Posts Tagged ‘John Lennon’

Sermon 04-14-13: “The Word Is Love, Part 1”

April 17, 2013

rubber_soul

This sermon focuses on a Beatles song called “The Word,” which loudly proclaims that “the word” is love. As I say in the sermon, the Beatles got it mostly right: according to another, more famous John, Jesus Christ is the Word. The Word is God. And God is love. So the word is love—so long as we understand what and, more importantly, who the Word is.

The apostle Paul places the same priority on love in 1 Corinthians 13 that the Beatles do in the song. Without love, Paul says, we’re nothing. As Paul makes clear, however, this kind of love is difficult and costly. Fortunately, we have a Savior who paid that cost on our behalf. 

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13


[Please note that there is a short glitch in the video at the 18:00-minute mark.]

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

When I was 15, I was at a Wednesday night youth Bible study. We had just returned from a youth retreat the previous weekend. Chuck, my very best friend in youth group, had a powerful conversion experience on the retreat. He publicly recommitted his life to following Jesus. Like me, Chuck loved the Beatles, but unlike me he also loved heavy metal and hair metal. In the wake of his retreat experience, he wanted to offer a testimony at the Wednesday night meeting about what the Lord had done for him. So he did: He described how his life had gotten off course, in part, he said, because of his obsessive interest in rock and roll. So he resolved to change. And he was ready to prove it. He pulled out his stack of records. One by one, he smashed them over his knee and threw them in the trash. Now, this didn’t bother me much when he was pulling out records by Motley Crüe, Quiet Riot, Judas Priest, and Ozzy Osbourne. But when he pulled out a pristine vinyl copy of the Beatles’ Abbey Road—one of the greatest albums ever—I was like, “No! Give it to me!” But he broke it and threw it in the trash.

abbey_road

Even as a young, impressionable Christian teenager, who read the Bible and prayed nearly every day and was very involved in church, I just couldn’t go along with Chuck on this. I knew, by their own admission, that the Beatles weren’t Christians; I knew they used drugs; I knew John Lennon once got into trouble saying that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. But four years earlier, when I bought a prerecorded cassette of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the wake of John Lennon’s murder, I fell in love with the band. They helped instill within me a lifelong passion for music. I knew that their music was good—and good music, like all good things, is a gift from God. Besides, I also knew that their songs often spoke to deep, spiritual longings. In fact, I would argue—as I will argue in this sermon series—that at times their songs pointed in the direction of the God revealed by Jesus Christ—even if they didn’t intend them to.

This prerecorded cassette had a profound impact on my young life.

This prerecorded cassette had a profound impact on my young life.

Theologically, I now know that isn’t an accident—I know that the Holy Spirit is very resourceful; and he can even work through things like Beatles music to reveal Jesus Christ to the world.

Earlier, the Vinebranch Band did a Beatles song called “The Word,” which comes from their 1965 album Rubber Soul. It was the first Beatles love song that wasn’t about a boy-meets-girl or boy-loses-girl kind of love. It wasn’t about romantic love at all. It was about a love that was deeper, more profound, more universal. Paul co-wrote the song with John. Paul gave an interview around that time in which he said: “[‘The Word’] could be a Salvation Army song. The word is ‘love,’ but it could be ‘Jesus.’ It isn’t, mind you, but it could be.”[1] The word could be Jesus. Of the four Beatles, Paul, a nominal Catholic, had the least amount of exposure to church and the Bible. But I wonder if he could appreciate just how close he was to the truth.

After all, the song echoes the writing of another, even more famous, John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”[2] This same John identifies the Word as Jesus, who is God. Elsewhere he even says that “God is love.”[3] So, according to the Bible, Jesus Christ is the Word. The Word is God. And God is love. So John and Paul got it right: the word is love—so long as we understand what and, more importantly, who the Word is. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

“The Word Is Love”: New Beatles-related sermon series

April 3, 2013

Print

I’ve been preparing to preach this sermon series—unconsciously at least—since I was 10 years old. I grew up in the ’70s with two older sisters who listened constantly to Top 40 radio. And the airwaves were inundated with one ex-Beatle in particular, Paul McCartney, and his underrated ’70s band, Wings. In fact, the first 45 RPM record I bought for myself was “Coming Up,” a number one song in the summer of 1980. (The B-side, the Wings’ live version from Glasgow, was actually the hit in America.)

Months later, around Thanksgiving of that same year, I was listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 on Atlanta’s late great Z-93. He introduced a Top Ten song called “(Just Like) Starting Over” by John Lennon. I remember thinking at the time, “Wasn’t Lennon in the band that McCartney was in before Wings?”

This prerecorded cassette had a profound impact on my young life.

This prerecorded cassette had a profound impact on my young life.

