In a repertoire spanning 50 years, there are many references to God and spirituality
When I heard the news that David Bowie had died, I was not sure how many people who run in my circles would understand how I felt. I quickly learned that there are many Catholics who enjoyed Bowie’s music, including Cardinal Ravasi, head of the Vatican’s Council for Culture.
He tweeted lyrics to Bowie’s hit song “Space Oddity” at the news of his death:
When I was an angst-filled teenager, I listened to a lot of different kinds of music, but I especially found solace in punk rock (and proto-punk artists like Bowie). The emotions roiling in me found expression in the fury-filled, energetic lyrics of Minor Threat, The Dead Kennedys, The Clash, The Jam and many more bands. But music did more than articulate the angry poetry inside me; it also helped me touch the spiritual without even knowing it.
There is a reason artists like David Bowie, and more recently Lady Gaga, draw upon religious imagery so often. It is not just because they want to shock, although it is true that there are some artists who use the spiritual in a way that can be borderline blasphemous (Madonna is an example of an artist who appropriates religious symbols she does not seem to even vaguely appreciate).
But in the age of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I believe artists who still see the value in engaging with religion are preferable to atheists who pretend that wearing a colander has the same spiritual significance as wearing a chapel veil.
Religious imagery draws upon something powerful. Artists and musicians are creative people who recognize the power of the Creator, even if just subconsciously. Some try to harness this power, to abuse it and misuse it. Others draw upon it more respectfully, curiously and with an openness that will serve them in their last moments on earth.
When looking through Bowie’s repertoire over the past 50 years, one can find many references to God and spirituality.
The ones I find most interesting are the songs in which Bowie seems to be struggling with his image of God. He asks whether God is simply an imagined concept that can only be understood by observing the hypocritical behavior of believers, or whether God is an actual person, real and apart from the attempts of human beings to dominate and own him.
In “I’m Afraid of Americans,” Bowie seems to portray an almost prophetic outsider’s view of an overly permissive gun culture in America (in the video at least). But he also sings the line “God is an American,” which ostensibly expresses bewilderment at the particular brand of patriotic American Christianity that often seems to favor nationalism over Jesus.
In “God Knows I’m Good,” Bowie sings of a poor, elderly woman who is shoplifting and all the while tries to reassure herself that “God may look the other way today.” The song explores the contrast between a morality that flows from hope in God’s all-knowing, merciful judgment and the morality of “honest, rich and clean” folks who cling to human justice before mercy.
In Bowie’s last album that was released just a few days before he died, he wrote a dark song titled “Lazarus,” in which he sings, “Look up here, I’m in heaven!”
Some may read that line as presumption of eternal life, but the line that follows it intrigued me. Bowie sings, “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” Perhaps this is an unconscious reference to the scars of sin that need to be wiped away by God’s love in the purgative process of purgatory. For me, it was a reminder of my duty to pray for the repose of Bowie’s soul.
David Bowie’s death has engendered a slew of articles that draw on surprisingly little data in this day and age, because he and his wife, Iman, were such private people. Most articles about David’s life have been the equivalent of rock star hagiography. Others criticize those lamenting the death of Bowie as well as the rock star’s former promiscuous lifestyle, especially when he was at the height of his career and using drugs.
But as Catholics, whether we are Bowie fans or not, our response to the death of someone like David Bowie, who has so influenced culture, should be the same response we have to the little old woman who dies alone and forgotten in her apartment surrounded by cats.
We can criticize, grump, idolize and fuss all we want, but more than words, tributes, critiques or tears, an “Eternal rest …” is what Catholics owe David Bowie.
So, good-bye David, I hope against hope that we will meet in heaven and you can serenade me with “Ashes to Ashes.”
I “bless you madly” with my prayers.
Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, is the author of The Prodigal You Love: Inviting Loved Ones Back to the Church. She recently pronounced her first vows with the Daughters of Saint Paul. She blogs at Pursued by Truth.