David Bowie sort of passed me by, as a confused, flighty teenager. Growing up into the world of pop music in the mid-eighties (what bliss it was in that dawn to be alive), I listened to what it’s been agreed were Bowie’s ‘difficult years’, as he followed his commercial rather than artistic instincts in various endeavours. When my taste in darker music and even darker clothes took over, I became aware that favourites such as Joy Division and Bauhaus owed a huge debt to Bowie. And so I got into Space Oddity and a few other albums, but nothing more. It wasn’t that I never ‘got’ Bowie. I knew that he was a genius of his own making, a brilliant crafter of his art and a maker of culture around himself. It was just that there was, and is, so much other music, and music was only a part of my life, not a consuming passion.
With Christian conversion at nineteen I discovered a whole new world, a real reality, as I saw it then, and still do. I became pretty ambivalent (Bowie would have liked that one) about Bowie. The androgyny, the drugs, the endless attention-grabbing through endless personae and wardrobe changes – it all stood in opposition to the worldview that I was developing. I was learning that Jesus is the Saviour all people need, not the pretences of rock and pop stars. My values were changing, and I was learning to value loyalty and sacrifice instead of self-fulfilment and attention-seeking. Not very rock n roll, I admit.
Like millions of people across the world this morning, I’ve had Bowie on in the background as I’ve worked, and I’ve been thinking a lot about his legacy. He’s changed music forever, and his touches are seen everywhere when music is recorded, and perhaps even more, where it is performed. Bowie has changed culture, doing more than perhaps any other musician to give a slow-burn to the taper of gender politics, to give us the cultural landscape we are part of today. He also gives the church, and its leaders in particular, huge challenges, and all of them for our good. Here are some questions:
Question: how do we show our churches (never mind our communities) that the Gospel is the greatest song, with the best hope, the deepest joy, and the most life-affirming message? When we quickly soak up pop lyrics, which are often fleeting glimpses of happiness, how do we get Christians thrilled with and excited about the song we’ve been given to sing and to live out? You know the lyrics to a Bowie song; do you know the lyrics to the Sermon on the Mount? And which moves and changes you more?
Question: how do we bring the radical, uncompromising message of Jesus to the fore in our communities, ones which are full of other values, noise and false messages? Bowie was the re-inventor without any rivals. He was, though, only reinventing himself. Churches aren’t called to reinvent Jesus, or change any of His teaching. That way disaster lies, for the church and for the world. We must continually be open, though, to thinking about how we reinvent the ways our culture can hear that message, and to do all that we can to get it listening.
Question: how do leaders act with the courage and decisiveness and eye for opportunity which Bowie showed in his career? He knew that his androgyny would be reviled by many back in the early Seventies, but he pressed on with it. He knew when to stop what wasn’t working, and often saw that a project had run its shelf-life long before the fans or even those he worked with most closely did. He took on projects others would never have had the guts to try, and faced their sneers, until he faced their envy at his success. He left a legacy of creative brilliance. Churches and leaders have been given the most important, beautiful and transforming music in the world, the Gospel. We must embrace it with conviction, and live it with courage and commitment. And how about a little creativity?
This morning I was listening to ‘Heroes’. It’s a beautiful song, about love and courage, and the hope of victory in the face of struggle and opposition. It resonates with us, because we all want to succeed. We all want to be heroes, to achieve something and to be thanked, or admired, and maybe even remembered, for it. There is only one real Hero, of course, and that is Jesus. And yet, our calling as His followers is to be like Him, in His courage, and His integrity. Because of who He is, and what He’s offering, we really could be heroes. And the reverberations of living out His grace could last into eternity.