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Springsteen and the Minor Prophets

by Christopher Stratton

In the mid-8th century BC, there was a minor prophet from the tribe of Judah named Micah. He lived in a small border town in the southwest corner of the nation. It was a working class town, a poor town, but no less significant for it. Situated as it was on the frontier, the town was a place where the prophet felt the winds of calamitous change blowing. He lived close to Jerusalem—the spiritual and political capital of the nation—but also close to the Philistine armies threatening the land from the West, and the Egyptians threatening from the South.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the mighty Assyrians from the North were constantly launching campaigns into Judah in an attempt to overtake Egypt. It was accordingly a time of great uncertainty and fear. The northern kingdom of Israel had violently fallen to the Assyrians a few years before, and many powerful voices in Judah cried for war.

Yet ironically, in the midst of this turmoil, Judah prospered. The nation had become bloated with wealth, but it had done so at the expense of its neighbors and on the backs of its own people. Economic, political and moral corruption was rampant, and bribery, slave trading and political double-dealing were the norm. All this was evidence that the people had forgotten their God.

Enter Micah. The prophet arrives on the scene as a countervailing voice to the dominant paradigm of fear and warmongering among his people.

Woe to those who devise wickedness
and work evil upon their beds!
When the morning dawns they perform it
because it is in the power of their hand.
—Micah 2:1

Is it not for you to know justice—you who hate the good and love the evil? —Micah 3:1-2

Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you without prophecy. —Micah 3:6

The prophet’s words rain down like a hailstorm of judgment upon the heads of those who have forsaken their ideals. For too long Judah has neglected the poor, dealt falsely with other nations and forsaken the things of God. The misdeeds are done. There is no stay of judgment. The blowback is coming, and it’s coming at the hands of the Assyrians.

Micah uses the impending defeat of Judah as a pretext to speak a bold word of denunciation to the nation. Judah has betrayed its commitment to justice. In fear it has become what it has hated. The prophet proclaims imminent terror in hopes that the nation will repent, turn back to its ideals, and thus be saved. In one of the most beautifully compact statements in prophetic literature, Micah urges Judah to remember its calling.

He has shown thee, humanity, what is good and what the LORD requires of thee. But to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. —Micah 6:8

In our post-9/11 world it is no hyperbole to say that we are a nation also struck with fear. We are put on edge when we fly and when we enter our big cities. Many of us distrust our neighbors, or those from different cultures, and we wait in dreadful anticipation of the next attack. This fear can lead to personal and political perspectives focused solely on what’s inside our own fences and driveways, a stance where concern for self takes precedence above all else.

Enter Bruce Springsteen. In and through his music, he has embodied the American experience for the last six years. He stood with us in our grief after 9/11 by shepherding us with songs of hope on his album The Rising.

Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life)
Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life)
Your burnin’ wind fills my arms tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life)
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life
Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
—“The Rising”

He presented us with cautionary tales of faith and fear on his album, Devils and Dust.

I got God on my side
I'm just trying to survive
What if what you do to survive
Kills the things you love
Fear's a powerful thing
It can turn your heart black you can trust
It'll take your God filled soul
And fill it with devils and dust

—“Devils and Dust”

And he helped us reframe the voice of protest by resurrecting a handful of Pete Seeger’s spirituals on The Seeger Sessions.

What through the tempest loudly roars
I hear the truth, it liveth
What through the darkness round me close
Songs in the night it giveth
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I'm clinging
Since love is lord of Heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
When tyrants tremble, sick with fear
And hear their death-knell ringing
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?

—“How Can I Keep From Singing?”

On his latest album, Magic, Springsteen takes up the harsh tones of rebuke and lament, but delivers them in a more populist manner. Eschewing the spare folk and old-time revival structures of his last few albums, he instead unleashes what may be his most accessible offering of tunes since his smash 1984 album Born in the USA.

Often bright and catchy, the songs on Magic move from paeans to “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” to haunting political tomes without skipping a beat. One has to wonder what to make of such juxtapositions between pop craft and political taunt. It’s as though the form of the music on the new album mocks a sense of comfort and ease; the pop sensibilities marking a betrayal of our ideals, while the lyrics drop a countervailing voice of judgment on our heads.

