John Lennon was, however briefly, a “born-again Christian” in 1977

April 10, 2013
imagine

Billboards such as this one graced the busy Atlanta streets a couple of years ago.

After rejecting the Christianity of his staid Anglican upbringing in the late-’50s and flirting with a form of Hinduism embraced wholeheartedly by George Harrison in the late-’60s, wasn’t John Lennon finally done with religion and spirituality during the last decade of his life? Didn’t he become a hard-nosed philosophical materialist?

No—although we might be forgiven for thinking otherwise: After all, according to his 1970 song “God,” Jesus and Buddha were two of many persons or things he no longer believed in. And in the song that has become an anthem to atheism, “Imagine,” Lennon challenges us to imagine no religion or heaven—that the world would be a better place without faith in God.

But his expressed atheism of 1970 and ’71 told only part of the story. Throughout the ’70s, Lennon regularly consulted psychics and dabbled in Tarot cards, séances, astrology, numerology, and other occult practices. Upon reading (and recently re-reading) Steve Turner’s Gospel According to the Beatles, however, what surprises me most was Lennon’s renewed interest in, and tantalizingly brief embrace of, that thing to which he seemed most adamantly opposed: Christianity.

This change of heart didn’t come from reading, say, Chesterton or Lewis, as we might have liked. It came by way of televangelists such as Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson. Turner describes it as follows:

Next came one of the most extraordinary turnabouts in John’s life. 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 and enclosed a gift for the Oral Roberts University… “Explain to me what Christianity can do for me. Is it phony? Can He love me? I want out of hell.”[1]

Lennon and Roberts exchanged a series of friendly, heartfelt letters, which can be found at the library of Oral Roberts University.

The 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… Over the following months he baffled those close to him by constantly praising “the Lord,” writing Christian songs with titles like “Talking with Jesus” and “Amen” (the Lord’s Prayer set to music), and trying to convert nonbelievers. He also called the prayer line of The 700 Club, Pat Robertson’s program.[2]

Yoko Ono, who always discouraged Lennon from following “gurus,” opposed his newfound faith, although he took Ono and his son Sean to church at least once.

Those close to the couple sensed that the real reason [Ono] was concerned was that it threatened her control over John’s life. If he became a follower of Jesus he would no longer depend on her an the occultists. During long, passionate arguments she attacked the key points of his fledgling faith. 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.[3]

Such is often the case with freelance conversions, I suppose, separated as they are from the wisdom and guidance of mature Christians. It’s hard enough to maintain one’s Christian faith within a healthy community of believers!

When Dylan’s Christian conversion became public in 1979 with the release of Slow Train Coming, Lennon—Dylan’s nearest rival in the pantheon of rock idols—reacted strongly. In response to Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Lennon wrote a bitter “answer song” called “Serve Yourself,” posthumously released on the John Lennon Anthology.

When asked in 1980 about his response to Dylan’s conversion, John was less than honest. He said he was surprised that “old Bobby boy did go that way,” but “if he needs it, let him do it.” His only objection, he said, was that Dylan was presenting Christ as the only way. He disliked this because “There isn’t one answer to anything.”… In what can now be seen as an allusion to his own born-again period, which hadn’t yet been made public, he said, “But I understand it. I understand him completely, how he got in there, because I’ve been frightened enough myself to want to latch onto something.[4]

Steve Turner wrote an article about Lennon’s short-lived conversion in Christianity Today back in 2000, which you can read here.

1. Steve Turner, The Gospel According to the Beatles (Louisville: WJK, 2006), 187-8.

2. Ibid., 188.

3. Ibid., 189.

4. Ibid., 191.

5 Responses to “John Lennon was, however briefly, a “born-again Christian” in 1977”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I don’t believe Lennon actually became a Christian for a short while. Of course, one’s view of the matter is certainly impacted by the position one takes on whether someone can “fall from grace,” as to which I, somewhat more humbly today than at previous times, say, “No.” Rather than this meaning that someone became a Christian and then remained one thereafter, no matter what followed, I lean more toward the view of “perseverance of the saints,” i.e., that someone who goes “after the devil,” following having made a profession of faith earlier, never actually came “into the fold.” I’m not speaking of “detours” due to doubt, etc, (such as I went through myself), but a rejection that never gets undone. I think it is stated somewhere in 1 John to the effect that “they went out from us, demonstrating that they never were part of us.” (Passage my Dad had pointed out to me previously on this issue.)

    More particularly, I rely on Jesus’ parable of the soils, which I interpret to mean that no real fruit means no true faith, however enthusiastically one may have “received the message with joy” at the outset of being presented with the gospel. I don’t see a short term enthusiasm as true proof of salvation, when there is no enduring fruit manifested thereafter. “Imagine” captures the true Lennon, in my view.

    • e.vaughn Says:

      Jesus said, I believe. That once you are his Nothing can pluck you from his hand. Do we really want to judge intellectually that one has or has not become a Christian. I believe that if John Lennon accepted Jesus only God and our musings mean nothing to that reality.

  2. brentwhite Says:

    Tom,

    As a Wesleyan, I have less at stake in the question of whether or not his conversion was genuine. Doctrinally, we do believe falling from grace is possible. Regardless, I agree with you that whatever happened for a few months in 1977 hardly made him a Christian.

    What is interesting to me, however, is that the way he lived his life, even toward the end, betrayed his public persona of a hard-headed, materialistic skeptic or atheist. When it came to spiritual matters, he was a reed blowing in the wind. He seemed desperate for some metaphysical reality beyond this world.

  3. JiminAZ Says:

    I’ve seen the words “doctrine” and heard the concept of “believe” in these replies. I saw apologetics and opinions defending theological turf. It is a shame that I didn’t see an expression like “I hope John did receive Christ into his heart, and came to believe in His saving death, burial and Resurrection, and that we will be joyfully surprised on the day we go to be with Jesus, and Brother John gives us the right hand of fellowship.” Maybe we didn’t see Fruit in his life because we were too busy trying to find something to criticize him for. And perhaps that fruit in his life never grew because Christians didn’t seek him out in love and fellowship. I stand as much to blame for that as anyone though I didn’t live near him or run in his circles.. I didn’t even take the time to write him a letter of fellowship and encouragement. But my friend Harold Green used to say, “God never makes a mistake.” If John Lennon fit the mold of grace offered by the Heavenly Father through Jesus, I think we can be certain that God claimed him without error or second thought.


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