A long and noisy prayer.
That is the way that “the Boss”, Bruce Springsteen, described his music and his life in his highly successful Springsteen on Broadway performance. In this time of quarantine, many of us are catching up on old TV shows and movies that we just did not seem to have enough time to enjoy before. I am a Springsteen fan and while I have his autobiography Born to Run, I had let his 2017 Broadway performance come and go.
Four years ago, I preached a six-week sermon series on “People of Faith.” While many of my subjects seemed like obvious selections, such as Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter and Pope Francis, Bruce Springsteen along with the poet, Mary Oliver, also made my list. It was an intuitive choice after listening to Springsteen’s music over the years and judging that this rock and roll star was as much a theologian as he was a singer/songwriter.
The two and a half hour Springsteen on Broadway confirmed explicitly what I had picked up implicitly. This man is a priest, poet, pastor and theologian all rolled up in one. It takes a somewhat sophisticated eye and exposure to the world of church to pick up some of the theological references. His album The Rising, written after 9/11 is flooded with images of loss and meaning-making, Good Friday and Easter.
But it does not take much sophistication to see Springsteen’s heavy reliance on the Catholicism of his childhood when he ends his performance with a benediction that begins with these words, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
It is an unusual benediction for a legendary rock and roll star used to singing and playing in front of tens of thousands screaming fans. One might expect the Lord’s Prayer at a Billy Graham Crusade, but not as the closing and final thought from a legend probably more popular with the religiously skeptic than with those who keep the pews warm on Sundays.
But despite the risk of losing his own fans over stepping too far into the religious realm, Springsteen closed his autobiographical show with a reminder that the Lord’s Prayer of his childhood faith had been at the foundational core of his life, his poetry, his music and, dare I say, his mission in life. Springsteen is a storyteller and as a storyteller he knows that no experience goes wasted—not even religious experiences in a secular age.
Springsteen has often been called “the people’s priest.” One story especially bears this out. On the afternoon of September 11, 2001 amidst the chaos, terror and loss of a surprise terrorist attack, Springsteen was parked at stop light when a driver yelled at him across the lane, “Bruce, we need you.” Within months, Springsteen and the E Street Band had produced “The Rising”—a heartfelt response to the loss of 9/11 and the hope that one finds even out of the ashes of death.
This is what priests and pastors do. They speak for the people in times of joy and loss. They make meaning out of seemingly meaningless events. They write and they preach and they sing their way to a more hopeful world. They speak of the horror and the hope that each person carries in their heart.
I write this as good news.
If you are lamenting the loss of the church’s influence on our culture, please don’t lose hope. There are still priests, prophets and pastors out there doing God’s work. There are still poets, writers and singers doing the good work of theology. They just happen to earn their livelihood through royalties rather than pledges.
A friend of mine years ago went to a Springsteen concert and reported to me the next day. I asked him how it was, knowing that I was inviting a painful stab of jealousy. He told me, “It was like the best church service you could ever imagine.”
Springsteen himself has said that his life has been “a long and noisy prayer.”
May we all have such faith.
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades