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Recently on Rock and Theology we posted a link to a short article on Noisecreep entitled  Heavy Metal Stars Who Found God which Tom Beaudoin noted was “a topic of seemingly perennial interest.”  This is very true.   The fascination people have with rock stars and whether they are ‘Christians’ or not is the subject of a whole sub-genre of rock journalism and other writing dedicated to discerning whether certain lyrical content ultimately points to a professing commitment as understood by institutionalized religion and in particular denotes an Evangelical faith.  This is nothing new as Tom mentioned and is of perennial interest to be sure and not just isolated to rock stars.  Recently Franklin Graham questioned whether President Obama was a Christian.  Graham stated that “I asked [President Obama] how he came to faith in Christ. He said he was working on the south side of Chicago in the community and the community asked him what church he went to. He said ‘I don’t go to church.”

That said, Graham has since apologized for any inference about the state of the President’s salvation but the perennial interest in Evangelical circles to define what a Christian is continues and is now turning its attention it seems to Bruce Springsteen.

Bruce Springsteen’s 17th studio album – Wrecking Ball – was released in the US on March 6th and the critics have been hard at work to make sense of the Boss’ latest outing (I recently posted a review of the lead single “We Take Of Our Own” here on Rock and Theology ).   One reviewer made a rather interesting comment that has had me perplexed and dismayed.  In his review of the album (wonderfully entitled “Stations of the Boss“) Andy Whitman at Christianity Today noted the personal and profound impact Springsteen’s music has made on him throughout his life saying that he became  “a Christian who is convinced that Bruce Springsteen has more to say to me than any other songwriter.” Many people feel the same way.  At 62, Springsteen is still producing  great music of deeply spiritual and political conviction and while he hasn’t recaptured the “glory days” of the Born in the USA years or the critical excellence of Nebraska, Darkness at the Edge of Town or The River, he is an undisputed American rock icon who has unique crossover appeal in an increasingly segmented music market.  I for one agree wholeheartedly with Whitman’s statement to this effect and resonate with much of his review of the album (Wrecking Ball, by the way,  is a true return to form and a fantastic album worth repeated listens – IMHO).

But that isn’t what caught my attention.

What was interesting is the line that follows his praise of Springsteen “having more to say than any other songwriter.”  He follows with this interesting aside  that echos statements usually made at this juncture by Christian critics once they have praised an artist: “This is curious [“Springsteen having more to say than any other songwriter”] because, as far as I know, Springsteen does not claim to be a Christian.” True, Whitman has loves Springsteen’s work and lauds praise on this particular album.  In reference to the remake of “Land of Hope and Dreams” Whitman states that “it’s a glorious song, a perfect encapsulation of the greatness of its songwriter and singer. It’s also the gospel; good news—the best news, in fact—for those who are weary and heavy-laden, uncommon men and women sorely in need of grace.”  Yet he can’t leave that praise isolated and for some reason needed to alert the Christianity Today readership that while Springsteen speaks the Gospel we have still been notified if he is truly and completely in the tribe of Christianity yet. Perhaps Whitman is merely wishing to have a spiritual connection with this important artist.  Perhaps it is merely an aside that he feels needs to be acknowledged – that Springsteen truly hasn’t come out with any creedal affirmation, has not used God in his thank you speeches, has not noted key popular Christian artists in his linear notes.  We don’t know what his beliefs are in relation to Evangelicalism or some other profession of faith through direct pronouncements… other than his art.  Whitman notes surprise that he would connect with an artist who “does not claim to be a Christian” and yet sings the Gospel into being.

What do we make of this?

I am left scratching my head a bit – on the one hand, Springsteen is offering the Gospel.  Yet on the other hand there is the need to make sure we understand that his declaration of Christianity is not overtly resonate with some understandings of what faith looks and feels like and the Boss’ silence on this matter for some reason needs to be footnoted.  It is akin to saying “Albert Einstein changed the way we look at the universe and forever opened my eyes to how time and matter relate. This is curious because, as far as I know, Einstein does not claim to be a Christian.”

What this raises up for me is the constant confusion in some Christian circles that God would work outside of our publishing houses, record labels and even our sanctuaries. What does it matter whether we know the reasoned doctrinal assent of an artist if the art itself speaks, transforms, provokes and even prophetically moves the world closer into the embrace of God?  To this end I suppose I was wishing for a review like Fr. Andrew Greeley’s fantastic article “The Catholic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen” from America back in 1988 where he points to the heart of the matter:

Springsteen sings of religious realities—sin, temptation,  forgiveness, life, death, hope — in images that come (implicitly perhaps) from his Catholic childhood, images that appeal to the whole person, not just the head, and that will be absorbed by far more Americans than those who listened to the Pope … The piety of these songs—and I challenge you to find a better word—is sentient without being sentimental…

I have no desire to claim Springsteen as Catholic in the way we used to claim movie actors and sports heroes. I merely observe that this is (not utterly unique) Catholic imagery on the lips of a troubadour whose origins and present identification are Catholic. I also observe that the Catholic origin of the imagery serves to explain them. I finally observe that the critics seem to pay no attention to the images, perhaps because without a Catholic perspective one has a hard time understanding where they come from and what they mean.

