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I would consider myself a Bruce Springsteen fan, not a devotee.

Bruce and I were close back in the day. His Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town were staples on my turntable. Maybe a decade later we reconnected—now on CD! –Tunnel of Love. A little older, some of our varnish knocked off as life’s disappointments mounted. Since then we’ve sort of drifted apart. Nothing personal, just life.

Then, a couple weeks ago, I watched Springsteen on Broadway on Netflix.

I had heard bits and pieces about Springsteen’s live performances on Broadway—basically solo, storytelling and singing some of his best-known songs. Five nights a week, from October 2017 until last month, Springsteen, now 69, performed in a small Manhattan theatre. I decided to take a look, despite its two hour and 33 minutes length.

It is more than good. It isn’t simply “noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable.” There were moments I was pretty sure that I was receiving the Good News. “Common grace” is not a category I favor. Better, I think, to go with Jesus’s words, “The wind blows where it chooses.” And I felt—or better yet, heard—the Wind during Springsteen on Broadway.

While these words are as much John Steinbeck’s as Springsteen’s, it is hard not to hear Matthew 25 echoing in The Ghost of Tom Joad.

Tom said, “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beating a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight against the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me, Mom, I’ll be there
Where there’s somebody fighting for a place to stand
Or a decent job or a helping hand
Wherever somebody’s struggling to be free
Look in their eyes, Mom, you’ll see me”

His take on his Catholic upbringing sounds decidedly Reformed. “You know what they say about Catholics…there’s no getting out.” (Although he attributes this perseverance and permanence to the hard work of priests and nuns, not the decrees God, as the Canons of Dort suggest).

Story

We’ve all heard about the power of story. And it is evident here. It isn’t surprising Springsteen is a masterful lyricist. He’s a masterful story teller. Preachers and teachers should give a listen and emulate.

That said, at times I also wondered about what frequent-guest-here-on –The Twelve, Chuck DeGroat, has called fauxnerability. The power of story, and our great need to be seen as authentic holds the temptation for storytellers and preachers to manipulate, to feign, to snatch at the emotional jugular. Where does embellishment end and deception begin? When does confession become calculating?

Reading comments online, some Springsteen devotees have accused him of this. If you’ve read his autobiography, Born to Run, apparently there isn’t much revelatory in the stories of Springsteen on Broadway, just earnestness and energy. Springsteen himself owns some of this. He chuckles and says, “I’m good” when admitting to writing songs about teenage street racers when he hardly knew how to drive.

Maybe the experienced actors out there can help with this question, “How can you repeat the same lines night after night (Springsteen on Broadway ran for 236 shows) without becoming fauxnerable?”

Several commentators have compared the show to worship—talking and singing going back and forth. It even ends with Springsteen offering a benediction of sorts, reciting the Lord’s Prayer. But one last thought about story and words that might be especially apropos for the preachers out there (physician, heal thyself…). I’ll confess that there were times during the show I thought, “Shut up already, and sing!”

Patriotism

No one has ever asked me be to a political campaign director. If someone did, I would point them to Springsteen. He has a deep sense of American patriotism, one that I can go a long way with. It’s the kind I imagine belonging to Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, maybe RFK. It is wide and inclusive, with a profound trust in the decency, welcome, and hard work of Americans. It has none of the chest-thumping jingoism and other acrid elements found in so much patriotism. If people are looking for a patriotism beyond frat-boy superiority, one that doesn’t spill into vulgar nationalism, they can look here. That said, I also wonder if like all patriotisms, Springsteen’s places too much hope and too much loyalty in things that cannot finally bear that burden.

Sin and Hope

We Reformed folk often say (with just a smidge of pride) that we focus more on sin than sins, the condition more than the symptoms. This can be difficult to convey, however, in a world more familiar with individualism, discrete acts, choices, and willpower.

Maybe Springsteen, the lapsed Catholic, can help us. He doesn’t seem especially concerned about sins. (If the f-bomb bothers you, this might not be something you should watch). But he gets sin. He has a profound sense that something monumental is out of joint in our world. Family, relationships, nations, institutions are going to hurt and sadden you, often unintentionally. Promises will be broken. Good intentions fail. Conversely, you will hurt and disappoint others. (I’d say 1987’s Tunnel of Love might be the most “Reformed” rock album ever.)

Despite Springsteen’s realism and his mea-culpa manner, there is nothing gloomy here. Hope radiates from people’s struggle and striving, a desire for something more, a common good, a refusal to surrender. It is inspiring and energizing. But like his inclusive patriotism, I wonder if these things can ultimately sustain hope, let alone salvation.

Poke around the internet and you’ll find lots of conjecture about Springsteen’s personal faith, along with some enigmatic quotes of his own. That’s not really my interest here. But if, on a cold and dreary winter night, you’re looking for some hope, some energy, and some surreptitious gospel, check out Springsteen on Broadway.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

9 Comments

  • Lori Witt says:

    Nice essay on Springsteen, Steve. I didn’t realize the show had ended! One comment—if he’s being “fauxnerable,” he’s been doing it consistently for almost 50 years. I think he’s a great performer and knows how to move his audience, but his consistent message over the long haul makes me think there’s some truth in what he’s saying.

    • Steve Mathonnet-Vander Well says:

      Thanks, Lori. I didn’t really mean to suggest that Springsteen is some phony. As you say, he’s kept a pretty consistent and admirable profile over the years. Some faux is simply part of the business, as Bruce winks and acknowledges. I think my point was more reminding us lesser-talents that in aspiring to be Springsteen, to be popular, the allure of fauxnerability is pretty strong.

  • James Schaap says:

    You convinced me, Steve.

  • Allen Schipper says:

    Is it possible that the current cutting edge of the Spirit-directed, Gospel message is not found in the churches?

    • Steve Mathonnet-Vander Well says:

      Hi Allen, as a minister I’m going to sound a bit turfy and defensive. Of course, the Wind blows where it will and the Gospel message is found in unlikely places. I still want to say, however, that Word and Sacrament are the standards, the criteria by which we know we have encountered the Gospel in all these other places. But I agree the Spirit is big, wild, free, and surprising, certainly not confined to the four walls of a sanctuary.

  • David Pettit says:

    “surreptitious gospel” – nice phrase. I like it and concur.

  • Thomas Goodhart says:

    Thanks, Steve. Good post. I never thought of myself as a huge Springsteen fan until I went to one of his concerts a few years back and found myself singing along to most of the music—his lyrics had really sunk into me, much more than I realized. He connects. He makes the connections. Don’t know about fauxnerability, I simply think he’s a tremendous showman. I will confess that while not his most entertaining album, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is one of my favourites. And watching him perform “Youngstown” live brought tears to my eyes. I’m sorry I missed his Broadway show but may indeed take up your advice and watch it. Thanks!

  • Diana J Walker says:

    I knew I liked it on Netflix. Now I know why. Thank you for helping me/us interpret who Bruce is and what he stands for. And to think on Broadway one can hear the Lord’s Prayer. Very moving.
    P.S. I know someone who paid a thousand dollars for his ticket. That, too, is moving!!

  • Jan Koopman says:

    Steve… those 2 1/2 hours on Netflix sped by….theologians and spirituality come to us in many ways

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