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Photo of the memorial to David Bowie in Brixton

The gospel according to Bowie

Last Sunday, nearly a week after David Bowie’s death, I wondered what would be the difference between his final single, Lazarus, and the kind of psalm or song we would sing in church. Asking this isn’t a cheap attempt to domesticate Bowie, nor to appropriate him to a cause he would not own. Instead, it’s to ask a theological question of his work – how does it differ from the gospel of Jesus Christ, presented in the Bible?

On at least two counts, it’s an important question. First, Bowie uses biblical imagery, but in what way and how differently to its use within the Bible? Second, if the gospel message of Jesus is about subversive fulfilment of the best and most searching hopes and dreams in our cultures, what does that gospel say about Lazarus?

Subversive fulfilment of Lazarus involves the most minimal re-writing possible to transpose it into a different theological key, into that of the Christian gospel. This assumes it already has a theology, Bowie’s theology. I can’t claim to see that theology clearly, but I can hope to see the gospel clearly, in relation to it. Here goes, in a stanza-by-stanza consideration and comment. (If you’re not familiar with the lyrics, then see them here.)

Look up there, he’s in heaven
He’s got scars that can’t be seen
He’s got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows him now

Look up there, man, you’re in danger
You’ve got nothing left to lose
He’s so high, it makes my brain whirl
Dropped his Spirit down below
Ain’t that just like him?

By the time i got to New York
I was living like a king
Then i used up all my money
I was looking for your peace

This way or no way
You know I’ll be free
Just like that sparrow bird
Now, ain’t that just like him?

Oh, I’ll be free
Just like that sparrow bird
Oh, I’ll be free
Ain’t that just like him?

The main thrust of Bowie’s theology in Lazarus hangs on the pronouns. It’s a song about ‘I’ and ‘me’ – from the fourth word in his much quoted first line, through to the song’s final, repeated word. There is a world of difference between ‘thy kingdom come’, and ‘my kingdom come’.

Consider the first stanza of Lazarus if the pronouns are changed from ‘I’ to ‘he’, if the referent becomes Jesus, not Bowie. For the Lazarus of John 11, this was the reference: he returned to life because Jesus loved him enough to come to his grave, to call him from it by name. Without that, as his sister acknowledged, he would have rotted in the grave.

Jesus makes the difference. He is the really-human, really-alien who loves us. He’s in heaven, we are to look to him. In that sense, the first line of Lazarus naturally swings to ‘there’, not ‘here’. Jesus’ scars remain, but can’t be seen by us. His drama is irremovable, and inescapable. Such is the news of his gospel.

Bowie’s second stanza’s opening line echoes the initial opening line. The call of the gospel of Jesus would be ‘Look up there, man, you’re in danger’. Look to Jesus, in heaven. You’ve nothing left to lose. Nor nothing left to bring, but Jesus invites you and me to look to him for the life we cannot otherwise have. Indeed, he’s so high, it makes my brain whirl. But he – Jesus – has dropped his Spirit down below. He hasn’t left us removed from him, but has sent us his Holy Spirit to bridge the distance between himself and those bound to him, in faith, in his death and resurrection. Such was the Lazarus of John 11. Such, transposed, can be the second stanza of Lazarus.

Bowie’s third stanza needs only one word changed to be an account of the prodigal son in Luke 15. The last word helpfully shifts to ‘peace’. Sadly, this is only half the life of the prodigal son, however. It lacks his coming to his senses, and returning to his father. Whereas the gospel of Jesus Christ brings us back into relationship with God the Father, the gospel of Bowie remains focused on, well, Bowie.

The fourth stanza, which leads into the repeated fade, is all about Bowie. This can be preserved, but the gospel of Jesus would suggest changing the final word from ‘me’ to ‘him’. It’s those pronouns again, and the theological direction and orientation they provide. Perhaps, too, the gospel would shift ‘bluebird’ to ‘sparrow bird’.

Bluebird – especially ‘that bluebird’ – triggers rich associations within song-writing around the time of Bowie’s birth. Songs like Over the Rainbow, I’m Always Chasing Rainbows, The White Cliffs of Dover, Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, and – later – the Moody Blues’ Voices in the Sky. The motif is older, that of the bluebird of happiness and peace, mixed with wistful hope and the risk of hoping in vain. Such is Bowie’s final note. Perhaps this is appropriate.

But the gospel of Jesus would point to the sparrow – precious and known to God, a pointer that we need not be anxious if we are in his kingdom (Matthew 10:29-31), part of those who find a home and shade and shelter in him (Matthew 13:31-32).

At the end, is it all about Jesus, or all about Bowie? Or you, or me? That is life’s greatest question. It’s the question Lazarus faces, and in its answer falls short of the life-giving good news of Jesus. It’s the question facing the three Bowie personae in the song’s accompanying video: the physical Bowie, in a hospital bed, with cancer reaching out from under it as a stalking presence; the mental Bowie, still inspired to write lyrics and seek meaning; the performative Bowie, still dancing, even into the wardrobe.

Is it about Jesus, or another? That’s the difference between a wardrobe leading to Narnia, or alluding more towards The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, with all its 1920s German expressionist noir.

And, as cultural analysts should be aware, there are two Lazarus figures in scripture. Both die. Both are bound up with Jesus. Perhaps Bowie’s title only refers to the Lazarus in John 11, but that Lazarus is weak in himself and needs Jesus to raise him. The other Lazarus, in Luke 16:19-31, is a poor man, covered in sores, who finds himself caught up in the great reversal in death which only Jesus, the one raised from the dead by God his father can bring. This way or no way.

Bowie, like all of us, needs Jesus, and is not a Jesus substitute who can stand in the face of death.

Photo: Sebastian Anthony

Matthew Sleeman

Matthew Sleeman
21 January 2016

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