Of Devils and Dust, and Mothers and Sons
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 19, 2005
Not Liz and I. This year, just over a week ago in fact, we spent our 27th wedding anniversary in West Long Branch, New Jersey, at Monmouth University there, to be exact. You see, we were attending the first-ever “Bruce Springsteen Symposium”—billed as the “first-of-its-kind conference for educators, journalists, historians, musicologists, and anyone interested in scholarship regarding Bruce Springsteen.”
Nor were we alone. There were approximately 500 such educators, journalists, historians, musicologists, and what-have-you present, not to mention more than a few members of the clergy—including the Presbyterian elder (their equivalent of a bishop) from way across the pool in Wales. There were also people from more than 30 U.S. states, and far-off countries like Australia, India, France, Germany, Italy—and California. The event featured more than 150 speakers, presenting papers on “Legal Issues and Springsteen”; “Politics and Springsteen”; “Psychology and Springsteen”; “Citizenship and Springsteen”; “Musicology and Springsteen”; “Folk Music and Springsteen”; “Springsteen and the Working Class”; “Springsteen as Narrative Poet”; “Literature and Springsteen”; “Biography and Springsteen”; “The Novel and Springsteen”, and on and on… There were five separate sessions on “The Theology of Sprinsteen”, one of which even featured a paper on “Exploring Religious Imagery in The Rising”, the gist of which was originally presented from this very pulpit.
When my brother asked my mother where we had gone for the weekend, and she told him, “Oh, Jeffrey’s spending the weekend with Bruce Springsteen,” she was engaging in more than a little wishful thinking. Bruce never showed up (nor was he expected to), in spite of the fact that his home is just a few miles away from Monmouth. But Elizabeth and I had plenty of people to keep us company over the weekend of our anniversary, certainly.
We met some very interesting people (like that Presbyterian elder from Wales); heard numerous presentations that moved and inspired us; some that confused us (including one that was so heady that I didn’t understand a single word of it); at least one that well-neigh infuriated us, and I left the weekend with enough Bruce swimming in my head to keep me humming for the next six months, at least.
Perhaps the most empowering aspect of events like this one is how affirming and invigorating it can be to be among people who speak the same language as you do: people who share, at least in outline, the same worldview about some aspect of life; to whom you don’t need to explain your passion for a particular facet of living; who use the same vocabulary, and understand the allusions you’re making; who, in a word, “get it” when you talk about Springsteen and how his music makes you feel more alive, and helps you to see the world more clearly. “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive,” Bruce sang way back in the late 70s. Some of us know, too, that it’s not a sin, nor is it silly to comprehend the critically important insights on our life and times—on our entire human predicament—offered to us by this well-known, resilient, tenacious, outspoken, honest, talented performer, musician, writer, poet, family man, citizen from northern New Jersey.
Some of us believe that popular culture presents an important reflection of some of our deeper hopes and fears, and furthermore, we believe that the writings and work of Bruce Springsteen offers insights into our time and place in history as important as any those of any other figure in popular culture. He deserves to be listened to; his ideas deserve to be explored. So, here are a few thoughts on the latest opus in the Springsteen canon, his newest record album (do we still call them record albums?), Devils and Dust, released earlier this summer ( and don’t be surprised if the gist of this paper doesn’t show up at some future Springsteen seminar some day, too).
Bruce Springsteen is a man of multi-dimensional talent, and, since the 1980s, he has chosen to follow several of his more “commercial” albums with a simpler, more personal musical statement. So it was that 1980sThe River was followed by the stark, spare, even bleak Nebraska, which Springsteen recorded in three hours in 1982, sitting at his kitchen table. Nebraska was followed a little over a year later by Born in the USA, a mega hit which sold 20 million copies, was quoted (excrutiatingly inappropriately) in President Reagan’s State of the Union Address, and catapulted Springsteen into the ranks of international superstardom. Now, with Devils and Dust, he has followed 2002’s The Rising, his epic-like statement on the tragedy of September 11th, with more personal and lower-volumed ruminations.
In the album’s title track, he put us in the place of an American solider in Iraq (though his perspective clearly reflects so much literature that has come before, from Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage toAll Quiet on the Western Front, to more recent works on the Second World War and Vietnam.
I got my finger on the trigger
But I don't know who to trust
When I look into your eyes
There's just devils and dust…
Springsteen adamantly and openly opposed the American invasion of Iraq, but this song is more than a partisan anti-war screed. He never confused opposition to a particular war with opposition or contempt for those who are called upon to fight it. We empathize with the isolation and loneliness of those sent thousands of miles away from their homes and loved ones to implement a particular government policy:
We're a long, long way from home, Bobbie
Home's a long, long way from us
I feel a dirty wind blowing
Devils and dust…
“Devils and Dust” is a song palpable with fear—the fear that comes from being cut off from our connections with those things—those people, those ideals, those touchstones and verities—which give our lives their meaning and their purpose:
I got God on my side
I'm just trying to survive
What if what you do to survive
Kills the things you love
Fear's a powerful thing
It can turn your heart black you can trust
It'll take your God filled soul
And fill it with devils and dust.
