Postmodern Conservative

Carl’s Rock Songbook, No. 106, John Lennon, “Imagine No Religion”

My previous essays on John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which I posted nearly a year ago showed that its dream of no possessions is impossible, and that its dream of no countries, while within the bounds of possibility, would turn out to be a nightmare.  (The first of these, and the introductory discussion, I recently re-posted due to technical issues.)

Dealing with those topics could be conducted rather impersonally, by way of laying out the philosophic thought most useful for considering them.  This essay, however, concerns what I take to be the song’s primary challenge, and thus in a number of ways has to get more personal, for myself, for John, and I daresay for everyone.  The first stanza lays down the gauntlet:

Imagine there’s no heaven–

it’s easy if you try.

No hell below us,

above us only sky.

Imagine all the people living for today

The second stanza, mainly about the no country idea, adds to this by at one point throwing in the line “and no religion, too.”

Let’s first note that these 1971 lyrics leave behind the 60s Counter-Culture’s spiritual experiments with pantheism and pagan beliefs, the former of which had been poetically expressed by two of Lennon’s Beatles songs that my Songbook has examined:  “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “All You Need Is Love.” But with this song, all religion, Eastern and Western, Philosophic and Primal, is to be abandoned.  The attack on all religion is not as explicit as it will become in some rock, as in The Dead Kennedy’s punk “song” charmingly titled “Religious Vomit”but it is nonetheless there. 

Lennon himself found it difficult to stick to atheism.  The work of rock journalist Steve Turner shows that while the early-60s to early-70s period saw Lennon moving from agnosticism to LSD-linked pantheism, and then to “Imagine’s” atheism, the subsequent decade saw him briefly, but very seriously, consider becoming a Christian, in between periods of continually exploring the occult.  So in a way, Lennon could be regarded as representing the inclined to spiritual mumbo-jumbo hippie-type that the punk-ish set were attacking in the early 80s with lyrics like those of “Religious Vomit,” or with scenes like the one in the movie Repo Man where the punker’s stoned hippie parents give all their money to a televangelist.

I’ll detail what I’ve learned about John’s journey below, but I first need to say something about my own journey in grappling with his song’s contemporary resonance.  When I started the essays on “Imagine,” I knew my plan of addressing it as poetic shorthand for a philosophic view would require more work than the usual Songbook post or series, but I didn’t foresee them requiring me to rethink anything.  Nevertheless, once it was time to write this post, I stopped. 

Why?  Well, what I initially told myself was that I needed to go into the sociology-grounded debate about the “secularization thesis,” and I knew my friends at Christopher Newport University would soon be holding a conference on this.  So I read a bit here and there, and the writing got put off.  But the main reason was that I realized that the idea humans could live without religion had become plausible again, or at least, plausible to a degree it hadn’t been throughout my adult life.  Though there are always certain continuities, the religious situation in 2014 felt markedly different from that of 1984, 1994, or 2004–it felt like a fundamental shift had occurred.

2010 had seen the publication of Robert Putnam’s and David Campbell’s American Grace, which showed the number of those claiming to be Christian had dramatically decreased, and in early 2014, we learned from Pew Reports that, as Brad Wilcox put it, “fully 29 percent of Millennials consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, a record postwar high.” The results also showed they are less likely to describe themselves as “religious” compared with earlier generations of Americans:  only 36 percent of them felt that the term “religious person” described themselves “very well,” compared with 52, 55, and 61 percent of the “Generation X,” “Baby Boom”, and “Silent” generations respectively. 

And just the other day, a newer Pew report indicated that across the generations, there has been a nearly 8-percentage point drop over seven years in those calling themselves Christian (from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent).  Rod Dreher reacted to this report with a post titled “Christianity in Collapse.”

We are staring at the face of a European-style collapse within a couple of generations. If you think the children being born now to religiously observant Millennial parents are, on the whole, going to be more pious than their parents’ generation, you are whistling past the graveyard. Once this decline gets going, it’s very hard to stop.

Rod consistently talks about the situation of American Christians as a completely new one, requiring radical rethinking about many church matters, and he’s certainly not the only person talking so—more and more of the plugged-in Protestant Christian pastors are saying similar things.  My December essay “Book Notes, ‘Post-Christian America’ Edition,” mainly about books by Ross Douthat and Joseph Bottum, was my initial effort at grappling with such talk, and my own sense of the new era. 

