by Loren Seibold
I am still astonished when I recall the instant appeal that the Beatles had to my friends and me. I was in the third grade, and had only heard the song once or twice—popular music was switched off by my conservative Christian parents—yet I remember singing and miming “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” with my cousins as though the song belonged to us. This despite being too young to really understand what it meant, and knowing how much our parents disapproved of everything it represented.
Today the music is uncontroversial—quaint, even. We’ve mostly forgotten how threatening the Beatles were to Christians back then. The screaming girls and long hair were alarming enough. But John Lennon clinched the animosity in an interview in the London Evening Standard:
"Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I'll 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."
Lennon claimed to have been misunderstood, and apologized, sort of: “I'm all for Christ, I'm very big on Christ,” he said. “I've always fancied him. He was right. As he said in his book, 'you'll get knocked if you follow my ways.'" But in the United States the statement had already triggered pickets, boycotts, record burnings and concert cancellations. The Ku Klux Klan nailed a Beatles album to a cross.
It left good children like me racked between my love for Jesus and the strong draw of the new popular culture. I didn’t want to use drugs or be promiscuous. But how appealing the fashions, sounds and energy!—especially over against the stern, fearful world of apocalyptic Christianity in which I grew up.
Nearly 50 years on, what Lennon said still sounds a prophetic note about the conflict between religion and culture: religion, with its bulky-foundationed authority claims, against creativity and change. Lennon was arrogant, to be sure, this freshly-crowned pope of the young, but he was also right. Today Christianity in his home country is nearly dead, and in the rest of the Western world it is declining. Lennon described the feelings millions of today's spiritual-but-not-religious when he said that Christ was admirable, an agent of peace and love, but that his “thick and ordinary" followers ruined it by twisting His message into something supportive of opulent cathedrals, exclusive hierarchies, and a selfishly-selective Biblical message.
“More popular than Jesus” didn't last: the Beatles, as significant as they were, were subject to the same diminishment that happens to all who float in a stream of rapid change. Change, after all, is a movement, not a state. How can prophets compete with gods, the symbols of immortality, or even with their human agents? Lennon seemed to understand, at least for a time, that he was a spiritual figure, pursuing religious experience and even affecting a Jesusine appearance. He placed his considerable influence on the side of peace and freedom, as had Jesus, and (as he’d noted about Jesus) was opposed for it. (It wasn't a coincidence that he chose to describe his situation, "The way things are going/ They’re gonna crucify me.") The dominant culture was correct that a new kind of libertinism followed in the wake of Lennon and his peers. But like all power structures in all ages, they had (and have) enough sins of their own. Years later Lennon noted in passing that his saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus had “upset the very Christian Ku Klux Klan"—not to mention religious hypocrites and warmongers of all sorts.
In the end he was killed not by the powerful for the sake of truth, but by one mentally ill stranger. By that time Lennon's identity as a spiritual figure had diminished. The world remembered, but had moved on. Lennon and his wife had themselves become part of the cultural elite, even while embittered against his former friends over (what else?) money.
It is, at least, a lesson in the timing of martyrdom.