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David Bowie is not an artist without controversy. Since the release of his first album in 1967, the sometimes androgynous performer has always possessed the ability to stir the pot, especially when rock and roll needed it the most. One of the first patrons of Glam Rock, if not the first, Bowie has taken music to another level that has satisfied the ears as well as the other senses. Unlike many of the transparent musician-songwriters of today, Bowie cannot be contained to a particular box of genre. In fact, just when you think you have him figured out, you find that he is just as much a mystery as he ever has been.
When you ponder his lengthy career, the only time that you might find Bowie without controversy is when he is absent from the music scene. Since the release of his 2003 album Reality, a few live endeavors and the appearance in the 2006 British film, The Prestige, not much has been heard from Bowie save a few occasional mentions guaranteed an artist of his status. But with the release of his new album, The Next Day, and the accompanying video for the title track, the 66 year old Bowie proves that he is still capable of attracting controversy; this time from the Anglican and Catholic Church.
In the occasional instance that Christianity and pop culture cross paths, my interest and attention is always heightened. Although Evangelical Christianity has done is best to meld itself within the realms of post-modern culture, the success has been short-lived and in some cases destructive. The Christian concept of being “in the world, but not of the world”, attributed from such verses as John 15:19 and Romans 12:2, has become somewhat of an anomaly; not particularly appearing in either camp with much clarity. Post-Modern Evangelicalism has become somewhat of a caricature of itself, developing it’s own image of culture, but not really obtaining a sustainable manner of functioning within it. Ironically, it is usually from the secular that arise challenging messages of faith and thought provoking images of Christianity and the Church. So it is with The Next Day.
Whether considered controversial or not, the video for The Next Day is not without shocking and suggestive imagery. Upon it’s release, The Catholic League attacked Bowie as being a “switch-hitting, bisexual senior citizen from London” that “is strewn with characteristic excess.” The League’s President, Bill Donohoe, stated that “the video is strewn with characteristic excess: one priest bashes a homeless man, while others are busy hitting on women…The lyrics refer to the “priest stiff in hate” and “women dressed as men for the pleasure of that priest.” The song concludes with, “They can work with Satan while they dress with the saints.” In short, the video reflects the artist—it is a mess.” Donohoe goes on to accuse Bowie of not understanding true Christianity and being “confused about religion.”
I must admit that as a minister, I was a bit apprehensive in viewing the video based on what I had previously heard. The pointless and ignorant ridiculing of any faith system, especially within the obscene and offensive, is one of the only arenas in which I don’t have much tolerance. I have always been a fan of David Bowie and his music, but after reading other commentary and discovering that even Youtube had given the video an adult only “Content Warning” for being “Explicit”, I began to wonder if Bowie had possibly pushed the limits and that no redeeming aspects would be found in this endeavor. Again, I cannot stress the fact that the video is shocking and what many would consider offensive, but what I discovered in The Next Day was just the opposite of what I had expected, and what many views might expect as well.
The video not only features Bowie, but also actors Gary Oldman and Marion Cotillard. It opens to Gothic imagery with the sound of church bells outside of what appears to be a church converted into a nightclub. The plot begins with a priest, played by Oldman, punching and knocking out a homeless man begging for money. One would be tempted to immediately draw a connection to the Pharisees of Jesus time, but there is no concealing the lack of compassion. He is accompanied by what appears to be a nun as they enter into the club and a scene of complete Christian hypocrisy and debauchery. The priest’s nun companion apparently has had her eyes gouged out, perhaps from the excessive sin that she has been forced to witness, or perhaps to protect her form the truth of her surroundings. “…if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.” (Matthew 18:9). Was this her own doing or the priest; done to protect her salvation, knowing that the removal of one eye would not suffice? The head of the Baptist? Righteousness on a platter?
David Bowie portrays a Christ-like lead singer of the house band, appearing to vocally chastise the clubs patrons, particularly Oldman’s character, who chooses a scantily clad woman (Cotillard) to join him on the dance floor. The room begins to spin out of control as Bowie continues his accusing, reminiscent of Christ’s charge to the Pharisees as being “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27). Cotillard’s character’s eyes begin darting around the room, apparently becoming disturbed, and possibly spiritually convicted, by the blatant sin that fills the room. Her emotional state eventually becomes physical as she develops stigmata. Blood gushes from her wrists and onto the clubs patrons as Oldman directs his anger toward Bowie, “This is your doing! You call yourself a prophet?!”
As Christ’s message of repentance was rejected, so is Bowie’s as he is attacked by the crowd of priests, Cardinals, nuns and patrons; pummeled and beaten to the ground. The video’s climax and most glaring images of Christology lie in the obvious redemption of Colliard’s character as she rises to her feet, the stigmatic blood flow ceased. With hands still scared and stained with blood, her eyes become fixed on a distant light, as if receiving some sort of divine revelation. Bowie takes notice of this and joins her with the other religious leaders, all realizing that something miraculous has occurred. Bowie addresses the room, thanking them as if his mission has been accomplished, and then vanishes to the stunned surprise of all.
The question remains: Is The Next Day UN-Christian, anti-religion, sacrilegious or antagonistic of the Church in general? Can we learn anything about ourselves, faith or theology? Ultimately, that determination needs to be made by each person that views the video on their own. However, is it possible that the negativity directed toward Bowie and this video has developed not because of the underlying message, but the shocking imagery itself. Let us not forget: Stigma is a bloody spiritual condition, one that not even St. Francis would have had an issue with in terms of the offensive nature. Could there be a positive message found beneath the shocking storyline; a story that just might emulate reality more than fiction?
We live in a culture of hypocrisy that permeates all compartments of life, including the Church. This is made clear by Bowie’s video which represents the negative and destructive worldview held by believers and non-believers alike. Bowie’s Christ-like character calls out the hypocrisy of Christian leadership, resulting in the apparent repentance and redemption of Colliard’s character and possibly the collective group as well. None the less, shocking, vulgar and violent though it may be, so lies the reality of our world. Are we not all hopeless sinners in need of redemption? And let’s face it; when was the last time you witnessed repentance and stigmata provoked by the convicting words of a worship leader? I prefer Bowie’s attire as well.