Hard to Imagine
Robert Hart on John Lennon & the Popularity of Jesus
In the late 1960s I was embarrassed, being a fan of the Beatles (who of my generation wasn’t?—or rather, isn’t?), almost every time John Lennon got himself in the newspapers that my parents read. Drugs, including LSD (briefly, as it turned out), the divorce and a very avant-garde second wife, the album cover that disappeared almost as soon as it appeared, and most of all, this one, little, out-of-context quotation, which enraged Americans but was practically unnoticed in England and Europe, originally published in an interview for the London Evening Standard in 1966:
Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ’n’ roll or Christianity.
Before judging Lennon harshly—especially those of you who have come across these words for the first time—note that Lennon also said, when asked about this, that he did not approve of that much popularity, and that he could as easily have said that television was more popular than Jesus as that the Beatles were. More importantly, he said repeatedly that he was talking only about his native country, England, and nowhere else.
Moreover, three years later he said, “I’m one of Christ’s biggest fans, and if I can turn the focus on the Beatles on to Christ’s message, then that’s what we’re here to do.” Sadly, Lennon’s understanding of that message may have amounted to little more than his own anti-war message of “peace and love.”
A Life Framed by Violence
That Lennon was naive, and honest to the point of genuine eccentricity, is also to be weighed among other factors, such as his having, in cognitive terms, an earliest memory of seeing German planes in the sky over Liverpool, and hearing the harsh whistle of falling bombs and ground-shaking explosions while his mother, in a state of panic, rushed him to the nearest bomb shelter. He had been abandoned by his father, and as a young boy was sent to be raised by an aunt even before the death of his mother.
Add to these factors an IQ known to have been above genius level and a lifetime of artistic endeavor, and it is clear that John Lennon was predestined not to be boring. This complicated man died, tragically murdered, on December 8, 1980, having said on the same day that he was, among other “Zen” things, a “Zen Christian.” He left us confused about his meaning, as always.
It was a sadly ironic death. Born during an air raid, having his earliest memory that of an air raid, and dying forty years later from gunshot wounds inflicted by an unprovoked madman, the self-appointed messenger of “peace and love” came into this world in violence and was taken from it in violence. Though his sins were not hidden, neither was his sincerity about what he thought to be the message of Christ, as he said plainly on various occasions.
The Element of Truth
The real problem with what John Lennon said in 1966 is not what so many were quick to assume and to decry in a knee-jerk reaction. The real problem is the element of truth in what he said. The Beatles were more popular than the Lord himself among youth in England at the time, as was Frank Sinatra among the older set in America—and as are television, video games, and many other things of this world to very many people today. Lennon, the eccentric artist, poet, and musician, spoke all too accurately.
Another man, also named John, wrote centuries earlier about Jesus Christ: “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not” (John 1:10). The apostle’s words explain the almost hidden orthodoxy we can derive from those later words of Lennon, long assumed to have been blasphemous or boastful. In reality, they were diagnostic, and an expression of innocent, childlike honesty.
Another problem with John Lennon’s statement in 1966, when it was read in America, was that a thing called religion was still a necessary element of respectability. “Good people” went to the church of their choice, whether or not they believed. It was expected of them, and not bad for business.
But throughout Europe and England, the decline had already set in. The only people going to church anymore were those who went for a reason deeper than mere respectability (as did Lennon himself until, as a teenager, he was banned by the local vicar from coming back to the Liverpool church where he had been baptized and confirmed, because he had laughed during a service).
However, in the decades since 1966, America has become very much like Europe where religion is concerned. According to a Washington Times report issued in July 2009, forty percent of American children are now born out of wedlock. The good news for them is that they were born at all, while so many others have perished in the abortion holocaust.
About Europe I have written before in Touchstone:
We know the story of the Prodigal Son, and its message of repentance and forgiveness. The opening of the story focuses on the beginning of his fall, the waste of his inheritance, by which he is known forever. Prodigality in this case was about extravagance, and the satisfaction of lusts.
It seems that another kind of prodigality can take hold of people, just as wasteful and disrespectful of a father’s labor. It is the throwing away of a valuable inheritance in return for nothing at all, as if it were, itself, spent on the husks that the swine did eat rather than on something alluring. This kind of prodigality is the waste and ruin of modern Europe. (“The Prodigal Continent,” Touchstone, July/August 2007)
And this is true also of modern America.
Meanwhile, Christianity is constantly growing in Africa, even though (if not partly because) many African Christians live with persecution. The evidence tells us that what they have going for them is the joy of their faith, and their belief that the Holy Spirit is the One who still breathes life into the Church everyday. In the midst of poverty and persecution the African churches are thriving in one area that is essential to their health and vitality: evangelism.
Disaster or Opportunity?
The decline of respectable religion in Great Britain, Europe, and America may have reduced the size of congregations and the income of churches, but has it hurt the spiritual health of churches? Might those of us living in what may be described as a post-Christian culture see our position in terms of an opportunity? To put it another way, is it really Christianity that has declined, or just the social respectability of religion? If the latter, perhaps we may become better acquainted with the cross of Christ as a result, just as our persecuted brethren in Africa are acquainted with it in a different way.
Should we approach the decline of respectable religion as a disaster or as an opportunity? Considering that we are stuck with the decline as a fact on the ground, can Christians not take it as an opportunity—specifically, an opportunity for evangelism, which cannot help but have authenticity because only genuine and sincere believers bother? No one is compelled to come to church anymore, and that alone casts the seeming decline in a positive light.
Of course, there is also the danger that some may fight the decline by altering the Christian faith into something that an unbelieving culture might still treat as respectable. They would work to create an allegedly new and improved Christianity by promulgating amoral and immoral standards and strange doctrines. Many social liberals cannot divorce themselves from a moral and even religious center, so their solution is to drain religion of its doctrinal content and its revealed dogmas and morals, replace them with their liberal dogmas, and hold only to the outward form of the traditional faith. St. Paul describes these people as “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof,” and he bids us: “from such turn away” (2 Tim. 3:5).
If we ought to take issue with anything John Lennon said in that 1966 statement, it should not be his observation that the Beatles, or television, or anything else, may become more popular than Jesus Christ. The Scriptures warn us that this can be our own sin, and they frankly tell us that the world hates the Lord: “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you,” said Jesus to his disciples (John 15:18).
Rather, what we ought to take issue with is the opening (though he spoke only of England as he knew it): “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink.” Let that be true indeed of merely respectable religion, but by our prayers and deeds, let us write the future of Christianity, with the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, to be very different. The decline, in the West, has been very real so far, and therefore the opportunity before us is great. •
Robert Hart is rector of St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Anglican Catholic Church Original Province). He also contributes regularly to the blog The Continuum. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
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