Springsteen and the Minor Prophets
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.
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.
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.
Micah. The prophet arrives on the scene as a countervailing
voice to the dominant paradigm of fear and warmongering among
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
Is it not for you to know justice—you who hate
the good and love the evil? —Micah
Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision,
and darkness to you without prophecy.
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.
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
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
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
fly and when we enter our big cities. Many of us distrust
our neighbors, or those from different cultures, and we
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.
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.
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
presented us with cautionary tales of faith and fear on his
album, Devils and Dust.
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”
he helped us reframe the voice of protest by resurrecting
a handful of Pete Seeger’s spirituals on The Seeger
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?”
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
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.
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
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”
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.
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
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”
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
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.
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.
in so chastising, they time and again offer visions of
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
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.
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.
question was asked again. Clarence thought for a moment,
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
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,
3.Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Prophets, Harper Perennial,
further listening, the author recommends the following titles,
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DEVILS AND DUST