NPR recently had a long, rambling interview with Bruce Springsteen. At a certain point the interviewer asks about gospel music and the “religious impulse” in some of The Boss’s music:
Without overusing the word, you know, there’s a Christian element that runs through it because I grew up Catholic and so I was indoctrinated in religious language between eight o’clock and nine o’clock every single morning for the first eight years of my schooling. Five days a week, every single morning, the first thing you did was religion. And so you grew up with that language and it was, of course, distorted, and screwed me up terribly, but at the same time, it made for good writing. And it was a wonderful source of metaphor when you went to write about the world and about your inner life and it served me. I suppose looking back on it, I would like to change some things but I wouldn’t have had that any other way in that it’s served me very, very well and continues to do so. I have a very deep connection to gospel music. I understand the language — I feel I understand the essence of the music itself.
Notably here, Springsteen says he draws from the deep well of Christian language because it makes for “good writing” and serves as “a wonderful source of metaphor.” And he feels “a very deep connection” to the music of the church. This despite the fact that his Catholic education—or “indoctrination,” as he describes it—”screwed me up terribly.”
This reminds me a bit of the time the “militant atheist” Richard Dawkins told a reporter for the Spectator that he has a certain love for the Anglican tradition in his native land, and specifically its aesthetics, even if he doesn’t for one moment believe any of its theology. Would he feel deprived if church buildings were to disappear from the English landscape? “Yes, I would feel a loss there,” Dawkins said. “I would feel an aesthetic loss. I would miss church bells, that kind of thing.”
These comments from Springsteen and Dawkins beg the question: What should Christians make of such (unexpected?) appreciation for the aesthetics, sensibilities, and cultural contributions of our faith, while the substance behind those contributions is largely or wholly dismissed? Is this good, to an extent? Or is it entirely bad, with the dismissal of the substance canceling out any possible value in the appreciation for the aesthetic?
I have two hands, so I’ll make a point for each and leave it at that.
On the one hand, appreciating the aesthetic beauty of Christianity—awe-inspiring architecture or gospel music or liturgy or what have you—is certainly not the same thing as embracing Christianity itself. (Many of us, from various Christian traditions, would do well to be reminded of that from time to time.)
On the other hand, could it be that for some, the Spirit uses aesthetics to woo even those who for various reasons have found certain claims and/or norms of the faith to be stumbling blocks?
[Image via motherjones.com]