John Lennon Got Some Things Wrong, Beautifully

John LennonOn a beautiful, warm evening last week, Sharon and I attended an outdoor concert  performed by the California Philharmonic Orchestra. As the sun settled down over the San Gabriel Mountains in the background, we sat with friends and family, nibbling away at our better-than-picnic dinner, and listened to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. And then there was the Beach Boys, followed by a surprise appearance of the Beatles. What a delightful combination of music. Only in California, I suppose.

After the intermission, a fabulous Beatles imitation group called the Fab Four appeared on stage. As they played and performed song after song from the Beatles repertoire, I found myself taken back to another time in my life, another time in our country and the world. We indulged that evening in sheer, delightful nostalgia. Everyone sang along, young and old alike, signaling how deeply the Beatles have sunk into the fabric of our common life. In my family, three generations sing the Beatles.

In the course of the program, though, the John Lennon look-alike/sing-alike sang one of the great emblematic songs of the era: “Imagine,” appearing in 1971. We all know the song. Rolling Stone placed it 3rd on their list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. That evening, in that nostalgic mood, I got to reflecting on this gospel according to Lennon. I got to remembering how a whole generation was swept up into the beauty and idealism of it all.

“Imagine” talks about imagining something better, a world beyond war and hunger and greed. It talks about coming together as people, across boundaries. It talks about reconciliation and peace. There’s something beautiful in all of this.

Perhaps its deepest appeal is that each of us could actually do something: Above all else, we could join the “dreamer,” Lennon himself, and imagine a better world.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.

But there’s something wrong here. Something’s missing. I’m all for world peace, of course, and I’m all in favor of eradicating hunger and greed. I’m even for a little less nationalism, but when we venture into this profoundly secular vision, Lennon’s world without religion, well, I pause. My version of my religion is that the only path to peace and reconciliation, both global and personal, is humbly bowing before the Prince of Peace.

Oh, what a curmudgeon, you might say. There you go, raining on the parade. But looking back now some forty years later, we sense perhaps this was Lennon’s last desperate attempt to bottle up some of the hopefulness of the era. Things weren’t going as planned. Things were unraveling. The Beatles themselves had already split apart over tensions between Lennon and McCartney. “All you need is love,” wasn’t enough in the end. The Beatles were to be no more, and the age of profound idealism was coming to an end.

A decade or so before Lennon sang his song for an adoring generation, the great British historian and philosopher Christopher Dawson warned that “the civilization that finds no place for religion is a maimed culture that has lost its spiritual roots and is condemned to sterility and decadence.” (123) Lennon was participating, quite powerfully, in the momentum of that secularization, but the results of a world without religion were not good. We feel every day this growing sterility. We see the decadence all around us, a disintegration of culture that brings something very different from Lennon’s imagined new world.

Dawson goes on to say “the only power that can liberate [us] from this kingdom of darkness is the Christian faith. . . . It is a choice between Christianity or nothing.” 32  I know this may sound triumphalist to some, apocalyptic to others, disrespectful of other religions, and all the rest. But to be truthful to our times, we must ask: Is the answer really “no religion,” as Lennon suggests? Another religion perhaps? If another religion, which one will do the trick? A kind of blurred multi-religion? Is that the answer? Insistence on a kind of pluralism that dwindles off into the irrelevancy of relativism?

Lennon struck a deep chord for that idealistic generation of the 60s and 70s. Perhaps this beautiful song still strikes a chord, but I am skeptical about imagining a world with “no religion.” As I look out across the landscape of our world, we must conclude that’s not a path that leads to peace and reconciliation, less greed and no hunger. Far from it. Long ago I decided not to “join” the “dreamer.” Along with Dawson, I decided the Christian faith offers the path that leads to better lives and a better world.