'There's a new world coming': The eschatology of Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball.

Author:Allen, Spencer L.
Position:Critical essay


Since his first album in 1973, so many of Bruce Springsteen's characters have shared the escapist desire to leave town in search for a promised land that they have become as cliche in his songs as the cars that these characters use to drive away. Some characters run from the problems that they created (e.g., "From Small Things [Big Things One Day Come]," 2003), and some look to build a community (e.g., "Across the Border," 1995), but they all share the same goal of getting someplace else. (1) Nowhere is this desire to escape more apparent or more famously well known than in Springsteen's first top-forty hit, the appropriately titled "Born to Run" (1975). In this rock anthem, the singer aches to leave his home "and never go back," and he promises his girlfriend Wendy that, if she would accompany him, they will soon get to "where we really want to go," a dreamy utopia where they will one day "walk in the sun." (2) In contrast to his home, which he designates as both a "death trap" and a "suicide rap," their escapist future is described as an "amusement park" overrun with kids on the beach and in the streets. Because most of Springsteen's songs relate the desires of the characters, we rarely learn if the characters eventually find their personal paradises.

In contrast to Springsteen's characters in his earlier songs, the realities facing most of the characters are so dire on his 2012 Grammy-nominated album Wrecking Ball that the best escape many of them can envision cannot be found in this world as it presently is. (3) If they are going to survive, society must change, and people must treat each other like brothers rather than commodities. For some characters, looking forward to death is the simplest form of escape, which seems to be the case for the blue-collar workers in "Shackled and Drawn" and "Death to My Hometown." More often, characters longingly anticipate nothing less than what could be considered the end of the present age and of the suffering our imperfections bring, and they instead envision a new world order in which human society and the natural world are transformed by human action. But this dream of a new world is no utopian paradise like the amusement park in "Born to Run," Peter Pan's Neverland, or the primeval Garden of Eden. Rather, this new world and new society would be the result of people working together as part of a covenant relationship. Springsteen is not alone in this call for a new world order; it is a call that in many ways resembles the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus preached. (4) Indeed, the eschatological thrust of the songs on Wrecking Ball resembles not only Jesus's ancient vision and call but also those of Springsteen's contemporary Catholics: Sister Simone Campbell (aka the "Nun from the Bus") and Pope Francis, both of whom acknowledge that the responsible treatment of the unfortunate and oppressed is more important than robust corporate or state finances and traditional theological orthodoxy. (5)

Springsteen largely avoids apocalyptic language that focuses on cataclysmic events as signs of the end of civilization, and this new world he sings about on "Jack of All Trades," "We Take Care of Our Own," and "Rocky Ground" closely resembles the positive eschatological wish described in the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4). Indeed, "Jack's" phraseology, "we'll start caring for each other," echoes Jesus's own eschatological hopes for humanity in this new world, including his vision of seeing God's "kingdom come" and "will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). (6) This article explores the present-day fears and the future-oriented optimisms underlying these eschatological wishes, as well as the instances where even these eschatological wishes fail the characters.

Because both Springsteen's and Jesus's interests lie in the realization of a transformed world wherein everyone "take[s] care of each other" ("Jack of All Trades"), we can categorize these visions as eschatological in nature. Both men envision an imminent end to our current way of living and the arrival of another, better way. This is a new world that we ourselves transform; we cannot sit back and let it happen by itself or wait for divine fiat. For this reason, the term eschaton is preferred to apocalypse in describing these two views. Greek for "end" or "last," eschaton and eschatology differ from the more well-known apocalypse and apocalyptic, which mean "reveal" or "uncover," because these latter two terms encompass a vision that has been revealed by the divine and typically involves actions taken by the divine to rectify the evils presently encountered, which includes the punishment of the seer's opponents (Crossan 1995, 52-53). Whereas apocalyptic tales (e.g., the Revelation of John in the New Testament) are filled with natural catastrophes as signs of divine judgment and justice, eschatological visions need not involve wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, and the falling skies (see Matthew 24:6-8). (7) Rather, eschatological visions of the future offer humanity a new way of living that is created by a way of behaving, acting as a responsible member of a covenant community. (8) Furthermore, a divine being need not reveal the eschaton to humankind, but it could still serve as inspiration. The sage proposing the new world simply needs to envision a moment where we as a society redefine and implement our ideals for humanity's sake. To be sure, Jesus considered himself close to the divine and referred to the divine by the intimate title "Father" (e.g., Matthew 6:26; 7:11; 12:50), and he saw his message as an attempt to institute the proper rule of God in our world through a series of selfless acts, but his message and vision of a perfected society are radically different from those of John in his famous Revelation, who presents his vision of the impending future as God's means of punishing his enemies and rewarding his faithful.

