God & Man: No Religion

Crash Course for the Ravers
Album: Let’s Dance, 1983
Prior Level of Acquaintance: High
Three-Word Review: Catchy, sweet, puzzling

Let’s Dance: apparently the biggest reinvention for David Bowie since he first dyed his hair red. The point where he either dumps artsiness in favor of commercial success or commercial success circles around to him, and regardless he ends up filthy rich and on Top 40 radio.

And yet: what are the very first lyrics on the Let’s Dance album?

I catch the paper boy
but things don’t really change…

I hear in that first line an echo of “I read the news today – oh boy.” That lyric’s author was murdered in the Bowie album gap, two and a half years before this song’s release. Imagining no religion – also quite the Lennonesque conceit.

Or could it be a despairing rebuke to the boy Bowie who chanted “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes! Turn and face the strange”?Cross2

Back in the mid 70s, Bowie started consistently wearing a cross pendant. He told interviewers that it was a family gift or heirloom. Certainly Bowie was one of the great artistic inheritors of a Western tradition heavily inflected by Christianity. Did he identify as Christian? Or simply as someone raised in a cocoon of postwar Anglicanism?

We recall Station to Station’s ‘Word on a Wing,’ Bowie’s nakedest God-talk. The faith suggested there is a desperate one characterized by struggle as much as by trust. This is not Christian; it’s not doctrinal at all. It is, as he described it later, “a call for help” to something larger than himself, whatever it is that manages the “scheme of things.”

‘Word on a Wing’ declares

Just because I believe don’t mean I don’t think as well
Don’t have to question everything in heaven or hell.
Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing
And I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things.
It’s safer than a strange land, but I still care for myself
And I don’t stand in my own light…

‘Modern Love’ also speaks of standing and trying:

There’s no sign of life
It’s just the power to charm…
Still standing in the wind
But I never wave bye bye
But I try
I try…

Twenty years later, Bowie responded to a question about the Reality album by saying

I honestly believe that my initial questions haven’t changed at all. There are far fewer of them these days, but they’re really important. Questioning my spiritual life has always been germane to what I was writing. Always. It’s because I’m not quite an atheist and it worries me. There’s that little bit that holds on: “Well, I’m almost an atheist. Give me a couple of months.” [Laughs]

‘Word on a Wing,’ penned in a suffering time, reads more like talking oneself into faith. By his own admission, Bowie then spent the following decades trying to talk himself out of faith – not merely a Christian or Kabbalist or Buddhist faith, but any credence in a higher power at all. At least by 2003, he was still trying.

Bowie sounds humorously, apologetically defensive in this quote, as if his continued attachment to some God-shaped thing was a weakness he was always on the verge of conquering. Indeed, mainstream pop culture these days tends to associate atheism with hard-headed intellectuals and artists and to think of the religious as mushy or, worse, hypocrites begging to be exposed.

However, relating to God through a struggle against God is itself a longstanding and respectable philosophical position. I know it mostly through the writings of post-Holocaust Jewish (and some Christian) thinkers such as Emil Fackenheim and, most distintively, Elie Wiesel. Where Richard Rubenstein famously stated that the Holocaust means there is no God, and many others trotted out old theodicies to excuse new evils, Wiesel allowed himself no resting place in either direction. For a full discussion, read his memoir All Rivers Run to the Sea. This Wikipedia author provides a good summary: “Wiesel’s theological stance, illustrated through the intuitive possibilities of literature, is a theology of existential protest, which neither denies God, nor accepts theodicies.”

Never gonna fall for/
modern love/
walks beside me…

Holy crap, that’s a lot to read into a hit dance tune – especially when maybe it’s really just a big homage to Stanley Holloway.

And that’s not even considering the other lighthearted ditties on Let’s Dance, like the one about colonialism (‘China Girl’) or the devil (‘Ricochet’). I promise that I find no tract nor treatise in ‘Shake It,’ though.

Here’s David Bowie, kicking around spiritual struggle in a dancefloor throwaway, certainly adhering to no Christian view nor that of any other received tradition. While seldom yielding to straight autobiography, he puts himself out there in solidarity with all of us post/moderns who question more than we believe. Why not take it a step further? If ultimate reality holds any afterlife secrets, David Bowie has gone ahead of us. You could do worse for your patron saint or guardian alien angel. As Kiran Moodley writes in the Independent,

Even attempting to explain my utter appreciation for Bowie and everything he brought to the world has already been beautifully summed up by the Bowie bard himself: in ‘Word On A Wing’ on Station To Station, a song written during the depths of his drug addiction, wearing a crucifix in his moment of despair, Bowie hauntingly sang: “In this age of grand illusion, you walked into my life out of my dreams.” For so many of us, at times when we felt “isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety,” Bowie entered the stage and made it all right.

Plus, I mean, his moon poops balloons!

Next: It’s the time of my childhood and, so I hear, a Bowie trough…

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