Bruce Springsteen may not immediately come to mind when thinking of spiritual leaders, but the rock icon's song lyrics are actually rich with theological references and imagery, a topic that Professor Azzan Yadin-Israel explored in a class Rutgers University.
Yadin-Israel, a scholar of ancient rabbinic literature and a long-time Springsteen fan, told The Huffington Post that the course, "Bruce Springsteen's Theology," asks questions including, "How can biblical religious sources help us read songs like these, and how can Springsteen's songs in turn inform our reading of the Bible?"
Yadin-Israel's inspiration for the course came about after he published an article about an Israeli band that examined theological themes in their songs, which led him to wonder about what the American equivalent would be. He started marking up Springsteen lyrics while thinking about themes like redemption and the promised land, and he found a number of references that could have theological meaning, which is fairly unusual for the rock genre. Springsteen was brought up in a Roman Catholic household.
Yadin-Israel pointed to "Jesus Was An Only Son" as an example of a song which explicitly explores biblical themes while at the same time providing a new framework for interpretation. Yadin-Israel explained that the song is about the Passion narrative, the last hours of Jesus' life, a hugely significant moment that underpins the belief in humanity's redemption through Christ's sacrifice. "Springsteen refocuses the song in an interesting way, shifting the focus away from Jesus as the son of God, and looking at Jesus as the son of Mary," he commented. "She isn't part of the redemptive narrative-- she's a grieving mother."
In an interview with Rutgers Today, Yadin-Israel said:
Interestingly, Springsteen refers more often to the stories of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) than the New Testament. On a literary level, Springsteen often recasts biblical figures and stories into the American landscape. The narrator of “Adam Raised a Cain” describes his strained relationship with his father through the prism of the biblical story of the first father and son; Apocalyptic storms accompany a boy’s tortured transition into manhood in “The Promised Land,” and the first responders of 9/11 rise up to “someplace higher” in the flames, much as Elijah the prophet ascended in a chariot of fire (“Into the Fire”). Theologically, I would say the most dominant motifs are redemption -- crossing the desert and entering the Promised Land -- and the sanctity of the everyday. Springsteen tries to drag the power of religious symbols that are usually relegated to some transcendent reality into our lived world. In his later albums he also writes very openly about faith.
The ten-week course was part of the Byrne Seminar offerings, which are capped at 20 students per class and reserved for first-years. Yadin-Israel, an associate professor of Jewish Studies and Classics, would often assign his students song lyrics for close reading and analysis of theological themes and imagery. He said, "I think his songs invite that kind of reading-- they reward that kind of reading."
The course has garnered national attention, though only twenty lucky students actually got to take it. Not to worry, however, because Yadin-Israel told The Huffington Post that he will probably put out a book with his observations.