Now I was raised in the Christian faith in the 70s and 80s, the time when the turn, or the return, of many boomer hippies to Christianity was occurring, as part of a broader evangelical revival.  The suit-and-tie white-haired elders of my suburban Presbyterian church led us in “How Great Thou Art” and “Amazing Grace” in the sanctuary, but at the church picnic or the youth-group meeting, the long-haired twenty-somethings took over, with “Seek Ye First” and so forth.  And it is worth noting that among some Gen-Xers raised this way, word spread in the early 80s of a rock band of our generation, U2, that toyed with a Christian grounding for the punk-initiated critique of 70s excess, and for rock idealism generally.  I try to sing this a lot… It was an era when the re-embrace of Christianity could seem kind of cool, and even so to the youngest ones.

As importantly for those of us intellectually inclined, this period was one in which increasing numbers of top writers on political and cultural matters treated religion with a new-found kind of respect, often in direct parallel with certain critical reconsiderations of the “60s.”  There were the neo-conservative writers found in The Public Interest and elsewhere, and many other similar yet politically more left-leaning writers emphasizing the social goods fostered by religion—Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1978) stands as perhaps the most important book in this vein, at least for myself, but I also recall the powerful impact of reading Wendell Berry’s Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (1992).

Looking back on it, I also see that there were a number of writers who in various ways echoed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard Address.  I remember around 1984 when the most charismatic youth-group leader of our church returned after a semester of grad study in Princeton, and it seemed the most important thing he brought back to us was the idea that Christians ought to be reading Solzhenitsyn.

Now yes, I also read books like Michael Harrington’s The Politics at God’s Funeral (1983), and in various ways noticed the conviction of many intellectuals and artists that it was all over for religion.  But I also came across passages like this one from One Earth, Four or Five Worlds, (1985) by the Mexican poet-intellectual Octavio Paz:

…social democracy has been unable to fill the vacuum left by the failure of the great communist hope.  Does this mean, as many predict, that the hour of the churches has come?  If this should turn out to be the case, I hope that there will be left on the earth at least a small handful of human beings—as at the end of antiquity—who will resist the temptation of divine omniscience, as others, in our day, have resisted that of revolutionary omniscience.

That was some pretty hyperbolic worryin’!  Sort of a flip-side to what Rod Dreher often does today.  Still, it captures a common and plausible-enough direction of thinking about the situation of those times. From a broader view, here’s how Ross Douthat described those late-seventies-to-early-aughties times, from his excellent (2013) Bad Religion:

So Evangelicals rose, and Catholics reconsidered, and by the late 1990s their unexpected convergence was being spun by optimists in both camps into a kind of broader comeback for Christianity as a whole.  Yes…their common faith had suffered losses during the 1960s and 70s.  But liberal theology and secularism alike had failed to satisfy the heart of modern man, and the rising generation, coming of age amid the moral and spiritual anarchy that their parents had unleashed, would eventually turn back to the Christianity the baby boomers had abandoned.  In this spirit…books were written with titles like…The Twilight of Atheism and The End of Secularism

Those were also the times when I went to grad-school, graduating from writers like Lasch and Berry to real heavyweights like Chantal Delsol, our Peter Lawler, and of course, Alexis de Tocqueville.  My dissertation on Tocqueville, written in the years 2003-2008, did not deal with his take on religion directly, but it nonetheless contained these two paragraphs:

Tocqueville provides us with five guideposts for thinking about the future relation of democracy and religion.  First, as the title of a key chapter puts it, the 1830s American example shows that religion can “Make Use of Democratic Instincts” in a manner mutually beneficial to itself and democracy; second, sustainable democracy needs religion, which means we can expect democratic peoples to remain attached to its continuance or at least potentially receptive to its revival(cf. II, 2.17, #s 17-20); third, democratic times, because they are enlightened times, tend to be ones of increasing doubts about religion ; fourth, the relevant religion for America and Europe, Christianity, will be tugged against and perhaps eroded by powerful and ongoing democratic currents toward the liberationist and materialist mores; and fifth, and most importantly, religion’s authority in democratic society will always rest upon common opinion. 

(All the references are to Democracy in America—for those of you who have never read it, here’s a list of its must-read chapters.)

