The Healing Ministry of Rock and Roll
By Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz
In the mini-barrage of publicity that followed the recent publication of my book, The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen, I have been contacted by various media outlets requesting short interviews. Included in this number have been several “classic rock” radio stations—stations whose playlists are largely com-posed of songs by artists that date, more or less, from the early-1960s through the early-1980s. Bruce Springsteen, whose first seven record albums—including the seminal Born to Run and the blockbuster Born in the U.S.A.—date from this period, would seem a natural element of discourse here.
But we use the word “discourse” very loosely in this context. Contacted by a producer for a morning program on a station deep in the American heartland, I willingly agreed to an interview the very next morning. As I sat on the phone waiting for my time on the air, I got to listen to the guest who preceded me, who was telling about his ability to hang various items—bowling balls even—from his pierced nipples.
I never recovered. My interview was a snore. I sounded pedantic and hopelessly stuck in my head, meandering from point to point about the relevance of Springsteen in the spiritual search of modern men and women. The hosts seemed more interested in how many songs Springsteen had written dealing with hookers. I kept trying to talk about songwriters as the mythmakers of our day. They wanted to talk about his first marriage to the actress Julianne Phillips. I wanted to discuss the religious imagery in The Rising.
But before my seven minutes were up, and the hosts and I gratefully retreated to our respective corners, one of those gentlemen did make a point which got me pondering for the rest of the day. With all due respect to Bruce, he asked, and with-out casting aspersions on anything in my book (which he had never seen, much less read, and probably still hasn’t), couldn’t you say there was a “gospel” of almost anyone’s favorite rock and roll performer or group? “Why not a gospel according to Bob Dylan?” he asked. (A very good question, I agreed.) “Or a gospel according to the Beatles?” (“Westminster John Knox has published a book by that very title,” I tried to interject.) “Or a gospel according to U2,” he added. (I think they have that slated for next year.) He mentioned several others with whose work I was less familiar.
I claim no encyclopedic knowledge of the history of rock music. I can claim, I suppose, a thorough knowledge of the Springsteen canon, those 15 record albums (more than 20 if you count various live albums and compilations), approximately 250 songs in all, spanning Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973) to last year’s Magic. (Although even here, I know numerous Springsteen fans much better versed in each word, every nuance, and all the back-ground details of everything that Bruce has wrought.)
But you don’t have to know the words of every one of Springsteen’s songs to know the power and inspiration jam-packed in them. Nor do you need to have spent the past generation with your nose stuffed inside Rolling Stone to know that, from the 1950s onward, from Buddy Holly to Franz Ferdinand (the rock group, not the assassinated Austrian archduke) men and women have found solace, comfort, hope, and courage from the songs to which they have been listening.
Which is not to say that only wisdom and insight crowds the airwaves. There is much there, obviously, that is blatantly commercial and breathlessly shallow—the musical equivalent, perhaps, of the breast-piercer who preceded me on the radio that morning. When Miley Cyrus sings that she’s “gonna dance till the dance floor falls apart” or the Jonas Brothers pout that “this has been no walk in the park / I feel like we have fallen apart,” one may be forgiven for spinning the dial in search of NPR again.
But still, a deeper vision at the heart of rock and roll abides.
Almost every night during the momentous Reunion Tour of Springsteen with his E-Street Band, during 1999–2000, “the Boss” would speak exuberantly of “the power, the magic, the mystery, and the ministry of rock and roll.” These lines were, for Bruce, neither mere showmanship nor empty bravado. They were for him, rather, gospel truth: a clear indication of how he pictured his relationship to his music and his fans. Close to heart of Springsteen’s art is the ability we all share to sense that power, contemplate that magic, and dance with that mystery.
For many of us, rock and roll at its best—at its most exuberant and life-affirming and eye-opening and boundary-bursting—brings those deeper spiritual realities home. As I write in the introduction to The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen, there have been numerous important points along the way of my life where, it seemed, Bruce was “there” for me: when I met and fell in love with the woman who would be-come my wife; when we took our first-born off to college; when I buried my father a few months later.
