05/11/2005 10:42 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Jesus and Bruce Springsteen

Many fundamentalist Christians claim victimhood--even though they are free to worship as they like in tax-exempt churches, to send their kids to religious schools, to display the Ten Commandments almost anywhere (such as in their homes, on their front doors, on their cars, on their T-shirts), to vote for politicians who share (if not exploit) their beliefs, and to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a film that graphically depicts the bloody sacrifice of their savior.

Despite all this, ChristFuns maintain they are besieged a repressive anti-Christian bias. Yet of late the religious conservatives and their allies have been the ones on the offense. Pat Robertson, appearing on George Stephanopoulos' show, suggested that American Muslims and American Hindus support the idea of an anti-America jihad (yes, Hindus, too!) and are less qualified to serve in the US government than Christians and Jews. Senate majority leader Bill Frist participated in a religious right rally that claimed opponents of Bush's judicial nominations cannot be people of faith. At the Air Force Academy, commanders are allegedly coercing cadets to convert to evangelical Christianity. Creationists--donning the camouflage of "intelligent design"--are rewriting Kansas' education standards to undermine the teaching of evolution. A Republican state legislator in Alabama proposed a law banning books by gay authors. (Watch out Mary Cheney!) The Georgia state government passed a law that imposes a 24-hour waiting period on women seeking abortions. In the current issue of Harper's, Pastor Ted Haggard, the head of the National Association of Evangelicals (who often chats with Bush), is quoted making anti-Catholic statements. Haggard calls himself a "warrior"--not a peacemaker--"for God."

That's a helluva offensive from people who are supposedly victims. These folks are certainly not bridge-builders. But I assume they believe they are merely following the words of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, their J.C. is a divider-not-a-uniter.

I much prefer the Christ recently offered to us by that well-known theologian, Bruce Springsteen. (He also makes music.) On Springsteen's recent chart-topping release, Devils & Dust--which contains a song exploring the moral dilemma faced by a soldier in Iraq poised to shoot and kill an enemy and a track recounting the life of an illegal immigrant who perishes crossing the Rio Grande--the most engaging number is a short, simple, elegiac tune about the Man from Galilee, "Jesus Was An Only Son." The chord structure is basic ballad; a church-like organ sets the mood. And Springsteen narrates the last hours of Jesus' life. There's no blood, no gore--only a man and his mother.

The song follows Jesus' last steps. Mother Mary, at his side, wishes the wish of all parents--"Sleep tight, my child"--and prays, "That no shadow, no darkness, no tolling bell/Shall pierce your dreams this night." Springsteen presents a quick meditation on death: "Now there's a loss that can never be replaced/A destination that can never be reached/A light you'll never found in another's face/A sea whose distance cannot be breached." And then Jesus kisses his mother's hands and in a whisper tries to comfort her: "Mother, still your tears/For remember the soul of the universe/Willed a world and it appeared."

Springsteen universalizes Christ. Even a nonbeliever can be touched by this hotrod angel knocking on heavens door. Confronting death and a grieving mother, Jesus suppresses his fear and draws on his faith, showing more concern for the parent about to lose a child than for himself. His final piece of advice essentially is, keep hope alive. Springsteen locates the non-theological power in this story of loss and love. His Christ is an example, not an imposer of hard-and-fast (and perhaps narrow-minded) values. This short song may not be a literal account--as if such an account is possible--but it is a lyrical one. And it arrives at an appropriate time--when the culture war is intensifying. This tussle is indeed a religious war, and it concerns the meaning (or non-meaning) of events that happened thousands of years ago. After all that time, Jesus and his message remain up for grabs. (Hey, would he want us to condemn gay couples or embrace them as brothers and sisters?) And Springsteen is in there grabbing.

Yeah, I know it's just a two-minute-and-forty-nine-seconds song, not a big-budget, controversy-causing movie. But Springsteen gives his listeners a Jesus that anyone, or everyone, can appreciate and be moved by--not just those blinded by the light. These days--with our-Christ-is-the-only-Christ fundamentalists on the march--that's a modest blow for freedom and faith.

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