“Blessed is he who is joined to all the living,” the Old Testament book of Proverbs tells us. The more we are connected with life—with real life, real people, in all of their sometimes maddening, sometimes inspiring complexity—the more blest we will ultimately be. But one can infer, too, that the opposite is true, as well—that “Cursed is he who is separated from all the living”—cursed is the one who is dis-jointed from humanity; who is separated from the swirl of real life. “There is no greater evil than isolation,” Springsteen said in an interview recently. Our fundamental need for connection—for that “human touch” to fill our “hungry hearts” (to mix a metaphor) has been a fundamental proclamation of his work for more than thirty years now. Nowhere does it appear more clearly than in Devils and Dust.
Next, he makes another clear reference to the Old Testament, and the prophet Ezekiel’s valley of the dried bones.
Well I dreamed of you last night
In a field of blood and stone…
But there will be no resurrection place down here in Springsteen’s nightmare:
Well I dreamed of you last night
In a field of mud and bone
Your blood began to dry
The smell began to rise…
No resurrection—no rising this time—just the rising smell of death—when “the things we do to survive kill the things we love.” “Fear’s a powerful thing,” Springsteen sings once again. “It’ll turn your heart black you can trust…” As the antidote to this fear Springsteen posits not the certainty of ideology, or narrow patriotism, or even the call of a small and particular faith—“Tonight faith just ain’t enough”. What, then, can banish the devils and dust, the ghosts of this new Badlands, the spectre of death that surrounds us—and restore our “God-filled souls”?
Only love can.
Now every woman and every man
They want to take a righteous stand
Find the love that God wills
And the faith that He commands…
Sometimes, even our particular faiths aren’t enough. It’s not that faith—any faith—is wrong; but our hearts need something more; our world needs something more that religious creeds and partisan screeds. Remember the words of St. Paul when he talked about the “most excellent” spiritual gifts: “So these three abide,” Paul said, “faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.”
It is the love in our hearts which moves us beyond the hatred and the fear that divide the human family, and get our hearts pumping again with the Spirit of God. Only when we approach life from the direction of love, and not from fear, do we reflect the divinity that is within our souls.
This is never an easy calling, and even the best of our human race answer it imperfectly. Most of us spend much of our time here lurching from mistake to mistake, occasionally redeemed by blessed moments of redemption, love, and grace. But despair is never the last word in Springsteen, and, indeed, so much of his work—as so much of truly mature and integrated religion-- can be characterized, as defiantly hopeful—hopeful in spite of the tragic and mad and terrible things that you and I know that this world can do.
The great choice we face in life is whether to give in to the fear, or to seek to respond to life in a spirit of love; to live life in an attitude of hope, or to give in to the despair that we so often face. “In every song on this album,” Springsteen told the New York Times, “somebody’s in some spiritual struggle between the worst of themselves and the best of themselves, and everybody comes out in a slightly different place.” “It’s what gives [this] record its grounding in the spirit,” Springsteen said.
One commentator has called Devils and Dust Springsteen’s “family-values album, filled with reflections on God, motherhood, and the meaning of home.” A more conservative commentator called Devils and DustSpringsteen’s “most spiritual album to date”, and pointed out that eight of its twelve songs include explicitly religious references. “Devils and Dust is haunting and beautiful,” this evangelical commentator continued, “chock full of songs of hope, love, and redemption, as well as tales of sin, brokenness, and confession.” Just like real life—real life which Springsteen, great storyteller and narrative poet he is, tells so livingly and lovingly.
In “All the Way Home”, Springsteen talks about the disappointments that often dog us in life:
I know what it's like to have failed, baby
With the whole world lookin' on
I know what it's like to have soared
And come crashin' like a drunk on a bar room floor…
“Reno”, a quite explicit story of a man’s visit to a prostitute, reminds us that there is no such things as grace on demand—that real grace comes not through casual relations and using others, but through the demands (and, sometimes, the limitations and inconveniences and sacrifices) of real life-long commitment to one another. The main character in the song thinks back to a genuine love in his life—a love which he lost because of his unwillingness to commit and sacrifice—then he is called back to the “real” world by the words of the prostitute:
She poured me another whisky,
Said, "Here's to the best you ever had."
We laughed and made a toast.
