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A letter to an old rocker

Michael McGirr  |  22 August 2018

Bruce SpringsteenDear Bruce Springsteen,

Many of your songs tell stories of struggling people and celebrate their dignity.

There are countless examples. ‘The River’ is based on the lives of your sister and her husband and ‘My Hometown’ mourns the tension between black and white and the loss of community in small town America. People have said there is a spirituality underlying your music and they are right.

Your memoir, Born to Run, has a warm place for God. You mention that you got through tough times ‘by the grace of God and the light of friends.’ That is a great approach to life.

Nevertheless, I am not writing to thank you now that you are almost seventy, still pursuing the inspiration you had as a teenager that the secret of life was about creativity and shared joy. Rather, I am thinking of the moment 25 years ago, in late 1993, when I first laid eyes on a little magazine called Australian Catholics. I’d be surprised if you had ever laid eyes on a copy but stranger things have happened.

Toward the end of 1993, I was on a pilgrimage, walking from Hamilton in far west Victoria – where Mary MacKillop’s father, Alexander, is buried – to Penola. On the way, I paused in a church to pray and happened to pick up the first issue of Australian Catholics. I had written for the publication but I had not yet seen the final result. I took it back to a café in town, ordered a hamburger and began reading. I was struck by the faith-filled engagement with the reality of life that ran through the articles. One piece, for example, by the late Terry Monagle, a courageous and beautiful man, was called ‘My Monastery is Silver’. It spoke about praying in the train on the way to work and used everyday language to share something profound. It didn’t want faith to disguise reality but to embrace it. The magazine did not put walls around the Church. To me, this is what the incarnation is all about. Jesus is among us in shops and cars and cafes and schools and surgeries and cinemas and homes and, yes, even loud music.

As I finished my burger and turned to the chips, a song came on the radio. It was ‘Streets of Philadelphia’, your beautiful lament that accompanied the film Philadelphia, which had appeared that year and dealt with the stigma of AIDS. I had lost several loved ones to AIDS and had seen the movie with one of their families. HIV/AIDS is still painfully present to me in communities I have grown close to in Africa through Zimele. Back in 1993, both the film and the song helped me in the same way that Australian Catholics would. It was about bringing the whole of life into the light of love.

In Born to Run, you speak of the behaviour of church personnel that damaged your relationship with Catholicism. Sadly, you share that story with hundreds of thousands of others. But you say ‘I’m still on the team’, meaning that your Catholic faith is a deep well from which you continue to draw. You say:

‘In Catholicism there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward…I tried to meet its challenge for the very reasons that there are souls to lose and a kingdom of love to be gained. I laid what I’d absorbed across the hardscrabble lives of my family, friends and neighbours… As funny as it sounds, I still have a personal relationship with Jesus … I believe deeply in his love, his ability to save.’

Bruce, I hope that both you and this little magazine keep rocking. We can’t let the old bones of our faith get stiff and brittle. We all need to keep dancing in the dark.

Michael McGirr is the Dean of Faith and Mission at St Kevin’s College in Melbourne and author of Finding God’s Traces.


Topic tags: heroesandrolemodels, socialjustice-global

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