Pessimism and Hope: Bruce Springsteen and the Book of Ecclesiastes
Mark Norman, GWC Faculty
Biblical Studies, Philosophy ,Lth (BISA), Bth Hons (UNISA), Cth, (University of Cambridge) Mth (UNISA), Dth (UNISA).
2016 witnessed significant events in popular music. Other than the release of Lady Gaga’s ‘Joanne,’ 2016 also produced the Rolling Stones’ new album: ‘Blue and Lonesome’ (who thought that Sir Mick at 73 still had it in him?). We lost an icon with the death of Leonard Cohen. Cohen, with Springsteen and Dylan (now a Nobel Laureate!) was arguably one of the most important popular songsmiths of the past few decades.
Bruce Springsteen (‘The Boss’) also published his best selling autobiography, ‘Born to Run’ (2016, Simon and Schuster). But what makes Springsteen, Cohen and Dylan such great artists? Whilst this question has been pondered frequently by secular music critics it should also be considered from a Christian perspective, as popular music continues to shape culture, providing it with a portal through which to express its hopes, beliefs and frustrations. Certainly one answer (relevant to believers) would surely lie in Springsteen’s ability to articulate the deep questions people ask about themselves and their world.
As a genre, rock began to take flight with the partial wane of the popular ‘crooner’s like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett from the the late 1950’s. Moreover, roughly up until this point radio friendly artists tended to be somewhat optimistic in their social outlook. While Sinatra certainly possessed the marvelous ability to sing with great sensitivity of brokenness and heartbreak, the frustrations towards which he was drawn were those of love found and lost, not broader social issues. With Sinatra and others, even the ‘newer’ rock ‘n’ roll era of Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Beach Boys and Little Richard, initially reflected the a-political, optimistic mood of America’s post war economic boom.
All this changed with the introduction of two key factors which together exercised an unparalleled impact on the mid-twentieth century music, particularly in America. The first was the Vietnam war (1955-1975), and the second was the civil rights movement. These (present in Springsteen’s compositions) injected a new spirit of disillusionment and frustration into popular lyrics. For example, with the song: ‘Born in the USA,’ from the album of the same title (1984 Capitol Records), he laments how, feeling unsettled at home, he was sent to a foreign land to ‘fight the yellow man.’ True, at this time, other artists (often with the help of hallucinogens!) chose escapism but those with Springsteen’s convictions chose ‘truth’ with the acknowledgment that humanity’s plight would not be solved by mindless middle-class pursuits or the embracing of state ideologies.
His own career began with the ground-breaking album ‘Born to Run’ (1975 Columbia Records) which already manifested those powerful vignettes which would become part of the standard Springsteen narrative. From the streets of Jersey City to the steel mills of Detroit, these would include the bleak landscapes of post Vietnam, working class America – industrial depression visible in the exploitation and fruitlessness of blue-collar existence (of course, this is not to deny that there are also more positive themes in his music!).
Regarding the travails of the working man, listen to ‘This Hard Land,’ from ‘Born to Run’: ‘Hey there master can you tell me what happened to the seeds I’ve sown/Can you give me a reason sir as to why they’ve never grown…’ This is an America the tourist never sees.
Springsteen also covers relationships ending in disappointment and the inescapable desire to ‘break away’ from the endless, purposeless cycles of modern life with its superficial quest for meaning. In ‘Born in the USA’ he expresses it thus: ‘Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go…’ With ‘Hungry Heart’ (from the album, ‘The River;’ 1980, Columbia Records) he admits: ‘Got a wife and kids in Baltimore Jack/I went out for a ride and I never went back/Like a river that don’t know where its flowing/I took a wrong turn and I just kept going…’
At the nadir of the disco era, in ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ (again from ‘Born in the USA’) he admits: ‘This gun’s for hire even if we’re just dancing in the dark…’ In ‘The Human Touch’ (from the album of the same title, 1992, Columbia) he sarcastically sings of the hollow entertainment industry: ‘…57 channels and nothin’ on…’
Clearly this critical element in Springsteen’s songbook borrows from illustrious predecessors, those proponents of earlier protest folk music, including Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, the Negro spiritual tradition, even Blind Willie Johnson and the Delta Blues. Into this tradition he injects fresh insights and imagination.
