One of the striking things about paintings of public executions in earlier times is the contrast between the French and the English approach. French artists typically ignored the gathered crowd and focused in detail on the face of the one about to be executed (there is, indeed, one picture of a woman about to be executed where her face has one of the most haunting expressions I’ve ever seen). By contrast, English artists focused on the crowd, whether jubilant, mocking, or distraught, and left the victim a somewhat shadowy figure. Public execution was after all, in part, public entertainment; and English artists had the courage (or lack of good taste) to represent it as precisely the kind of popular entertainment that it was.
I was reminded of this recently, when I switched on the news and on every channel/website the focus was on David Bowie’s death. His death is very sad -- whatever his problems or faults or sins, two children have lost their father, siblings a brother and, if his parents are still alive, mum and dad have lost a son. What is interesting (though hardly unpredictable) is the way in which the media have focused on the grief of the wider public, on people who never knew him and many cases presented a person’s death as entertainment.
I didn’t always enjoy Bowie's music but he was clearly a popular and talented entertainer. And he continues to entertain in death -- not just because his records will get some major airtime (including the just released album Blackstar) but because the media are able to play his death as one more showbiz event, burying the tragedy of real death, real bereavement, and terminated relationships. Of course, apart from grief, a good response to Bowie’s death (as with any other death) is to reflect on our own death and to ask how prepared we are to meet our Maker. As the poet John Donne movingly puts it:
“Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,
and therefore, never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Wonderfully in Jesus Christ and by believing in Him, the Bible assures us that we receive forgiveness of sins and are made ready to stand before a Holy God (John 3:16). It is in taking this simple yet life-changing step that we can be made ready for that day, when the bell shall toll for thee.
Parish magazine article for the Second Sunday of Epiphany 2015 AD (with thanks to an article by Rev Dr Carl Trueman)