Which comes first, the gift of faith, or the structures and opportunities that help open one’s soul to that gift?
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.
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.
I bought my wife tickets to a Bruce Springsteen concert for Christmas. This may sound like the stereotypical man-gift—a present a husband bestows on his long-suffering spouse because he wants it for himself, like a riding lawn mower—but Amy really did want to see The Boss in concert again. Twenty-eight years ago, in our sophomore year at Michigan State, we and several friends sat—or rather, danced, since the crowd rarely left its feet at any point in the three-plus-hour concert—to the side and slightly back of the stage in the Joe Louis Arena on the Detroit stop of the Tunnel of Love tour. Springsteen has always performed for the entire audience, and seats behind the stage are often cheaper and closer (and the sound is less deafening). When I saw that we could get such seats in Milwaukee on the current tour celebrating the 35th anniversary of the release of The River, I bought the tickets on my iPhone, as we were waiting in Rockford’s Coronado Theater for Cheap Trick to take the stage.
This was Amy’s second Springsteen concert and my third; as we filed with thousands of other fans into the BMO Harris Bradley Center on that cold March night, I did not yet know that it would be my last—but probably not for the reason you are thinking.
Born in the U.S.A., with its iconic cover of a white T-shirted Springsteen, red baseball cap tucked into the rear pocket of his blue jeans, all silhouetted against a larger-than-life American flag, was the chief introduction to Bruce for my generation. Not for this country-music fan, however: That came several months later, in the spring of my junior year in high school, when my friend Andy Craig gave me five cassettes that he had copied off of vinyl (or as we called them back in those pre-hipster days, “records”)—Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, and (sprawling over two cassettes) The River. Even those who didn’t listen to rock couldn’t avoid Born in the U.S.A.—if only because of the controversy over the Reagan reelection campaign’s naively unironic use of the title song at campaign rallies in 1984, which evoked a sharp rebuke from The Boss—but Merle Haggard was more my style than the driving rock tempos and electronic keyboards that have made the album one of the highest-selling of all time.
But those cassettes—that was something different, and especially the 1978–80–82 trio of Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, and Nebraska. To have released Darkness and Nebraska over the course of four years would have been impressive enough, but Bruce had thrown in the double album of The River for good measure. (And there were enough outtakes, bootlegged for years and finally released in 2015 as one disc of The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, for another double album.)
Back in the mid-80’s, after the rise of the bluegrass- and western-influenced “New Traditionalists” such as Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Randy Travis, and George Strait, country-music fans liked to say that the thing that most set country apart from the various forms of rock was that you could hear the lyrics, and those lyrics told a story. Not surprisingly, then, what initially drew me to Springsteen were his lyrics. The River, in particular, became something like a soundtrack to my life, and unlike a generation brought up on digital downloads, I never listened to just a single song, or to any of the songs out of order. Once I pressed Play on my knock-off Walkman and heard the opening drum shot of “The Ties That Bind,” the music never stopped until the haunting final chord of “Wreck on the Highway” faded away.
That was how Springsteen intended The River to be heard, as a single work of art, and on the current tour Bruce and the E Street Band have led off with “Meet Me in the City” (one of the outtakes from The River) before playing every song in the order in which they are found on the original double album, without taking a single break. By itself, that set list would challenge a much younger man and band, but as the applause is still rising at the end of “Wreck on the Highway,” the largely sexagenarian crew launches into the first of a dozen more songs from every era of The Boss’s career, for a solid three-and-a-half hours’ worth of music every night.
I have listened to The River countless times in the 30 years since I first heard it, but there in Milwaukee, I had the sense of hearing it again for the first time. At 17, my connection to the album was inchoate; even a bright teenager is a bundle of emotions who can’t begin to understand what his life means, which is one of the reasons why rock ’n’ roll appeals so strongly to the young. At 47, though, the words that Springsteen used that night to introduce “The Ties That Bind” ring true to experience:
The River was my coming of age record. It was the record where I was trying to figure out where I fit in. I’d taken notice of the things that bond people to their lives . . . the work, commitments, families. I wanted to imagine and I wanted to write about those things—figured if I could do that, I might get closer to having them in my own life . . . I wanted to make a record . . . that felt like life . . . I wanted the record to contain fun and dancing and laughter and jokes, good comradeship, love, sex, faith, lonely nights, and of course teardrops. And I figured if I could make a record big enough to contain all those things maybe I’d get a little closer to the answers and the home I was trying to find . . .