Tocqueville says that “if one looks very closely, one will see that religion itself reigns [in America] much less as a revealed doctrine than as common opinion.”(II, 1.2, #18)  This judgment, offered in the context of his larger teaching about the authority of common opinion, indicates that despite their adherence to the Bible and other standards of doctrinal authority, the Americans could abandon or adapt Christianity whenever the gradual working of democratic currents made such changes attractive to a majority.  That is, a third stage of democratic character in relation to religion is quite possible, even in America.  Unlike the second stage, in which a doctrinally traditional (but politically aloof) Christianity proves a good fit for democratic needs, in the third stage democratic man would be inclined either to the non-religion that is materialism, or to a quasi-religion heavily shaped by democratic dogmas and instincts.  Pantheism, or some sort of faith in human progress, would be the most likely forms of quasi-religion.  In my view, the three chapters which immediately follow the most famous one about religion and democracy (II, 1.5) respectively concern the primary religious options Tocqueville thinks will be viable in the far democratic future:  Catholicism, pantheism, and a faith in indefinite human perfection.

There is a lot packed into those paragraphs, but one thing they do reveal is that I had never been that confident about the strength of the 80s-90s religious revival.  Yes, with Tocqueville I held–and still do–that mankind is innately religious (I, 2.6, #13; II, 2.12, #6), but I could see that his thought nonetheless pointed to the possibility of (small-o) orthodox Christian belief and moral teaching being abandoned by the dominant common opinion in America.  And I could see that many were following the likes of John Lennon and Jello Biafra in wanting that day to come, whether or not they felt they could say that out loud like a rock artist, and even whether or not they could fully admit this desire to themselves.  That is, with Tocqueville’s help I could see that democratic society, by its own “nature,” could find ways of getting directly opposed to humanity’s religious nature. 

Sociology claims Tocqueville as one of its pioneers, but the more typical way classic sociology had of dealing with religion’s future is suggested by the “secularization thesis,” the idea that the more modern a nation becomes the more it will turn away from belief in God.  Now I think 2015 finds us having to admit that an adjusted secularization thesis might remain convincing to many, but first, we should note some of ways the basic thesis has been regarded as flawed.  Consider this from Joseph Bottum, in his brilliant An Anxious Age:  The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America:  “Curiously, even as, in many ways, the United States becomes more like a European nation, few sociologists continue to defend the Secularization Thesis in its purest form.”  That is genuinely curious, but Bottum probably drives the point home too confidently by adding this:

We’ve witnessed the manifest failure of Islam to fade away in the face of modernity—to say nothing of the great Christianizing of Africa in the twentieth century, and the extraordinary conversions in Asia.  …All of this suggests that the real violation of established historical patterns, the real exceptionalism, was the secularizing of Western Europe.

A more useful challenge to applying the thesis was brought by Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion:  How We Became a Nation of Heretics, which argues that America is not moving into a secular age shorn of religion generally, but into an era in which Christian orthodoxy is pushed to the side, with its place filled not so much by atheism, but by Christianity-aping heresy.  The “Prosperity Gospel,” New Age religion, and MTD (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism) figure prominently in this account.  Bottum’s book can be read as adding another item to Douthat’s menu of heresies, since he presents the main spirit of American contemporary progressivism as a sort of a mutated vestige of the mainline Protestant spirit. 

Perspectives on Political Science recently published a more developed version of my essay on Bottum’s and Douthat’s books.  I concluded that review with a suggestion of how the secularization thesis might be made less emphatic, by adjusting it to Douthat’s way of looking at things, so as to become a “secularization and heterodoxy-generation thesis.” 

Such a thesis would still predict the more intellectual types abandoning religion as the world modernizes, but would also predict that the less educated masses remain “religious,” by serially entertaining diverse spiritual teachings, as in the days of the pre-Christian Roman Empire.  This eclecticism could show up on surveys as a wide belief in “religion,” but this would be misleading if thought about in the old way.  For the heretical religiosity of the many would join the secularism of the elite upon precisely one point:  defensive opposition to the truth-claims of orthodox Biblical religion, and to the slightest hints of government, corporate, or associational respect being given them.  

Additionally, this adjusted thesis would regard it as perfectly predictable that the “Great Disruptions” of the 60s and their aftermath, and particularly in the area of sexual relations, would provoke a counter-reactive revival of traditional Judeo-Christian faith for a generation or so.  However, the newer generations of those who lost connection with orthodox religion would find ways to live without it, and, to more practically live with the new personal freedom.  The latter pattern would be in marked contrast to the wild experiments undertaken by the original revolutionary generation.  So in the aggregate sense, the population would return to the overall modern trajectory of decreasing belief in Biblical religion after the 80s/90s plateau, or apparent reversal. 

