About that guy who coined the phrase…

Billboard for new atheist ad campaign
John Lennon himself failed to have "no religion"

I talked on Sunday about this group’s ad campaign promoting secularism and atheism in the metro Atlanta area. The billboard above trades on the perception that John Lennon was himself an irreligious “free thinker,” defiantly standing up to the oppressive forces of organized religion. After all, Lennon was the one who courted controversy in 1966 by saying that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus.” He was the one who wrote a kiss-off to the Maharishi in the White Album’s “Sexy Sadie.” He was the one who, in his stark and powerful 1970 anthem to disillusionment, “God,” lists a number of things that he doesn’t believe in—including Jesus and the Beatles. Finally, of course, he wrote and performed the 1971 hymn to secularism, “Imagine.”

But you probably don’t know that in 1972, a year or so after telling us how easy it is to imagine no religion and no heaven or hell, Lennon—who watched a lot of TV including televangelists like Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, and Billy Graham—wrote a letter to Roberts. In the letter,

[Lennon confessed] 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. After quoting the line “money can’t buy me love” from “Can’t Buy Me Love” he said, “It’s true. The point is I want happiness. I don’t want to keep on with drugs. Paul told me once, ‘You made fun of me for taking drugs, but you will regret it in the end.’ Explain to me what Christianity can do for me. Is it phoney? Can He love me? I want out of hell.”1

Roberts began a correspondence with Lennon. By 1977, Lennon was even telling friends that he was a “born-again Christian.” This free-lance conversion—apart from the support and encouragement of a church, not to mention Yoko Ono, who was fiercely opposed to his embracing a particular “guru”—was short-lived, and Lennon later mocked Bob Dylan’s public embrace of the faith in a posthumously released song called “Serve Yourself.” But even after abandoning Christianity (the second or third time in his life?), he never abandoned his religious quest. At various times he practiced Buddhism; he consulted psychics; he dabbled in the occult.

In other words, religiously speaking, he was a mess. But he was not a practitioner of “no religion.” His very private life is a testimony, in fact, to that deep-seated desire that all of us have for God.

His fellow ex-Beatle George Harrison, a deeply religious Hindu, wrote a beautiful tribute to his friend and mentor, in which he captured a sense of Lennon’s deep spiritual unrest and expressed hope that he find in death the peace from God that eluded him in life. That’s a good prayer!

1. Steve Turner, The Gospel According to the Beatles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 187-88.

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