The World Almanac Book of Facts states that the average age of a Rock Star that died prematurely in the 20th and 21st century is just thirty-six. Heart attack and drug overdose are the highest causes. When the news is broadcast that a great musician, singer, writer, performer or entertainer has died our cultural response it to feel loss as though we actually knew them personally, when in fact, we just knew their music. Doug Van Pelt’s book Rock Stars on God interviews twenty current artists on faith from Alice Cooper, Static X, Nickelback, Metallica and Sunny Day Real Estate, just to name five. These interviews reveal that artists that we write-off as ‘the devil playing the devil’s music’ (after all, why would the devil play anyone else’s music?) as individuals being pursued relentlessly by God. Here is our cultural challenge, the Bible tells us just how relenting God is in pursuing the human race through his son Jesus reconciling the world to himself, but would we ever let Metallica loose with Alice Cooper to write and perform songs about God? I want to conclude with a challenge, but first let me state the obvious: God is absolutely relentless in pursuing us with his love. If I cannot start here, the following makes no sense.
The forty years of John Lennon’s life clearly show a man who was spiritually aware. After all, he was an image bearer like you and me. Steve Turner quotes Lennon in his book The Gospel According To The Beatles, “People got the image that I was anti-Christian or anti-religion. I’m not at all. I’m a most religious fellow. I’m religious in the sense of admitting that there is more to it than meets the eye. I’m certainly not an atheist. There is more that we still could know. I think this ‘magic’ is just a way of saying ‘science that we don’t know yet’ or we haven’t explored yet. That’s not anti-religious at all.” Often misquoted through the popular press and even banned from certain American radio stations in the Southern States, Lennon was undoubtedly being pursued by the relentless love of God in the person of the Holy Spirit. Turner continues in quoting Lennon, “I’m not saying 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 was taken wrong. And now it’s all this.” Underneath the interviews, newspaper articles, press conferences and especially his songs, was a curious subtext that influenced the culture(s) of his life beyond music to religion, philosophy and faith. God was relentlessly pursuing a man of influence who became a catalyst of influence. Turner continues, “I was brought up as a Christian and I only now understand some of the things that Christ was saying in those parables anyway – when I got away from the interpretations that were thrown at me all my life. There is more to it.” Look at the stages of Lennon’s life and the subtle influence of his context within the music. I cannot possibly agree with his statements but I can see the relentless love of God that persisted.
Early Christian influences 1940 – 1945
Lennon was raised in the most religious city in England during the 1940’s and 1950’s. His religious background was a mixture of Catholic, Fatalism, Welsh-Calvinism and Psychic from paternal and
maternal sides of his family. In his formative years Lennon witnessed a number of lovers with his mother while his father was away, that culminated in a decision he had to make at the age of five to stay with mom or dad, making his framework for family life dysfunctional. (Song ref: ‘Mother’ recorded in 1970 and 1975 from the album Shaved Fish)
Formative influences 1945 – 1957
His school years began at St. Peter’s parish church. It was in this local church that Lennon joined the choir, attended Sunday School and became an official member of the Bible Class. Local church life was a hub to Lennon’s spiritual formation outside the complexities of home from age eight to fourteen. He rehearsed for choir every Thursday evening, singing at Morning Prayers and Evensong on Sundays. At the age of nine he told his Aunt Mini he had seen God sitting by the fire (not under the influence of LSD in a psychedelic culture). Lennon was confirmed at the age of fifteen in the local church of his own free will. Part of his confession was to ‘reject the devil and all rebellion against God.’ (Song ref: ‘Working Class Hero’ recorded in 1970 from the album John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band)
Before Lennon was a Beatle 1957 – 1959
Lennon formed a band that had a number of evolving names from Black Jacks to the Quarry Men. The venues he played in were not the popular Liverpool clubs but church halls that would allow ‘shuffle music’ as morally superior to rock ‘n’ roll. Other band names Lennon went through were Johnny and the Moondogs, The Nerk Twins, The Silver Beetles, The Silver Beats and finally The Beatles. Lennon liked the music of Buddy Holly and the Crickets and wanted to keep an ‘insect’ theme. One name Lennon traveled under for safety was The Reverend Fred Gherkin, once again, humorously going back to his parish roots. (Song Ref: ‘In Spite of all Danger’ recorded as a single in 1958)
