Monday, March 23, 2009

A blessing from The Boss

Springsteen redeems a Catholic vision of life on The Daily Show

Jon Stewart began the last Thursday’s Daily Show with a detour from his current round of well-justified bashing of journalists, politicians, bankers, and other enablers of our financial mess to satirize the folly of another ripe target: the Roman Catholic Church. The first news item in his opening news segment noted the widely reported story that Pope Benedict XVI had asserted that condoms have worsened the AIDS crisis, leading Stewart to a cascade of gags culminating with a tart observation that, after all, the celibate Pope should know when it comes to matters of sex.

Yet there was a sharp change in tone when Stewart introduced his guest for an unusual two-segment appearance on the show: Bruce Springsteen. Lampooning himself as a starry-eyed fan, Stewart began by shoving a piece of paper and pen at Springsteen asking for an autograph for a Swedish buddy of his who spelled his name “J-o-n.” What followed was a largely standard celebrity interview (for all his caustic humor, Stewart is an assiduous, softball-tossing host) in which Springsteen genially compared the dark public mood with that of the Watergate era in which he emerged on the rock scene, described his old-shoe relationship with his band, and explained the blueprint for the shows in his upcoming tour, which will combine old favorites, new songs, and a sense of the moment for his heterogeneous audience. The two proceeded to discuss the appropriate responses to the national mood, with Springsteen observing that “President Obama is struggling to find the moral center of the argument.” For those unfamiliar with Springsteen’s work, it must have seemed a bit odd for a rock star to be weighing the moral dimension of political problems, and even more so that Stewart listened so attentively, given the pageant of mendacity, venality, and hypocrisy that are the usual fare of The Daily Show. But Springsteen tends to have that effect on people.

In the closing moments of the interview (the next segment would feature Springsteen singing “Working on a Dream”) Stewart described the source of that effect by explaining how much Springsteen meant to him as a striving young man trying to make his mark on the world:

I must tell you on a purely personal basis [that] people always talk to me about ‘who are your influences, who made you do what you do.’ I can say I draw a line, [that] I do what I do because of you, Bruce Springsteen, and I’ll tell you why. You introduced me to the concept of the other side. You introduced me to the idea that you go through the tunnel, and you take a chance, and you can work to get away from your circumstance. And by working to better your circumstance, you can make something of yourself. What I loved about what you do and your music is that it’s complex. It’s that you can work to change what you do, but when you get to the other side you may be in Iraq (laughs) and you may get gunned down in the street. But you know what? The joy of it is chasing that dream, and that was my inspiration for leaving New Jersey.
Springsteen began to respond by a sign of the cross, and saying “Amen,” but Stewart wasn’t done yet. “I just wanted to thank you personally,” he went on, as Springsteen tried, and again failed, to get a word in edgewise. Stewart picked up Springsteen’s verbal cue and made the sign of the cross at him. "God Bless you, Bruce Springsteen.”

When the tribute was complete and audience cheers subsided, Springsteen repeated the sign of the cross and said, “All I can say is, ‘well done, grasshopper.’” As Roger Catlin of the Hartford Courant noted the next day, the “well-done grasshopper” was like “real Zen for your 'Moment of Zen'” that has long been a staple of the end of The Daily Show (Catlin noted that the line appears in The Karate Kid and Kung Fu-Panda, which are as likely a place for Springsteen to have encountered it as anywhere else, as American popular culture is an emporium of spiritual gold and dross).

The gesture of crossing, which of course had an element of irony in that Springsteen surely knew as well as anyone else that Stewart is Jewish, was a richly resonant moment. It was not only an expression of ecumenical good will, a truly catholic —i.e. universal—blessing, but one rooted in Springsteen’s own complex Roman Catholic heritage, one into which he was born, wrestled with, and in recent years has affirmed with growing power and grace. Has there, for example, been a greater expression of a decisively Catholic Christology anywhere in American culture as resounding and powerful in the 1990s as “Streets of Philadelphia” or in this decade as “The Rising?" (For those who seeking more clarification on this , see my chapter on Springsteen's Catholic vision in my 1997 book Born in the U.S.A.) At a time when American Catholics struggle to contain their dismay, embarrassment, and anger at some clergymen, and the irrelevance (at best) of a pontiff who can leave even the most humble of the faithful feeling utterly bemused, it is among the flock of sinners that our faith flickers most compellingly to life. That’s where we’ve always found Bruce Springsteen. And that’s where we’ll find ourselves.