Springsteen vs. the Church
READING the paper this morning, we were struck by an op-ed on the subject of Bruce Springsteen. In a column which he calls “The Power of the Particular,” David Brooks describes the relative youth and ardor of the Boss’s European crowds. As in the Church, “Springsteen crowds in the U.S. are hitting their AARP years, or [are] deep into them. In Europe, the fans are much younger. The passion among the American devotees is frenzied, bordering on cultish. The intensity of the European audiences is two standard deviations higher.”
But it is at the end of the column where we really took notice:
The most interesting moment of Springsteen’s career came after the success of “Born to Run.” It would have been natural to build on that album’s success, to repeat its lush, wall-of-sound style, to build outward from his New Jersey base and broaden his appeal. Instead, Springsteen went deeper into his roots and created “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” which is more localized, more lonely and more spare.
That must have seemed like a commercially insane decision at the time. But a more easily accessible Springsteen, removed from his soul roots, his childhood obsessions and the oft-repeated idiom of cars and highways, would have been diluted. Instead, he processed new issues in the language of his old tradition, and now you’ve got young adults filling stadiums, knowing every word to songs written 20 years before they were born, about places they’ll never see.
It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of particularity. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.
(Maybe this is why younger rock bands can’t fill stadiums year after year, while the more geographically defined older bands like U2, Springsteen and the Beach Boys can.)
The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice: Don’t try to be everyman. Don’t pretend you’re a member of every community you visit. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.
This past weekend, we attended a morning Communion service where the flatly-titled Enriching Our Worship was in use. The banality of the service was at once dispiriting and disgusting for the way in which the politics of a very few, very loud members of the Church were plainly apparent. Indeed the language of EOW is so general, so stripped of particularity, that it is difficult to distinguish the Christianity it follows from the more common forms of Gaia worship. Whatever theological underpinnings there might be to referring to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” are obscured by language that is plain, condescending, and utterly without power. A particularly poor moment comes at the fraction, when the people are instructed to say, “WHOEVER EATS THIS BREAD WILL LIVE FOREVER.” With a few chicken bones, we might as well be in a Caribbean cult. Can any of us wonder that the young people are not rushing to sup at EOW‘s kind of table?
What Brooks touches on is a point that we (and others) have made many times: that the Book of Common Prayer’s singular quality is its clear and direct outline of a Christianity that is—in the Prayer Book’s own words—holy, righteous, and sober. Deviating from it, carrying ourselves further from its ethos, has been an obvious calamity for the Church.
The author of a particularly vitriolic column has written (rightly) that “People will still not be rushing through the church’s red doors where [Episcopal] priest’s sermons are indistinguishable from the New York Times.” But here, our clergy would do far better to take their cue from the Times than from the Church to which they have made their oaths. If they did, they might stand a chance of filling the pews, as the Boss fills stadiums in Europe, with young people eager for something distinct, hungry for something credible.