At Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, home-state of singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen, a Byrne Freshman Seminar course will be offered in 2014 that studies the theology of Springsteen lyrics. Bruce Springsteen is not of the Jewish faith; the course is being taught in the Jewish Studies department and students will receive one credit.
The course is being taught by professor Azzan Yadin-Israel, and it will cover theology, ideas and biblical allusions from 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. to last year’s Wrecking Ball. Yadin-Israel, a tenured associate professor of Jewish studies and classics, usually teaches courses on early rabbinic literature, but has been a Springsteen fan since he was in middle school.
“Theologically, I would say the most dominant motifs are redemption – crossing the desert and entering the Promised Land – and the sanctity of the everyday,” Yadin-Israel said. “Springsteen tries to drag the power of religious symbols that are usually relegated to some transcendent reality into our lived world. In his later albums he also writes very openly about faith.” For instance, Yadin-Israel offers an example in Springsteen’s “Promised Land,” which contains heavy apocalyptic imagery. “It starts out in the Utah desert, and then he’s making his way from the desert to the promised land,” says Yadin-Israel. “Now, Springsteen rewrites that Biblical motif, as a young man who is making his way to manhood, to adulthood.”
Yadin-Israel added, “For example, “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Jesus was an Only Son,” “In the Belly of the Whale” (referring to Jonah). But concepts with biblical resonance appear throughout his works (the Promised Land, redemption, faith), and it’s just a matter of taking the theological overtones seriously… Interestingly, Springsteen refers more often to the stories of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) than the New Testament. On a literary level, Springsteen often recasts biblical figures and stories into the American landscape. The narrator of “Adam Raised a Cain” describes his strained relationship with his father through the prism of the biblical story of the first father and son; Apocalyptic storms accompany a boy’s tortured transition into manhood in “The Promised Land,” and the first responders of 9/11 rise up to “someplace higher” in the flames, much as Elijah the prophet ascended in a chariot of fire (“Into the Fire”). Theologically, I would say the most dominant motifs are redemption — crossing the desert and entering the Promised Land — and the sanctity of the everyday. Springsteen tries to drag the power of religious symbols that are usually relegated to some transcendent reality into our lived world. In his later albums he also writes very openly about faith.”
Yadin-Israel is a graduate of Hebrew University in Jerusalem and received his doctorate at UC-Berkeley and Graduate Theological Union. A book-review editor at Prooftexts, he has taught classes in Classical Jewish Philosophy, and The Dead Sea Scrolls; and he is the author of. Scripture as Logos: Rabbi Ishmael and the Origins of Midrash
* Sorry. The earlier version of this post dropped the hyperlinks.