[But then, he concludes:]
It wasn't the best I ever had,
Not even close.
The real “best we’ll ever have” is never gained on the cheap; it is, rather, that which costs us the most—in time, and labor, and in love—but which opens up to ourselves the true miracles of grace which abound when one soul commits itself to another.
In “Long Time Comin’”, Springsteen ponders the demands of family—of fatherhood in particular. The main character in the song thinks back upon his own absent father, and realizes how much that absence—that emptiness in his soul-- has wounded him, and how he carries it around with him, every step that he takes:
Well my daddy he was just a stranger
Lived in a hotel downtown
When I was a kid he was just somebody
Somebody I'd see around
Now down below and pullin' on my shirt
I got some kids of my own
Well if I had one wish in this god forsaken world, kids
It'd be that your mistakes would be your own
Yea your sins would be your own…
But then, there comes a moment of grace, and redemption, and profound hope:
Well there's just a spark of campfire burning
Two kids in a sleeping bag beside
I Reach 'neath your shirt, lay my hands across your belly
And feel another one kickin' inside…
He’s not going to [mess] it up this time, he vows. Instead, committed to his family, he’s going to “bury my old soul/ And dance on its grave.”
We make mistakes in life, more than we care to number sometimes. But we can know those times of grace and redemption, as well.
The journey continues—through Ezekial’s valley of dry bones again (the South Bronx, this time) in “Black Cowboys” where a young man sets out to find his own Promised Land on the Great Plains… to “Maria’ Bed” which compares the arms of the beloved to “the upper room”, and which speaks of “sweet salvation” sounding very much like a somewhat modernized excerpt from “Song of Songs”… and then, near the end, Bruce takes us even unto Calvary itself:
The most explicitly religious song on Devils and Dust is, of course, “Jesus Was An Only Son”. As you heard earlier, this song is a lovely, reverent, almost hymn-like ode to Jesus of Nazareth and his mother, Mary. Its lyrics and music could come right out of a mainline Christian hymnbook:
Jesus was an only son
As he walked up Calvary Hill
His mother Mary walking beside him
In the path where his blood spilled
Jesus was an only son
In the hills of Nazareth
As he lay reading the Psalms of David
At his mother's feet…
Springsteen’s earlier work contained numerous references to troubled relationships between fathers and sons, reflecting, no doubt, his own turbulent relationship with his father. Now, in more recent songs, as Springsteen has grown older and moved beyond some of his earlier angst (and, as he has fathered three children of his own), he is more willing to look at the positive gifts which our parents provide us—the love, the care, the protection—especially the bond we develop with our mothers. At least five of the songs on this album deal with the relationship of mothers and sons. In “Silver Palomino”, a young boy has a vision of a beautiful white horse shortly after his mother’s death, running through the hills which his mother loved so much. In “The Hitter” an ex-boxer confesses the sins of his life through his mother’s screen door, knowing that if he can’t find absolution there, he is truly doomed. And in “Jesus Was An Only Son”, Springsteen plumbs perhaps the West’s most fundamental mother-son relationship of all.
In this song, too, Springsteen seems to have made full peace with the Catholicism of his boyhood, something he disparaged and even ridiculed in earlier work, but which now, it seems, he has grown up enough to acknowledge and even embrace. Where does the pervasiveness of Christian imagery in his songs come from, Bruce was asked by a reporter from the New York Times. From three places, Springsteen replied, “Catholic school, Catholic school, Catholic school. You’re indoctrinated,” he went on, “It’s a none-too-subtle form of brainwashing, and, of course, it works very well.”
“I realized as time goes on,” he continued, “that my music is filled with Catholic imagery [and] It’s not a negative thing. There was a powerful world of potent imagery that became alive and vibrant and vital, and was both very frightening, and held out the promises of ecstasies and paradise. There was an incredible internal landscape that they created in you.”
It is in his willingness to explore his internal landscape—and in so doing lead us to explore our own—that Bruce Springsteen opens us all to the gifts of the spirit that lie within our souls. He reminds us that we are not alone, in the universe, or upon this earth. He calls upon us to keep faith with the oppressed and marginalized, and in so doing answer clearly the calling of that great man of Nazareth and his dream of grace, community, and justice, on earth as it is in heaven. “If God can become human,” Thomas Aquinas wrote, “then that teaches us that the things of this earth can become reflections of the holy.” In this life, we all face those losses that can never be replaced; those destinations we will never reach. But we, too, are reminded to have hope, and take joy, and know that beating at the very soul of the universe is a divine will which offers gifts of grace too numerous to tell to us all.
Through the words of Bruce Springsteen, perhaps, we can come to glimpse some of those gifts of the Spirit, just a little bit more clearly.