Springsteen had originally planned to name the album after that first track, and even now, it’s hard to say it wouldn’t be a better title. For all of the classic rock themes of rebellion, the deeper theme running through every song on The River is the web of connections to those closest to you, of the experiences and the places you share, that you cannot tear apart without doing damage to yourself.
Yet, when we’re young, we’re constantly finding the horizon of our little world to be insufferably close, and too often all we can think about is ripping that web apart, trying to go it alone. For a 17-year-old boy in a Midwestern village of 2,000 souls, Independence Day could not come soon enough, though the recognition of what he would lose when it did come would take much longer to arrive. Thirty years later, I was looking at life in the rear-view mirror as Bruce introduced the song in Milwaukee:
“Independence Day” was the first song I wrote about fathers and sons. It’s the kind of song you write when you’re young, and you’re first startled by your parents’ humanity, you’re shocked to find out that they have their own dreams and their own desires and their own hopes that maybe didn’t pan out exactly as they thought it might, and all you can see are the adult compromises that they had to make, and you’re still too young to see the blessings that come with those compromises, so all you can feel is the world closing in, closing in, closing in, and I know when I was young, all I could think about was getting out, getting out, getting out.
Among the things I can see in that rear-view mirror is how Andy’s gift of those tapes led to me and one of my many freshman roommates greeting the first balmy day of May 1987 by throwing open the windows of A206 Bryan Hall and blasting (from start to finish, of course) The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. The girls in A106 were not fans, and they introduced themselves by banging on their ceiling with the handle of a broom—which, of course, only encouraged us to crank the music up. A conciliatory blender full of strawberry daiquiris and the better part of three decades and eight children later, Amy and I will celebrate our 24th anniversary this July.
My children, of course, have been listening to The Boss from birth, and I shared my second Springsteen concert, at Wrigley Field in September 2012, with my two oldest boys. My girls and my youngest son have been impatiently waiting their turn, which now, alas, will never come.
I could not care less about Bruce Springsteen’s politics; what drew me to his music is what it shares with all real art—the glimpse it gives us into the truth of human life. The National Review writer who damns the “cheap sentimentalism” of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” “Youngstown,” “My Hometown,” and the title tracks of Born in the U.S.A. and The River misses the point as badly as the Trump supporter who wants to make Springsteen into the poster boy for economic nationalism. Those songs are so powerful because each captures something that we recognize as true to human life. To the extent that art becomes slave to ideology—any ideology—it is no longer art.
And yet, just a month after The Boss stood on that stage in Milwaukee and explained his entirely nonideological reasons for creating The River to an arena full of people who were there not in support of, or in spite of, his politics but because his music has meant something to them, he enslaved his own music to his political views. It makes no difference to me if Springsteen wishes to follow in the fake-farmwife footsteps of Sissy Spacek and volunteer to testify in the North Carolina statehouse against the injustice of preventing a self-proclaimed “woman” with a penis from using the same public restroom as a five-year-old girl. But in canceling his April 10 tour stop in Greensboro, North Carolina, he did not “show solidarity for those freedom fighters” who think that the best way to treat the mentally ill is to indulge their fantasies. What he did was to ruin the evening of the husband who gave his wife tickets to that concert because they share a story like Amy’s and mine; of the young man who was planning to use the event to propose to his girlfriend; of the son who is headed toward an Independence Day of his own, but whose memory of this night spent with his father might someday have helped to draw him back home again.
Everyone who had tickets to that concert in Greensboro has a story about why he was going. And if Bruce Springsteen hadn’t canceled the concert, each would have had a story about what that night meant to him. None of those stories may have been earth-shattering; they may all have been mundane; but in the hands of a true artist—say, the man who once wrote the lyrics to The River, before his imagination was clouded by ideology—they might have become a work of art.
Call it The Ties That Bind.
First published in the June 2016 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.