The Happening and the Gospel of Bruce Springsteen

Just because it’s a quiet week on the campaign trail (no religious faux-pas or embarrassing endorsements), lacking, too, in clergy scandals and faith-based conflagrations, don’t assume God’s on summer break. There’s still a lot for enterprising journalists to cover.

The Happening, M. Night Shyamalan’s much-maligned new movie, sounds much more interesting now that I know it’s about religion. Thanks to the blogosphere (no MSM review I saw had this angle), the film can be read as an extended argument for religious faith in general and intelligent design specifically.

Night was inspired by reading Albert Einstein’s biography and discovering Einstein had rejected religion at first until he saw ‘the hand of God’ in the gaps between scientific explanations. In The Happening, Shyamalan tries to recreate this surrender to faith by saying “sometimes you just can’t explain it when shit happens.” When asked about the religious faith that inspired him, Shyamalan was “vague.” But Annalee Newitz, writing at io9 was not. Her review argues that the movie supports not only intelligent design but also male headship in a traditional Christian family.

Lest you think io9 (a sci-fi site) goes off the deep end, look at the interview with Shyamalan in Scientific American. Here the director sounds less a candidate for the Promise Keepers than for a drum circle:

There is something that binds everything. To keep looking for that, that drive is almost the holy grail. I can totally relate to that on an intuitive level. That’s somehow tied to some mystical thing—I don’t know if mystical is the correct word. It’s beyond logic; it’s the evidence that all things come from one simple thing.

I still don’t plan on seeing the movie, so you’ll have to tell me whether or not The Happening is one simple thing, but I might just delve into the theological side of The Boss. The Gospel according to Bruce Springsteen, from Asbury Park to Magic is a book I wish I had written (albeit with a different title). Author Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz is a Unitarian Universalist minister who (if the press release is to be believed) engages Springsteen’s religious and political themes in an intelligent and accessible manner. Reading excerpts on Amazon, I did find the style accessible (easy rehashing of Bruce’s bio with musing on his music) and the content reminiscent of a semi-hip Sunday sermon:

The song “Backstreets” also reminds us that we are born as children of the holy fire, children of the Spirit. But the ways of the world often separate us from our blazing birthright. To find enlightenment and passion again, we must escape the word and head for the desert. For the outskirts, for that place away—in this song, “an old abandoned beach house.”

Of course, Springsteen isn’t the only musician with Big Things in mind: Miley Cyrus’ godmother also sings about sin and salvation. Backwoods Barbie, Dolly Parton’s new album, is a familiar mix of noble women, cheatin’ men, and a forgiving God. Says reviewer Susan Wunderlink, “Her songs put forward Christian spiritual elements like faith and prayer, but Parton has never been one to get specific about theology.” (Hmm—might there be a piece on the Bible, the Boss, and the Backwoods Barbie: sin and salvation from Nashville to New Jersey?)

The folks behind Church Basement Roadshow do get specific about theology, and since they were good enough to show up at my synagogue Saturday morning (noshing not davening), I wanted to end this update on religion and culture with a mention of their project.

Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt,and Mark Scandrette are three leaders of the emergent church movement. (For those unfamiliar with this theological/social perspective—which began among evangelicals but has found resonance among Jews and Catholics—I recommend Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger’s Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Culture. Gibbs and Bolger provide an academic overview, but Jones, Pagitt, Sandrette and host of others have their own books, too.)

The roadshow purports to be a 1908 revival (with a 2008 message) that reminds audiences of the power and glory that led Spirit-filled revivalists to hit the sawdust trail. I missed the roadshow when it played in Los Angeles, but the music, costumes and old-timey shtick appeal to the historian in me. The journalist who also abides would have liked to know who’s in the audience (is it reaching beyond the emergent community), how the “boys” negotiate between kitsch and commitment, and whether the 1908 message works today or succumbs to nostalgia. Rather than another story on “oh those strange emergents” who (a) live communally; (b) behave counterculturally; or (c) are insufficiently Christian—I’d like to see coverage of this creative bid to recapture history in service of the present moment.

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