I've seen the future of adult education, and its name is Bruce Springsteen. Last Wednesday night at Morrow Memorial Methodist Church, Bill Ehlers presented the first of four classes in a course entitled "The Gospel According to Bruce," part of the church's series of Lenten education offerings. The next class is tonight from 8 to 9 p.m. at Morrow.
Ehlers has long wanted to lead a discussion group about Springsteen, though he cautioned that this class is "not a fan club." His hope is to look deeper into the lyrics, studying their sacred imagery and drawing out messages for the more secular world that we share with Springsteen's characters. A longtime Springsteen fan who recently introduced his 75-year-old father to the live concert experience, Ehlers was moved to teach the class when he read "The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen."
The book, written by Unitarian minister Jeffrey Symynkywicz, looks at the body of Springsteen's work in chronological order, one album and song at a time. Likewise, Ehlers led the group through a discussion of two significant songs, "Jesus was an Only Son" and "Thunder Road." Ehlers chose "Jesus was an Only Son" as the most explicitly religious of Springsteen's work. "Thunder Road," he admitted, was a personal favorite, the first song his children knew by heart, as he sang it to them on the sleepless nights of infancy.
Ehlers's audience was half self-described "Bruce fans," including this writer, and half unconvinced. He presented songs in their entirety while projecting the lyrics on a screen. "One of the pleasures of preparing this class," said Ehlers, "was really sitting down and reading the words, listening to songs I had skipped for years."
Group discussion was lively, as participants pulled imagery from lyrics remembered and rediscovered. The name Mary appears in numerous Springsteen songs, including both "Jesus was an Only Son" and "Thunder Road." Both songs are rife with Biblical imagery, as well, perhaps a nod to Springsteen's own Catholic upbringing.
"Thunder Road's" narrator offers a woman named Mary "redemption," suggesting that he and she are "riding out tonight to case the promised land." Ehlers noted the relationship between the characters. "It's not a typical teen song," he said. The singer asks Mary to "take that long walk from your front porch to my front seat," suggesting a journey with a destination rather than a back seat interlude. "These people are going somewhere," a participant said. "They're not just fleeing."
Ehlers noted and the participants agreed that Springsteen songs look at the here and now, and his characters are "working out their problems on earth."
The subject matter of the class may seem unusual, but the dynamic Ehlers is eager to "broaden the concept of what we study in church." And he quoted Thomas Aquinas, who wrote, "If God can become human, then that teaches us that the things of this earth can become reflections of the holy." Springsteen's powerful storytelling, with tales of redemption and second chances, have a message. And, as Ehlers noted, the message many of us heard in the songs as teenagers isn't what we hear in 2010.
While Wednesday's class served as an introduction to the course, the three classes that follow will look more closely at themes in Springsteen's work. Wednesday, March 10, will look at Bruce Springsteen and social justice. March 17 will consider themes of redemption and deliverance in the music, and the final session, on March 24, looks at "The Rising." Classes are free and open to the public. Members of the community from all faith traditions are encouraged to attend any or all of the classes, and Ehlers is eager to include particular songs or albums that are important for participants. Classes meet from 8:00 until 9:00 p.m.
As I drove home from Morrow, I played "Thunder Road," and thought about the first time I heard the song. In high school, when the numbers of my clock radio flipped to 6:02, the music turned on. And in the early 1980s, that music was often "Bruce Juice," WNEW 102.7's daily double dose of Bruce Springsteen songs, blaring from the tiny speaker perched between my Walkman and my history books. The image that stayed with me then was escape, heading out of town and down the shore.
What I heard in the cold March darkness as I drove along Ridgewood Road was another line, brought home to me at Morrow Church. "Have a little faith," sings Springsteen, "There's magic in the night."
For more information, contact Morrow Church at 973 763-7676.