Pre-Beatlemania 1960 – 1963
Lennon toured Germany with the Beatles increasing in popularity arriving back in Liverpool. An obvious change had taken place in their image as a band – they were clean cut and dressed in suits looking respectable in keeping with the ‘Christian’ image. One of Lennon’s classic philosophical statements carried overtones of hopelessness during this time. Again, Turner’s book quotes Lennon saying, “This isn’t show business. It’s something else. This is different from anything that anybody imagines. You don’t go on from this. You do this, and then you finish.” It echoed of a time that would make front page news on every major paper seventeen years later “John Lennon Shot Dead.” What followed in Lennon’s life appears to be an intensity of God’s relenting love revealing Jesus counting down those seventeen years. After all, God knew that fateful day would come making Lennon a statistic in the Almanac Book of facts. (Song Ref: ‘I’m so Tired’ recorded on the album The Beatles in 1968)
Beatlemania 1964 – 1965
Growing popularity and an audience of 73 million on the Ed Sullivan Show gave John Lennon the unconscious opportunity to shape the culture himself. “We just behave as normally as we can. We don’t feel as though we should preach this and tell them that. You know, let them do what they like.” Not only were young people following his music and fashion but his philosophy of religion and faith. Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, Johnny Kid and the Pirates, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and other artists of the same period had their following. But no one was enquiring into the philosophy, faith and religion of these performers. Lennon and the Beatles had a cultural influence surpassed by no one. Was this an evidence of a greater work in Lennon’s life? (Song Ref: ‘Revolution’ recorded on the album The Beatles in 1968)
The beginning of the end 1966 – 1968
On July 29th 1966 the teen magazine Datebook published an off-handed comment Lennon made earlier by announcing that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. This unhinged further statements to make a reconciliation with the Christian community. Maureen Cleeve from the London Evening Standard quotes Lennon, “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 an attempt to make amends Lennon protested the interpretations given to scripture. “I don’t profess to be a practicing Christian although I think Christ was what he was and anybody who says something great about him, I believe.” Then in 1966 Lennon launched a truth the church did not want to hear in the Westminster John Knox Press, “The youth of today are really looking for some answers, for proper answers the established church can’t give them…” In all the confusion and personal attacks Lennon leaves Jesus alone in 1968. “I suppose now what I’m interested in is Nirvana, the Buddhist heaven. I don’t know much about it, or really understand it enough to explain it.” Without Lennon realizing it, each time he cast himself away from Jesus – Jesus kept coming back into his context revealed in the songs. (Song Ref: ‘God’ from the album John Lennon / Plastic Ono in 1970)
The end of the Beatles – 1969 1970
Lennon and the Beatles travelled to India under the tutelage of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for spiritual guidance still unconsciously guiding the culture himself. “We’re all Jesus and we’re all God. He’s inside all of us and that’s what it’s about. As soon as you start realizing that potential in everyone, well, then you can be truly humble. That’s the whole bit. Jesus wasn’t God come down to earth any more than anybody else. He was just a better example of a good guy.” Not only was the Indian Guru a strong influence on Lennon but the use of LSD defined spirituality for him. “God isn’t in a pill, but LSD explained the mystery of life. It was a religious experience.” (Song Ref: ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ from the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band recorded in 1967)
On his own – 1970-1980
