John Lennon (1940)
It was on this date, October 9, 1940, that John Winston Lennon was born in Liverpool, England. John Lennon had working-class roots, but went to art school and loved popular music. Having gotten together with songwriting collaborator Paul McCartney, who introduced Lennon to George Harrison, and a drummer to be named later (Ringo Starr), the four musicians were discovered at a club called The Cavern by Brian Epstein and rocketed to popular success as The Beatles.
Lennon was always the instigator and experimenter in the Beatles, having given the group its name – spelled with an A: he got the gang to try drugs, Eastern mysticism, and wrote the more "spiritual" of their lyrics. On 4 March 1966 The Evening Standard published an interview in which Lennon said,
Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about 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.
The US press took the "more popular than Jesus" quote and ran with it. Radio stations, especially in the South and in the Midwest, gave Beatles music the Dixie Chicks treatment – they stopped the music; there were death threats; albums were burned en masse. A Cleveland clergyman (Thurman H. Babbs) threatened his congregation with excommunication should they listen to the Beatles. The Ku Klux Klan burned the Beatles in effigy. Pressed to make amends for offending an all-powerful deity, Lennon told reporters in Chicago,
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 wasn't saying whatever they're saying I was saying. I'm sorry I said it really. I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing. I apologize if that will make you happy. I still don't know quite what I've done. I've tried to tell you what I did do but if you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then OK, I'm sorry.
International reaction was just as intemperate: Beatles were banned from the airwaves in Spain and Holland. The Vatican, never missing an opportunity to display its lack of a sense of humor and its grasp of passé jargon, commented, "[T]he protest the remark raised showed that some subjects must not be dealt with lightly and in a profane way, not even in the world of beatniks." But Lennon survived the outrage.
What did he really think of religion? When Lennon made the Jesus remark he was 25 years old. He never really bought into Christian dogma, but he was not an Atheist. With his sentimental respect for "the basic things [Jesus] laid down about love and goodness," he embraced a vague spirituality, instead. His mature lyrics demonstrate this clearly. In a 1970 song called "God," Lennon wrote,
God is a concept
By which we measure
I don't believe in magic...
I don't believe in Bible...
I don't believe in Jesus...
I don't believe in Buddha...
I just believe in me
Yoko and me
And that's reality
And, in the song, "I Found Out" (1970)
...There ain't no Jesus gonna come from the sky
Now that I found out I know I can cry
Old Hare Krishna got nothing on you
Just keep you crazy with nothing to do
Keep you occupied with pie in the sky
There ain't no guru who can see through your eyes
And, finally, in the title song for his 1971 album, Imagine,
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...
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
A crazed fan ended that dream on 8 December 1980, with several gunshots to John Lennon's back outside his New York residence. It was John Lennon who said, "I'm not afraid of death because I don't believe in it. It's just getting out of one car, and into another."
Originally published October 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.
This deathbed conversion, by so critical a thinker as Leonardo, who would have nothing to lose by professing piety all his life, can only mean that during his prime years he was a secret freethinker.