The great songwriter’s lyrics are indebted to Catholicism

In November 1990 at the Shrine Auditorium in LA, a rugged, ripped Bruce Springsteen stood on stage and drawled: “This song is about the price of blind faith and what refusing to give up your illusions extracts from you.”

He then launched into Reason to Believe from his first solo album Nebraska, which tells a series of stories where life plays the cruel villain and shatters the protagonist’s hopes and dreams. There’s the perplexed old man on Highway 31 standing over his dead dog, poking it, “Like if he stood there long enough that dog’d get up and run”. Then there’s the jilted groom who waits all day for his bride, and “stands alone and watches the river rush on so effortlessly, wonderin’ where can his baby be”. Springsteen then sings: “Still at the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe”.

Springsteen was born into a family where faith prevailed no matter what. As he explains in his autobiography, Born to Run, he was raised by women with Italian blood: the Zerilli sisters, who “screamed, laughed cried and danced their way through life’s best and worst”. For them, there were always reasons to believe. Bruce explains that for the Zerilli women it was “work, faith, family: this is the Italian credo handed down by mother and her sisters. They live it. They believe it. They believe it even though these very tenets have crushingly let them down.”

Springsteen writes candidly about feeling crushed by life. He has suffered from depression for decades and these episodes of darkness have inspired his most ingenious work. In his album Tunnel of Love he admits that he has “two faces” and warns his lover “at night I get down on my knees and pray, our love will make that other man go away. But he’ll never say goodbye, two faces have I.”

But Springsteen’s trademark is that, whenever he shares self-loathing and despair (“take a knife and cut this pain from my heart”), by the next chorus he can still affirm his faith in tomorrow, a belief “in the Promised Land” in spite of everything.

This is typical of the artist who returns again and again to biblical themes of dying and rising, and it makes sense given that he was raised “literally in the bosom of the Catholic Church”. He shares with us a typical scene from his childhood in his song Walk Like a Man: “By Our Lady of the Roses, we lived in the shadow of the elms. I remember Ma dragging me and my sister up the street to the church whenever she heard those wedding bells.”

The Springsteens’ New Jersey parish church – real name, St Rose of Lima – was near the house where young Bruce witnessed “an eternal parade of baptisms, weddings and funerals”. Sadly a disciplinarian Catholic education left a “mean taste” in the artist’s mouth. Yet today Springsteen concedes: “This was the world where I found the beginnings of my song … I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward … So as a young adult I tried to make sense of it. I tried to meet its challenge for the very reason that there are souls to lose and a kingdom of love to be gained.”

Part of Springsteen’s genius is his ability to make us cry, cheer and dance for all the lost souls he introduces us to. His greatest hits are short stories about people trapped in purgatory, desperate to escape to the next world. Springsteen, who admits to having a “Messiah complex”, promises Wendy in the song Born to Run: “Some day girl, I don’t know when we’re going to get to that place where we really wanna go and we’ll walk in the sun.” And he tells Mary in Thunder Road: “Climb in back, heaven’s waiting down on the track.”

Resurrection and redemption feature most heavily in one of his more recent albums, The Rising, with many of the tracks written following the 9/11 attacks. You’re Missing is written from a widower to his late wife: “Children are asking if it’s all right. Will you be in our arms tonight?” taking us back to troubling questions about tragedy and faith.

The album’s final anthem, My City of Ruins, also has echoes of St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, “Where is death’s sting, where grave thy victory?”, as following Springsteen’s lament, the song culminates with him praying for strength, faith and love and then commanding like a street preacher: “Come on, rise up!”

Springsteen admits now that deep down “he is still on the team” and says “once a Catholic always a Catholic”. This is evident in the relentless optimism that seeps through time and again in his songs, even when his wounds are laid bare.

To put it in Springsteen’s own words, this implacable faith “is the religion of the Zerilli sisters handed down by the hard lessons of [their] Papa and the grace of God, for which we are daily thankful.”

This article first appeared in the February 10 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here