Drain the Swamp

The most remarkable aspect of Bruce Springsteen’s performance at the 2018 Tony Awards wasn’t what he said or that he said it, but the unanimous acclaim with which it was greeted by both the assembled audience and those who viewed it at home.  As I noted in my August column, the story of faith, family, and place that Springsteen told was by no means remarkable, except in the fact that such stories are less lived today than in his childhood, and even less often told.

Yet such stories continue to speak to the human heart, including hearts damaged by pride and greed and lust.  And that speaks to the truth of the Gospel, of the history of salvation, including the story of Creation and of the Fall.  God looked upon His Creation, including man, and saw that it was good—and then we chose to become as gods, and obscured the image of God in our souls.

Obscured, but not erased, because that was not in the power of man to do.  We could not wipe out all that was good through our sin, because that would have meant the annihilation of Creation.  As long as man continues to exist, there must be good within him, because he did not create himself and is incapable of fully corrupting what God has made.

There was a time, back in the most heady days of the Renaissance, when one could reasonably say that what characterized the modern world was a revolt against the Catholic understanding of original sin.  Western man—including many within the Church and her hierarchy—rebelled against the idea that the Fall had so injured human nature that only by uniting ourselves, through grace, to the redemptive action of Christ could we begin to repair it.

No more.  Today, our culture not only accepts the reality of original sin but celebrates it.  Pride and greed and lust are seen not as distortions of human nature but as essential to who we are.  The embrace of the seven deadly sins cuts across political denominations and is as prevalent among those who profess to follow Christ as it is among those who reject the Gospel for “espousing hate.”  Be proud of who you are—even if who you are is, in large part, defined by actions that draw you ever further away from the image of goodness, truth, and beauty in which man was created.  Greed is good—even if our fellow man suffers because of it.  Love knows no bounds—a statement that’s undoubtedly true of God, but patently false when it is used to justify all forms of sexual activity.

This embrace (without recognizing it as such) of original sin should be accompanied by a hatred of all in man that is good, those elements of human nature that, while obscured in man by the Fall, still remain.  And, among the fringes, such a hatred can be found.

Among most people who have made their peace with original sin, however, some recognition remains that our fallen nature is not truly who we were meant to be.  That’s why such unremarkable stories as the one Bruce Springsteen told remain so powerful.  Goodness, truth, and beauty—as both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas knew—appeal to the very depths of the human soul, no matter how far our actions have removed us from the source of all that is good, and true, and beautiful.

The power of the story is indisputable.  But stories require storytellers, and they, alas, are in short supply, especially among those who consider themselves to be politically and culturally conservative.  There are many reasons for such a dearth.  In the summer of 1989, when I interned in Washington, D.C., at Accuracy in Media, I attended quite a few lectures at the Heritage Foundation, and every meeting of the Third Generation there.  (The Third Generation was a gathering of conservatives in their 20’s, so named because they were to pick up the torch of conservatism from the New Right, which had picked it up from the Old Right.  Yet, as I’ve mentioned in a previous column, almost no one from the Third Generation attended the lecture that summer by Russell Kirk, the preeminent voice of the first generation.)

After the lectures, over a Coors Light in the Heritage lobby, I would ask the men of the rising generation what novels they were reading, and what poets they would recommend.  I never once found one who was reading anything other than policy studies or (at best) works by the students of Leo Strauss.  Nor did I meet one who was a native of our imperial capital or its environs, or anyone who intended, once he had served his country, to return home.

Bruce Springsteen is, by all accounts, far from the textbook definition of a practicing Catholic, and he’s certainly no political conservative.  Yet this devotee of Flannery O’Connor lives only ten miles or so away from the neighborhood that he brought to life in the imaginations of the 6.3 million viewers who watched the Tony Awards (and the countless others who have viewed the performance on YouTube in the months since).  In doing so, he briefly drained the Swamp of their imaginations and allowed them to glimpse, if only for a few minutes, what life could—and should—be.

First published in the October 2018 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Hungry Heart

We lived spitting distance from the Catholic Church, the priests’ rectory, the nuns’ convent, the St. Rose of Lima grammar school—all of it just a football’s toss away, across the field of wild grass.  I literally grew up surrounded by God.  Surrounded by God and—and all my relatives.

The Hollywood elite has been painfully boring and predictable for decades, and the use of awards ceremonies to deliver political messages is nothing new.  But like everything else in the Age of Trump (with the exception of civility), this behavior has been taken up a notch.

So Robert De Niro’s carefully scripted outburst at the 2018 Tony Awards was surprising only in its predictability.  It was just a matter of time before some aging actor shouted “F-ck Trump!” on live TV.  (And yes, it was always going to be an aging actor, because no matter how easily a young actor’s knee jerks, he still has to think about the rest of his career, and no matter how liberal the Hollywood elite might be, it’s the people in the red flyover states who buy the lion’s share of movie tickets.)  The odds were high, too, that De Niro would be the one to do it, since he’s spent the last several months trying to garner free publicity for a dying career by releasing protest videos attacking Trump and his administration.

