Going into last Sunday’s sermon (which I’ll post tomorrow), I confess I felt slightly defensive about developing a sermon series around a group of people who, by their own words, weren’t Christians. As I said many times, I’m not preaching the Beatles; I’m preaching the Bible, relating themes and ideas from their music to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Moreover, since most people don’t share my passionate interest in the band, I want to make sure that my sermons speak even to non-Beatles fans.
On the other hand, the Beatles are as close to universally loved—or at least liked and appreciated—as any contemporary artist, writer, or musician ever could be. As their record label and song publishers have rediscovered many times in the 43 years since they broke up, the Beatles reproduce fans in numbers that should make their ’60s contemporaries, including the Rolling Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd, and Bob Dylan, extremely jealous.
Everybody loves the Beatles—or close enough.
So in my own way, I’m doing the same thing the apostle Paul did in Acts 17, when he spoke to a group of well-educated Athenians at Mars Hill:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
In the case of my sermons, “some of your own poets” happen to be John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
As it turns out, my concerns were unfounded. The congregation was overwhelmingly positive about the first sermon in the series. I hope these next six weeks will be fun and challenging as we continue to look at their music through a gospel lens.
I said on Sunday that Beatles songs occasionally point to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, even if the band members themselves didn’t intend them to. This is no accident, I said, because the Holy Spirit is resourceful: he even uses surprising means like Beatles songs to communicate the gospel.
In his book The Gospel According to the Beatles, Steve Turner, a British music journalist who grew up with the Beatles in the ’60s, said that the band propelled him “into the final stretch of my pilgrimage to Christian faith.” This happened in 1967, when the Beatles began speaking openly about their own spiritual journey—a journey artificially accelerated, as we now know, by pot and LSD. Regardless, Turner said,
All this God talk gave a new dignity to churchgoing. So, OK, John, Paul, George, and Ringo weren’t reciting the Lord’s Prayer, taking communion, and singing hearty choruses, but at least they were putting the big questions on the agenda for a generation that had been characterized as living only for “kicks.”[†]
While Turner wishes these “big questions” led them back home to the Christian faith, he said the fact that they were asking them in the first place helped to validate the religious ideas with which he was most familiar—those of Christianity.
And he’s not alone.
One of my favorite musicians, Terry Scott Taylor, a pioneer of first-generation Christian rock, blogged about George Harrison a few days after he died of cancer in November of 2001. Taylor was bothered by some uncharitable comments he’d read from fellow Christians who wondered, for example, how many people Harrison “led to hell” through his public embrace of Hinduism and Eastern religion.
Taylor turned the question around: How many people eventually found God—nominal Christians, for example, who had never previously given much thought about religion—in part, through the influence of the Beatles and George Harrison? Many more, I’d imagine, than followed George to the East. Regardless, based on testimonies of people like Steve Turner and Terry Taylor, traffic on that highway flowed in both directions.
One of the songs the Vinebranch Band will do this Sunday is a favorite of mine, “All You Need Is Love.” My first exposure to Elvis Costello was in 1985, when he performed this solo version of the song at Live Aid. On a day in which famous rock stars sounded the world’s loudest trumpet for their almsgiving, his performance was gracious and self-effacing.
† Steve Turner, The Gospel According to the Beatles (Louisville: WJK, 2006), 203.