John vs. religion<BR>

John vs. religion


Mr. pibeb@dcatla.uucp writes:

>A few more thoughts on John's many denouncements in "GOD". I've never heard
>any mention of Chapman and the lyrics to this song before. However, I have
>read that the early reference to the Beatles being more popular than Jesus
>and the lyric in "THE BALLAD OF JOHN AND YOKO" which said "the way things are
>going, they're going to crucify me" influenced Chapman in his madness.

I hadn't read that religion was at the root of Chapman's act; though I'll admit that I've stayed away from any subsequent publicity about the man and his thoughts. His motivation seemed arguably derivable from pure psychosis, though there could have also been the "literary" connection in a peculiarly twisted way (the way songs, movies or books are said to be the instigators for violent acts)---to wit, Chapman as the liberator of the Lennon persona, freeing the idealized man from a complex, unknown style of musical creation (music, one might have feared, far removed from his work with the Beatles). Maybe Chapman saw himself as a rescuer, keeping Lennon from plunging headlong over "some crazy cliff" into new musical realms (roughly analogous to the theme of "Catcher In The Rye", which apparently Chapman was reading that night; see also Yukio Mishima's novel "Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea" for a similar theme). But I'll repeat that, no matter how you parse it or try to understand it, the loss of John is no easier to bear.

>One more thing, recently I heard a televangelist say that the line in GOD
>saying "I don't believe in Jesus" is proof of what John REALLY meant when
>he said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. As a Christian that
>hopefully can be credited with some sense, I feel the song further supports
>the contention that John meant the earlier statement as a sad statement on
>the decline of religion.

And someone posing as (elvis) writes:

>I always thought John was talking of musicians as a whole were
>more popular because almost everyone listens to pop music while
>in western culture not so many go to church each week.

To get a better sense of what John was saying, it's a good idea to look at the original article. An rmb'er, whose collection is voluminous, generously sent me a copy of the original Evening Standard article by Maureen Cleave, but anyone who wants to may also check out "How does a Beatle live? John Lennon lives like this" (4 March 1966) as anthologized in Thomson and Gutman's "The Lennon Companion" (1987). The journalist in question was a writer whom John liked and trusted (probably not just because she used to read the same children's books John read as a child!) In a relaxed mode, John was apt to avoid the truly confessional pronouncements; he seemed to prefer breezy repartee in this interview. Perhaps Lennon also felt liberated by the venue. The Evening Standard was hardly a teen tabloid, but would actually be read by (heavens) adults!

Cleave's prose is thus suffused with irony. She herself admired Lennon, and appreciated his humor. But the portrait that emerges is a dry, witty look at an alleged pop idol who (as John makes clear) doesn't know what day it is, how to operate a telephone, how to assess how much money he has; a man who has just thrown his long-lost father out of his house; who socializes with no one but his closest neighbors (who happen to be Ringo and George); who buys all manner of witless possessions (from blinking boxes to a gorilla suit); who is self-described as the most physically lazy man in England (" is the only physical thing I can be bothered with anymore"---wonder why *that* statement didn't cause a ruckus with American teens! :-) ; who revels in his richness and famousness; and who thinks Christianity has no future.

There's enough packed into this article to set off a passel of primminded patricians. And of course that was the point, more or less. Cleave and Lennon both knew it. And for Lennon, this was a chance to misbehave literarily. His intent was to mildly shock. Except for the end of the piece, where Cleave (perhaps unknowingly) captures a poignant moment in Lennon's diatribe ("you see, there's something else I'm going to do, something I must do---only I don't know what it is.... All I know is, this isn't *it* for me"), the article is full of Lennon's mildly outrageous arrogance. It's also hilariously funny.

Cleave is no simple acolyte. She has a keen sense of ironic commentary. Here's the most famous paragraph:

"Experience has sown few seeds of doubt in him; not that his mind is closed, but it's closed round whatever he believes at the time. 'Christianity will go,' he said. 'It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about 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. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.' He is reading extensively about religion."

John's words are only half-serious; he's obviously no significant religious theorist. If he'd had any grounding in the history of religion, he'd never had said such a thing. Rock 'n' roll's popularity is fairly uncontestable, but in no way does it mirror the entrenchment of various world religions, whether Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Buddhism.

