Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show on Broadway, which recently ended its run at the Walter Kerr Theatre and is now available on Netflix, doesn’t depend much on suspense. Devoted fans know his story from reading his autobiography, “Born to Run,” on which the show is based; the rest have glimpsed it in his songs of redemption, of pulling up roots, of breaking free, of a young man’s desire for something more than what the streets of central New Jersey had to offer him.
No Springsteen fan would be surprised that he ended the show with a rousing acoustic rendition of the iconic song “Born to Run.” He has been playing this anthem virtually every night for 40 years. It’s the prelude to his rock ’n’ roll legend, before he was “sprung from cages on Highway 9.”
What will catch even many Springsteen fans off guard, including me as I sat in the balcony at the Walter Kerr Theatre last year, is the setup to this finale. Before he launches into his signature song, the Boss leads his Broadway congregation in the Lord’s Prayer — a reminder that he continues to be formed by his Catholic upbringing in the working-class precincts of Freehold, N.J.
Springsteen’s show is saturated with references to the Catholic God. He describes his childhood home as “spitting distance” from St. Rose of Lima Church, the parish that shaped the daily rhythms of his boyhood. He “literally grew up surrounded by God,” he said, but he was also one of St. Rose’s “unwilling disciples.”
His real salvation, at least as he tells the story, came from watching Elvis Presley perform on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. His “staff of righteousness” was his guitar.
Yet, as Springsteen knows all too well, escaping a Catholic past in the Irish and Italian enclaves of working-class New Jersey is not easy. “You know what they say about Catholics … there’s no getting out … [the priests and nuns] did their work hard and they did it well.”
Springsteen understands that the past often has its way with us — shaping us, haunting us, defining us, motivating us and empowering us. Like a priest conducting Mass, he asks the audience to receive the Lord’s Prayer as a “benediction” — perhaps a final blessing from a music legend who was never quite able to outrun the sound of the church bells.
Maybe this is what it means, as he wrote famously in “Born to Run,” to “get to that place where we really want to go” where we can “walk in the sun.” Maybe Bruce Springsteen was born to run home.
Over the years, Springsteen has become the darling of progressive politicians. He campaigned for John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and (briefly) for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But when he tells his story on Broadway, he transports us back to a day when progressive ideals and the relentless quest for the American dream were not separated from tradition, roots, place, a longing for home, and Christian faith.
After the success of his 1975 breakout album — also “Born to Run” — Springsteen had it all. His music was on the radio, he and the E Street Band were touring nationally, and he was on the cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week. But it wasn’t enough. He eventually began to ask himself some new questions, and those questions revolved around home. “I felt accountable to the people I’d grown up alongside,” he wrote in his memoir, “and I needed to address that feeling.”
Springsteen knew that the key to his longevity as an artist was to stay grounded and to chart a different path than the one traveled by other musicians who had “lost their way” by producing music that was “anemic,” “rootless” and “displaced,” he wrote.
In a recent interview with The Times of London, Springsteen mentioned that he visits St. Rose of Lima often. “You get more spiritual as you grow older,” he said. “You’re closer to the other world, so maybe that has something to do with it.”
It is unclear whether the regular visits to his childhood congregation are inspired by mere nostalgia or an honest desire to reconnect with the spirituality of the church of his youth, but one thing is clear: Springsteen continues to yearn for something deeper, something real and something transcendent. And we yearn with him.
As St. Augustine taught us in his “Confessions,” “our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. He is the author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.