I love Springsteen. And one of his greatest albums is 1995’s Ghost of Tom Joad. If I were Emperor-Of-The-World not owning it would be an offence subject to fine and imprisonment. Just kidding… kind of. Not only is it great music but Springsteen’s storytelling has great insight. Springsteen in his songwriting is primarily a storyteller. And in a St Paul as even some of your own poets have said type way, Christians could benefit from listening.
Every song on the record is great but Highway 29 is a standout. It is from the point of view of a man driven to commit horrible acts of violence. He starts out as a shoe salesman who happens to serve a beautiful and seductive woman. They end up spinning out of control and he commits murder during an armed robbery. It is a lust-fueled Bonnie and Clyde type story with a trajectory from banality into profound evil. How did it happen? Where did such violence and evil come from? Springsteen, being storyteller par excellence – lets us into the man’s thoughts after he’s committed his crimes:
In a little desert motel the air was hot and clean
I slept the sleep of the dead, I didn’t dream
I woke in the morning, washed my face in the sink
We headed into the Sierra Madres ‘cross the border line
The winter sun shot through the black trees
I told myself it was all something in her
But as we drove I knew it was something in me
Something that’d been comin’ for a long long time
And something that was here with me now
On Highway 29
The man tries to convince himself that it was the woman who tempted him into it. But he admits that it was what was inside him that drove him to do it. I knew it was something in me… And something that was here with me now…
In a world full of excuses and passing blame, this realization is profound. And it teaches us something that the Bible has always affirmed – Human Sinfulness. We often think of sin as stuff we shouldn’t do. We’re right about that. We can also think of it as not doing what we should. That’s also true. But why is it that we do what is evil and don’t do what is good? It is because we have ‘sin’ inside us. That is a nature that causes our sins to come from within. Something that we always carry with us.
I knew it was something in me…
And something that was here with me now…
What Springsteen is poetically illustrating is a nature of sin. This is sometimes in theology called depravity – which has never meant, by the way, that we’re as bad as we can possibly be or that everything we do is completely bad. It means that within the human heart – every human heart – there is a nature which causes us to do what ought not to and not do what we ought to. It is a great equalizer. Everyone suffers from the condition. It was with that man when he was just a shoe salesman as much as it was after he had committed violent murder. No one is better than anyone else, we are all sinners.
There is a cure for it in the Cross of Christ. As we repent and believe, we are forgiven, made new, and given a new nature. It is a free gift and that is the glory of the Christian Gospel. But in order to be ready for the Good News, we need to have some understanding of the Bad News: There is something in me that gives birth to all kinds of evil. Something in me. Something here with me now. And Springsteen has a lesson for us on that.