In what could easily be described as the coolest news ever to come out of Rutgers University, the school has announced that it will soon offer a theology course based on the music of Bruce Springsteen.
All I can say is that it’s about time somebody did this.
I’ve only been a Springsteen fan for six or seven years, but I am an all-in fan. I have every album, I’ve read several books about him and various members of his band, and I have seen him perform live three different times in three different cities.
The most recent Springsteen show I attended was in September 2012 in his home state of New Jersey (thanks to my wife Caroline for what will remain the greatest anniversary gift in the history of married people everywhere).
While seeing a Bruce Springsteen concert anywhere is an unforgettable experience, seeing him in his hometown was transcendent. It’s not just that the crowd was different—Bruce was different. He was home, continuing a relationship with his core fan base that has lasted for more than forty years. To these men and women, Bruce Springsteen is not merely their favorite musician—he is their pastor.
In my world, the word “pastor” has always referred to the guy (always a guy) who is in charge of the church or the church staff’s boss (although not the Bruce kind of “boss”). However, the original meaning of the word is not “main church leader.” Instead, it comes from a Latin word that literally means “shepherd.”
A pastor is a shepherd of human beings.
A pastor is someone who helps us see the world through new eyes—someone who guides us through our experiences, teaching us to see the mundane through sacred lenses.
A pastor is a person who validates our pain and celebrates our joy, even from afar.
A pastor is a person who shares his or her life experiences and allows those things to help other people process reality.
So what does any of this have to do with Bruce Springsteen or Rutgers University?
For those tens of thousands of people gathered together for a Springsteen concert in New Jersey, there is no mystery to this. Bruce has spent four decades pastoring his fans with songs of despair and hope, pain and joy, loss and renewal. There was one point in the show when Bruce lamented the loss of close friends, most notably the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons. This moment was closely followed by a joyous celebration when the whole stadium broke into a dance during a cover of “Twist and Shout.”
The moments of sorrow are honest, and the moments of joy are earned.
That night in New Jersey, I attended the biggest church service I have ever been part of.
In the recent documentary Springsteen and I—which is about how fans have connected with Bruce Springsteen over the past four decades—one guy describes an experience at a Springsteen concert when a stranger put his arm around the guy’s shoulder. “And it wasn’t weird,” the guy explained. “Because at a Bruce Springsteen show, we’re all brothers.”
What is that if not church?
A pastor’s role is to facilitate those experiences, to create space for people to connect with God and one another.
In Springsteen’s song “Badlands,” the lyrics read:
I believe in the love that you gave me
I believe in the faith that can save me
And I believe in the hope
And I pray that someday it will raise me
Above these badlands
Faith, hope, and love? I feel like I’ve read that somewhere before.
Later in the same song, Bruce sings, “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”
Sometimes it’s a pastor’s job to remind us of this as well.
So while Bruce Springsteen didn’t baptize me, and he’s never visited me in the hospital, I still think of him as my pastor.
In fact, I’m beginning to realize that I have lots of pastors.
Some of them are people that I know, like my wife and my father.
Some of them are writers and thinkers who have changed my outlook on life, like Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, Donald Miller, Scot McKnight, Hulett Gloer, Bill Hybels, Phyllis Tickle, N.T. Wright, and Eugene Peterson.
Some of them are (or have been) actual pastors in my own life, like David Fuller (AboutPops.com) or Sam Carmack.
And of course, some of them are songwriters from New Jersey.
Who are some of the unlikely pastors in your own life? If you were a student at Rutgers would you take the Bruce Springsteen class? What other musicians do you think deserve their own theology class? (Bonus points to anyone who doesn’t name Bono or Johnny Cash)