That De Niro’s antics did not reflect high-minded concern over the Trump administration’s policies is clear not just because of the vulgar language he used (the use of vulgarity, too, has become painfully boring and predictable, the stock-in-trade of all the politically obsessed today, whether “woke” or “red-pilled”), but because he had one job to do, and it had nothing to do with Trump.  De Niro was tasked with introducing a short performance by Bruce Springsteen, who earlier in the evening had been honored with a special Tony for his sold-out (and frequently extended) show, Springsteen on Broadway.

Since 1984, when someone who clearly had never read the lyrics attempted to appropriate “Born in the U.S.A.” as the theme song for Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign, Springsteen, like De Niro, has not shied away from using his platform to promote his political views.  But, with the exception of his decision to cancel a concert in North Carolina in 2016 as a protest against state legislation regarding restrictions on the use of public restrooms, Springsteen has understood that his job as a performer is not to create a political protest movement but to do what all art should do: tell stories that draw people closer to reality.

And so, even though De Niro, in the rest of his introduction, prodded the “Jersey Boy” to join him in his protest, Springsteen did not.  Instead, he sat down at a piano, picked out a few notes, and started telling a story.

His story was a simple one—a story of faith, and family, and place, in that (proper) order—and if it seems remarkable today, that’s a sign of how far American culture has fallen over the past 50 years.

We had cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmas, grandpas, great grandmas, great grandpas—all of us were jammed into five little houses on two adjoining streets. And when the church bells rang, the whole clan would hustle up the street to stand witness to every wedding and every funeral that arrived like a state occasion in our neighborhood.

“F-ck Trump” isn’t a story; it doesn’t even hint at one.  At best, it excites feelings of anger and hatred in our hearts, no matter where we fall politically.  Anger and hatred can and often are part of a story, going all the way back to Genesis (Adam raised a Cain, after all), but the stories that speak to the human heart, that make us want to be what we should be, and not just what we are—those stories speak of love, and understanding, and forgiveness, and mercy, too.  Anger and hatred are part of the reality of fallen human nature, but our fallen nature is not the end—not in the next life, nor even in this one.

We . . . had front-row seats to watch the townsmen in their Sunday suits carry out an endless array of dark wooden boxes, to be slipped into the rear of the Freedman’s funeral home long, black Cadillac, for the short ride to St. Rose cemetery hill on the edge of town. And there all our Catholic neighbors . . . and all the Springsteens who came before—they patiently waited for us.

The longing for the story, the narrative, the imaginative exposition of the good, the true, and the beautiful that calls us back to the reality for which we were created—the reality before the Fall—that longing is part of human nature, too.  The Gospel is not a series of statements of abstract truths, but truly the greatest story ever told—a story that did not stop with the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ but continues to this very day, a story in which Bruce Springsteen, and all of his family, and all of those, Catholic or not, who heard the bells of St. Rose of Lima in Freehold, New Jersey, tolling the Angelus three times a day, every day, have played, and continue to play, a part.

A family is not merely a story, but without stories, repeated often down through the generations, a family won’t long stay a family.  A place that has no stories can never be a home, and people who have no desire to learn those stories will never find themselves at home.  Each house in every town, each stone in every cemetery, has a story to tell, and learning those stories, and making them a part of our story, makes us more human, because they connect us to the reality of burdens borne and sacrifices made and the tender mercies that wipe out our offenses.

There was a place here. You could hear it. You could smell it. A place where people made lives. Where they danced. Enjoyed small pleasures. Where they played baseball. And where they suffered pain, and had their hearts broken. Where they made love, had their kids, where they died, and where they drank themselves drunk on spring nights, and did their very best, the best that they could, to hold off the demons, outside and inside, that sought to destroy them, their homes, their families, their town.

For six and a half minutes, Bruce Springsteen spun a story of the faith that can save us, of families that took care of their own, of life and love and longing in his hometown.  And for six and a half minutes—a very long time in today’s world—the crowd at the Tony Awards sat in rapt attention.  How many of those who listened to Bruce would consider themselves believing Catholics, or Christians of any sort?  How many have chosen family over a shot at fame?  How many have even had the experience, in our world of constant motion, of life in a hometown?

Yet there they sat, and listened, and applauded thunderously at the end, not just for the man who told the story but because of the story he told.  Perhaps in spite of themselves, and certainly in spite of the cultural trends that nearly all of those present have explicitly or implicitly endorsed after finding themselves lost in the flood, they recognized in Bruce’s unremarkable remarkable story the goodness, truth, and beauty that are imprinted on their souls.  Because every one of them, like each one of us, has a hungry heart that longs to be fed with love and with truth.

Here we lived in the shadow of the steeple, crookedly blessed in God’s good mercy, one and all.

Someday, when both Donald Trump and Robert De Niro have gone to their eternal reward (and Bruce Springsteen and all of us, too), De Niro’s words will be at best a footnote in history, and Springsteen’s may be as well.  But the story Bruce Springsteen told will continue, because it was not just an outburst of anger and hatred tied to the passing political scene but the story of all mankind, a story which began in the Garden, culminated in the Cross, and will end at the Second Coming—a story in which we all must play our part.

First published in the August 2018 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.