The most remarkable aspect of Bruce Springsteen’s performance at the 2018 Tony Awards wasn’t what he said or that he said it, but the unanimous acclaim with which it was greeted by both the assembled audience and those who viewed it at home. As I noted in my August column, the story of faith, family, and place that Springsteen told was by no means remarkable, except in the fact that such stories are less lived today than in his childhood, and even less often told.
Yet such stories continue to speak to the human heart, including hearts damaged by pride and greed and lust. And that speaks to the truth of the Gospel, of the history of salvation, including the story of Creation and of the Fall. God looked upon His Creation, including man, and saw that it was good—and then we chose to become as gods, and obscured the image of God in our souls.
Obscured, but not erased, because that was not in the power of man to do. We could not wipe out all that was good through our sin, because that would have meant the annihilation of Creation. As long as man continues to exist, there must be good within him, because he did not create himself and is incapable of fully corrupting what God has made.
There was a time, back in the most heady days of the Renaissance, when one could reasonably say that what characterized the modern world was a revolt against the Catholic understanding of original sin. Western man—including many within the Church and her hierarchy—rebelled against the idea that the Fall had so injured human nature that only by uniting ourselves, through grace, to the redemptive action of Christ could we begin to repair it.
No more. Today, our culture not only accepts the reality of original sin but celebrates it. Pride and greed and lust are seen not as distortions of human nature but as essential to who we are. The embrace of the seven deadly sins cuts across political denominations and is as prevalent among those who profess to follow Christ as it is among those who reject the Gospel for “espousing hate.” Be proud of who you are—even if who you are is, in large part, defined by actions that draw you ever further away from the image of goodness, truth, and beauty in which man was created. Greed is good—even if our fellow man suffers because of it. Love knows no bounds—a statement that’s undoubtedly true of God, but patently false when it is used to justify all forms of sexual activity.
This embrace (without recognizing it as such) of original sin should be accompanied by a hatred of all in man that is good, those elements of human nature that, while obscured in man by the Fall, still remain. And, among the fringes, such a hatred can be found.
Among most people who have made their peace with original sin, however, some recognition remains that our fallen nature is not truly who we were meant to be. That’s why such unremarkable stories as the one Bruce Springsteen told remain so powerful. Goodness, truth, and beauty—as both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas knew—appeal to the very depths of the human soul, no matter how far our actions have removed us from the source of all that is good, and true, and beautiful.
The power of the story is indisputable. But stories require storytellers, and they, alas, are in short supply, especially among those who consider themselves to be politically and culturally conservative. There are many reasons for such a dearth. In the summer of 1989, when I interned in Washington, D.C., at Accuracy in Media, I attended quite a few lectures at the Heritage Foundation, and every meeting of the Third Generation there. (The Third Generation was a gathering of conservatives in their 20’s, so named because they were to pick up the torch of conservatism from the New Right, which had picked it up from the Old Right. Yet, as I’ve mentioned in a previous column, almost no one from the Third Generation attended the lecture that summer by Russell Kirk, the preeminent voice of the first generation.)
After the lectures, over a Coors Light in the Heritage lobby, I would ask the men of the rising generation what novels they were reading, and what poets they would recommend. I never once found one who was reading anything other than policy studies or (at best) works by the students of Leo Strauss. Nor did I meet one who was a native of our imperial capital or its environs, or anyone who intended, once he had served his country, to return home.
Bruce Springsteen is, by all accounts, far from the textbook definition of a practicing Catholic, and he’s certainly no political conservative. Yet this devotee of Flannery O’Connor lives only ten miles or so away from the neighborhood that he brought to life in the imaginations of the 6.3 million viewers who watched the Tony Awards (and the countless others who have viewed the performance on YouTube in the months since). In doing so, he briefly drained the Swamp of their imaginations and allowed them to glimpse, if only for a few minutes, what life could—and should—be.