A songwriter’s search for faith and meaning


For those interested in American culture, 20th century literature, rock and roll, and the tenacious hold of the Catholic faith, there is Bruce Springsteen.

Some trivia questions:

1. What Catholic novelist and National Book Award winner called Springsteen “my favorite American philosopher” and wrote an admiring letter to him?

2. What prolific author wrote an essay entitled “The Catholic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen” that was printed in America magazine?

3. What CD was praised by the influential Jesuit magazine La Civilta (Catholic Civilization) because its songs reflect a special sensitivity to the symbols of the faith and offer lessons in virtue?

4. What Catholic short story writer and novelist influenced Springsteen because, in his words, her stories “captured a certain part of the American character that I was interested in writing about. They were a big, big revelation”?

Springsteen is not a practicing Catholic, but the novelist Walker Percy recognized and admired the yearning for faith he heard in Springsteen’s music. The writer — a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture and recipient of Notre Dame’s highest honor, the Laetare Medal— wrote a warmly appreciative letter to the musician (answer to question 1).

“The loss and search for faith and meaning have been at the core of my own work for most of my adult life,” Springsteen wrote in a letter to Percy’s widow after death. “I’d like to think that perhaps that is what Dr. Percy heard and was what moved him to write me. Those issued are still what motivate me to sit down, pick up my guitar and write.”

Percy’s interest in Springsteen seems to have been sparked by reading “The Catholic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen” by the sociologist and novelist Father Andrew Greeley (answer to question 2).

In that 1988 essay, printed in the Jesuit weekly America, Father Greeley compared the impact of Springsteen’s album “Tunnel of Love” to Pope John Paul II’s 1988 U.S. visit. The pope, he said, “spoke of moral debates using the language of doctrinal propositions that appeal to (or repel) the mind. 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 will be absorbed by far more Americans than those who listened to the pope,”

A few years later, in 2002, the Rome-based La Civilta (Catholic Civilization), a Jesuit magazine that often reflects Vatican views on church and world affairs, devoted 14 pages to Springsteen’s music and singled out his CD “The Rising” for conveying a strong sense of redemption (answer to question 3).

The author, Jesuit Father Antonio Spardaro, acknowledged Springsteen’s criticism of organized religion, but wrote that his songs, whether intended or not, convey the tension between downfall and hope, often using Christian imagery.

He also noted that Springsteen had lighted a candle to the Virgin Mary in a Bologna church a few years earlier and sometimes wears a St. Christopher medal. These gestures, he wrote, “show some type of relationship with the symbols of Christian devotion.”

And despite whatever doubts or negative feelings Springsteen has about religion, he played a benefit concert in the gym of St. Rose of Lima, his old Catholic School, in Freehold, in 1996. Proceeds went to a new parish center that was being built to serve the town’s growing Hispanic population.

And that Catholic writer who so influenced him (question number 4)? That would be the devoutly religious but never pious Flannery O’Connor. Her characters included killers, con men — including a Bible salesman who steals a woman’s wooden leg — and difficult grandmothers.

In a 1998 interview Springsteen said, “There was some dark thing — a component of spirituality — that I sensed in her stories, and that set me off exploring characters of my own. She knew original sin — knew how to give it the flesh of a story.”

Which leads to the question of whether O’Connor, who died in 1964, would have appreciated Springsteen’s music — his songs about “the loss and search for faith and meaning” — as her friend Walker Percy did. Possibly she would have.

In her essay “Novelist and Believer,” discussing certain fiction writers, she wrote, “These unbelieving searchers have their effect even upon those of us who do believe. We begin to examine our own religious notions, to sound them for genuineness, to purify them in the heat of our unbelieving neighbor’s anguish. What Christian novelist could compare his concern to Camus?”

Or to the Boss?

Contributing to this story was Catholic News Service.