Which Lazarus? Bowie’s “Lazarus” and the reception of the New Testament

Last week, I went to see David Bowie’s musical “Lazarus” in Amsterdam. It was an amazing performance, with great singing, dancing, acting and beautiful stage-effects. The story? Well that’s not so easy. A man named Newton is trapped in an apartment and wants to escape. A pale young girl is sent to help him return to the planet where he originally came from, as she tells him. Together they build a rocket for him to fly off to his home. In an earlier scene, however, we hear that Newton used to be rich, with a family and a successful job. He misses his wife, who appears to him in his dreams, on the television screen, and in the disguise of his assistant. Does Newton really come from another planet? In her turn, the girl wants him to help her die (again) in a decent way: she seems to exist between life and death, because she was not allowed to die and be buried in a proper way. Maybe she only exists in his mind as his muse?

The theme of death is clearly all over the script. Bowie, who died on January 10, 2016, knew that he was terminally ill while working on the musical. He just lived to see its first staging in New York. The song Lazarus, which gave the name to the show, is on his last album Blackstar. In the show, there is no figure Lazarus, yet the song Lazarus is performed in its first minutes (see the video below).

The musical does not only contain new songs, but also songs dating back to the beginning of Bowie’s career and all the successive stages. It is clear that he wanted to “create” his own memorial, a way to survive death, to resurrect after his imminent and inescapable death. This brings us to Lazarus. Of course, Lazarus is a well-known name from the New Testament. The association with death and resurrection is evident: in John 11:1-44 we read about Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus raises from the dead.

Yet there is also another Lazarus in the Gospels, who is not presented as a historical figure, but as a character in a parable: The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). This parable has already been discussed on this site: https://parabelproject.nl/drie-theologische-kwesties-van-formaat-in-het-verhaal-van-de-rijke-vrek/.

Could it be that it is this parable that is behind Bowie’s title? Let us look at the lyrics of the song:

Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now

Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below
Ain’t that just like me?

By the time I got to New York
I was living like a king
Then I used up all my money
I was looking for your ass
This way or no way
You know, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me?
Oh I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Oh I’ll be free
Ain’t that just like me?

Someone “living like a king” is not a description that fits the Lazarus of Bethany. It evidently also does not fit the poor beggar Lazarus in the parable. But it does fit… the rich man! The protagonist of the musical, Newton, used to be rich, but is now living on gin and penny wafers, stuck in his apartment, which he desperately wants to leave for another planet. Allusions to the hell from which the rich man in the parable cannot escape and the heaven he is longing for? The voice in the song is “in heaven”, with “scars that can’t be seen”: the beggar Lazarus, who is now resting in the bosom of Abraham in heaven, was first covered in sores that the dogs would come and lick. Newton seems to be the rich man and Lazarus in one. Maybe even the two Lazaruses combined?

In this contribution, Durham theologian Peter Phillips argues that we may be chasing the “wrong Lazarus” if we (only) focus on the resurrected man from Bethany. He even suggests that the song may refer to two parables in the gospel of Luke: the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16) and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). Phillips ends his reflection with these words:

Perhaps Bowie, like the rich man, wants Lazarus to call us to follow a different path, to rethink what we’re doing down here on Earth.

Lazarus the musical is a magnificent piece of art, which, in academic terms could be called a “reception” of Bowie’s own career, work, and maybe his life. It is also reception of a biblical theme, and of at least two biblical texts: the story of the resurrected Lazarus, and the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Lieve Teugels

Lieve Teugels

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