From First Things journal, February 1, 2016:
One doesn’t often find people of faith, especially conservatives, rallying around an entertainer who became famous for dressing up as an androgynous rock-star named Ziggy Stardust, singing, “Rebel, Rebel,” and pushing musical expression to its outer limits. And yet, when David Bowie died last month of cancer, at the age of 69, Christians were among the first to send out their condolences and tributes.
Born and raised in South London, Bowie was a precocious child who took to the arts naturally, and immersed himself in music and dance. After seeing him entertain audiences when he was just nine, teachers marveled at his talents, and said his artistic interpretations were “astonishing.” His performances as a teenager were described as “mesmerizing . . . like someone from another planet.” When young David announced to his parents he planned to become a pop star, they quickly saw to it that he was hired as an electrician’s assistant. Needless to say, that phase of his life didn’t last long, and Bowie went on to become one of the most iconic British artists of his generation.
Enigmatic in life, as he now is in death, many continue to misread him. According to Spin magazine, which celebrates alternative music and lifestyles, “Bowie was all about sex: He exuded it, he defied it, he refused to conform to its norms.” Many of Bowie’s harshest critics would undoubtedly agree. But this is to take a very selective view of his career, overlooking Bowie’s best work, and the dramatic changes he underwent as he matured.
Space Oddity, his first great song, is about many things—space travel, the wonders of the universe, isolation, and the fear of losing touch, not just with planet earth, but with reality itself. The mellifluous Changes is about defying expectations, and setting your own course in life, regardless of what critics think. The stirring Heroes is a Cold War love story about two people determined to lift each other up, despite the oppression and hopelessness around them. And Fame, co-written with John Lennon, is a cautionary, even caustic, tale about celebrity, and its fleeting enchantments. None of these classics are “all about sex,” but deal with issues far more significant than Spin imagines.
That Bowie’s songs often conveyed an implicit, if not overt, spirituality is a fact mentioned by many who remembered him. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican’s cultural minister, wrote an entire column on the Christian themes in Bowie’s lyrics, notably in his album, Station to Station, when he was suffering through a painful period of addiction, and wrote the stunningly beautiful, Word on a Wing, which contained the prayer: “Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing/and I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things.”