Book review: 'Gospel' does justice to the spirituality of Springsteen

Peter Chianca

“The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen” by Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz, $16.95, Westminster John Knox Press.

Casual fans — the ones who haven’t shelled out cash money for a Springsteen album since “Born in the U.S.A.” — need not apply for “The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen.” They would probably find Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz’s album-by-album, almost song-by-song evaluation of Springsteen’s work from a spiritual perspective to be almost maddeningly comprehensive and, at times, just plain kooky: Who thinks this much about this stuff?

But for those of us who do think this much about this stuff — we know who we are — this detailed, thoughtful analysis is a welcome and thought-provoking look at the words of an important artist whose work has and continues to resonate — on a level, Symynkywicz would argue, that’s both philosophical and spiritual.

If there’s an underlying philosophy that Symynkywicz, a Unitarian minister from Stoughton, Mass., points to in Springsteen’s work, it’s that we have to bring our own “love and joy“ to our lives. “Nothing will change if we put all our hopes for salvation outside of ourselves,” Symynkywicz writes, “if we waste the whole summer waiting ‘for a savior to rise from these streets.’”

There’s a fair amount of lyrical analysis, some of it obvious to anyone who’s listened to these songs carefully (meaning most people who’d be interested in this book). But more interesting, to me at least, are Symynkywicz’s looks at the underlying religious implications of some of the songs, in some cases relating those references to scripture.

Talking about the “angels that have no place” in “Streets of Fire,” Symynkywicz writes that “they stand nowhere, so they stand for nothing; they are angels without any real faith, all-too-earthly counterfeits of heavenly beings. ‘Where there is no vision the people perish,’ says Proverbs 29:18.” Allusions like these are intriguing, and make you want to listen to these songs again, either to try to hear what Symynkywicz hears or to dismiss it as a lot of hooey.

That’s most true in the book’s section on 2002’s “The Rising” — because the lyrics on that album, a response to the events of 9/11, are more oblique than some of Springsteen’s earlier tales of Magic Rats and ’69 Chevys, they’re more open to the type of interpretation Symynkywicz excels at. Even “Mary’s Place,” essentially a party song despite its forlorn lyrics about learning to live broken-hearted, is revealed on a deeper level as an illustration of Springsteen’s efforts to “make peace with the Catholic faith into which he was born.”

“Even if he isn’t exactly singing an Exultet to the Blessed Virgin in this song,” writes Symynkywicz, “‘Mary’s Place’ can be heard as an ode to that great figure of maternal comfort and grace and as a recognition of the need we all have for a community of faith to get us through the hard times of life.”

Granted, even the diehard Springsteen fans might not want to delve this deeply into his work. Analyzed so comprehensively, there’s always a chance it might become too academic and lose some of its primal power, or even just its sense of fun, an important component of most Springsteen albums and certainly his concerts.

Still, if you have all those albums on your shelf and have enjoyed them through the years — and maybe even leaned on them to get you through the rough patches of life — “The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen” will at the very least have you nodding your head in enthusiastic agreement.

[Peter Chianca is a Gatehouse Media managing editor who writes the Bruce Springsteen blog “Blogness on the Edge of Town.” E-mail him at blognessontheedgeoftown@gmail.com.]