It was also predictable that the new personal freedom would license and encourage a greater exploration of religions and religious practices that had never been collectively authoritative—either by law or by common opinion–in America and Europe.  The champions of my posited adjusted secularization thesis would admit that the new personal freedom has lead to a lot of “bad religion” of the individualistic and crudely-thinking sort that Douthat describes, but would claim that much of this is pretty harmless and unserious.  And anyhow, they would say, whatever weaknesses of character the new emphasis upon personal freedom fosters, especially among the uneducated, what matters to measuring the truth of the (adjusted) secularization thesis itself is that this conception of freedom has become impossible to further resist in democratic societies.

So it might be thought.  By contrast, the Tocquevillian explanation of our situation would be that American common opinion recently made the switch it was always possible for it to make, from regarding traditional religion as the presumed philosophic and moral resource for democratic society (note the difference between resource and authority), to instead upholding a set of ideas about personal freedom and equal dignity generated from within democratic society itself.  This shift of opinion was not destined by “modernity,” or by any other larger factor, such as Tocqueville’s preferred one of the “democratic social state, even though it was the more probable outcome. 

In any case, it is vital to understand that by his thinking, once common opinion fully embraced the democratic ideas of personal freedom and equality dignity, it would assume that these would apply to religion as well.  The New Age pantheists and eclectic religionists, the MTDers, the theologically liberal Christians, and the “Post-Protestant” progressives are in fact scandalized, and look to become increasingly so, by the notion that the correct understanding of Christianity involves a God who forbids the new sexuality and the overall personal freedom that goes with it.  And while few of them say it openly at present, they are at bottom outraged by the idea of a God who condemns any sin so emphatically that some humans should be described as “lost,” let alone as “damned.”  The more politic of these “heretical religionists” of course affirm that these hoary notions have to be tolerated, at least when espoused by individuals in private life or by explicitly religious associations; but what they really feel is that these notions constitute a brand of hatred–one of unfortunate historic prestige–that denigrates the essential dignity of whole classes of persons.  So these notions must be carefully cabined and isolated. 

No-one can precisely establish how widespread that sort of thinking is, but the point here is that this is the sort of common opinion that the Oprah-esque masses and the atheistic elites could agree upon.  Alert observers have noted that a few particularly dogmatic progressives, such as Frank Bruni of the New York Times, have recently endorsed the idea that Christians “must be made to take homosexuality off the sin list.”  And thoughtful Christians should realize that demands for shortening the sin list can’t logically stop at homosexual practice, however political calculations might delay further demands, but must proceed through every sin that does not obviously harm others, and finally come to the doctrines of sin and salvation themselves.

So in my judgment, the open hostility to Biblical religion we used to only see expressed by avant garde figures—take the visceral reaction Siouxsie and the Banshees felt against Judeo-Christian singing, which they recounted in 1980’s “Israel” with lyrics like Their hate is clanging, maddening—is becoming the authoritative democratic common opinion in our time.  At least on the specific topic of SSM, it already has.  According to that opinion, the person who chooses to remain an “orthodox” Christian, against everything we now know, chooses to be a Hater.  Period.  To be against hate, to be for equality and liberty in the deeper sense that the likes of Justice Kennedy point to, is necessarily to be against old-time Christian doctrine, and/or to strenuously deny that there was any such widely agreed-upon doctrine in the first place.  And again, the deeper objection here is not to the putative Hate against gays, but to the very ideas of sin and salvation that have always divided humanity into two classes.  As fundamentally, the progressive (and libertarian) celebration of human freedom undertaken in the image of the all-colorful and self-creating Autonomous Individual, cannot abide the image of the abject Sinner turned away from Self and World unto Forgiveness, Purgation, and God. 

Of course, Tocqueville predicts nothing good for the democracy that turns its back upon Biblical religion.  Where common opinion rejects dogmatic authority in religious matters, the resultant chaos, uncertainty, and enervation brings about an eventual embrace of dogmatic authority in political matters, i.e., a turn to despotism.  Jacobins beget Napoleons. 

However, even the French anti-clerical revolutionaries tried to provide some religion for their new society, and I think that our (informally-instituted) Cult of the Autonomous Individual, which for many can be given a spiritual dressing or framework, could prove more successful than the Jacobins’ (formally-instituted) Cult of the Supreme Being.  From Plato’s account of democracy in the Republic, we can see that that idea of autonomous freedom is perennially attractive to democratic peoples.  So perhaps a society in which belief in Biblical religion had dwindled could remain stable enough through a de facto devotion of the populace to the Cult of Freedom.