Don’t laugh: I was only 10. As hard as it is to imagine now, McCartney had worked for ten years to get out from under the shadow of his former band—with great success. There were Wings fans who weren’t also Beatles fans.

Anyway, Kasem played “(Just Like) Starting Over,” and I thought it might be the greatest song I’d ever heard. Only a couple of weeks later, of course, Lennon was murdered. Perhaps it was morbid curiosity, but I pored over pages worth of articles about Lennon and the Beatles in that evening’s Atlanta Journal. I saved the front section of that paper for a couple of years, referring to it often. I watched hours of news coverage and TV specials in the aftermath of his death. Finally, I purchased a prerecorded cassette of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band in January 1981, and I was hooked. Their music has been an important part of my life and imagination ever since.

As much as I love the Beatles, however, I’m hardly a theologically undiscerning listener—of them or any other band or artist. After all, neither John, Paul, George, nor Ringo were professing Christians; few of their songs touch on explicitly religious themes; and some ideas in their songs run counter to the Christian faith. There’s no danger, then, that I’ll preach the Beatles. I’ll preach the Bible, as always, and connect themes and ideas that emerge in their songs to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I do believe, however, that their songs often affirm the gospel truth, unconsciously or not. And in this series, I’ll gladly point to some ways in which they do.

Each week, the Vinebranch Band will perform a couple of songs by the Beatles that relate to that day’s sermon. For example, on April 14, the first week of the series, the band will perform “The Word” (from Rubber Soul) and “I Will” (from the White Album). My sermon text will be 1 Corinthians 13.

As the song says, “A splendid time is guaranteed for all.”

What Beatles songs do you think would be worthy of theological reflection? Feel free to let me know.

Imagine no “Imagine”

January 3, 2012

imagine

I would stack my bonafides as a John Lennon admirer up against anyone’s. I’ve blogged about this admiration in the past more than once. Lennon was a great confessional songwriter and singer, both within the Beatles and as a solo artist.

Having said that, his legendary peace anthem, “Imagine,” is air-headed mush—I mean lyrically speaking. The song’s melody rules, and since music is more important than words, I’m hardly immune to the song’s virtues. I understand, emotionally, why the song is so well-loved.

But the words… Ugh!

The song contends that without countries and religions—with the misguided nationalism and fanaticism that sometimes attend to them—we would have nothing to “kill or die for,” which is obviously nonsense. This can be seen with just a tiny bit of reflection. After all, which came first: countries and religion or killing and dying?

Besides, who wants to live in a world in which there is nothing to kill or die for? Not me—and I say that as someone who opposes killing far more frequently than the general population. I’m bipartisan in my opposition to most wars. I’m opposed to the death penalty. And don’t get me started on abortion and euthanasia!

While I’m not a pacifist, I have great respect for the long tradition of Christian pacifism. But even Christian pacifism isn’t premised on the idea that there’s “nothing to kill or die for.” Far from it!

First, all Christians would agree that there is plenty to die for. As I discussed in my Christmas Day sermon, I would sacrifice my life for my children—without giving it a second thought. (I hope I never have to, but that’s beside the point.) As a matter of love, all Christians should be willing, if necessary, to die out of love for God or neighbor. Jesus did, and plenty of martyrs throughout the the ages have followed his example.

As for there being something worth killing for, the question may seem ambiguous from a Christian point of view. But not so fast: as theologian Miroslav Volf points out in his landmark book Exclusion & Embrace, the pacifism of many Christians, including Anabaptists (e.g., Mennonites and the Amish), is made possible in part because they believe not only that vengeance is God’s to repay, but that he will also repay it—in the Second Coming.

Volf believes, as do I, that the practice of Christian non-violence requires belief in a God who uses violence in order to ensure that justice is fully and finally done. The Christ who taught his followers to turn the other cheek and submitted to death on a cross is also the sword-weilding Rider on the white horse of Revelation 19:11ff.

So, is there something worth killing for? Of course! But we Christians ought to trust God to handle the killing, if not in this life then in the life to come.

With all this in mind, I was unbothered by Cee Lo Green’s New Year’s Eve performance of “Imagine,” in which he modified Lennon’s original line, “nothing to kill or die for/ and no religion too,” to “nothing to kill or die for/ and all religion’s true.”

Don’t get me wrong: his new line stinks, but it’s no worse than the original.

All religion isn’t true. It can’t be. It can’t be true because no one practices some abstract thing called “religion.” People practice Christianity or Buddhism or Islam or Hinduism or Judaism, etc.. These religions make important truth claims that often contradict one another. You see my point?

If it were the case that all religions boiled down to a few central truths—how much could they all have in common?—then that “truth” would be so obvious and innocuous that no one would bother dying for it or killing to defend it, that’s for sure. So maybe Green is onto something without even knowing it. His defanged religion would be as harmless as “no religion.”

In which case, what’s the fuss?