So if the troubadour’s symbols are only implicitly Catholic (and perhaps not altogether consciously so) and if many folks will not understand them or perceive their origins, what good are they to the Catholic Church? Surely they will not increase Sunday collections or win converts or improve the church’s public image. Or win consent to the pastoral letter on economics.

But those are only issues if you assume that people exist to serve the church. If, on the other hand, you assume that the church exists to serve people by bringing a message of hope and renewal, of light and water and rebirth, to a world steeped in tragedy and sin, you rejoice that such a troubadour sings stories that maybe even he does not know are Catholic.

I am so sorry that the line pondering the Christian status of Bruce Springsteen was in Whitman’s fine review and even more ashamed that this need to flag for an Evangelical audience the uncertaintyof a faith statement is somehow necessary in my faith tradition.  That we are just not sure if someone professes to be a Christian in ways we understand when writing about artists of any stripe should be of no interest as the public outcry regarding Franklin Graham’s statements about President Obama has shown.  If Springsteen is truly proclaiming the Good News, as both Andy Whitman Fr. Greenley state, then isn’t that enough? Perhaps akin to David Nantais’ recent posting asking  whether it was weird to pray for rock stars I am musing about whether it is time to pray for Christian fans of rock stars, that they would just relax and listen to the music, let it take hold of them, and let the proclamation of the Gospel be enough.

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  1. Great post, Jeff. Wholeheartedly agree. The same issue has dogged U2 for decades and it is hard to fathom short of a phrase like “constricted imagination” which sees God a as a tribal god and not the God of heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them. A true Christian confession, one with robust Trinitarian imagination, would argue Springsteen couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, let alone pursue his profound rock ‘n roll art, without the abiding and animating power of God! CS

    Comment by Chris Scharen — March 9, 2012 @ 5:56 am

  2. It helps me to see how you wade through this issue. It’s not clear to me whether my brothers and sisters’ call for clarity is voiced less frequently than it was 20 years ago, or if I just ignore it more successfully these days. However, truth and beauty are truth and beauty, and while I am not personally a huge Springsteen fan, I do find profound truth in songwriters whose faith affiliation is murky at best.

    Comment by Pat — March 9, 2012 @ 10:53 am

  3. I think that when evaluating an artist’s statements we should judge them by whether they are true to what the artist believes (integrity) and then by whether they are true. I interviewed Bruce a couple a years ago and asked him if he was a Christian (we’d been talking about his themes of redemption) and he said that he wasn’t and wouldn’t raise his children as such. However, he obviously likes the language and imagery he inherited from his Catholic upbringing and feels they supply a useful framework for understanding his experiences. We cannot expect a man who doesn’t accept the gospel to preach the gospel but we can be thankful for the truths he’s been able to see and the skill with which he’s been able to turn those truths into art. Steve Turner, London, England.

    Comment by Steve Turner — March 9, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

  4. Wonderful post, Jeff. I agree with you. I think one thing people sometimes forget is that humans are seekers of meaning. We search for meaning in our suffering, in our lives, in our faith. Many rockers like Springsteen, regardless of their specific religious convictions, help us on that journey.

    By the way, I think “Wrecking Ball” is fantastic. One of his best.

    Comment by Mary McDonough — March 10, 2012 @ 11:36 am

  5. I wonder if part of it is just how being famous and a celebrity works at times in our culture.
    It reminds me of how obsessed people were about whether or not musicians in the CCM scene were living, could they drink were they having sex etc. It seems that for much of the evangelical mindset in the US, it is all or nothing. Either your a famous musician and artist and your work conveys the gospel, and you are someone that overtly claims to be a Christian and you are a paragon of virtue and morality. Heaven forbid your human like everyone else.
    But this is what American’s do to the famous in general though Rock-n-Roll has its out as the place of the rebellious, but that has always been the reason Christian Rock was a hard sell. Many evangelicals just arn’t comfortable with that someone may have the truth and not agree with them, or so it seems from my experience.
    I wonder if the journalist of teh article had to qualify not so much for himself, but for his audience and so he wouldn’t be accused of ignoring the ‘ultimate” truth of Bruce Springsteen.
    frankly this is one of many reason’s I gave up on anything that wanted to be qualified by the term “Christian”, and have opted for be a Christian in whatever you do. And just enjoy my Goth music and not worry about seeking to draw out the connections I find all the time between art and music and theology and faith.

