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Saint David Bowie? Not yet, but faith leaders pay respects to dead rocker

Two women stop at a mural of David Bowie in Brixton, south London, January 11, 2016. By Stefan Wermuth courtesy of Reuters
Two women stop at a mural of David Bowie in Brixton, south London, January 11, 2016. By Stefan Wermuth courtesy of Reuters

Two women stop at a mural of David Bowie in Brixton, south London, January 11, 2016. By Stefan Wermuth courtesy of Reuters

(RNS) The legendary musician and showman David Bowie was as mutable and enigmatic about his religious views — such as they were — as he was about his music and art (and gender-bending fashion choices).

Yet his death from cancer on Sunday 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.”

And 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 the Vatican’s Council for Culture, who tweeted the famous lyrics from Bowie’s 1969 classic, “Space Oddity”:

Ravasi has a reputation as a savvy intellectual who quotes the likes of the late Amy Winehouse and writes his own tweets, and his comment was among the Bowie tributes that zipped around social media.

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 forget them, too

I dance among 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 2007. “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.

He and his wife 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 … “

“I’m almost an atheist,” he repeated with a laugh. “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. 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)

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • Unless he was born again he won’t see the kingdom of heaven. Worldly firm means zilch if Jesus is not the reason the firm.

  • “.. there really is a God… Hell, don’t pose me that one.” – David Bowie

    I loved David Bowie’s music. But David Bowie was confused about Atheism as most people are.

    Atheism means, “I don’t believe in a god.” And Bowie clearly shared that Agnostic Atheist opinion. His religious view could be summed up this way:
    “Maybe a god exists, but I don’t know.”

    That is Atheism. Because it is not ‘belief’.

  • Gsh is good at reporting the first century’s influence on the Gospel. Many are confused because man lives in fear and made exclusions in their interpretations of the word. However, Jesus was not a man of exclusion, He certainly isn’t a God of one. All are welcome to this table. Find love for your neighbor for that is what brings joy to God. He found out, even if you were a Martian Spider, Gods love found you.

  • Sorry Max – that is agnoticism. A genuine atheist is one who has no interest in the question God, either pro or con. A friend of mine once told me I have no idea what belief or non-belief would mean. Their was a true atheist. He held neither a dogma of the existence or of the non-existence of God. I found him to be a man of remarkable integrity and a class act.

  • Don’t get your hopes up. No non-Catholic has ever been, nor will they ever be canonized or beatified by the True Catholic Church. All saints are True Catholics, but, of course, not all True Catholics are saints.

  • Darrell,

    “That is agnosticism”

    No. The word you are looking for is A-religionist; someone who doesn’t care about the question of God.

    Agnosticism is about ‘knowing’ – as in, “I don’t know if a God exists.”
    Atheism is about ‘believing’ – as in “I don’t believe a god exists.”

    All Agnostics are Atheists. If one admits he does not know if leprechauns exist he cannot simultaneously claim to believe in leprechauns – it is ridiculous.

    Theism is about believing AND Knowing – as in, “I know God exists and it is Jesus” (or Zeus, Thor, Aphrodite or Agamemnon…etc).

    Atheism has a 100% perfect score in history. Nothing claimed to be the work of a god has ever been proven to be true. Yet, I am still Agnostic on the question of knowing.

    Bowie was not an A-religionist. He was a typical Atheist; the Agnostic Atheist.

  • Listen to you talk about something that you have absolutely no idea about with utter certainty. Shame on you

  • im a David Bowie fan, really why would anyone want to make Bowie a Saint really?
    what his faith is , only known to him and his family, i just watched Bowie’s black star and it is creepy and dark evil looking, but the media is giving 5 stars….. no he wasn’t a man of God, because this video made me feel sick….. No one on the face of this earth is a saint…no one is without sin…. no one can work their way into heaven, or living a sinless life…… we will always fall short but Jesus Christ paid for our salvation on the cross…. with His blood, and took the sins of everyone on erath from when He gave up his life to now and beyond, Christ is on The Right Hand of ABBA GOD… His wounds we are healed

  • so his orgies; using people for which he was noted; having sex with men and women and drug use are all okay with the Catholic church?

  • @Betty,

    “his orgies, sex…is okay with the Catholic Church?”

    Among the ‘Saints’ are many genocidal maniacs, including the recently Sainted Junipero Sera. Pope Francis has no problem blessing evil if it makes Catholics happy.

