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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.