In that case it wouldn’t be a Napoleon or a Hitler who would come, just as none has in the 60s-to-present de-Christianizing of Western Europe, but over a much longer term a new kind of despotism, that described by Tocqueville as soft.  Most conservative readers are familiar with the famous passages on Soft Despotism, so I won’t quote them again.  I’ll simply say that any thorough study of Democracy in America would reveal the various common opinion pillars that that despotism would rest upon—it wouldn’t function simply, as too many conservatives and libertarians think, through the operation of the centralized administrative state. 

Now, I’ve recently been speculating about whether the American republic might fall, or fall apart–I’m not the only one doing so these days.  For reasons too complicated to go into here, but connected to the remaining closeness of our nation’s common-opinion divide about “Culture War” issues, I don’t think that America could slide into something approaching Soft Despotism, though I think Europe really could.  So what my speculation in my several Late Republic Studies posts probably boils down to is this question:   Is America seriously threatened, a couple of generations down the road, with civil dissolution into two nations (and perhaps more), or is such a worry mainly a function of folks like myself focusing too much on a certain kinds of theory and rhetoric? 

With that question in mind, consider these two clauses from Tocqueville:

…without common ideas, there is no common action, and without common action men still exist, but a social body does not.  Thus in order that there be society, and all the more, that this society prosper, it is necessary that all the minds of the citizens always be brought together and held together by some principle ideas… (II, 1.2, #2)

If this is correct, the pluralist ideal of democratic society is essentially a fantasy.  At some unknown point, greater and greater diversity of opinion and lifestyle must either tear the “social body” apart, or leave individuals with irreconcilable differences entangled together in an organizing body that has ceased to be a social one in any sense.  Lesser and lesser commonality in “principle ideas” debilitates the social body, and at some point kills it. 

Further, Tocqueville’s theory implies that common opinion is likely to gravitate towards a minimal set of principle ideas by which society could be held together, such as the idea of Autonomous Freedom, and it is going to find ways to insist upon these ideas and punish those who dissent from them regardless of existing institutions, laws, or constitutional provisions.  At present, on Culture War and religious issues, American common opinion remains polarized into two main options, which allows an uneasy truce which upholds the First Amendment freedoms of religious exercise, association, press, and speech.  But if the common opinion that affirms orthodox Christianity begins to rapidly diminish, as it appears it may be doing, it is not so clear that conscientious liberals and pluralists will be able to keep the forward motion of progressivist common opinion committed to those freedoms for all.

So perhaps even more nightmarish than the vision of American society dividing itself into two nations, is the vision of it being forcibly held together once commonality has been decisively lost.  How would that occur?  Well again, many signs point to it becoming more plausible, and more tempting, for future progressives to simply label social conservative ideas and orthodox Biblical doctrines as anti-democratic at bottom, thus excluding these from the general tolerance.  Maybe Americans could in this way be led into a new kind of society, by means of an already-afoot trend of diminishing belief in Judeo-Christian religion being nudged along by the progressivist state.

Still, my key “Late Republic Studies” hypothesis is that whether or not this can work in other modern democratic nations, in America it more likely to provoke massive resistance of nation-dividing potential.

I might say more in another post about how to apply Tocqueville’s theory of common opinion to today’s situation, and what options this suggests for those seeking to bring America back to some kind of sustainable consensus, but here the main point is to underline what the “no religion” part of Lennon’s dream has turned out to actually mean for our society. 

It has meant more division, and a magnification of existing ones.  The song is an early instance, and an important symbol, of progressives saying “We no longer are going to pretend that the adherents of Biblical religion really belong in our movement.  Insofar as the ‘Social Gospel’ doesn’t radically re-adjust the Gospel, making it universalist, non-authoritative, approving of the new sexual ethics, etc., we are against it.  We needed the blessing of significant numbers of Biblical religionists to win the fights for New Deal liberalism and then for Civil Rights, but that was then, and to conduct the necessary fights on free love, abortion, gender equality, gay equality, etc., we must part ways with whatever is distinctively Christian and Israel-linked.  Any lingering identification with those must become subordinate to a dedication to the human and the democratic.  Biblical religion is the most intractable foe of our cause, and so belief in it must be made to radically diminish; wise progressives have always known this, but now it is time for the rank-and-file to accept it also.” 