    Yet giving people sexual pleasure and joy is a problem.
    Only religion would bless violence and condemn pleasure.
    Religion is fundamentally inhuman and indecent.

  • The statement “Only religion would bless violence and condemn pleasure” is a very broad brush. Was your statement meant to cover anything that could be conveyed as a religion, such as a group that’s religious purpose is to argue that because man is evil so there can be absolutely no deity? That Atheism is not a belief but a fact that must not be questioned? I respect your opinion of yourself as having a true void as to any kind of faith. A total dismissal of miracles and deities. Must you be so angry at those who believe that you are willing to spread hate and negative comments on forums like this?

  • These things humans do are all understood by someone who truly believes in the messages of Jesus Christ. Christ’s message is that every one does things that’s can hurt themselves and others. Since you grouped those three things together I see you believe them to be in the catagory of things you believe are shameful.
    It is clear in the the testaments that had Jesus and David Bowie met He would not either condemned or berated him. He would have have lifted David Bowie up, shown him how he could bless others in a way that fame and riches can’t and let him know that he could be something even greater than he was.

  • And this is why nobody invites Evangelicals to parties. They just can’t play along with anybody. They always spend their time badmouthing people for not having the same religious beliefs as their own.

    There is nothing more obnoxious when a celebrity dies than the usual, “unless he was born again, he is going to hell!!”

    Well Gsh, p1ss off. Your comment was rude and uncalled for.

  • I always got the impression that Bowie was not particularly interested in whether there was a God, but loved playing around with the ritual and imagery of religion. He certainly never showed much of a proclivity towards any given sect/faith.

    Whether that is atheism, I can’t tell. It makes little difference in my appreciation for his music and other endeavors. [The Man Who Fell To Earth is an all time favorite film of mine]

  • It may be a broad brush, but it cuts to the matter of religious moral pretensions. Religious “morality” is more a matter of adherence to outside authority and arbitrary rules than actual consideration of actions and their impact on others. Any act is considered moral if one claims divine command. Little thought is given to what is done and how it affects others.

    A total dismissal of miracles and deities is essential if one relies on rational belief, evidence and appreciates the human condition. Hume put it best, unless the possibility of a miracle is so much more likely than some mundane explanation, then there is no need to accept them.

    People who mistake criticism for hate have far too high an opinion of their beliefs and their unassailability. Too often Christians confuse being called to task for their actions as hate.

  • Guys, quit flaming. This post is about David Bowie, not you and your debates over atheism vs. theism. You are being selfish by drawing attention to your own pet peeves. Get over it, this is not the place for your mutual hatred and intellectual arrogance.

  • Good one. Jesus got invited to a lot of parties. People said, man!, I want to take a look at this cat, Jesus!

  • He brought his own booze and was able to cater for unexpectedly large groups. Who wouldn’t want him at a shindig?

  • Ok. I have to say that timing his demise right after the release of what he knew was going to be his final album was an act of pure genius. He turned death into performance art!

    It’s funny, the years Bowie considered his darkest, when cocaine, bankruptcy, and family breakdown were slowly killing him, he produced some of his finest work. He even managed to keep it together for that Christmas special with Bing Crosby. His life was a mess, but he couldn’t let people down.

    He was slowly dying, but never let the public pity his condition. A consummate showman who left the world out on top.

  • @Kurt,

    “Must you be so angry at those who believe that you are willing to spread hate…on forums like this?”

    Seeking clarity and honesty is not an angry endeavor but a very joyful one.

    I can think of no better thing to do
    than to help people liberate themselves – by whatever insight I might offer or encouragement I convey – that the happier choice is to live free of these authoritarian restrictions inherited from ancient people who did not know where the sun went at night.

    “The slave who does not do what the master wants shall be beaten with many blows.” – JESUS (12:47)

    Has humanity not been damaged enough by this nonsense?

  • @Kurt,

    “[Jesus] would have have lifted David Bowie up…”
    No. Jesus is the prince of demoralization:
    “Hate them or you are not worthy” – JESUS (Luke 14:26)
    What a downer.

    “…and let him know that he could be something even greater than he was.”
    Why bother? God has accomplished nothing compared to Bowie.

    Stephen Marche, Esquire:
    “Bowie performed with the joy of a man escaping a dying world. His freakiness was literally liberating…his artistry encompassed the signifiers of gender and sexuality, he opened a huge swath of people to a world in which desire was a game you could play any number of ways, in which the complications of being human should be celebrated rather than suppressed.”

    Bowie’s life’s work was a great, compassionate, artistic love for humanity.
    We were lucky to live in his time.