John seemed fascinated, instead, by the passion with which pop fans pursued Beatlemania; I think it awed him, and excited him a little, to consider what energy was expended upon rock 'n' roll at the expense of former (and more mainstream) passions, like religion. It was the only way John could assess, for himself, just how big the Beatles were, and what they meant to the masses. He had no concept, really, of his own (or the group's) monetary worth; he knew the records sold but he knew that wouldn't last.

What I *don't* think John was saying, anywhere in the article, was that it was a shame that people were neglecting religion for pop music. Other than a brief exposure to the Church of England in his Aunt Mimi's regime, John was not classically religious nor fond of churchgoing. He even considered such activity hypocritical when politicians or public figures indulged in what he thought might be empty religious gestures; Cliff Richards' alleged sanctimony was particularly irksome to the Fabs.

This hardly suggests that Lennon was entirely bereft of personal faith. Much later in his life John spoke to Ray Coleman about his sense of spirituality, and this seems to indicate that John may have felt a certain affinity for religion: "I was brought up as a Christian, Sunday School and all that. It's OK, I have nothing against it except that it organizes itself as a business, the Church.... If I could do what Christ did, be as Christ was, that's what being a Christian is all about" (Coleman, "John Ono Lennon", p. 112). Did John believe in God? "I don't know that anyone like me, who questions everything down to the colour of his socks, can believe in an old man in the sky.... I believe in something, definitely. I believe there is a force at work that you can't physically account for" (Coleman, p. 112).

Certainly John's public rebuttal, made in America as the Beatles nervously contemplated a backlash against Cleave's excerpted article (published in a U.S. magazine meant specifically for a teenage audience), clarified and embellished his original statement. By that point he was forced to become serious about his flip religious analysis because a new audience had read and misunderstood the context. It wasn't that John's thoughts on Jesus and the Beatles was wrenched away from surrounding text that would have made everything perfectly clear. The missing context was, in fact, the sardonic framework of the original piece. And unleashed upon a society like that of the United States, which rarely mixes irony with religion---and unleashed to teens, no less, whose comprehension of such subtleties is all the more tenuous---John's "more popular than Jesus" pronouncement was a publicity bombshell. Neither John nor, it goes without saying, Brian Epstein could have anticipated the controversy.

Clearly John never meant to insult anyone's beliefs. But the Cleave article was not a forum for serious philosophical statements. It's uncertain exactly what John believed in 1966, at least in terms of standard religious worship. He was trying very hard to placate a populace whose wrath he only vaguely understood. He really believed that the Beatles *were*, in fact, more popular than Jesus---at least at that time. He wasn't speaking, as he said, of a situation that *should* have been true; it was not his position to denigrate "Jesus as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is". He was being pressured into saying that he was wrong (the closest John could come to that was "it was taken wrong"---which it certainly was!) And it wasn't music as a whole which John felt had become more important than religion. It was his group.

What's remarkable is that this statement continues to generate opinions that John (and thus the Beatles...and thus pop music) was antithetical to spirituality. Even Cleave's article indicates that John was beginning his search for something meaningful...if only America had bothered to read the entire thing. But of course no venue was interested in carrying a rarified British article, presenting a well-known pop idol in a decidedly non-idolatrous light (no pun intended).

John's search was earnest enough. It just wasn't very mainstream. Previous generations had found similar disappointments at their coming-of-age; material goods only partially satisfy, and standard philosophies turn stale. Lennon and his musical cohorts spent much of their lives looking for what really mattered in life. It led them to the mysterious East and back again. It forced them to recant their musical output, to look to politics and revolution as substitutes. It eventually led them to accept elements of their past, to combine them with new discoveries.

For John, especially, it resulted in an understanding of the theory of reduction, if you want to call it that. The recitation "I don't believe in A, B, C,...Z" from his later song, I'm suggesting, helped him reduce his plethora of beliefs to a spiritual kernel. Here was the point from which Lennon could branch out again---to find the sincere, personal, idiosyncratic faith, for which he'd just begun to search in the public mode of his songwriting in the mid-sixties, when Cleave first wrote about him.

And it was this faith---this methodology of self-discovery, whether you call it classically religious or not---that fueled his life to the very end.

That's the kind of spirituality that truly matters.


"This is a promising group of young musicians who play music for all tastes, preferably rock and roll."
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