The Spiritual Quest of David Bowie

Was Bowie a budding contemplative?

I have never been a great fan of rock music. My preferences have always run towards Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Mozart. So I have never given much attention to the rock scene.

That is, until I read the tribute that Simon Critchley wrote on the death of David Bowie. It is titled Nothing Remains: David Bowie’s Vision of Love. It was published in today’s New York Times.

It is a beautiful and loving tribute. It begins with this extraordinary statement: …for me, and for his millions of fans, he was someone who simply made life less ordinary. Indeed, Bowie’s music made me feel alive for the first time.

After reading that, I thought to myself: How many people would say that after their encounter with a worship service in most of our churches? That’s what a lot of Christians claim for the gospel. But how many Christians, let alone outsiders, really experience that sense of being fully alive?

Critchley goes on later to say: Bowie spoke most eloquently to the disaffected, to those who didn’t feel right in their skin, the socially awkward, the alienated. He spoke to the wierdos, the freaks, the outsiders and drew us in to an extraordinary intimacy, although we knew this was total fantasy. But make no mistake, this was a love story.

Does this language sound vaguely familiar? It should, for it describes the Jesus we encounter in the gospels. He, too, drew people, particularly outsiders, into an extraordinary intimacy.

Finding the Spiritual in an Unexpected Place

But what was especially impressive to me in Critchley’s tribute was how he highlighted the theme of “nothing” that recurs over and over again in Bowie’s songs. Nothing is everywhere in Bowie, writes Critchley.

Now most of us, including me, would be inclined to interpret this as a profound nihilism. But what fascinates me is how Critchley hears behind this theme of nothing, a clear Yes, an absolute and unconditional affirmation of life in all its chaotic complexity, but also its moments of transport and delight.

What Bowie was negating, as Critchley sees it, was all the nonsense, the falsity, the accrued social meanings, traditions, and morass of identity that shackled us. Says Critchley: At the core of Bowie’s music and his apparent negativity is a profound yearning for connection and, most of all, for love.

 If Critchley is right in his interpretation, then Bowie’s negativity is an expression of that spiritual virtue of detachment that contemplatives through the ages have seen as an essential condition for experiencing that deep connection, that intimate love, that they have named God. In this value given to detachment Christian contemplatives share a common understanding with Buddhist and other Eastern practitioners of meditation.

When I read Critchley, I feel strikingly at home, because the language he uses is quite resonant with the language I encounter in the masters of contemplative prayer that have so deeply shaped my understanding of the spiritual life.

I feel as if Bowie was on that contemplative quest in life, even though Critchley and probably Bowie too would not so name it. But Bowie’s yearning is cut from the same cloth as the yearning that the psalmist writes of when he says:

As a deer longs for the flowing streams,

            so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,

            the living God.

When shall I come and behold

            the face of God? [Psalm 42:1-2]

In saying this, I am not trying to co-opt Critchley or Bowie as anonymous Christians. Rather I am expressing my amazement at finding the spiritual in the most unexpected places. Maybe I need to broaden my musical tastes and listen more intently to the music of my own era.

One thought on “The Spiritual Quest of David Bowie

  1. Judy Brown

    Gordon, I just  finished reading this one about David Bowie.  I too, don’t care for the rock music that doesn’t seem to make sense, but now I am rethinking.  There was also a tribute to him in the “Economist” that made me think twice.  It mentioned how he helped people who were “outsiders.”  Thanks for doing your blog and including me.   Judy


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