Testimony to love: The accidental witness of David Bowie

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David Bowie
David Bowie performs on stage during The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium in London, Britain, April 20, 1992. (OSV News photo/Dylan Martinez/Reuters File Photo)

“The struggle is real, but so is God.”

The message appeared on the Instagram account of the supermodel Iman, in January of 2016, along with a single word: “Rise.”

It was her statement on the death of her husband, David Bowie.

Its brevity was not surprising. The couple had always been protectively private about their 24-year marriage. The forthright acknowledgement of the existence of God, however, might have confounded some, given the often dark and otherworldly musical personae that Bowie would slip into, and out of, throughout decades of artistic reinvention.

Born in 1947, Bowie — born David Robert Jones — was a product of post-war Britain and had been put through his faith-paces within the rites of the Church of England. A Trinitarian baptism leaves its mark, leaves one claimed for Christ, regardless of where one wanders. Whether people think of it, or admit it, under that sacrament the primary reality of God stays with you; the Hound of Heaven haunts you, no matter where how far you stray.

The opening of Francis Thompson’s poem by that name could have been a Bowie lyric:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind…

It’s easy to imagine Bowie keening and hiccupping through the sentiments, surrounded by abstract or disturbing images. Right up to his death, and the release of “Lazarus,” his last musical and visual work (“Look up here, I’m in heaven …”), David Bowie kept us guessing on what he was all about, largely because he seemed to be guessing too, ironic and naked in his wonderings.

Like most of his contemporaries and colleagues, Bowie did stray from the Hound, moving from Christianity to Eastern-Asian religions and eventually into the ruinously dark side of occultism — a spiritual slog that pressed against all social and moral constraints in an attempt to find the imagined endless “yes” of spiritual emancipation, away from the perceived endless “no” of Christianity and monotheism.

In this sense, for all his originality, Bowie was very much part of a zeitgeist. Yet even as he strayed, the question of who and where God was — how and why he mattered to a self-described “quiet little boy” who grew up feeling cold and alone — pursued Bowie. Perhaps a part of him knew he was being chased and, like a clever child playing hide-and-seek, enjoyed the concealment part while waiting to be found before nightfall.

We get a full picture of that needful boy, and that game, in “Moonage Daydream,” a 2022 documentary on the man that is “narrated” entirely in his voice, using previously unreleased film footage and snips from interviews. From the opening we understand that David Bowie was a man with a lot of questions which, at their core, were usually about God. “At the turn of the 20th century, Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed that God is dead and that man had killed him,” we hear him pronounce. “That led to a terrifying confusion: for if we could not take the place of God, how could we fill the space we had created within ourselves?”

The very young Bowie sought to fill the space through art. As an introvert, he settled on inhabiting characters through music and was quickly sucked into the disorienting 1970’s music-industry vortex of endless drugs, outlandish material wealth and the mindless embrace of the creepy English occultist and “magician” Aleister Crowley, whose thelemic rule ran to spiritual anarchy: “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

“I fell into the trap of the black magic, cabalism … just the Crowleyism of, you know, for a significant time of that middle point of the seventies,” a sober and healthy-looking Bowie told reporter Kerry O’Bien in 2004, “I’d really got completely disoriented … just an awful, dreadful period … “

Discussing his sense of displacement, Bowie admits that amid the fame and “fortune” he didn’t know who God was, but he knew there was a God, a “being — a great creator” (I’m paraphrasing here), whom he wanted to know.

Well, simply put, God is Love. By all accounts when Bowie met Iman in 1990, he met love, and there he seems, finally, to have met God. If “Moonage Daydream” shows us the disorienting chaos of Crowleyism in David Bowie’s life, it also reveals the clarifying light — the orderly lightness — that settled on Bowie once the Hound of Heaven had caught him and delivered him, willingly, to love, which cast the darkness aside.

Baptized as a boy, sealed for Christ, did Bowie die a settled Christian or was he still journeying — reluctant to end the chasing-game because being pursued means being “wanted,” and some of us never fully believe we truly are that?

Probably we will never know. While filming “The Man Who Fell to Earth” Bowie alluded to having encountered an “ultimate evil” and thereafter wore a small cross around his neck for the rest of his life. He and Iman, who is Muslim, were married in a traditional Episcopalian ceremony, Bowie explaining, “our real marriage, sanctified by God, had to happen in a church.”

We are, all of us, mysteries. What God puts into our souls and how he permits the world to shape us, for better or worse, fuels all our hapless journeying. But God always gives chase, and never gives up. It is good to be baptized; it is good to be chased.

In “Moonage Daydream” David Bowie gives an almost accidental testimony to the futility of running, and the gentling power of light over darkness, when love is finally found.

Elizabeth Scalia

Elizabeth Scalia is culture editor for OSV News.