The legendary musician and showman David Bowie was as mutable and enigmatic about his religious views as he was about his music, art and gender-bending fashion choices.
Yet his death from cancer on Jan. 10 at 69 brought tributes from religious leaders who knew talent when they saw it and perhaps recognized that Bowie’s crossover style would inevitably touch the ineffable as he constantly looked for meaning—and novelty.
“I’m very, very saddened to hear of his death,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the Anglican Communion, told the BBC. “I remember sitting listening to his songs endlessly … and always really relishing what he was, what he did, the impact he had.”
Greg Thornbury, the bow-tie wearing president—and guitar-lover—of a leading evangelical school, The King’s College in New York City, tweeted a photo of himself performing Bowie.
One of the first to note the rocker’s passing was a senior Vatican official, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of its Council for Culture, who tweeted the famous lyrics from Bowie’s 1969 classic, “Space Oddity”:
“Ground Control to Major Tom/Commencing countdown,/engines on/Check ignition/and may God’s love be with you.”
The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, even chipped in with a brief but warm encomium—“Never boring,” ran the headline, an understatement if there ever was one—that praised Bowie’s “artistic rigor” and “personal sobriety, expressed in a lean, almost threadlike physique.”
One commenter on Ravasi’s thread asked when the Vatican would begin the process of canonization for Bowie: “We have the miracles, just listen to his records,” wrote Sebastiano.
But another noted Bowie’s lyrics from the 2000 song, “Seven”: “The gods forgot that they made me/So I forgot them too/I listen to their shadows/I play among their graves.”
So where was Bowie on the religious spectrum? Apparently everywhere, just as he was on the aesthetic spectrum, from the time of his youth in England where he was born David Robert Jones:
“I was young, fancy free, and Tibetan Buddhism appealed to me at that time,” he told comedian and talk show Ellen DeGeneres in 2004. “I thought, ‘There’s salvation.’ It didn’t really work. Then I went through Nietzsche, Satanism, Christianity … pottery, and ended up singing. It’s been a long road.”
And the road did not end—it never did for Bowie.
On her public Twitter and Facebook accounts Sunday, the day that her husband died surrounded by his family after a private 18-month battle with cancer, Iman, Bowie's wife of 23 years wrote: "The struggle is real, but so is God."
He and Iman lived in Lower Manhattan and witnessed the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the Twin Towers, a profound and disillusioning experience that led him to produce the album “Heathen” the following year.
“Questioning my spiritual life has always been germane to what I was writing. Always,” he told Beliefnet in 2003. “It’s because I’m not quite an atheist and it worries me. There’s that little bit that holds on,” he said with a laugh. “Well, I’m almost an atheist. Give me a couple of months.”
Whether he got there or not isn’t clear. As he noted at the end of the Beliefnet interview, he was surprised at how he had settled down, becoming a happily married father and family man—the performer who loved to subvert every cliche becoming a cliche himself, and wonderfully so:
“That’s the shock: All cliches are true,” he said. “The years really do speed by. Life really is as short as they tell you it is. And there really is a God—so do I buy that one? If all the other cliches are true … Hell, don’t pose me that one.”
As blogger Tom Kershaw noted, “Perhaps Bowie is just more disenchanted with religion than he is with the concept of God.”
Makes sense. After all, here was an artist who could perform “The Little Drummer Boy” with the classic crooner Bing Crosby—and have that retweeted decades later by Southern Baptist leader (and Johnny Cash fan) Russell Moore:
(David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS)