• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.

Title

Magic

Bruce Springsteen turned 70, and his musical canon continues to spread empathy to diverse voices of the American tradition.

October 21, 2019
 
 

I am looking forward to sharing some thoughts in this space and grateful for the opportunity to do so. What makes me tick, and what I hope to bring to musings on diversity here, are several never-ending balancing acts: between the pluribus and the unum in the American project; religious freedom and a binding civic ethos; individual rights and communal obligations. I come at it personally and through my own faith formation, raised Arab Christian, to NYC Egyptian immigrants in a high church Coptic tradition. I come at it through the lens of political and moral philosophy (the former really is a specification of the later, as Aristotle thought about his Politics and Nicomachean Ethics), and training through a doctorate at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, where I also dabbled in Islamic studies. I come at it theologically, as a committed Christian pluralist ever searching to make sense of Christ in an evolutionary dynamic world. And I come at it professionally, as the senior vice president of IFYC and the happy co-conspirator of Eboo’s, Mary Ellen’s and another 35 ludicrously talented folks committed to our work for religious pluralism in and beyond higher education. As an amateur musician and a human being who loves to take adventures through multiple art modalities, my thoughts will sometimes meander into that territory as well. Previous entries of mine include “Interfaith Work, Natural Law, and Inalienable Rights” and “The Interfaith Influences of the Blues Meets Religion in Space.”
-- Tony Banout

***

Last month, one of my heroes turned 70. While it might feel a bit trite to log another entry into the long list of Bruce Springsteen birthday accolades, connections between dominant themes in his musical corpus and the work of interfaith cooperation have not had much airtime. I believe in “the promise,” and what’s more, I “believe in a promised land,” and I believe the work of strengthening our religiously diverse democracy gets us closer to them.

I was 11 when my parents moved to northeastern New Jersey, about a half hour from Springsteen’s hometown of Freehold. I vaguely remember Bruce of the early '80s and hearing "Born in the USA," but mostly I remember its (mis)use by the Reagan campaign. The first song that really shook me featured the eerily floating voice of the Bruce -- manly, massively built, working-class hero -- voicing a gay, socially ostracized and dying character for his contribution to the film Philadelphia, in the song "Streets of Philadelphia." That was an early taste of what would be my appreciation of Bruce’s penchant for empathetically voicing characters of all sorts. These characters, however different, are woven into the common whole. A whole that Bruce's work makes me cherish more precisely because of the human stories that it contains.

And the stories deepen our compassion for the full array of Americans; despite wildly different political and social positioning. For example, "American Skin (41 Shots)" is written for Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea killed at the age of 23 by four plainclothes New York City police officers in 1999. Note the black immigrant from Guinea has American skin. Complement that with "Highway Patrolman," and the story of Joe Roberts who "works for the state," as a sergeant. The story interlaces Joe with his brother Frankie, who "ain't no good" and gets in trouble with the law. How does Sergeant Roberts balance family duty with the duty of his office -- a classical moral dilemma, put to a simple three-chord structure (as Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls puts it, "three chords is closer to God").

And then my encounters with Bruce led to The Rising, Bruce’s post Sept. 11 masterpiece. It was the first front to back, full artistic articulation of his -- in the dying form that is the album -- which brought me to tears and rocked my world. It’s about reconciliation and healing, crossing cultural boundaries, honoring the everyday heroes that were the cops, firefighters and ambulance workers who responded first. It’s got gospel intonations in "My City of Ruins," rousing anthem-like pieces like the title track, "The Rising," absolute heartbreakers in "You’re Missing," and even space for danceable grooves like "Let’s Be Friends." That was when I, in my early 20s, started digging retrospectively into the Springsteen corpus, which at the time spanned a mere 30-odd years.

He’s a poet. Some of the most moving songs are simply built and beautifully written, like "I’ll Work for Your Love." The pared-down acoustic version cuts right through by weaving love and religious imagery, like an American Song of Songs.

With Bruce, I believe in magic. In fact, Bruce reconfirms my belief. Music is magical; he a mighty magician. Read his autobiography or watch his Netflix production of Springsteen on Broadway for more. It is magical that I found my way to the work I currently do with Interfaith Youth Core, and somehow, through that had a chance to sit with Bruce and have what I’d love to call a conversation. I think I'd be stretching the truth to call it that, as he didn’t really say a whole lot -- he just listened, nodded his head, and thanked me.

Back in January of 2016, I was a guest at a gala in Florida for the U.S. Equestrian Foundation. Bruce and Patti Scialfa (his bandmate and wife) happen to be supporters of the foundation and were on hand. I walked up to him and thanked him for making irreplaceably brilliant contributions to the American cannon. I told him he also made irreplaceably brilliant contributions to my own life. I told him I thought "American Land" was like a soundtrack to the spirit of what we do at IFYC, and passed on a copy Eboo’s Sacred Ground with my card in it (no phone call yet, but hope lives!). A friend who was more composed then I was in the moment was kind enough to follow me and snap a photo from his phone at a distance from us as we “chatted.”

I don’t know how to explain this any other way than magic (“show a little faith, there is magic in the night”), but it’s not other than the magic that runs through all of us and our common American project. This story, I hope, is one more reminder that in a potluck nation, we all feast when the contributions of all are welcomed.

From "American Land":

The McNicholas and the Posalskis, the Smiths, Zerillis, too
The Blacks, the Irish, Italians, the Germans and the Jews
They come across the water a thousand miles from home
With nothing in their bellies but the fire down below

They died building the railroads, they worked to bones and skin
They died in the fields and factories, names scattered in the wind
They died to get here a hundred years ago, they're still dying now
The hands that built the country we’re always trying to keep down

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