“I am holding back the tears no more…”

December 17, 2010

Following up on this post and this post, I’m linking to this lovely tribute by Paul McCartney to his late friend, which McCartney performed last week on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. I like the way Paul introduces the performance of this song, which first appeared on his excellent Tug of War album from 1982.

This is like a song… a conversation we never had. I always say to people, if you want to say to someone you love ’em, tell ’em now, ’cause, you know, there may come a point when it’s too late and you think, “I wish I’d said that.”

Truer words… you know?

Gimme some truth

December 8, 2010

At 40 years and ten months, I’m older than you were when you were killed. How is that possible? I’m only a little older than that ten-year-old kid boarding the school bus 30 years ago this morning, whose friend Andy told him, in a sing-songy voice, “One of the Beatles is dead.” (An older brother—a Rolling Stones fan—told him.)

This is me around the age of 13.

I knew a little about the Beatles. I knew they were important because they were the only rock band to earn an entry in our family’s set of the World Book Encyclopedia. I also knew that there was something dangerous about them. My sister Susan, seven years my senior and a huge Billy Joel and Elton John fan, mentioned the Beatles periodically to my mother—usually in the car while listening to the Top 40 station—but always in a disapproving tone.

Mom shared her sentiment. It was the drugs. The Beatles were were a cautionary tale: See what drugs can do? Turn nice, normal-looking boys into long-haired weirdoes.

My first music playback mechanism

The day you died, I wanted to know everything about you. That evening’s Atlanta Journal helped: stories, timelines, photos—a picture of you and the other Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan in 1964; a later picture of you in a dramatically transformed Beatles.

I was intrigued. I hid the front section of that day’s paper in a dresser drawer, pulling it out occasionally to pore over it. I followed the news about you. I watched TV documentaries and heard stories about you for weeks thereafter.

Before you died, I was already starting to fall in love with your new hit, “(Just Like) Starting Over.” Afterwards, I became embarrassingly attached to it. I recorded it off the radio, and I played it on jukeboxes at restaurants. It was a beautifully sentimental song, and as a 10 year-old I shouldn’t have liked it as much as I did; it shouldn’t have touched me the way it did.

This tape was not recorded in "Dub-ly."

In January 1981 I had saved $8 or $9 and bought my first album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, on prerecorded cassette. My only means of playing it was through a mono, second-hand Panasonic tape recorder. Its frequency range was only slightly better than a telephone conversation. I simply couldn’t hear half of the sound of that album. Not that it mattered. I was hooked.

When I was purchasing Sgt. Pepper (at the Record Bar at Northlake Mall), my mother asked, “Wouldn’t you be happier buying a model?”—she was referring to the plastic and cement car and airplane kits that were popular among boys my age. Her concern was justified in ways she couldn’t imagine: you and the Beatles captured my imagination like nothing else. For the next couple of years, I mostly lived in this world that your music created. It was a retreat for me.

Here I was: shy, self-conscious, and gawky around girls; threatened by the impending transition from elementary to high school—and the sinking feeling that I would not find my place. All the while, I enjoyed this active inner life of music, of which your music played a vital part. It continues to do so.

Thank you, John.

Just like starting over

October 7, 2010

In a couple of days the world will mark John Lennon’s 70th birthday. As I was reflecting on our “Love and Marriage” sermon series, I thought of this song. I still remember the thrill of hearing it for the first time around Thanksgiving 1980 on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 countdown—and loving it. (The song was a well-deserved hit before Lennon’s death would have made its success inevitable.)

I was already a McCartney fan at that point, having bought his number one single “Coming Up” in the summer of that year. It was my first 45 purchase. When Casem introduced the Lennon song, I was vaguely aware that its singer had been a partner in McCartney’s old band.

(Don’t laugh: There was a time in the ’70s, believe it or not, when kids like me were McCartney/Wings fans, independent of what he did in the Beatles. McCartney was not nostalgic at the time. He was doing his own thing, and he wasn’t looking back.)

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to hear “(Just Like) Starting Over” without being reminded of Lennon’s tragic death. I cried while listening to it just now. But inasmuch as any of us can set aside those feelings, let’s listen to the words with this bit of history in mind: Lennon and Yoko were separated from one another for a few years in the ’70s. Lennon’s life was a wreck. They reconciled in 1975, during which time Lennon retired from music and stayed home to raise his son. The song sounds deeply autobiographical. (Lennon was nothing if not a confessional songwriter.) In fact, the album from which the song comes, Double Fantasy, tells the story of marital reconciliation—at times in an uncomfortably honest way.

But this song rings true to me. Love within marriage can be renewed, reborn, and re-kindled. We should work to ensure that it will be. “We have grown,” the singer says up front. But personal growth doesn’t mean that couples have to grow apart—or if they do, that it’s permanent.

Enjoy!