Toward a Bowie Theology

Crash Course for the Ravers
Album: Heathen (2002)
Prior Level of Acquaintance: Moderate
Three-Word Review: intense, meditative, gorgeous


“The greatest thing/you’ll ever learn/is just to love/and be loved in return,” sings David Bowie in the number that opens Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! Moulin Rouge! is one of those projects you either love or hate. I happen to be in the former category (Spectacular Spectacular!) but regardless of its quality, it’s drenched in Bowieness and resolutely of the flesh. This is a movie about a great love between a man and a woman, and they may reach spiritual heights (in an elephant!) but not in a god-related way. Apparently.

Hard not to notice, though, that the lines above appealed to Bowie while he was working up to his 2002 album Heathen, and Heathen, from the title on down, encourages a god-inflected gloss. After all, this is a man who, hitting bottom, called out “Lord…does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things?,” who often described himself as “almost an atheist,” who had a dance-floor hit declaring “God and Man: No Religion,” and who married a woman named Faith (Iman, in Arabic).

Once a notion like that gets in your head, it’s hard not to see everything as breadcrumbs on a spiritual quest. (Except for maybe ‘The Laughing Gnome.’) Here, then, is a collage of bits and pieces, tangling, teaching, questioning, believing, unbelieving, and, ultimately, maybe just loving and being loved in return.

I sing with impertinence, shading impermanent chords
With my words
I’ve borrowed your time and I’m sorry I called
But the thought just occurred
We’re nobody’s children
At all
After all

Live till your rebirth and do what you will
Forget all I’ve said, please bear me no ill
(‘After All,’ 1970)

I’m torn between the light and dark
Where others see their targets
Divine symmetry…

Don’t believe in yourself
Don’t deceive with belief
Knowledge comes with death’s release

I’m not a prophet or a stone age man
Just a mortal with potential of a superman
I’m living on
I’m tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien
Can’t take my eyes from the great salvation
Of bullshit faith
If I don’t explain what you ought to know
You can tell me all about it
On the next Bardo
I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thoughts
And I ain’t got the power anymore
(‘Quicksand,’ 1971)

Soul love: the priest that tastes the word and
Told of love: and how my God on high is
All love: though reaching up my loneliness
Evolves, by the blindness that surrounds him

Love is careless in its choosing
Sweeping over cross and baby
Love descends on those defenseless
Idiot love will spark the fusion

Inspirations have I none
Just to touch the flaming dove
All I have is my love of love
And love is not loving
(‘Soul Love,’ 1972)

In this age of grand illusion you walked into my life out of my dreams
I don’t need another change – still you forced a way into my scheme of things
You say we’re growing, growing heart and soul
In this age of grand illusion you walked into my life out of my dreams

Sweet name, you’re born once again for me
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
Lord, lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing
My prayer flies like a word on a wing
Does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things?

In this age of grand illusion you walked into my life out of my dreams
Sweet name, you’re born once again for me
Just as long as I can see, I’ll never stop this vision flowing
I look twice and you’re still glowing
Just as long as I can walk
I’ll walk beside you, I’m alive in you
Sweet name, you’re born once again for me
And I’m ready to shape the scheme of things
(‘Word on a Wing,’ 1976)

Somewhere, someone is calling me
When the chips are down
I stumble like a blind man
Cannot forget you
Feeling like a shadow
Drifting like a leaf
I stumble like a blind man
Cannot forget you
(‘Move On,’ 1979)

Never going to fall for modern love
Walks beside me—modern love
Walks on by—modern love
Gets me to the church on time
Church on time—terrifies me
Church on time—makes me party
Puts my trust in God and Man
God and Man: no confession
God and Man: no religion
Don’t believe in modern love
(‘Modern Love,’ 1983)

Prayers they hide the saddest view
Believing the strangest things, loving the alien
(‘Loving the Alien,’ 1984)

I love you despite your convictions
That God never laughs at my jokes
I’m a young man at odds with the Bible
But I don’t pretend faith never works
When we’re down on our knees
Prayin’ at the bus stop*

Now Jesus he came in a vision
And offered you redemption from sin
I’m not sayin’ that I don’t believe you
But are you sure that it really was him
I’ve been told that it couldn’ve been blue cheese
Or the meal that we ate down the road
Hallelujah
(‘Bus Stop,’ 1989)

*BTW: I think what’s being described here is more like the kind of prayer engaged in by the leads in Moulin Rouge!

I don’t want knowledge, I want certainty
(‘Law (Earthlings on Fire),’ 1997)

Everything has changed
For in truth it’s the beginning of nothing
And nothing has changed
Everything has changed
For in truth it’s the beginning of an end
And nothing has changed
Everything has changed

In your fear
(Seek only peace)
Of what we have become
(In your fear, seek only love)
Take to the fire
Now we must burn
All that we are
Rise together
Through these clouds
As on wings
(‘Sunday,’ 2002)

But I put my face in tomorrow
I believe when I’m alone
I believe in Beatles
I believe my little soul has grown
(‘Afraid,’ 2002)

Walking in the snowy street
Let me understand
Drifting down a silent park
Stumbling over land
Open up your heart to me
Show me who you are
And I would be your slave

Do you sleep in quietude?
Do you walk in peace?
Do you laugh out loud at me?
No one else is free

Open up your heart to me
Show me all you are
And I would be your slave

I don’t sit around and wait
I don’t give a damn
I don’t see the point at all
No footprints in the sand

I bet you laugh out loud at me
A chance to strike me down
Give me peace of mind at last
Show me all you are
Open up your heart to me
And I would be your slave

I would give you all my love
Nothing else is free
Open up your heart to me
And I would be your slave
(‘I Would Be Your Slave,’ 2002)bowie-gestures-to-god-sort-ofIn performing this last song live in Montreux, Bowie announced, “This is another song from Heathen. I think it addresses—[gestures to sky, then to his band, then to audience with a kind of shrug, smiling]—I don’t know what it addresses.”bowie-gestures-to-audienceTwo more I want to throw in here. The first seems to have zero god, but emphasizes intensely a passionate collecting of experience, of everyday life, declaring how acutely precious, even transcendent, is the everyday:

I heard telephones, opera house
Favourite melodies
I saw boys, toys
Electric irons and TVs
My brain hurt like a warehouse
It had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store
Everything in there

And all the fat, skinny people
And all the tall, short people
And all the nobody people
And all the somebody people
I never thought I’d need so many people
(‘Five Years,’ 1972)

And the earliest mention of god in a Bowie lyric that I know of—no theology at all, just a story about a desperate old lady and the people who, instead of blaming her, choose to help her:

I was walking through the counters of a national concern
And a cash machine was spitting by my shoulder

And I saw the multitude of faces, honest, rich and clean
As the merchandise exchanged and money roared

And a woman hot with worry slyly slipped a tin of stewing steak
Into the paper bag at her side
And her face was white with fear in case her actions were observed
So she closed her eyes to keep her conscience blind

Crying
God knows I’m good
God knows I’m good
God knows I’m good
God may look the other way today

Then she moved toward the exit clutching tightly at her paper bag
Perspiration trickled down her forehead

And her heart it leapt inside her as the hand laid on her shoulder
She was led away bewildered and amazed
Through her deafened ears the cash machines were shrieking on the counter
As her escort asked her softly for her name

And a crowd of honest people rushed to help a tired old lady
Who had fainted to the whirling wooden floor

Crying
God knows I’m good
God knows I’m good
God knows I’m good
Surely God won’t look the other way
(‘God Knows I’m Good,’ 1969)

Next: David vs. George: who believes in Beatles?

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