Listening to Magic we shake our hips and snap our fingers while the bottom drops out. That’s the only trick to be found here. Reading through the lyrics, one is struck by the dissonance of their placement within a pop song.
A downtown window flushed with light

Faces of the dead at five (faces of the dead at five)
A martyr's silent eyes
Petition the drivers as we pass by
…..Who'll be the last to die for a mistake?
The last to die for a mistake
Darlin' your tyrants and kings form the same fate
Strung up at your city gates
And you're the last to die for a mistake.

—“Last To Die”

Or listen to the song “Long Walk Home” where the lyrics seem to pull on the analogy that we’ve moved far away from our figurative homeland. Here the narrator walks through town only to find the traditional traces of America vacant and those who fought for her left alone.

In town I pass Sal's grocery Barber shop on South Street
I look in their faces, they're all rank strangers to me
Well Veteran's Hall high upon the hill stood silent and alone
The diner was shuttered and boarded with a sign
that just said "gone"
It's gonna be a long walk home
Hey pretty darling, don't wait up for me
Gonna be a long walk home

—“Long Walk Home”

In recent interviews, Springsteen has described what he’s trying to accomplish with this new album. When he spoke to 60 Minutes last week, he likened his stage show to a big tent revival and himself to a religious figure conjuring up a break in the dominant narrative. Echoing Joan Didion he said, “We all have stories we're living and telling ourselves...and there's a time when that narrative has to be broken because you've run out of freedom in it. You've run out of places to go.”1

The subtext here is that the privilege of America’s blessing carries a responsibility to a certain sort of purity, a purity requiring faithfulness to the principles that brought on the blessing in the first place. Springsteen realizes he’s on dangerous political ground here, that some people are likely to take his reproach the wrong way, as unpatriotic, or worse yet, cowardly. But he says he’s not afraid and feels compelled to speak, or rather, sing. His purpose is to “chart the distance between American ideals and American reality,”2 and he’s willing to face the consequences of lost album sales and accusations of betrayal in order to carry the torch.

The Bible portrays the minor prophets in a very similar light. They are seers, seekers, speakers, judges and juries. They steer a course for the nation, drawing them back to God at one time, moving them out in hope at another. They speak in rhymes and songs, and they often do so at great peril to themselves. They are iconoclastic and dour. And in their message they proclaim the guilt of a few, but the culpability of all.

Yet in so chastising, they time and again offer visions of hope, beckoning us toward the potential of a future restoration. As Abraham Joshua Heschel says, they are those “whose image is our refuge in distress, and whose voice and vision sustain our faith.”3 If Bruce Springsteen is not in some sense all of these things to America, I don’t know what he is. His red baseball cap and blue jeans are to America what camel’s hair and locust were to ancient Israel.

Some years ago I saw a documentary on Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. As the interviewer went round to the various band members seeking their impression of what it was like to work with “the Boss,” one particular question kept coming up: Where does he get these wonderful songs? All the band members were stumped. Most them just shook their heads in the bewilderment of awe. Then after a pause, Clarence Clemons—the E Street Band’s Baptist saxophone player—entered the screen.

The question was asked again. Clarence thought for a moment, then looked straight at the camera and said, “it can only come from God.” I think Clarence was right, but I don’t think this makes Springsteen special. The things of God are special. The idea of America is special. Springsteen isn’t The Boss, but as far as America is concerned, he’s definitely the man.


1.60 Minutes, Airdate: October 7th, 2007.
3.Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Prophets, Harper Perennial, October 2001.

For further listening, the author recommends the following titles, which can be purchased at amazon.com. These links are provided as a service to explorefaith visitors and registered users. explorefaith.org participates in Amazon.com's Associates program. By following a link from explorefaith.org to Amazon.com, any and all purchases made during that Amazon visit result in a contribution from Amazon to explorefaith.org at no additional cost to you.





The Rising




Devils and Dust





©2007 Christopher Stratton


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