For any of us, that chosen artist (whether it’s Springsteen or Dylan or Bonnie Raitt or Lennon and McCartney or Bono or Zach de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine or Scott Stapp of Creed or any of a thousand others) is an unseen (but hardly unheard) fellow traveler along the ways of our journeys, providing the vital notes in the “soundtracks of our lives,” to use Dick Clark’s insightful phrase.
When we discern that a particular artist is “there” for us—when we feel as though he or she is addressing us directly and personally in his or her songs—that artist’s work then seems to put down strong roots in our own experience. His or her music helps us to make sense of the sometimes tangled, often disparate threads of our lives. This is, at its foundation, a religious undertaking, a ministry of healing: the very word “religion” after all is from the Latin religare, which means “to bind together again.” It refers to that system, those perspectives, the overriding metaphorical and mythological scheme, which binds things together for people—which provides them with a sense of meaning and transcendence. For many of us who have come of age in the second half of the twentieth century, rock and roll either provides this canopy of meaning, or gives us fresh and vital tools for discerning it more clearly in our own chosen faith traditions.
In his epic series of conversations with the journalist Bill Moyers, the great scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell responded to one of Moyers’s questions about “the meaning of life” by saying: “I don’t think people are really seeking the meaning of Life. I think we’re seeking an experience of being alive.”
“I can’t offer you life everlasting, but I can offer you life right now!” Springsteen would also preach during his concerts. While few rock titans, including Springsteen, offer any final and definitive dictum on what it all means, they do engage us with a remarkably vivid and varied portrayal on how wondrous and multifaceted our experience of aliveness can be. Rock and roll survives because it speaks to the whole person—in all aspects of our aliveness.
The good news of rock preaches a faith which is embodied and incarnational. There is here no strict dichotomy between body and soul; no denigration of human sexuality; no minimizing the importance of physical intimacy in the development of a healthy, whole being. In rock music generally, sex is often presented as an important manifestation of the deeper knowing of one person and another; it can be a living sacrament, a visible sign of the deeper union of two souls. On the other hand, an unjust relationship will manifest itself in a debased, exploitive, or lifeless sexuality. The implication here is that sexuality is intrinsically neither good nor evil, and that, as in all human ventures, only good soil will produce worthy fruit.
But even in the world of rock, sex alone is not enough a truly alive life to make. To be genuine, the call of life must engage not just our bodies, but the very core of our beings.
“Is there anybody alive out there?” Springsteen asks over and over, amid the opening strains of “Radio Nowhere,” the opening song on his most recent album, Magic. He shouts forth the question plaintively, perhaps even desperately, as he sings into the void and darkness of an atmosphere that seems to have been completely militarized, where even the sacred strains of rock and roll now seem to answer the call of some central authority, rather than the spontaneous calling of its own rhythm.
As Springsteen continues to make his way through the darkness, he seeks out lost soul mates, wanting more than any-thing to hear again the rhythm of life. He yearns for the diversity and abundance that makes life worth living. He invokes the blessed memories of rock and roll past to guide him though the darkened present: the clash of guitars, the beat of drums, the blessed cacophony of “a million different voices speaking in tongues.”
Paradoxically perhaps, out of this cacophony can come the clearer strains of that Great Voice speaking to us. In their willingness to explore their own internal landscape, the prophets of rock lead all of us who hear them toward exploring our own. They remind us that we are not alone, in the universe or upon this earth, nor do we live for ourselves alone.
The essence of rock and roll’s good news is not just that there is a power which moves through human history transcending differences, liberating that which lies captive, healing all wounds. Its even better news is that this divine power lives and moves through indisputably common, fallible, imperfect people like us. Through the words and music of these troubadours and mythmakers of our time, may our ears be opened to the Spirit’s song all about us; may our eyes be opened to the Spirit’s gifts deep within us; and may our hands and hearts be opened to do the Spirit’s work here in the midst of this confusing, conflicted, mysterious, amazing world.
Jeffrey Symynkywicz, MDiv ’81, is minister of First Parish Universalist Church in Stoughton, Massachusetts. His sixth book, The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen: Rock and Redemption, from Asbury Park to Magic, was published by Westminster John Knox Press in June.