Because of Lennon’s popularity and fame most of his life outside a studio was spent watching TV. He enjoyed viewing Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, Jim Bakker and Oral Roberts. In 1972 Lennon wrote to Roberts asking what Christianity could do for him. Was it fake or the real thing? Roberts wrote back. “John, we saw you and the Beatles on television when you first came to America. Your talent with music was almost awesome and your popularity touched millions. Your influence became so widespread and powerful that your statement-the Beatles are more popular than Jesus- might have had some truth in it at that moment. But you know, our Lord said, I am alive for ever more. People, the Bible says, are like sheep and are often fickle, following this one day and something else the next. However, there are millions who have received Jesus Christ as their personal Savior and have been filled with the Holy Spirit. They love him. To them he is the most wonderful and popular man who ever lived because he is the Son of God and his name endures. I thank God that you see this, John, and finally regret thinking any man or group could be more popular than Jesus. Jesus is the only reality. It is Jesus who said ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’ So, you see, your statement that because of your hard background you’ve never wanted to face reality is actually really saying you’ve never wanted to face our loving Lord. What I want to say, as I tried to say in my other letter, is that Jesus, the true reality, is not hard to face. He said, ‘Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ You said, John, that you take drugs because reality frightens you. Remember as you open your life to Jesus, He will take all the fear away and give you peace. Peace that passes all understanding.” This letter has been widely publicized throughout the media with permission. In 1974 Lennon contradicted himself concerning the influence the Beatles had. “The Beatles were a kind of religion. They were the youth getting together and forming a new church, as it were.” In March 1977 Lennon’s wife, Yoko, travelled to Columbia to meet a witch that had been recommended to her as a ‘sure thing.’ After $60,000 were paid to the witch undisclosed advice was given concerning the life of Lennon. It was during this year of ‘77 that Lennon announced himself as a born-again Christian. He was moved by Franco Zeffirelli’s ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ starring the British actor Robert Powell. He took Yoko and his son Julian to an Easter service in April 1977. Yoko took him to Tokyo where he was left in a hotel room for hours. “I began to see all these different parts of me. I felt like a hollow temple filled with many spirits, each one passing through me, each inhabiting me for a little time and then leaving to be replaced by another.” This ended any interest Lennon had with Jesus. From Tarot Cards to Directionalists, Lennon would go nowhere or sign anything without the advice of I Ching. In 1979 Yoko travelled to Cairo where an illegal dig was taking place hoping to purchase artifacts with magic powers without success. Lennon delved into reading books on religion, psychics, occult, death, history, archeology and anthropology. Lennon read multiple books of which some were ‘Rebel in the Soul –An Ancient Egyptian Dialogue Between a Man and his Destiny (Bika Reed); Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, goddess worshippers, and other Pagans in America Today (Margot Adler); Practice Occultism (Madame Blavatsky); Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (Paul Reps); Siddhartha (Herman Hesse); The Doors of Perception (Aldous Huxley). In addition there were massive contradictions by reading the works of theologian Paul Tillich and atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. At another Easter occasion Lennon watched ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ again but this time with sarcasm. He joked that the movie should fast forward and get on with the crucifixion. It was here that Lennon made an outlandish statement. “I’m a pagan – a Zen pagan to be precise.”(Song Ref: ‘Imagine’ recorded on the album Imagine in 1971)
Legacy of feelings
The songs of Lennon after the Beatles reflect the personal feelings he had about Jesus and the constant journey of finding something or someone better. Without a doubt God was pursuing Lennon but because he rejected God, he therefore rejected his Son – Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 4:8) “Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.” God spoke to Ananias about Saul whose life was anything but Christian. Even so, God had a plan for him to influence ancient Europe. (Acts 9:15) “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.” I must conclude that God had a plan for Lennon like Saul, but it went unfulfilled. The story of Lennon has challenged me in the way I think, pray and connect in the community of people who are being relentlessly pursued by God. Man always looks on the outside. In Lennon’s case it was a wild life of drugs, experimentation, sexual addictions and contradictions. But God always looks on the inside. I am no longer concerned about the outward appearance of the community Jesus is working in.
Here’s the challenge, when we look at our community what do we see? People we openly criticize stating, ‘this is who we don’t want to be!’ But those people (some of them magnificently talented like Lennon) are looking for people who will show them, relationally and lovingly, how to be. As Robert’s said, ‘Our only reality is Jesus.’ Does this mean God is still using Lennon’s life as an example? Maybe……