The Grace of God and the Grace of Man

The Grace of God and the Grace of Man

The Theologies of Bruce Springsteen

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Azzan Yadin-Israel
  • Highland Park, NJ: 
    Lingua Press
    , July
     2016.
     204 pages.
     $16.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780692718513.
     For other formats: .

Review

In his recently released autobiography, Springsteen’s own relationship with religion plays an intriguing part. Though denying any specific current religious affiliation, his religious upbringing surfaces again and again throughout the work, culminating with Springsteen standing in a churchyard, having come to terms with his own past and with his search for his own sound. There are certainly other contemporary musicians whose music speaks to a direct relationship with the sublime—Bob Dylan, U2, Chance the Rapper—but Springsteen’s music has been the subject of innumerable religious explorations and reflections.

Studies attending to Springsteen’s democratic vision, his childhood Catholicism, and his concert revivalism have shed ample light on The Boss’s music. But what makes Yadin-Israel’s study a genuinely new contribution is the attention to the theological revisionism operating within Springsteen’s lyrics. Rather than trying to see one overarching theology present in his work, Yadin-Israel contends that as Springsteen’s career has progressed, there have been multiple theologies at work. Instead of trying to synthesize these competing movements, Yadin-Israel structures his book in three distinct movements, each offering a different angle from which to view Springsteen’s work.

The first section, Early Works, offers a comprehensive reading of Springsteen’s early albums, from Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ to Darkness on the Edge of Town. In these early works, we find Springsteen criticizing his childhood faith, inverting Catholic images in innumerable ways, and seeking a this-worldly salvation of music and companionship instead. The journey of these early albums culminates, however, not in an immanent vision of salvation, but in an apocalyptic one, a vision which looks for the eschatological storm which will bring redemption to even the best immanence has to offer.

The second section takes a decidedly different approach, examining various theological loci which are scattered throughout Springsteen’s later corpus. Yadin-Israel’s rationale here is that post-Darkness, Springsteen’s theological ruminations become more sporadic, though no less theologically sensitive. As such, reflections on Springsteen’s later albums draw together disparate songs around a single theme (“Grace and Redemption”; “Sin”; “The Struggle Within”). The third section takes yet another turn, examining Springsteen’s midrash, uncovering the ways in which Springsteen retells familiar biblical stories for new theological purposes. Figures such as Joseph, Jesus, Mary, Cain, and Elijah have been retold by Springsteen; drawing from his work as a professor of Jewish Studies and Classics, Yadin-Israel explores the ways in which Springsteen’s hermeneutics have evoked new meaning from old texts.

In taking a textual approach rather than a thematic or biographical approach—as has been common in other works on Springsteen—Yadin-Israel carefully opens up new veins of Springsteen’s work which he contends have either been neglected or over-read by past interpreters looking for autobiographical or systematic statements from Springsteen. While this allows Yadin-Israel to demonstrate the plurality of material within Springsteen’s words, the effect is that this book could have easily been extended to three full volumes on the early works, the theological loci, and Springsteen’s midrash, respectively. At a lean 197 pages, The Grace of God and the Grace of Man provokes many new avenues within Springsteen’s work, but the text-based approach which isolates various songs from their biographical or larger thematic arcs does not attempt to make sense of this plurality. Readers of this book will find much to appreciate, and many new fruitful insights here, though the search for a thematic unity in Springsteen’s corpus will be the work of other authors.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Myles Werntz is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Hardin-Simmons University.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Azzan Yadin-Israel is a professor of Jewish Studies and Classics at Rutgers University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and has published widely on rabbinic literature, early Christianity, and the history of the Hebrew language. His work and works-in-progress are available here: https://azzanyadinisrael.wordpress.com. 

Keywords: 

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