In his memoir published last year, Bruce Springsteen says that while he is no longer a practicing Catholic, he never quite left the faith.
He “came to ruefully and bemusedly understand that once you’re a Catholic you’re always a Catholic.” He adds “I don’t participate in my religion but I know somewhere … deep inside … I’m still on the team.”
That religious upbringing and education is perhaps most evident in the songs he has written over the course of his long career, according to Azzan Yadin-Israel, a Jewish studies and classics professor from Rutgers University who has just written a book on Springsteen’s use of biblical themes in his song lyrics.
In his book, The Grace of God and the Grace of Man: the Theologies of Bruce Springsteen, Yadin-Israel finds Springsteen coming to both the Old and New Testament again and again in his songs.
Yadin-Israel, in an interview with the Times of Israel, cited lyrics from several songs that he says refer to biblical passages.
In his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., for example, Springsteen tells a story of a soldier returning to America to find: “They’re breakin’ beams and crosses with a spastic’s reelin’ perfection … And everybody’s wrecked on Main Street from drinking unholy blood.”
This line, he says, comes from Matthew 26, the account of the Last Supper, when Jesus says “Take, eat; this is my body. This is my blood.”
He draws from the Old Testament as well, particularly in the song “The Promised Land,” from Springsteen’s fourth album, as the article in the Times of Israel sums it up:
He writes of being “On a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert,” which represents, in Yadin-Israel’s view, the biblical desert wanderings the Israelite’s experienced during their Exodus from Egypt as well as their journey to the Promised Land. It’s a long journey and the singer must overcome many difficulties, including an apocalyptic storm: “There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor, I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm.” In the book, Yadin-Israel asks why would the storm come from the desert floor rather than the sky. The answer, he found, lies in Exodus 13:21, when “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way.” Here the “dark cloud” is a biblical cloud, concluded Yadin-Israel.
The book devotes a chapter to the songs “Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale),” “Into the Fire,” “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Jesus Was an Only Son,” which Yadin-Israel says make up “Springsteen’s Midrash.” In Judaism a midrash refers to commentary on the Hebrew Torah.
Springsteen, Yadin-Israel says, moves easily between the sacred and secular spheres in his songs.
“He finds the religious in the earthly. He’s saying there are elements of the transcendent in our world. If Thoreau is about finding spiritualism in nature, if Nietzsche is about finding it in art, then for Springsteen it might be about [finding it in] the love of your wife or the freedom in the car,” he told the Times of Israel.
Yadin-Israel will talk about his research for his book at the Jesuit University of Scranton tomorrow in a lecture on the Old Testament themes and reinterpretations of the Bible in Springsteen’s lyrics.