that displacement — from “redemption” coming only from “beneath this dirty hood” (“Thunder Road”), to opposing “drawing wine from this blood” and the reality of “you and me tonight” (“Human Touch”), to finding our “own true piece of the cross” after “our book of faith’s been tossed” with the flesh-and-blood Theresa (“I’ll Work for Your Love”).

[3] A. Gardner, “The Theological Virtues according to Bruce Springsteen,” The Biannual Online-Journal of Springsteen Studies, 2:1 (2016).

[4] S.L. Allen, “‘There’s a New World Coming’: The Eschatology of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball,” The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 26:2 (2014), pp. 202-14.

[5] J.E. Lapsley, “‘Bring On Your Wrecking Ball’: Psalm 73 and Public Witness,” Theology Today 70:1 (2013), pp. 62-68.

[6] A. Scola, “Which Foundation? Introductory Notes,” Communio 28(3), pp. 549-67.

[7] Springsteen, I think, rejects such sentimentality in 2002’s “Paradise” (The Rising).


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