"Jack of All Trades"

This eschatological understanding of the new world, which is exemplified by Jesus's message about the coming Kingdom of Heaven, serves as the undercurrent of Springsteen's Wrecking Ball, and it is especially felt throughout the album's fourth song "Jack of All Trades." In this song, the presumably only recently unemployed narrator, whom for convenience commentators call "Jack," acts as a comforter and begins listing various odd jobs he could do to earn money in the future. Be it performing yard work or carpentry or serving as a farmhand or mechanic, Jack has the know-how and willingness to provide for himself and his family in the new economic recession. They will live on a shoestring budget, but they will survive as long as he is able to work. In the penultimate verse, he reflects on the nature of our present world and all of its trials and tribulations:

There's a new world coming I can see the light I'm a jack of all trades, we'll be all right. ("Jack of All Trades," 2012) (9)

This world is tough, and yet individuals like Jack somehow struggle and survive. Restating the hook that closes each verse, he reminds the listener that not all is lost, that "we'll be all right."

But given the economic downturn, how does Jack know "we'll be all right"? He answers this question by referencing his own insight, "I can see the light." At first glance, this statement could be dismissed as nothing more than an optimistic cliche, but it has long been observed that Springsteen's use of "light" (and "water") indicates rebirth. For instance, as Father Andrew M. Greeley (2004, 162) observed of Springsteen's 1987 album, Tunnel of Love:

In the final verse of the song ["Valentine's Day"]--and of the album--Springsteen closes the circle of sacramentality: Light (God's light again) and the river and the bride and God become one, an irresistible symbol and story of the rebirth and renewal of life and love. He wakes up from a nightmare and finds "God's light came shinin' on through." He is scared and terrified and also born anew. "Valentine's Day" is not the only song from Tunnel of Love in which Greeley observes light as a signifier of rebirth. The somber "Cautious Man" and the rocking "Spare Parts" maintain this symbolism (161). In "Cautious Man" the lonesome Billy returns to his sleeping wife after a nightmare causes him to go out for a midnight walk. When he gets back to their bedroom, he sees the moon shine on her as evidence of God's light, and Billy apparently realizes that for him, like Jack, everything will "be all right." (10) In "Spare Parts" the single mother Janey tells her mother that she regrets choosing to keep and raise her newborn after her fiance Bobby left, and she later decides to get rid of her son. In a very biblical moment, Janey learns of a nearby woman who let her baby drown in a river, and she prepares her own son for a similar fate. However, as she readies herself to let the water take her child, she stops, observes the sun and its light, and returns home with her child. In the form of the sun's rays, light is present at the moment that Janey recommits herself to her child, just as the moon's reflection off Billy's wife's face was present when he recommitted himself to their marriage.

Following Greeley's observations about the numerous uses of light on Tunnel of Love, the fact that Jack has seen the light in "Jack of All Trades" suggests to us a rebirth and recommitment. Moreover, the first half of the line, "There's a new world coming," with its religious overtones is not the only portion of the song that points to rebirth in typical Springsteen fashion. For Greeley, light and water together are "profoundly Catholic symbols" of rebirth and, of course, baptism. (11) The pairing of light and water is not limited to these Tunnel of Love tracks; they are found within "Jack of All Trades" as well. In his vision for transformation in the new world, he may have seen the light, but Jack also mentions water as the metaphorical...

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