Monday, October 22, 2012

Bruce Springsteen's "Factory": A Theological Reflection

Early in the morning factory whistle blows,
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes,
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light,
It's the working, the working, just the working life.

Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain,
I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain,
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life,
The working, the working, just the working life.

End of the day, factory whistle cries,
Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes.
And you just better believe, boy,
somebody's gonna get hurt tonight,
It's the working, the working, just the working life.

Bruce Springsteen burst into the national limelight in 1975 with his classic musical expression of naive youthful idealism, Born to Run. In what I consider to be his best song, "Thunder Road," the narrator expresses his desire for a better life, and entreats his girl to come along as escapes the stultifying life of his has-been home town: "It's a town full of losers/I'm pulling out of here to win." Well, in the following years Bruce  courtesy of former manager Mike Appel  learned first hand of the vicissitudes of life and the crushing of the human spirit that inevitably comes when "the promise is broken."  The result was his bitter and bleak classic of disillusionment, Darkness on the Edge of Town, which was finally released in 1978, and from which is culled the somewhat obscure, country-tinged ballad, simply entitled "Factory."

Springsteen's inspiration for this song came, not surprisingly, from his father, a man who bounced around from job to unsatisfying job, including stints in the old Karagheusian Rug Mill in Freehold, New Jersey (referenced in his 1984 song, "My Hometown") and a plastics plant that served as the direct inspiration for the lyric about encroaching hearing loss (Springsteen discusses this here). Considering the strained relationship Springsteen had with his father throughout his youth, it comes as no surprise to hear the deliberate allusion to the melody of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "I Don't Know How to Love Him," from Jesus Christ Superstar (especially evident in the instrumental bridge played by Roy Bittan and Danny Federici).

With haunting simplicity, Springsteen captures the soul-killing drudgery and (often) meaninglessness that characterizes so much work in both the industrial and (now) post-industrial eras in the West  and, just as importantly, the deleterious effects of such on human relationships both in the home and in society. What I would like to suggest is that, in doing so, the Boss has provided an exquisite artistic commentary on what the biblical Book of Genesis portrays as one of the consequences of humankind's fall into sin. Genesis 3:17-19 read as follows:

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.”
It is essential to realize that the mandate of work itself is not the curse. Rather, the curse consists in the transformation of work, which is part and parcel of what being human entails, into toil. The "thorns and thistles" of the creation narrative illustrate the kinds of difficulties one inevitably encounters while laboring in the fallen world in which we now live. Humans, indeed, were created to work in their capacity as God's image bearers, wisely bringing God's rule to bear on the created order. But, as we all instinctively know, things are not as they are "supposed to be." And nowhere is this more evident than with respect to work. As anyone, like I, who has ever been employed to do industrial shift work can readily attest, work all too often bears the marks of tedium and insignificance, bringing with it mental anguish even as it hastens the physical breakdown to which we all eventually succumb. And this is especially the case when work is cut loose from its proper context as a means to glorify God and mediate his rule, and used instead as a means of self-aggrandizement in the arena of cutthroat competition for societal prestige and material comfort.

The Christian gospel is the good news that God has, in the life, death, and resurrection of Messiah Jesus, inaugurated the kingdom of God, in which the wrongs brought about by human sin will ultimately be righted as God's rule becomes manifest on earth as it is in heaven. This, of course, has ramifications for human work. To the extent that we still live in the midst of the "present evil age" (Gal 1:4), our work will always, to an extent, be made burdensome by the thorns and thistles that encumber all human endeavors. But work itself remains honorable and intrinsically worthwhile  as Luther and Calvin understood, each of us (i.e., not only the "clergy") has been given a "vocation," the responsibilities of which we are to discharge with obedient alacrity. As St. Paul said, "Whatever you do, do it heartily, as for the Lord and not for men" (Col 3:23). This, I know from personal experience, is a hard thing to do. It is, for example, much easier to do what one finds enjoyable, whether that means teaching theology, writing blogs, or playing music (no matter the effort expended), than it is to work on a production line at midnight in a hot, filthy factory, manufacturing what, for all practical purposes, is junk mail. But obedience is obedience, no matter what the cost. And the heart of growth to spiritual maturity is the recognition that God is not in the business of making us comfortable, but of transforming us by his Spirit so that we actually do love God and neighbor as we were created to do.

One more thing. If, indeed, Christians are now in the business of implementing the victory over evil achieved by Christ in his death and resurrection, that means that we should not simply accept the drudgery or toilsome character of so much work in the present world, especially when it is "others" who experience the worst of it. Rather, we should do all we can to bring Christ's victory to bear on every sphere of life, and that by definition includes the sphere of work. By the way, this especially has relevance to those of us who are most materially comfortable and/or who have been fortunate enough to be employed doing what, for us, does not feel like "work." After all, as John Donne rightly expressed, "No man is an island, entire of itself" (Devotions upon emergent occasions and seuerall steps in my sicknes - Meditation XVII [1624]). We don't live life on our own, and we certainly ought not live as if we have no such responsibilities to others likewise created in God's image.

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