Worshipping at Church of Bruce Springsteen in Belfast provides a humane lesson for all – Susan Dalgety

Susan Dalgety experiences the redemptive power of rock and roll and suggests some Scottish politicians should do too

Belfast is a city full of churches. It seems there is one on every street corner, from Protestant evangelical halls to modest Catholic chapels. Even the buskers in the city’s main shopping area, Donegall Place, sing hymns rather than pop classics. Nearly 26 years after the Good Friday Agreement which brought an end to the Troubles that had split this beautiful city asunder, dividing its population along sectarian lines and killing more than 3,000 people, the Christian god is still big business here.

And on Thursday night, 42,000 souls gathered in a field on the south side of the city to worship at the newest in town, the church of Bruce Springsteen, a 74-year-old guitar player and band leader from a small town in New Jersey, USA. This lifelong atheist, who can’t suspend her rational mind long enough to even countenance a holy spirit, was there, singing along to every song, waving my hands in the air, tears streaming down my face. Give me that old time religion any day, as long as its rock ‘n’ roll.

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Springsteen understands his congregation instinctively, most now grey-haired and slightly arthritic like him. Many have followed him since his breakthrough album, Born to Run, was released on my birthday in 1975. On Thursday night, they brought their children and grandchildren along to listen to the high priest of rock and soul, his powerful voice hoarsened by a seasonal cold, but his spirit as strong as it ever was.

Bruce Springsteen has been performing with The E Street Band for 50 years (Picture: Amy Sussman/Getty Images)Bruce Springsteen has been performing with The E Street Band for 50 years (Picture: Amy Sussman/Getty Images)
Bruce Springsteen has been performing with The E Street Band for 50 years (Picture: Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Impact of the church

Fifty years ago, Springsteen sang about the romance of youth, of escaping the working-class background that had trapped his father in misery, and on Thursday, his three-hour set-list contained many of the classics that made him one of the most famous musicians in the world. But even as he was writing lyrics that eulogised sex and fast cars, his Catholic faith, a product of his Irish Italian heritage, informed his art.

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Writing in his 2009 autobiography – entitled what else but Born to Run – the former altar boy wrote about the impact of the church on his life. “As funny as it sounds, I have a ‘personal’ relationship with Jesus. He remains one of my fathers, though as with my own father, I no longer believe in his godly power. I believe deeply in his love, his ability to save… but not to damn…”

Springsteen may now be what could be described as agnostic, but he still believes in the redemptive power of pop music. “We all have our own way of praying,” he said in a recent documentary. “I restricted my prayers to three minutes and a 45rpm record… if you get it right, it has the power of prayer.”

And Springsteen gets it right almost every time. But today, his big theme is less about the glory days, and far more about the inevitability – and power – of death, hardly surprising for a man now in his eighth decade. As the show comes to an end, the E-Street Band, whose core members he has played with for 50 years, file off the stage, leaving Springsteen alone with an acoustic guitar.

He ends the show, not with a heart-stopping, hard-rocking, booty-shaking tune, but with a gentle ode to people he has loved and lost. “For death is not the end; And I will see you in my dreams,” he sings, croaking slightly, before sending 42,000 souls into the night, our sins absolved, our hearts full of love and hope, even as we, like Springsteen, contemplate our mortality.

Secular pulpit denunciations

From my camper van on the outskirts of a city whose past, present and future has been defined by religion, I have observed the last few days of Scottish politics with some disquiet. Our secular parliament, 25 years old tomorrow, has become mired in dangerous arguments about the personal faith of MSPs. On Thursday, speaking at First Minister’s Questions, the co-leader of the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie, a man I can’t imagine dancing in the dark, denounced the appointment of Kate Forbes as Deputy First Minister. “Is this the Scottish government’s vision for the future of Scotland – taking us back to the repressive values of the 1950s,” he thundered from his bully pulpit, his outrage palpable.

Harvie needs to get out into the world a bit more. Roll down his window, and let the wind blow back his hair. Forbes’ personal faith is none of his business, just as Harvie’s is none of mine. We all have our own road to redemption. Some find solace in the quiet pews and traditional teaching of Scotland’s Presbyterian churches. Others need the heavy incense and flickering candle light of the Catholic Church to make communion with their god. A generation of new Scots celebrate Ramadan and Christmas alike. And many, like me, abandoned the faith of their forefathers at an early age, preferring instead the solace offered by great literature and rhythm and blues.

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On Thursday night, in a field on the edge of a city which still bears the physical and spiritual reminders of a religious conflict that almost destroyed its people, tens of thousands of people gathered to worship together. Protestants sang along with Catholics. Muslims rocked with agnostics. We celebrated not our divisions, but our common humanity. Sure, we are all going to die, but for three hours, we believed we were immortal.

Bruce Springsteen is not our saviour. His music will not bring an end to bloody conflicts, nor will his lyrics feed the starving or heal the sick. But his love of life, his embrace of humanity with all its faults and its contradictions, his pluralism, is surely a lesson for us all. You can learn more from a great three-minute record than you can from the holier-than-thou grandstanding of small-minded, second-rate politicians. Tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.



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