The Chapel Perilous, and the Boss Who Went There

Jonathan Tobias

It was a gorgeous commercial.

You know what I’m talking about: the Jeep commercial starring Bruce Springsteen that ran in the second half of the (miserable) Superbowl.

It was a strange commercial. The Boss didn’t sing. He just narrated one of those strange rambling poetic monologues he’s been doing more and more these days, especially since he’s turned 71.

It was a Jeep commercial, but he didn’t even try to sell any Jeeps. There was indeed a Jeep involved: he drove one in the frozen, frosted rolling hills of Kansas. With the top down, of all things. He’s a hardbitten crusty old guy, so I suppose the cold didn’t matter.

He drove to a tiny little chapel perched in the exact geographical middle of the lower 48. He lit a candle, which was appropriate as his words were, as he said later on, a prayer.

Full disclosure: my better half and I are big Springsteen fans. I’m pretty sure that she knows about every song in the Boss’s canon by heart. We’ve gone to a few concerts. The last one was on the floor and rather too close to the speaker stack. “Thunder Road” still rings in my ears, as in tinnitus.

Also -- and I don’t know if this makes any difference, but my sister knows the family who built that little chapel, set off all by its lonesome in the geometric center of what the singer called “common ground.”

I love the image of the “Chapel Perilous” (like the one in “Le Morte d’Arthur” or Eliot’s “Wasteland”), with an old poet on a winter pilgrimage.

Some advertising experts like Donny Deutsch didn’t love it at all. He didn’t like the fact that a message about “the middle” was set in a context with no people. Just Bruce and a Jeep in the heart of Kansas.

Lots of people didn’t love it. In fact, the level of dislike was intense from all sides. Bruce has a lot of fans, right and left, and a lot of haters -- also right and left. Many of these fans were outraged that their rock god actually stooped to advertise.

A lot of the haters disparaged the religious overtones of the piece. They didn’t like the chapel, nor the word “prayer,” not even the candle. It seems as though one isn’t allowed to be, at the same time, politically liberal and a pious Catholic (which he is).

And many, many critics objected to the whole notion of a “middle,” or “common ground.” An old colleague wrote me, with more than a little smugness, that it was hypocritical of a liberal like Bruce to go to a location that is in “fly-over country.” He suggested that the chapel was just a bone thrown to conservatives.

Another of my old buddies, hailing from the opposite side of the political spectrum, got miffed at the mere suggestion of “meeting halfway”: “There is no middle,” he insisted, “There can be no middle.”

This is the crux of the matter. People are convinced that a “middle” doesn’t exist, or is just too hard to get to. The road to the Kansas chapel is just too long.

This is a mistake, even a fallacy. People should keep in mind that this “middle” does not necessarily mean compromise, or “halving the difference.” Yes, in politics negotiating a compromise is always necessary (a reality that mature and rational politicians understand). Negotiation is a must when competing interests must decide upon a common action.

But the “middle” Mr Springsteen was talking about is a higher concept than partisanship. That whole speech was calling on Americans to come together on a common ground, to talk without yelling, to communicate without pitching a hissy fit (which is self-serving bombast, not a dialogue).

Bruce’s “middle” is honest, dignified, courteous conversation. There doesn’t need to be (at least yet) “action.” But there can be, even on a field of adversaries, a sharing of needs, a testimony of beliefs, and a common recognition of dignity.

Different people can keep their different loyalties and walk on different paths. But they can share their stories on the same common ground.

Shared humanity is always sufficient for community.

The fact remains that the road to the chapel need not be very long at all. The “common ground” is the land we already stand on. And every time we have a conversation, we are indeed establishing at least a small “middle” -- even though that middle may be but a tiny dot.

All we have to do is to expand that dot to a horizon.

Still, a lot of people turn their nose up at the idea. A friend of mine, Lori, suggested that people find it easier to live in a black and white world “where we can firmly believe or know something, but in reality, there is no black and white ... Living in the grey is disconcerting, challenging and exhausting.”

It’s much easier, she concluded, for most people to insist that things be one way or the other.

She was referring to the logical fallacy of the “false excluded middle” where everything is shrunk down to an either/or dichotomy. That “black and white” thinking is indeed easier. But it is also lazy. And irrational.

We older adults are (or ought to be) made of sterner stuff. The younger generations need to see the fruits of old(er) age, which is dignity, patience, kindness, and wisdom.

Wisdom puts up with the grayness of life.

The tragedy of it all is that you won’t be seeing this gorgeous commercial any time soon.

A day or too after the Superbowl, somehow in some mysterious way Bruce was “outed.” Back on November 14, he was arrested on a DWI charge at Sandy Hook (a national beach on the eastern tip of New Jersey). A policeman witnessed the singer getting photographed with some fans. And, as a thank you, they poured him a shot of Patron tequila. Then he hopped on his motorcycle and started off.

The officer pulled him over. Springsteen was completely honest: he owned up to drinking two shots, not one. He was, as the officer noted, very cooperative.

A black and white thinker would infer complete guilt and throw away all the Boss albums in their LP library, or erase them from their playlist.

That’s exactly what the Jeep corporation did. They pulled their lovely commercial. For them, the middle ground was excluded.

It turns out that the breath test revealed a level of only 0.02% -- a quarter of the legal level. Which makes me wonder why he was arrested at all.

And why the news of this DWI was publicized only after that commercial came out.

I don’t wonder about Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Inc (which owns Jeep). The bottom line has never tolerated the human grayness of life.

But you and I do. And even if that commercial won’t be seen in the foreseeable future, that chapel still stands, and remains.

A resident of Chowan County, Jonathan Tobias can be reached at