That overall notion is what Lennon was intuitively channeling.  As theory it is logically consistent, but as strategy it only makes sense if Biblical religion is fading fast, which it was during the 1962-1975 window, and which it seems to be doing again now. 

But…what if it isn’t?  Ross Douthat suggested some important qualifications to the recent Pew survey results, and one might also consider the recent remarks of the British democratic theorist John Gray in which he said “The resurgence of religion is a worldwide development.” More deeply, what if Tocqueville was right that humans are innately religious, and that democratic peoples in particular will feel a need for religion, such that revival has to be regarded as a permanent possibility?  

These thoughts pose against the “Imagine” moment a very troubling question:  “What is the Plan B for progressivism if Biblical religion does not fade away?”  For strategic purposes, it remains troublesome even if rephrased as “What is the Plan B if it does not fade away as quickly as expected?”  

For very few progressives are offering a “Plan B” anymore.  In America they are “all in” on Roe v. Wade, along with the corrosively implausible and anti-democratic pattern of Constitutional interpretation needed to sustain it, “all in” on their most passionate supporters nursing a vengeful attitude towards orthodox believers, “all in” on the prestige media and academic cultural heights quietly excluding such believers from their ranks, “all in” on having lowered the limit for acceptable levels of political mendacity for progressives to the vanishing point, and likely, they will soon find themselves “all in” on whatever reasoning the Court offers to justify Constitution-mandated SSM, and regardless of whatever risk this reasoning poses in other areas of jurisprudence. 

This high-stakes politics is not just a danger to the electoral viability of progressives if religious revival occurs.  It also excludes a number of perfectly respectable compromise positions from progressive approval—the pro-life Democrats, for example, are now nearly extinct.  But the worst thing is that in certain scenarios of progressive electoral triumph, it could corner the orthodox.  What would matter at that point would be a certain minimal sense of trust the orthodox had in the progressives.  But that, for reasons already suggested, is in very short supply.  Whatever official verbiage is offered by political spokespersons or by left/liberal academics that of course contemporary progressivism makes room for believers in orthodox Biblical religion, it will matter little if the dominant common opinion among progressives really has become the one articulated by songs like “Imagine” and “Israel.”  Such songs, and such sentiments, are anything but bringers of peace. 

Now I’m with that old Elvis Costello song in thinking that a longing for a society in which a creed of “Peace, Love, and Understanding” predominates is a noble thing, and undeserving of mockery.  I feel the appeal of that early 60s dream down to my very bones.  But alas, it didn’t take much for 1966’s smile on your brother to curdle into 1969’s up against the wall, motherf&*%er!  The Us-celebrating and Other-demonizing heard in that second Jefferson Airplane song just quoted, “We Can Be Together,” became the more pronounced legacy that the Counter-Culture passed on to the larger progressive movement, and, I think we hear a bit of it in “Imagine.”

To Lennon’s credit, “Imagine” divides without any overt demonizing, and its very tone—gentle, with an optimistic tone here and there, but also with a whiff of sober sadness throughout–suggests he knows he’s laying out something that will be hard for many to take.  It is after all a vision that buries the cherished God, and which divides all mankind into two groups, a division to be resolved by one group eventually absorbing the other.  I hope one day, you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.  Yes, the atheist could accuse the Biblical believer of dividing humanity similarly, but it was nonetheless a fraught moment for a Counter-Culture prophet of Love to look those politically progressive yet theologically orthodox Christian and Jewish types in the eye, those like the Richard John Neuhaus of the 1960s who had marched with King, and in essence say that for real progress “Your kind must decrease, so that mine might increase.”  We can imagine them looking back at him and asking, “Is there no place for us in your vision of progress and peace?” 

And one conclusion that follows is that the truly peace-making liberals and progressives of our day must see they have to fight, fight with their very comrades, for a better way of liberalism and progressivism, one that can convincingly give a different answer to that question than the one the Lennon of 1971 gave. 

So much for the big political implications.  What did the song mean for Lennon’s own life?

Here I rely upon a most interesting book, Steve Turner’s The Gospel According to the BeatlesTurner is a long-time rock journalist, published in Rolling Stone and so forth, with books on Van Morrison, Johnny Cash, Marvin Gaye, and Beatles-song.  He also is a Christian—this book culminates with his recounting a 1971 interview he did with Lennon in which the two got into an argument about the plausibility of Christianity.  Turner admits that Lennon, “an argumentative nonbeliever for probably fifteen years” had the better of the exchange, as he had only been a Christian for a few years. 

