37 years ago today, a man shot and killed John Lennon in front of his New York City apartment. The story was, expectedly, big news. With CNN in its infancy as the first round-the-clock news network, many learned of the news from Howard Cosell as they watched Monday Night Football.
I should say at the start that this is not a tribute to John Lennon. His worldview and mine are completely incongruent. If you’re looking for a fond remembrance of him, you’ll have to find another place. I am grieved that he died, and died violently. His death was both atrocious and tragic. He was made in the image of God just like every other human being, but I will not celebrate his thought. What I want to highlight on this day where he is traditionally brought up as a topic of conversation what is one of his most infamous interactions with the people of the United States.
A few years before he penned the lyrics to “Imagine,” Lennon made this statement: Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink… We're more popular than Jesus now - I don't know which will go first, rock and roll or Christianity. When the remarks were published in a magazine popular among American teens, calls were sounded to boycott the Beatles and to burn their records in the USA, perhaps most famously in Birmingham, AL.
If you're unfamiliar with the controversy this video is a little less than 8 minutes and captures it nicely.
This happened in 1966; I wouldn’t be born for almost 20 years, so all I can know of the controversy is what I can glean from recordings and reports. I want to be fair to anyone who was around at that time. Pop history often turns people into canonized saints or superficial caricatures, so interpreting the information left over from this controversy must be done carefully.
Lennon originally made his comments about England, and he wasn’t wrong. The church there had been (and still is) steadily declining. The superficial morality, especially regarding taboos, still existed (and does still to some degree), but less than 40 years later, when I visited England, my Christianity was regarded as something cute, quaint, and easily explainable by my nationality. The UK had moved on from Christ and his church.
Though already dealing with a shift in culture, the United States had not yet begun to grapple with the changes in Western philosophy coming across the Atlantic from Europe. Not outside of colleges and universities. The crash between the existentialism of the postmodern West and the reaction to the American involvement in Vietnam in the East had not yet begun to produce the unique change in American worldview that would affect every region of the country.
Intriguingly, the controversy in the United States centered around this proposition: the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. I remember learning about this when watching a documentary as a new Christian in high school. I thought, Well, weren’t they? They probably are now! Consider this: which does the average person have more of committed to memory, Beatles’ lyrics or verses from The Sermon on the Mount? Thankfully, when I ask myself the same question and replace verses from The Sermon on the Mount with hymns and other worship songs, the result is much more equal. Of course, “She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah!” and “Let it be. Let it be. Let it be. Let it be. Whisper words of wisdom: let it be,” are a fair bit simpler than “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-20). The gist is simple, but word-for-word is a touch harder.
The objection to Lennon was a matter of the popularity of Jesus, not the veracity of his claim to give himself as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45). What made people uncomfortable to the point that at least one news organization felt it was worthy of documentation was that a generally favorable attitude to Jesus might not be a part of the dominant paradigm any more. Notice that this is much different than a lamentation over the fact that a majority of people are not denying themselves, taking their cross, and following Jesus.
Why does this matter? 1966 was 51 years ago. However sad any death is, John Lennon died before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated president. This is old news.
The reaction to Lennon in 1966 revealed more about American civil religion than it did about John Lennon. Lennon’s thoughts could have just as easily come from a sad Anglican priest somewhere in the north of England lamenting that his magnificent church could barely scrape together double digits when it came to attendees. Lennon’s statement was a cultural evaluation of the people, not an actual critique of Jesus. The outrage at his statement likewise was not theological. If you watched the video above, you saw a man speak of the statistical superiority of Jesus, presumably through history and across the globe. This is doubly problematic.
First, it can’t possibly be accurate. For any failing he has, N. T. Wright has made at least one good, strong assertion regarding Jesus. Jesus was a man crucifiable in his context. Whatever one thinks of Wright’s interpretation of Jesus’s context, one did not find himself on a cross because he was popular. “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25) doesn’t communicate popularity. Furthermore, if John Piper is right that “missions exists because worship doesn’t,' then we can surmise that the church has historically understood that there are many people around the world who do not give Jesus rightful worship. Again, that would be a strike against the notion of Jesus being popular and a boost to a thesis that such a claim is myopic.
Secondly, why should anyone care that anyone consider Jesus popular? In the context John Lennon spoke these words, popular would be a synonym of fashionable, faddish, and trendy. Is that what Jesus is to be among people? Fashionable? Recall these words from Matthew 5: Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. It would seem the red letters indicate that Jesus plans on being unpopular to the point that those who are associated with him would be insulted and persecuted.
So much has changed since 1966, but the civil and cultural religion of the United States remains Christianity. It may run no deeper than the cross hanging around someone’s neck, but if you were to tell that person that they were no Christian in any way that was meaningful or historically linked to those who have suffered for the the faith, that person would likely still write a nasty Facebook status or Twitter post about you. Just like the 1960s, the times are a-changin’, but both Christ and humanity’s sin have not.
As a culture, we are still drawn to the idol of civil religion that celebrates a sort of thin, external congruity with biblical morality. But we did not learn Christ in this way. His name was brought to the West by men and women who taught us that there is one God who is sovereign over all, and he alone is to be feared, not nebulous and capricious spirits of nature. They brought not a nice idea that a popular man with a beard lived in an obscure country to the east, but that God became a man in order that all kinds of men would know him, regardless of language or skin color or cultural background and baggage. The Jesus who is worried over his popularity is a construct of a culture that has begun to lose its wonder that the Savior breaks no bruised reeds and snuffs no smoldering wicks (Isaiah 42:3). It presumes piercing for transgressions (Isaiah 53:5), and ignores the fact that God would be just to cast all sinners away (Psalm 51:11).
What did John Lennon reveal? Cracks in the veneer of faithfulness in American Christianity. Perhaps if we had lamented that a teeny bopper guitar group was more beloved by young people than the crucified and risen Savior, we would be in a different place today. This is speculation, of course, but so is all meditation upon mistakes past to cultivate wisdom. We cannot change what has come before, but we do have a diagnosis of the problem: a shallow civil religion in America. I pray that rather than rejoice in the thin faith of our culture that we would exult in the work of Jesus to the glory of God, making him known rather than worrying about his popularity.