    Comment by Larry Kamphausen (@priestlygoth) — March 10, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

  6. For what it’s worth, Andy Whitman offered some follow-up comments, responding to the wide variety of comments and criticism that his article inspired:

    “The reaction to that article has been predictable. Half the people have responded with the typical “Why is CT covering a pagan artist?” and “I thought the name of this magazine had Christianity in the title” comments, and the other half have been bent out of shape about the legalists. Sadly, very few people seem to want to discuss Bruce Springsteen or his music. My comment was meant to, in theory, cut the legalists off at the pass. I really don’t want to debate Springsteen’s spiritual convictions, and indeed I don’t know them. I do know that Springsteen has never claimed to be a Christian, and I thought it might be advantageous to acknowledge that at the outset. That said, there are many, many references on Wrecking Ball that are unambigously consonant with a Christian worldview.

    “None of that, of course, has stopped the beloved brothers and sisters from sniping. I should probably abstain from reading the comments to any CT article I write. It might be a good activity to give up for Lent, or perhaps all year round.”

    Comment by Jeffrey Overstreet — March 13, 2012 @ 10:34 am

  7. I find it interesting that if Andy wanted to discuss the music (“I really don’t want to debate Springsteen’s spiritual convictions, and indeed I don’t know them”), then why distract people with any mention of Springsteen’s personal faith commitments. I still think that CT must have mandated some statement of faith in order to ‘justify’ (yup… manifold meaning to that term intentionally employed) the article to its core readership. Perhaps I am wrong on this and would love to hear that I am. BTW – to call comments by readers ‘sniping’ is pretty dismissive as well and frankly doesn’t seem very helpful… the critic taking the moral high ground is pretty wearisome in this day and age.

    Comment by jkeuss — March 13, 2012 @ 10:45 am

  8. Well, if you look at the chat, I asked him about it:

    “Andy, I’m curious: Was emphasizing that Springsteen doesn’t claim to be a Christian your idea? Or an editor’s? I’m only asking because it sounds like the kind of statement that I, and other CT writers, have been told to include in the past because CT readers will want to have such things clarified.”

    Andy replied:

    “First, I appreciate Jeff [Keuss}’s comments. Second, no, those words were mine, and no one coerced me into writing them. But I wrote them with my audience in mind. Would I have written them for another publication? I doubt it.”

    Comment by Jeffrey Overstreet — March 13, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

  9. I appreciate your comments, Jeff. But when Bruce Springsteen has been asked, directly, if he is a Christian, he has answered “No.” Given that, it doesn’t seem farfetched to me to note, in an evangelical Christian magazine, that Bruce Springsteen isn’t a Christian. That, of course, takes nothing away from his songwriting, which makes extensive use of biblical imagery, and is imbued with a Christian worldview that, I assume, comes from his Catholic upbringing.

    For what it’s worth, no one at CT coerced me into making that statement. But there is an editorial policy that states that any article about a musician who isn’t a part of the CCM world needs to address the question, “Why are we (CT) covering this person in a magazine whose core audience is made up of evangelical Christans?” I hope I answered that question in my article.

    Comment by Andy Whitman — March 13, 2012 @ 5:51 pm

  10. Thanks for chiming in on this thread, Andy. As I mentioned in the post, I really enjoyed your review. As the title of my post alludes to, my dismay stems from the pull of evangelical constituencies to frame essential components for a critic that must be included in order for the review to be printed. As you noted regarding your aside about the evangelical status of Bruce Springsteen (whereby Evangelicalism deems Christian status as determined by one’s reasoned statement of faith alone) you mentioned that you included that aside due to the CT audience (“I wrote them with my audience in mind. Would I have written them for another publication? I doubt it”) yet you don’t ask that of anyone who records for a CCM label… which means that the record label determines their Christian status (BTW – I worked for a CCM station for a few years producing a national program, went to the NRB and GMA a couple of times and know that world… so “Christian” is an interesting description for this sub-genre anyway IMHO).

    For what its worth I just find this line of thinking so completely odd these days – that we need to ask that question of someone and that their response alone is enough to confer the status of “Christian” suggesting that the Church has no say in this, that the status of severely mentally disabled persons and elderly men and women with Alzheimer’s would not be able to respond to this is something I find so fascinating and, as I mention the blog post, troubling. What is the gain of the “yes” or “no” to the efficacy of the music to draw people into the Gospel which you say is so evident? I just simply scratch my head at this as I listen to the music.