His book is a sort of spiritual biography of all four of the Beatles, a task that becomes not terribly interesting in Ringo Starr’s and Paul McCartney’s cases, but is otherwise with George Harrison, who became a serious Hare Krishna believer, and is especially so with Lennon.  Turner shows us that Lennon had always been pretty serious about questioning religion and thinking about alternative philosophies, despite in certain periods projecting a devil-may-care attitude. 

There’s a ton to learn from Turner about The Beatles–he bounces back and forth from song analysis to detailed reporting and interviews.  He is scrupulously fair to non-Christian points of view and arguments, and his presentation is so sympathetic that even believers will find themselves rooting for these four young men feeling their way toward a way of life free from “respectable Christianity.” For this essay, however, we’re most interested in Lennon once he had declared his turn from religion generally, in songs like “God,” and “Imagine.”  It is not a very inspiring story:

John Green, a psychic hired [by John and Yoko] in 1975…said that Yoko provided John with an “occult education.”  Green offered psychic advice, acted as a medium, and read tarot cards for them.  He was involved in all their major decisions.

…A close friend of Yoko’s who knew her in Tokyo and New York says, “Magic was part and parcel of the culture she grew up in.  …I don’t think she would ever consider herself a practicing Buddhist.  On one occasion we went to a Buddhist temple and she prayed there, but her background was in ancestor worship and many gods.  She practiced numerology and astrology.  She believed in a spirit world where spirits were coming and going and there were spirit gods who could help you and also in reincarnation.  When I knew her she believed in these things.”

…in 1976, for example, [John] consulted psychics, meditated to arouse the “kundalini serpent” that he believed existed at the base of his spine, practiced self-hypnosis and past-life regression… …and obeyed Yoko by travelling in an easterly direction around the world to get rid of “bad karma.”  He was also deeply involved in numerology, studying Cheiro’s Book of Numbers.  Robert Rosen reports:  “John and Yoko were unable to walk out of the house without finding mystical significance in every license plate, address, and street sign.”

Wow.  And that’s only the half of it.  If the initial impulse is to mock and make fun, upon reflection it is all quite horrible.  It certainly fits Douthat’s overall picture of Biblical religion often being replaced by individualistic and magic-prone religion rather than by atheism simply.  Lennon seemed aware that it also fit the picture of demon possession found in Luke 11—according to one report, John spoke of a certain crisis month in Tokyo as follows:

“I’d lie in bed all day, not talk, not eat, and just withdraw.  And a funny thing happened.  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 one inhabiting me for a little time and then leaving to be replaced by another.” 

That was in May 1977.  Let’s go back a bit:

…A television addict for many years…he enjoyed watching some of America’s best-known evangelists—Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, Jim Bakker, and Oral Roberts.  In 1972 he had written a desperate letter to Roberts confessing his dependence on drugs and his fear of facing up to “the problems of life.”  He expressed regret that he had said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.

(That last line refers to the controversy stirred up by American Christians over an off-the-cuff Lennon remark in 1966, which helped to end the Beatles’ touring career.  Turner’s reporting makes one feel that Lennon got unfairly denounced for saying something that was more of an astounded and critical observation about the popularity of the Beatles than it was a deliberate attack upon Christianity.)

This correspondence and his exposure to TV evangelism didn’t appear to have any effect until he suddenly announced to close friends in the spring of 1977 that he’d become a born-again Christian.  He had been particularly moved by the U.S. television premiere of Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth…which NBC showed in two three-hour segments on Palm Sunday…  A week later, on Easter Sunday, he took Yoko and Sean to a local church service. 

As I’ve said before, the power of that film is not to be underestimated. 

Over the following months he baffled those close to him by constantly praising “the Lord,” writing Christian songs…and trying to convert nonbelievers. …The change in his life perturbed Yoko…  She reminded him of what he’d said about his vulnerability to strong religious leaders….  They met with a couple of Norwegian missionaries whom Yoko questioned fiercely about the divinity of Christ, knowing that this was the teaching that John had always found the most difficult to accept.  Their answers didn’t satisfy her, and John began to waver in his commitment. 

