Los Angeles -- As my husband and I drove east on the 10 toward mid-City, I had an epiphany. We'd come from a Christmas party at a friend's home in Venice Beach where pomegranate martinis and platters of red velvet mini-cupcakes limned the largesse of a production company that had staged a murder scene in the living room. Thinking to please me, my husband keyed up a podcast at Slate about HBO's recent documentary on "The Promise: The Making of 'Darkness on the Edge of Town,'" Bruce Springsteen's long-awaited follow-up to "Born to Run." For those of us who remember the interminable three-year wait between the albums, "Darkness" was more than a promise -- it was a pay-off. The dude really did understand: By the late 70s, many of us felt as if we were "dying little by little, piece by piece." No longer dancing, we were indeed racing in the streets, desperate to "wash these sins off our hands."
We could not have known that 32 years later, the sentiment would teeter between cliché and inconceivability, a judgment shared by Slate's young commentators -- even the self-professed Springsteen maniacs. You had to have been deep in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, Carter malaise to understand that Springsteen's thick descriptions were both a relief and a release. Even their implausibility was inspiring. We did not need to race cars, toil in a factory or date Jersey girls to understand the grim hopelessness of failed dreams. Bruce's idioms for broken hearts and spiritual wastelands seemed more genuine than our own.
What mattered then, and seems fusty now, is Springsteen's religiosity. As the consciousness revolution of the 60s devolved to pet rocks and designer jeans, Springsteen offered an alternative vision. Modest and shockingly workaday, he found redemption in the back seat of an old parked car. The music spun out a lived religion of commitment: punching the clock, honoring a parent, standing by a friend. Through songs that embraced daily life, he made it possible to believe that we could find meaning, feel love and snatch pleasure from pain.
The gospels of contemporary cultural icons have similar messages but are delivered with whimsy, finesse and media savvy. I'd been unaware of groups like the Harry Potter Alliance until I visited my colleague Henry Jenkins' seminar on civic engagement and online participatory culture for a discussion on the spiritual underbelly of this new activism.
According to Jenkins' graduate students, the groups they study do not define themselves as religious or label their activities as religiously motivated. But the conviction to dedicate oneself to social change -- both Invisible Children and the HPA were founded by 20-somethings who created engaged global networks from the ground up -- reflects a faith in people, ideals and possibilities that transcends the small-bore pursuits that impel the majority of us.
Is this religion? Not in any way you could definitively call Christian or Muslim or Buddhist. But it is an expression of the same quest for identity, community, meaning and purpose that animates all organized religions. Though deemed inauthentic by traditionalists, spiritual networks like HPA and Invisible Children embody recent survey results that show young people moving away from institutional religions but deeply committed to volunteerism, social justice and other hallmarks of religious meaning-making.
Bruce Springsteen's self-conscious mash-ups of Garden State landmarks, Catholic imagery and Steinbeckian prose do sound old-fashioned in today's universe of Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber. But the message sometimes transcends the medium -- and the desire for each generation to find and define its spiritual path and lived religion is as good a story now as it was 2,000 years ago.