    I was heartened by your noting that you see the Gospel in his songwriting and I am just wondering why this isn’t enough for listeners and why you as a critic don’t seem to be allowed to just focus on the music (which you said is your desire) as the evidence of faith even beyond our cognitive affirmation or negation of a doctrinal stance of a particular group. I feel that is more in keeping with the Jesus of the Church’s faith prior to the rise of a “yes” or “no” personal faith found in late 20th century evangelical formulations. Can we let the life speak or, in the case of this album, just go listen to “Rocky Ground” and let that be enough.

    Again, thanks Andy for your good writing and for chiming in on this thread… whether you are a Christian or not 🙂

    Comment by jkeuss — March 13, 2012 @ 7:48 pm

  11. Well, I don’t disagree with you, Jeff. You and I both know how silly these labels can be, and that deciding who is or is not a Christian is risky business indeed.

    I do think the game changes somewhat, though, when one is writing for a magazine called “Christianity Today.” By definition, this is a publication for Christians, about Christians. And there’s an underlying question that has to be addressed in every article, and that is, “What does this have to do with Christianity?” I write about music, and I don’t follow, or have much interest in, the music made by the Christian music industry. And so part of the challenge — and the joy — for me in writing for CT is explaining why a given artist, who may or may not be a Christian, is worthy of consideration in the magazine. The musicians who speak to me most directly — people like Bruce Cockburn, Van Morrison, Richard Thompson, Bob Dylan, and yes, Bruce Springsteen — are all over the map spiritually. None of them conform to the nice, neat doctrinal package advocated in the evangelical world. I appreciate that. So part of my reason for writing about the gospel implications in the music of Bruce Springsteen, non-Christian, is simply to illustrate that the package doesn’t have to be neat and tidy. My life isn’t. Why should I expect it of the musicians I love?

    All of that is basically to say that I agree with you, but that sometimes consideration of audience dictates that certain subjects are addressed.

    Comment by Andy Whitman — March 14, 2012 @ 7:08 am

  12. I guess it should be clear by now that Springsteen indeed is a storyteller whose critical appeal and creative visions are heavily inspired by the Gospel. Maybe this will interest some of your readers:


    Comment by Erik — March 29, 2012 @ 8:21 am

    Implicit in some of the comments above is that it’s not really important to inquire into the Christian identity of an artist. But if an artist moves you, you begin to care about the artist; and if you are a Christian, you hope the artist is a Christian as well, i.e., that he or she is working toward the same goal as you, and is a friend in Jesus’ sense of John 15:15 (see also Avery Dulles’s article, “Love, the Pope, and C.S. Lewis”). Ultimately, you hope you will see that artist in heaven.
    I take issue especially with Whitman’s contention that Springsteen is somehow singing the Gospel and Greeley’s that “Springsteen sings of religious realities”–even if he is not a Christian. If you are not pointing people to Jesus, then you are not giving people the Good News, and you are not pointing them to ultimate Reality. (PLEASE see John 3:14-18 and Numbers 21:8-9.)

    Jesus put true religion in a nutshell when he said the whole of the Law and the Prophets hang on two commandments (Matt 22: 38-40): loving God with all your heart, etc., and loving other people as yourself. But you need to love God–you cannot leave God out. Being nice to people, or agreeing with their politics, or even giving them some kind of vague hope, like Springsteen does, is not enough to be saved, according to Jesus. So how then do we love God? By knowing that he loved us, and responding to that love: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). And “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
    So if you are not pointing people to Jesus, then you are not only NOT speaking or singing the Gospel, you are also not telling how they might learn how to truly love, and you are not giving them true hope. For as Paul says, if Jesus had not risen from the dead, then Christian believers would have no real hope (1 Cor. 15:19); they would be like “others… who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).

    Comment by Robert Jensen — July 26, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

  14. His works reveal who he is. The Catholic view of reality always involves two truths. Harsh reality and hope. living god is both. Protestants blur the image of God. moving away from God than man. Eastern religions are formalisms. no one know God with gymnastics. atheism is a religion. denial of God. why deny something that does not exist? because if it did it would not be atheism. agnosticism is even funnier. tries within the limits of reason by means of rationality to know God. so if bruce fallen away from the Catholic faith, then it is God back like a pendulum over Bruce’s ACTS under Catholic Church.

    “My work has always been about judging the distance between American reality and the American Dream.”

    Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen

    Comment by dalibor — December 23, 2014 @ 5:36 pm

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