  • @Chris,

    “this is not the place for your mutual hatred and intellectual arrogance.”

    Of course it is exactly the place for hatred of how religion takes ownership of – and the attempted diminution of – David Bowie.

    How arrogant are you to call it selfish of us to protect the legacy of someone who celebrated humanity (not mere tedious faith) who was such a paragon of originality, humanity and freethinking?

    Besmirching Bowie – even jokingly – with a title of Sainthood (a derogatory term in my opinion) is an insult to Bowie’s achievements. Hagiography demeans humanity.

  • Max, you are awesome and i agree with so many of the things you say. Great to see someone who knows what to say in response to the sheeeple … !!!! hehe.

  • Perhaps we gotten off track because my question was about your comments that included your statement “Yet giving people sexual pleasure and joy is a problem” and continued with “Only religion would bless violence and condemn pleasure. Religion is fundamentally inhuman and indecent.”
    These words are richly enveloped in anger towards faith rather than religion because they look upon certain lessons that are given as examples of mans failure to respect each other in scripture. (i.e. The Quran or The Holy Bible).

  • @Kurt,

    “Only religion”…..”These words are richly enveloped in anger towards faith…”

    If none of the gods are real all of the ‘faiths’ are fraudulent.
    Christians and Muslims are constantly angry at: Jews, Gays, women’s rights groups, name it!
    Religious anger never ends.

    My anger is directed only at the untrue faith claim at the core of religion:
    “God wants you to _______ ” (fill in the blank with whatever you want other people to do)

    No God doesn’t! There is no evidence God wants or needs anything from ANYONE.
    The projection of faith onto society is unthinking, ad hoc, chaotic, socially divisive and inhumane.

    The Golden Rule is a good moral code – It requires no gods and no faith.
    The only thing which ruins the Golden Rule is ‘FAITH’ which adds sinister injunctions to even the best of intentions.

  • I am glad you are joyful, we all should be. Perhaps we will meet someday and rejoice in your belief in chance and my belief in recorded history. I do believe there was an Einstein as well as Darwin, King George V and Sputnik. I wasn’t there but I have faith they existed.
    I will pray for you and all of humanity to look beyond they’re own perceived worth and see that all people are priceless. It won’t affect you if you don’t want it to. It will, however, bring me unspeakable joy.

  • @Kurt,

    Love is too special. It would be a meaningless word if I handed it to everyone equally. Love happens between people who are mutually respectful, gentle and who trust one another. We do not know each other.
    Love cannot be used as a trump card in argument as this would cheapen it.

    Religion corrupts love by using it in a sinister way, to appeal to a person’s natural goodness by subverting their ability to think:
    “I can’t win on the merits but because I love you, I win”

    So be it. I’m sure you mean well. But if you really loved me, you would appreciate that I have demonstrated compassion and diplomatic effort (not love, necessarily) in trying to point out your philosophy is a system which does not respect you or your humanity.

  • Congratulations! I humbly grant you a win, if this kind of conquest is your purpose in life then who am I to try and derail your dreams? I hope the rewards you receive are many and you are able to redeem them in any way you wish.
    In truth I am just tired of this conversation and the circular restatements about generic religious statements of failure. If this is seen as a ploy to not admit defeat of your skilled intellect, so be it. It is okay with me.
    Love Kurt

  • “In truth I am just tired of this conversation and the circular restatements about generic religious statements of failure.”

    I know the feeling. When I was a Christian I could not keep up with Atheists any better than you. It is exhausting defending the indefensible.

  • Some have said the blackstar video was evil and dark, as Bowie intended. The name blackstar for one gives a hint.. As its a play on the word “black tar” as in heroin . the shaking actors are a symbol of the main withdrawal symptoms of it it’s abuse. There are many symbols and inuendos pertaining to the drug thru the rest of the video Bowie died of liver cancer after all, a known result of heroin abuse. His last video was a message done in an ingenious way only Bowie could do it

  • Only the divine judge humans. That the problem with religion. It makes people judge each other . No wonder Mr Bowie was gnostic like some people.

  • Agnostic is not atheists. Atheist don’t believe in nothing. Agnostic believes ,but don’t pin point a face or story who the divines are until they see it in front of them. If people did not follow old stories ,we would not be questioning our believe. We have monsters and gods in us all and it’s up to use to choose which side to take.
    We all change believes and question them like Mr Bowie did. We just don’t admit it. For that ,the divines understand .Because they are them and they are us.