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.

The Telegraph and the Clothesline

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Communication, in the abstract, is easier today than it has ever been before, largely because of the advance of technology.  From the telegraph to the telephone to the radio to the television to the Internet, the ability to communicate something—anything—to others, and to an ever-greater number of others, has become increasingly trivial, both in labor and in economic cost.  In this sense, the Information Revolution has been a revolution indeed; but whether it has truly been informative, in the sense of providing people with more and more of the information that is actually meaningful, is still an open question.

Indeed, there is reason to believe that much of what each of us could truly benefit from knowing has been lost in the flood of the asynchronous transfer of data—“communication without conversation,” as I called it last month.  Here and there, that realization may creep into our consciousness in unexpected ways.  The average person takes far more photographs today than ever before, yet he has far fewer of those photos preserved in a physical form, with fewer if any pictures of his family hanging on his walls.  He writes more emails to friends and relatives than any previous generation wrote letters; but the historian of the future will have a harder time reconstructing the everyday life of an average American in the first decades of the 21st century than historians today have in fleshing out the picture of the lives of those who fought in Vietnam or even in the Civil War, and not just because few of those emails are likely to be preserved; the content itself is banal at best and usually utterly ephemeral.  National and international news—or rather, those tiny slivers of it that vast media companies decide to present to us—is available to everyone with access to the airwaves or the Internet, but in most of the country, local news has never been harder to come by.  Even the clothesline telegraph—neighbors swapping gossip over the back fence—has fallen victim to the same technological trends that have lulled us into the false sense that we know more about the world around us than ever before.

Thoreau is far from my favorite American writer, and Walden is a book I have little desire to revisit.  But Thoreau, despite all of his second-rate Rousseauism, was on to something with his line about the telegraph.  The further removed any two people are from each other, by distance or affinity, the less likely it is that anything one may have to say to the other will be of any real importance.  As Thoreau continues,

We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.

Asynchronous communication is often a perfectly adequate vehicle for transmitting technical information.  But the kind of information that binds the generations, that perpetuates community, that builds up cultures and civilizations—those stories, sagas, and songs require conversation.  To some extent, that conversation can take place over the phone (audio or video), but the most faithful transmission takes place at sunrise in the local diner, or around the family dinner table on a Sunday afternoon, or on your front porch on a cicada-serenaded summer night.  Intonation, body language, the twinkle in the eye and the furrow in the brow—these may pass along more than the words that they accompany.

Such conversation is always local, even if the ostensible subject is ISIS and the Middle East or the umpteenth rehearsal of how Richard Nixon didn’t deserve his fate.  The message is the medium—the interaction, harsh yet gentle, frustrated yet patient, unyielding yet forgiving, between generations and friends and acquaintances and even the odd drifter passing through.

There is a group of men who sit at the same table at Nick’s Kitchen in downtown Huntington, Indiana, every morning from Monday through Saturday.  They would sit there on Sunday mornings, too, but the owner, JeanAnne Bailey, is a Methodist, and she observes the Lord’s Day.  Some of them have been there every morning for 30 years; others have come and gone, and younger ones have come and stayed.  They talk about everything, and about nothing; the table will fall silent for minutes at a time.  But just as on those still summer afternoons 40 years ago when I sat on the couch and read while Grandma tidied up the kitchen after lunch and Grandpa slept after a morning of working together in the garden and the yard, that silence speaks volumes about the ties that bind.

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