By Alan Bean
In March of 1966, John Lennon made an offhand comment to a reporter with the London Evening Standard:
“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. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
In England nobody noticed, but when the statement hit the American press, Beatle records were ceremonially crushed and burned all over this God-fearing nation. Eventually, Lennon was forced to issue an apology:
“Well, originally I pointed out that fact in reference to England. That we meant more to kids than Jesus did, or religion at that time. I wasn’t knocking it or putting it down. I was just saying it as a fact and it’s true more for England than here. I’m not saying that we’re better or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. I just said what I said and it was wrong. Or it was taken wrong. And now it’s all this.”
Were the Beatles bigger than Jesus? Does it matter?
As a child, our daughter Lydia announced that she preferred Rainbow Brite to Jesus. Well, why not? She was a little girl at the time. Upon reflection, she quickly altered her view. Now Lydia is a dedicated disciple who rarely (if her conversation is anything to go by) gives Rainbow Brite a second thought.
John Lennon had apparently been conducting a personal study of religion when he made his famous remark and I suspect he had been influenced by one of a thousand long forgotten authorities who believed that Christianity had been distorted by its original adherents. Doubt was in the air. I am reminded of a song by Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary fame. I sang Stookey’s “Hymn” in church at the Baptist church I attended when I was sixteen or so, just a year or two after Lennon’s sacrilegious comment. I was so nervous, I couldn’t remember the tune and sang the first verse in an odd monotone before lapsing into a long guitar solo. Finally, just as the second verse came around on the guitar, the melody came back to me.
Sunday morning, very bright, I read your book by colored light
That came in through the pretty window picture.
I visited some houses where they said that you were living
And they talked a lot about you
And they spoke about your giving.
They passed a basket with some envelopes;
I just had time to write a note
And all it said was I believe in you.
Passing conversations where they mentioned your existence
And the fact that you had been replaced by your assistants.
The discussion was theology,
And when they smiled and turned to me
All that I could say was I believe in you.
I visited your house again on christmas or thanksgiving
And a balded man said you were dead,
But the house would go on living.
He recited poetry and as he saw me stand to leave
He shook his head and said I’d never find you.
My mother used to dress me up,
And while my dad was sleeping
We would walk down to your house without speaking.
The “balded man” in Stookey’s song represents the “God is dead” theologians who enjoyed a fleeting moment of fame in the mid 1960s. Unlike John Lennon, who believed that Christianity was a spent force, radical scholars were arguing the abiding value of religion in a godless universe.
The cover of TIME, a month after Lennon’s infamous comment, asked “Is God Dead?”
The fortunes of Jesus were indeed at a low ebb, especially in Britain. In America, churches were setting attendance records but the stage was set for decades of gradual decline. As a church growth professor told a classroom of seminarians in the mid 1970s, “nobody gets excited about a question mark” (he drew the question mark on the board for emphasis).
Then came the Jesus Movement, Jesus Christ Superstar, the charismatic movement and Jesus came roaring back, at least on Broadway (where the Jesus story was reinvented for a skeptical age) and in conservative evangelical churches (where no question marks were allowed).
S0, was John Lennon right?
Yes and no.
The fortunes of Christianity have certainly declined in the last half century in the United Kingdom, Germany and, to a real but lesser extent, in my native Canada. And yet, like the Beatles, the Jesus “brand” has proven to be remarkably resilient. The carpenter from Nazareth remains a hot ticket, even among those who despise the religion he founded.
Whether the Beatles were (or are) bigger than Jesus matters little. In his day, Jesus was a rock star, a fact documented in this week’s Gospel Parallel reading for our Mustard Seed Conspiracy study. Here’s Matthew’s version:
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
As Matthew suggests, Jesus’ popularity was a product of his healing ministry, but it was also a prelude to his most memorable sermons. Like the folks lining up at the soup kitchen, the multitudes who followed Jesus weren’t looking for new religious insights, they had more immediate concerns. The soup kitchen people want a free meal; the crowds in Galilee were desperate for physical healing. But, in both cases, a brief sermon is the price of admission.
Jesus’ celebrity was both opportunity and curse. Jesus knew that his success as a healer distracted from the message he was sent to proclaim. Or maybe not. Properly understood, the miracles of healing were an integral part of the message. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind.”
It was, and is, a package deal.
But how many grasped the connection between outward sign and inward grace? On one occasion, Jesus healed ten lepers, but only one experienced a spiritual renewal. That was probably par for the course. Miracles of healing and a message of grace dovetailed beautifully; but few were sufficiently transformed to stand with Jesus in his hour of agony and abandonment.
Jesus remains popular, especially in America, and his celebrity still gets in the way. We value Jesus as a ticket to heaven, but do we really understand what he is saying? Do we want to understand? Or do we instinctively grasp that if we hear Jesus too well, our infantile preoccupation with having our immediate and eternal needs met will be eclipsed by a higher purpose. So long as the message is all about us, we’re comfortable. But what if it isn’t about us? What if it’s about the kingdom of God. And what if we are too preoccupied with our own kingdom-building plans to give a damn about God’s project?
Jesus might be bigger than the Beatles, but he can’t help us if we don’t listen.