Parsing the words of John Lennon

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The host site of the Olympics receives extraordinary attention from the rest of the world for a two-week period. The United Kingdom is home to the Beatles, arguably the most important pop group in the latter half of the 20th century. Only two of the four Beatles are still living. One of them, Paul McCartney, performed at the opening ceremonies in London on July 27.

The most controversial Beatle, John Lennon, has been dead since 1980, felled by a crazed fan outside his New York City apartment building. Lennon crafted much of the group's best music.

In the early to mid-1960s, the Beatles were in great demand. Touring extensively, recording new music, making motion pictures, all exhausted the quartet. During this period of frantic activity, Lennon was quoted in the now-defunct Datebook magazine. Lennon's words created a furor in the United States: "We're more popular than Jesus now." Datebook was reprinting the most inflammatory section of Lennon's remarks. The full quote appeared earlier in the U.K. paper, The Evening Standard: "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." Lennon spent much of the group's 1966 U.S. tour trying to explain those comments. The Beatles, as a group, never came back to our shores after that.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that the Beatles, the first wave of so-called "British Invasion" rock bands to make their way to America, are cultural icons. The Fab Four broke up in 1970. Decades later, however, they are well-remembered.

I recall watching Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" segment on "The Tonight Show." Periodically, Leno goes out into the streets of Los Angeles with a cameraman and asks passers-by questions that should be relatively easy to answer. One night, he challenged a young person to name the four Gospels of the New Testament. The answer: "John, Paul, George and Ringo." Clearly the respondent didn't know the right answer (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) so he said the first thing that popped into his mind. The fact that the first names of the Beatles were known to a young man not even alive when the group last produced a record -- is telling.

Popularity ebbs and flows; it waxes and wanes. We're titillated by the new and generally dismissive of what we perceive to be old. Without realizing it, we find ourselves cleaving to the next big thing, the latest cultural addiction. Lennon was then 26. By 1966, the Beatles had enjoyed several years of worldwide fame. Imagine being that age, being mobbed by fans at every stop, being ushered by a doting entourage wherever they went. This sort of fixated attention must begin to shape your perspective in ways disconnected with reality.

I'd like to give the 26-year-old Lennon a bit of a break here -- while we watch the Olympics and are tempted, perhaps, to break out those old Beatles' vinyl records sitting in a box in the basement. Was it a silly statement to make to a reporter? Certainly. Yet I hope people aren't parsing every word I've said in 20 years of preaching that closely -- and they have not. I've said some dumb things. Note this: Lennon was wise enough to use the qualifying word "now," in those long-ago remarks. Even in the midst of fame, perhaps the singer/songwriter with the moptop haircut realized that in the end, Jesus was going to outlast the Beatles. And surely he has.

Dr. Jeff Long teaches religious studies at Southeast Missouri State University and is assistant director of marketing for Chateau Girardeau Retirement Community.

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