Interestingly, Springsteen’s astute Christian listeners will also detect certain similarities between his pessimistic verse and that of the ‘teacher,’ featured in the Book of Ecclesiastes. As we know, the ‘teacher’ also has a penchant for life’s frustrations. He writes: ‘What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23).
Now whilst Springsteen’s music might not focus specifically on Christian themes or organized religion per se, it does nevertheless display a profound spirituality. The similarities between the two writers appear in three overlapping areas: Firstly, we have the theme of the ephemeral, fleeting nature of human existence. Secondly, there is the struggle to find fulfilment or meaning from the material realm and its pleasures. Thirdly, the resultant, ‘repetitive,’ empty patterns of life culminating in frustration and the desire for redemption.
For example, consider ‘Brilliant Disguise,’ where Springsteen in the middle of an uncertain relationship sings: ‘Tonight in our bed its cold/I’m lost in the darkness of our love/God have mercy on the man/who doubts what he’s sure of…’ (from ‘Tunnel of Love’ 1987, Columbia).
Nevertheless, readers and listeners need to appreciate that the pessimistic lyrics of the ‘teacher’ and ‘The ‘Boss’ are ultimately, hopeful, i.e., not nihilistic as was often the case with the songs of Kurt Cobain. On the contrary, the cynicism of both Springsteen and Ecclesiastes’ chief protagonist is one of commitment and hope for the future. In Springsteen’s case, all is not lost; clearly he still loves America. Unquestionably, the ‘teacher’ still hopes in God’s eschatological purpose in fulfilling his intentions for the created order despite it being subject to frustration.
In this regard, listen again to ‘The Boss’ in ‘Reason to Believe,’ from ‘Nebraska’ (1982, Columbia Records): ‘Still at the end of every hard day people find some reason to believe…’ He also acknowledges his inner relational yearning which others can’t quite fulfil: ‘Everybody’s got a hungry heart…’ (‘Hungry Heart,’ from the album, ‘The River;’ 1980, Columbia Records).
Of course with much of his lyrics, Springsteen’s focus is on the struggles of life’s journey, not so much the desired destination – which he acknowledges he hasn’t found. Moreover, the ‘open road’ metaphor in his songs (featured graphically on the cover of ‘Nebraska’ for example) suggests there must be an end to it all, a future to work towards. But it is here where his contribution even as a great artist breaks down as he has no definitive idea of what this end should look like.
In the case of the verse of Ecclesiastes’ ‘teacher’ – whilst there might be more light at the end of the tunnel when compared to Springsteen – even he can perceive no certain future hope despite the acknowledgement that God has placed ‘eternity’ in the hearts of His people (I’m sure ‘The Boss’ would agree with this point!). Undoubtedly, his advice to his fellow believers is very sound: ‘Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind…’ (Ecclesiastes 12:13). As a man of faith, our ‘teacher’ instinctively looks to divine Revelation – not merely his experience – for answers. He rightly concludes that the Law holds the key to future redemption even if this is not quite visible to him.
As Christians, of course, we know that the goal of the Law to which the Book of Ecclesiastes points, is ultimately Christ (Romans 10:4). Christ alone can redeem mankind and the brokenness of his world order and, this was something towards which the ‘teacher’ had hoped and longed for (1 Peter 1:10-11).
Finally, what can the music of Springsteen and other gifted artists teach us as Christians? What is the value of popular music, and indeed all popular culture? The answer is simply this: There is a mindboggling number of exceptionally talented and insightful folk working and thinking today. These are individuals, who like the ‘teacher,’ continue the tradition of grappling with our deepest and most vexing questions. Ironically, many of these show a greater understanding of life’s complexities than do evangelicals themselves. If we are going to win the world for Christ, we need to take note of them; we need to know what kind of questions they ask. As any evangelist knows: It’s not good enough simply to possess the Gospel answer; we also need to become familiar with the questions people ask.
Thus if we are to understand the signs of our times, we need to be familiar with our age and its people. But again, we cannot know them unless we are engaging with them, hearing to the questions they ask. The most effective way of presenting the Gospel of the Cross of Jesus is to align it with the questions posed by our milieu. Certainly, we might be convinced of the fact that the Gospel has all the answers to all of the questions of man, but have we become familiar with these questions?