Culture warriors in the 1980's didn't know quite how to deal with John Lennon's continuing influence on their youth. I picked up on the fact that he made some of the older men in my church angry, but the picture they painted of the drug-addled, hippy-dippy revolutionary never seemed as compelling as the impression that I got from his songs; or at least from the songs I was able to hear. No radio station in Arizona would play "Mother" or "Woman Is the Nigger of the World," but songs like "Give Peace a Chance" and "Love" not only sounded like something Jesus might sing, but on rare occasions got played by visiting musicians or guest choir directors.
Not that those musicians or guests were invited back...
Strangely, there was one song that seemed to divide people more than any other. It was simple, catchy, beautiful, and threatening all at once. We couldn't accept its anti-religious message, but we couldn't ignore it, either. See if you can figure out why:
(Lyrics available here.)
Clearly, no one can deny what Lennon is saying about religion. The first line denies heaven, and that recurring idea of people "living for today" is exactly the opposite of what my church was teaching. In fact, my church repeatedly and forcefully blamed the problems of the world on people who were living for today, and not keeping God and heaven in their sights. And they could point at Lennon himself as the worst of that kind of person: the junkie rock star who did such bizarre things, kept such bizarre company, and spoke out against our traditional values.
"Living for today" was a phrase that I was taught to read a certain way. The hermeneutic in our white evangelical Christian tribe required us to read that phrase as a code for people who had thrown away their morality and followed the false god of doing whatever feels good. Pastors quoted Aliester Crowley - "Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law" - and denounced something they called "moral relativism."
In our church, we did not allow for the possibility that there was anything more to John Lennon or his type of people. And it seemed very important to everyone trying to teach me how to be a Christian that I never look at the phrase "living for today" as anything but another way of describing nihilism and spiritual death. Being a child, of course I accepted what they tried to teach me.
But then there's that third verse:
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
That was also a common theme in the Bible. Jesus said that repeatedly. He excoriated the rich, and all of us in the Christian faith were supposedly trying to build a brotherhood as Jesus commanded. That was compelling to me - that, and the notion that if I did set aside the fevered warnings of my elders, and stopped trying so hard to pin all of the world's problems on other people, maybe we could find a way to get along.
Everyone who has walked away from their religion has had to struggle with figuring out what to throw away, and what to keep. The most persistent idea, pounded into me from my earliest days, was that walking away from God meant giving up my morality. This notion that the only way for me to live if I wasn't a Christian any more was to wallow in hedonism - that turned out to be ridiculous. And I figured that out thanks to John Lennon.
As hard as religions of any type try to convince you that without them, you are nothing but an animal, the truth is that you not only are an animal, but you are an animal with a gift. You have the ability to reason; to see the world around you, to comprehend cause and effect, to predict outcomes. You have the ability to not only plan a way to attack the next guy over and take his stuff, but also to figure out that it isn't necessary to attack him when you can cooperate and share the benefits of working together. The choice is yours whether you're a person of faith or not.
In my case, I figured out that even after I stopped Being A Christian, I hadn't really changed all that much. There were things that I wanted to do that would have been considered "evil" and forbidden by my faith, but they were things that I had wanted to do when I was still a believer. I found that the important thing was not keeping my imaginary soul clean and pure, but had more to do with thinking about the consequences of my actions. Choosing to do or not do things according to whether they impacted others without their consent, and according to whatever choice would have the best outcome, turned out to be a pretty good way to make choices.
Today, I'm drawn to the simply expression of humanist hope in this song. I try to explain to people who react to it the way my grandparents and church elders did that it isn't an attack on them or their faith. It isn't a hymn to Communism. It's an expression of the Golden Rule - an invitation to think about the world from someone else's point of view. There are those who find that threatening; but that doesn't make it a threat.
If it is a challenge, it is a challenge to actually be the peaceful and noble people you claim your faith compels you to be. Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone did that?