Reason to Believe

In 1981, Bruce Springsteen released the stark album Nebraska to a bewildered audience. Gone were the familiar sounds of his New Jersey rock band - drums, electric guitars, keyboards and sax - and all that remained was a lone acoustic guitar and harmonica. Gone, too, were his songs of love and lament over innocence lost. Instead, Springsteen offered a collection of sobering musical vignettes about the multiple wounds ordinary people endure every day - from dead dogs and broken hearts to stolen cars and economic recession - as well as humanity's courageous commitment to find grace and hope amidst the pain. Part Flannery O'Connor and Woody Guthrie with equal doses of Robert Johnson and St. Paul, too, the songs on Nebraska paint a picture of the Paschal mystery for contemporary culture: that is, "we know all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to God's purpose." (Romans 8: 28)

The closing song, "Reason to Believe," is a lament. It takes the phrasing of the blues and evokes an incarnational spirituality which weaves together a tapestry of hope and sorrow. The front man for U2, Bono, speaks of lament like this in his introduction to Eugene Peterson's new translation of the Psalms in The Message:
Before David could fulfill the prophecy and become the king of Israel, he had to take quiet a beating. He was forced into exile and ended up in a cave in some no-name border town facing the collapse of his ego and abandonment by God... and this is where David was said to have composed his first psalm - a blues. That's what a lot of the psalms feel like to me - the blues - with man shouting at God, "My god, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? I hear echoes of this holy row when un-holy bluesman Robert Johnson howls, "There's a hellhound on my trail" or Van Morrison sings, "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child." Texas Alexander mimics the psalms in "Justice Blues" when he sings: "I cried Lord, my father, Lord kingdom come. Send me back my woman, then thy will be done!" Abandonment and displacement are the stuff of my favorite psalms... and while the Psalter may be the font of gospel music, for me its despair that the psalmist really reveals in the nature of his special relationship with God... crying "how long... how long?"

Lament - blues - the Psalms - is what Springsteen makes real in "Reason to Believe." And like the best blues, it continues to work in every generation. What sounded haunting in the era of Reagan continues to be reworked by the Boss so that when he sang it 3 years ago in the Devils and Dust tour, it was a wired and angry techno-rant while its current incarnation sounds more like Z Z Top and a mad Texas shuffle. Sociologist Richard Mouw has written that it would be wise "to examine popular culture for a legitimate critique of the shortcomings of theology that has so distanced itself from people struggling to believe... we must probe the hidden places... looking for the signs of eloquence and grace to be found there; listening for deep calling to deep; searching, not only for the Deeper Magic, but also for the Deeper Quests, the Deeper Hurts, the Deeper Plots." (Mouw, Blackwell Guide to Popular Culture, p. 6-7)

Check it out:

Not surprisingly, then, Springsteen wails in his latest recording, "Radio Nowhere:" This is Radio Nowhere is there anybody alive out there - this is Radio Nowhere is there anybody alive out there? I was sitting around a dead dial, just another lost number in a file, dancing down a dark hole just a-searching for a world with some soul!" Sounds like "my God, my God why hast thou forsaken me..." with electric guitars and a riff borrowed from the Police. Check it out:


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