David Bowie's death, grief, and the frustration of a society that has nothing to offer the lonely
It was a shock. Of course it was. Make your coffee, switch on the radio and you hear Life on Mars on Radio 4. What had happened? Had Bowie died? Indeed he had. An unconventional celebrity life, with an unconventional celebrity death. In this age of social media, gossip columns and photographers desperate for that one image, it is astonishing that David Bowie had cancer for 18 months and it never once got into the media. No one – apart from close friends and family – knew. He did something really unusual for a modern celebrity. He died privately.
But now everyone wants to have their say. I played Twitter Bingo that morning. David Cameron – check. Nicola Sturgeon – check. Media stars – check. Church leaders – check. It wasn't long before I had a full house. Even the Vatican got in on the act – its newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, paid tribute. "One might even say that, beyond the apparent excesses, the legacy of David Bowie... is enclosed in its own sort of personal sobriety, expressed even in the lean physique, almost threadlike."
I'm sure that many people were genuine in their tributes and did feel a real sorrow. Others may just have been playing the game; saying something for the sake of being seen to say something and show that they 'cared'. God alone knows. I suspect the wall-to-wall coverage combined with the political, religious and cultural leaders' interest was largely because those who are now in charge grew up with David Bowie as part of the soundtrack of their life. And to lose that is a sorrow.
But what really interested and saddened me was the number of spokespeople who made comments about him being in heaven. I hadn't realised that so many of the great and good believed in heaven – and surely they would not be lying to us? Or just using heaven as an excuse to make a corny pun about 'starman' now looking down on us? And that set me thinking – what do we really think about heaven? I thought that in this naturalistic, materialist world we could be all grown up and just say, "He's gone, he had a good life, did a lot of daft things, did a lot of good things, we will miss him, but he's gone". I haven't checked but I almost expected Richard Dawkins to tweet, "He's gone. There is nothing left of him but his music and family. He's not in heaven". But it appears that in popular culture, we still cannot face up to the nihilist existentialism of atheistic naturalism. It seems that the Bible was right about eternity being in our hearts. "I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end"(Ecclesiastes 3:10-11).
So those who were happily singing "Imagine there's no heaven" a few months ago are now telling everyone that David Bowie is in this heaven that they imagine does not exist? And those who want to say something nice and believe that everyone goes to heaven, think that Bowie is up there along with Lemmy, Hendrix and of course Stalin, Hitler and Jack the Ripper. That is, after all, the logic of their position. And again I have not looked, but I am sure that in the bloggersphere somewhere, there are some 'Christians' who are taking the opportunity to tell everyone he is in hell and how as a bisexual rock star drug addict he is a warning to us all. And there will be those who are writing about how he was converted on his deathbed and they can tell this because of a) something Bowie said, b) a dream they had or c) a very reliable source, a friend of a friend, who is 'in the know'.
All I can say is that I feel a real and frustrating sorrow. Let me explain. Bowie, like most human beings was a complex man, who experienced many changes in his life. For example he moved from being gay/bisexual to being heterosexual. In an interview with Tony Parsons in Arena magazine in 1993 he said, "In the States, towards the end of the Seventies, I think the gay body was pretty hostile towards me because I didn't seem to be supporting the gay movement in any kind of way. And I was sad about that. Because I had come to the realisation that I was pretty much heterosexual".
He cannot just be simply pigeonholed according to what we want to be true. I didn't know David Bowie and I am in no position to pass any judgement upon him. I do think he was a musical genius and much of his music was also part of the soundtrack of my early life. But the sorrow comes from what I heard him express, and the pathetic solutions offered to him by a society that he helped create.
Firstly, there is no doubt that he was not an atheist. He said so. In that interview with Tony Parsons he explained why he had said the Lord's Prayer at the Freddy Mercury tribute concert. "In rock music, especially in the performance arena, there is no room for prayer, but I think that so many of the songs people write are prayers. A lot of my songs seem to be prayers for unity within myself. On a personal level, I have an undying belief in God's existence. For me it is unquestionable."
Incidentally, I personally found that moment of saying the Lord's Prayer absolutely extraordinary. It was so unexpected and somewhat surreal. Did Bowie not realise it was a public 'secular' event? How dare he bring religion into it! Did he not care how many people he would offend? Probably not.
Does this mean that we can claim him as a card-carrying Christian? Not at all. As far as I know he never professed to be one. But like all intelligent and creative people, he did show a great interest in the Bible, in Jesus Christ and in the great questions that Christ is the answer to. In his 1993 Album, The Buddha of Suburbia he wrote the following lines in the song, Sex and the Church:
Though the idea of compassion
Is said to be
The union of Christ
And his bride, the Christian
It's all very puzzling.
The most poignant moment in the Parsons interview was when Bowie explained his collapse into drugs, sex and despair by saying, "I felt totally, absolutely alone. And I probably was alone because I pretty much had abandoned God."
And that is where the frustration part of the sorrow comes. Because Bowie himself was clearly a seeker. He recognised that the 'hole within' would not be filled by 'sex and drugs and rock 'n'roll'. He needed to know that there is "a way back to God, from the dark paths of sin, there's a door that is open and you may go in; at Calvary's Cross is where you begin, when you come as a sinner to Jesus". A society that has abandoned God has nothing to offer the person who is lonely.
I mourn for David Bowie. As I mourn for 'all the lonely people', whose need for fulfilment, forgiveness, faith and a future can only be met by Christ.
Bowie's last album, Blackstar, realised this month, has a poignancy about it that is painful. Especially this from the song Lazarus:
Look up here, I'm in heaven
I've got scars that can't be seen
I've got drama, can't be stolen
Everybody knows me now.
Bowie is gone. I know not where. Who knows what happened in the last years, months and moments of his life? We mourn his passing. Let the dead bury their dead. Meanwhile our task is to bring Life to the living. Let us bring the Good News to those who are lonely because they feel they have abandoned God, that He has not abandoned them.