This week marks the thirty-first anniversary of John Lennon’s death—as good a time as any to analyze our enduring fascination with the former Beatle’s peculiar religiosity and his lasting impact on our cultural imagination.
We should begin at the beginning, or very near it. In August 1966, as a mop-topped 26-year-old, Lennon told a British reporter that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” When this infamous declaration finally made its way stateside several months later, it caused a stir. Church ladies across the Bible Belt showed up to picket Beatles’ concerts. Stunt-happy small town disc jockeys urged listeners to trash their “Please Please Me” 45s and “Meet the Beatles” LPs. A few intrepid reporters managed to dig up some guys in white sheets and pointy hats denouncing the wicked influence of the satanic and Christ-hating Liverpudlians.
All of this went straight into Beatles lore unedited. Lennon later claimed that the protests and implied Christian violence that shadowed the band during its August 1966 U.S. tour led directly to the Beatles’ decision to cease touring and concentrate solely on studio recordings.
If true, partial credit for Sgt. Pepper’s belongs to the Ku Klux Klan. Kidding aside, the Jesus v. John Lennon flap always said more about the savvy of the Beatles’ biographers than it did about Christian America. Even the novice student of Beatle lore knows that this was the moment when the Fab Four morphed from a nice little R&B outfit into Very Important Artists. Previously, the Beatles were thought of as kids’ stuff; too pretty to be important. Other groups, like the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, and Bob Dylan, were considered true artists with social import.
But cosmopolitans everywhere picked up on Lennon’s message: Christianity was too musty, too intolerant, too repressive, too much a part of the ancient regime that rock ’n’ roll intended to overthrow. You say you want a revolution? You better free your mind instead.
For his part, Lennon claimed to have been misquoted. It’s worth remembering, though, that he made his remarks with some vehemence:
“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I'll be proved right. . . . I don't know which will go first—rock ’n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
Thick and ordinary? That’s strong stuff. Hadn’t Lennon read C.S. Lewis, who pointed out that Jesus was either exactly what he claimed to be—namely, the son of God—or a liar? In any case, you can hardly blame his disciples and church for “twisting it.”
As the 1960s became the 1970s, Lennon’s legion of admirers would follow him in his forays into Indian mysticism, transcendental meditation, and primal therapy. In 1970, now a post-hippie but still a seeker, Lennon sang of a personal god that was neither omniscient, transcendental, nor redemptive, but merely “a concept by which we measure our pain.” This clever bit of pop theology was instantly embraced by an exhausted and defeated flower-power generation searching for moral renewal at the dawn of the new decade.
But, appealing as this view of God was—and remains for a great many Lennon enthusiasts—it came with troubling implications. If God is merely a concept by which we measure our pain, then, ipso facto, where pain can be eliminated, God is no longer necessary. This perhaps explains the escapism and drug abuse of so many of the 60s generation, including Lennon, who himself battled heroin addiction throughout the early 1970s. Radicals, freaks, and lotus-eaters everywhere finally had a deity they could relate to. One who didn’t judge them, or tell them how to live their lives. You know, a god who just lets you be yourself and doesn’t harsh your mellow.
It must be said that Lennon’s lyricizing for the Beatles and his first solo albums were merely a prologue for his enduring masterwork and most famous composition, 1971’s “Imagine.” Much ink has been spilled about this song, treasured by millions the world over for its supposed message of peace and harmony. It is regularly ranked one of the greatest compositions of all time by the editors of music magazines and radio programmers.
“Imagine” is in fact a blatantly nihilistic evocation of an atheist global utopia where the triple-scourge of possessions, greed, and hunger have all been abolished in the name of international brotherhood. Think of it as a North Korean propaganda film with a great piano riff and a nice string arrangement.
When I regard the life’s work of John Lennon these days, I do it with a high degree of ambivalence. His music, and the Beatles’ vast catalog, retains its enormous appeal. But I can neither sanction Lennon's godless vision of the world nor separate it from the experience of listening to his music. I would go so far as to call it dangerous.
And I’m not the only one.
Matthew Hennessey is a writer and editor who lives in New Canaan, CT. You can follow him on Twitter@MattHennessey.