I don’t know how to what degree you were influenced by the life of David Bowie. It may be that for some in our morning church his music provided the sound track to our teenage years. It may be that for some in our evening church his musical creativity has been something that they’ve long enjoyed. After all, he produced 25 albums over the years, his last one being released only days before his death. You may not be a fan. But it’s probably true to say that his music influenced the bands that you now listen to.
I paid little attention to his music over the years. I’ve never owned a Bowie album. I hated ‘Dancing on the Streets’ with a passion. Still do. He wasn’t my thing. But waking up last Monday morning there was no way that I could ignore the sad news of his death. I’m a Radio 4 listener. (There it is. I’ve said it). The ‘Today Programme’ was dominated with news, interviews and reflections on his death. That’s not what it’s for! The Archbishop of Canterbury was supposed to be talking about the Lambeth gathering of the Anglican Communion but was nevertheless asked for his perspective on Bowie’s death. Although I suspect that Jeremy Corbyn was glad that the same question was put to him, since it gave him an opportunity to use up time which would otherwise have been used to ask him about his shadow cabinet reshuffle, it was nevertheless a little odd.
The response of Radio Four took me by surprise. I simply hadn’t appreciated just how influential some people assumed that David Bowie had been. It left me somewhat bewildered. What had I missed out on? I got that he’d reinvented himself down the years. But does that mean that there’ll be a similar response when Madonna passes away? Or Kylie?! On Thursday morning outside the tube at Brixton I caught sight of the mural, the flowers and the crowds gathered round it paying their respects. I confess to remaining somewhat bemused.
What are we to make of these events? I’m not entirely sure. I suspect we won’t really be able to assess the significance of Bowie on contemporary culture from the perspective of a few days or weeks. Let’s see whether people are still talking about him in thirty years’ time. But here are three things that I couldn’t help noticing.
First, popular culture can’t seem to rid itself of the comforting conviction that this world is not all that there is. As the tributes poured onto the ether, the idea that Bowie lived on in more than his lyrics, music and fashion was repeated time and time again. Even Sir Paul McCartney weighed in with a reference to him looking down at us from the stars. The idea that we live on beyond the grave is tenacious. We may be naturalistic atheists by profession but when push comes to shove we can’t let go of the eternity that God has set in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Bowie was a man who at best flirted with Christian spirituality. But he wasn’t a Christian. And yet people are happy to attribute eternal life to him. That’s inconsistent. And intriguing.
Secondly, death is rubbish. Always has been. It’s a rude and unwelcome intruder into life. But it always catches up with us all in the end. The world and the very best minds of every generation have yet to find a satisfactory answer to the problem of death. And they never will. But the gospel has. Jesus said. ‘I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live’ (John 11:25). Is it any wonder we’re able to sing our hearts out to ‘Where, O grave is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?’ Jesus’ resurrection from the death is the guarantee of ours. But death is still rubbish. We will not live forever; Christian or otherwise. Not in this world. And that is sad. It’s especially sad for those that remain behind.
Thirdly, no amount of accomplishment, public applause or critical acclaim makes a whole heap of difference in the end. Your music may live on. People may be influenced by your life after your death. But the truth is; you’re dead. You don’t live on forever. Not without faith in Christ that is. Thousands may gather to pay tribute at a hastily constructed shrine. But God is not so easily impressed. He’s after moral perfection on a par with his perfect Son or He’s after faith in his Son’s moral perfection. That’s the choice that faces every single one of us. And for my money, it’s a no brainer.
The passing of David Bowie, like the passing of any individual, is terribly sad. His passing will be felt most acutely and most obviously by those who knew him and loved him. And I seek not to exploit his death. Death is tragic. And I have no wish to add to the grief of those who mourn his demise. But every death is a reminder to us that there is an event to which we are hurtling for which we must prepare. It is in such circumstances that the words of Jesus Christ surely come as a great comfort ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).