…In a unpublished song, “You Saved My Soul,” he spoke about “nearly falling” for a TV preacher while feeling “lonely and scared” in a Tokyo hotel…but that Yoko “saved me from that suicide.” …[this episode] marked the end of his personal interest in Jesus.  …yet his life didn’t improve.  He sank into a depression…

As we’ve seen, John’s other report of what happened in the Tokyo hotel involved a waking vision of spiritual possession.  In any case, he did not convert to Christianity, his near-conversion was kept out of the press, and he returned to his earlier patterns.  Turner provides a much fuller picture, but this gives you the gist:

…He worried about his health and his eyesight, about making the right investments…about his personal safety.  The only way out, as far as he could see, was to pay for the services of people who claimed to see into the future.  But… If the advice of the tarot card reader contradicted that of the astrologer, which should he follow?  …he was now completely enslaved. He couldn’t travel anywhere without advice from a directionalist, do deals with anyone without knowing their star sign…

Alas.  And then, in 1980, he was murdered.  How he would have developed had he lived, and whether he would have freed himself from this “enslavement,” we’ll never know.  Were I a typical rock writer, I’d say that like several other prominent rock stars, such as David Bowie, whose private lives degenerated into drugs n’ occult chaos during the 1970s, he likely would have moved on to more respectable views and a more sustainable way of life.  Were I a modern-day Dante, I’d surprise readers by placing him in Purgatory’s realm of the saved, on the basis of a (not-impossible!) last-minute confession of faith, during those ten or so minutes after the shooting when he remained alive, conscious, but unable to speak. 

Well, who can say?  My own best guess is that had he not been killed, his working out of his issues would have been messier than that of most other rock stars, and might not have worked out to any apparently happy conclusion.

So the hopefulness of “Imagine” on the religious question did not pan out for Lennon in his own life.  I have written about what another rock song, “No God” by the contemporary artist Cate Le Bon, has captured about the sadness of living by the No Religion “catechism,” even when undertaken in a calm manner.  Lennon’s case, however, points to how dissatisfaction with a Godless world can lead to actual derangement.  An atheist could say this is an unfair point to make, since precisely because Lennon was unable to stick with strict atheism, he was never able to experience the equilibrium that it brings.  But that is actually a pretty weak objection–wiser atheists are those who do not over-promise regarding the peace that atheism brings, and who do not over-blame the persistence of Biblical religion for our modern maladies.  They have a more tragic sense of things.  And besides, I have admitted above that the young men and women of our day who have grown up without Biblical religion and its moral framework seem better able to find workable ways of living with that absence than those who led the 60s revolt. 

Having made such admissions, it remains appropriate to regard Lennon’s story as symbolic of an era and a movement.  And unfortunately for Lennon’s less thoughtful secularist champions, Turner’s reporting indicates that in baldly practical terms, especially if we bracket out the problem of what would have happened with his marriage, Lennon’s last three years would have been better ones had he converted to Christianity in 1977.  I can understand why the very idea of that could make not a few atheists want to “vomit,” and to proceed to the “religion is a crutch for the weak!” angle, but I am obliged to point out that in the sociological sense, i.e., the sense that multiplies Lennon’s journey by many millions, the practical case that thinkers like Douthat make for orthodox Biblical religion over crack-pot heretical religion, is pretty strong.  Tocqueville would endorse it.

I cannot conclude with that, however.  Despite the discouragements of the last decade, I remain a Christian believer in Jesus, and not, primarily, because of the case for Christianity’s benefit to society.  For unless Jesus is the Christ, and unless he really did rise from the dead, the scriptures tell me my “faith is in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:14)  And unless it is a faith that, by God’s grace, causes me to regularly seek out and love Him and thus move well beyond any merely intellectual affirmation, it is likewise in vain. 

Both Steve Turner and I would think that had a “Christian faith” been adopted by John Lennon that was merely an attempt to psychologically force himself out of worse patterns, this likewise would have been in vain.  We cannot say why he re-surrendered himself to the occult, any more than we can explain the mystery of why anyone accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior, or decides that he cannot.  Nor can our non-believing peers can pinpoint, with any supposed science, why it is that Turner and I embraced the faith and have stuck with it.

And it is mysteries like those which point to the ultimate un-knowableness of our religious situation.  Let us hope that with humility before such uncertainties, enough of us Bible-believers and post-Bible-believers can find and hold onto enough that we share in common–enough, so to speak, of a common song, so as to allow to our troubled nations a sufficient expectation of trust, and of peace.     

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