Re: More popular than Jesus<BR>

Re: More popular than Jesus

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In article <2hq0ao$qmd@menudo.uh.edu> edc@evolution.bchs.uh.edu (edward s. chen) writes:
>
>Lennon certainly had his bouts with Christianity (both for and against),
>but I think it's probably overinterpreting a bit to say (that Lewisohn
>claims) that John tried "fundamental Christianity."
>
>The problem is that very quickly in the 1966 tour of the US John Lennon got
>tired of answering the "Are you sorry for what you said?" questions, and let
>the other three answer for him. Of course their answers would be mirrors
>of John's, but they would not be exactly the same. Add to this the general
>stress caused by things like rioting in Japan, and death threats in the South
>and you can see why the answers quickly boiled down to a quick "Yeah, I'm
>sorry I ever said it...can we move on please?"

I suspect John was also still terrified over the whole affair. As you mention, on top of a busy spring season where the Fabs were busy with promotional work for their latest single, and some early recording for "Revolver", they were embarking on a tour for which they really had no feelings. That was compounded by the chilly reception in the Philippines (I wasn't aware there were riots in Japan too; I thought it was just Manila) and the growing spectre of America's Deep South and its ire towards John's statement.

>The complete article as written by Maureen Cleave for the March 4, 1966
>"Evening Standard" ("How Does a Beatle Live? John Lennon lives like this.")
>is included in _The Lennon Companion_ edited by Elizabeth Thomson and David
>Gutman. This is a must for anyone who seriously wants to know about the
>"Bigger than Jesus" controversy.

I fully agree. Context is all.

>That's it - a single paragraph in a five page article. There was little
>outcry in England because it was simply an offhand comment in a longer
>article. However, when adapted for the United States, "Redbook"
>(a somewhat conservative woman's magazine) chose to emphasize that quote;
>"twisting it and ruining it."

Was it "Redbook" or was it "Datebook", the latter a teen-oriented magazine? I thought just the latter....

>Beyond that _The Passover Plot_, which John inelegantly recounted in his
>quote to Miss Cleave also helps in understanding Lennon's mindset at the
>time, as well as the first "big apology" to the US, where Lennon seems a
>bit bewildered by the response. As said above, Lennon was repeatedly asked
>the question, so statements from later in the tour are more canned, and less
>interesting from a historical perspective. Those sources should give one
>enough background for an intelligent opinion on both what Lennon said, and
>what he meant.

It's well worth noting that Cleave and Lennon were intellectual compatriots as well; he was often heard to remark that he trusted her because she read the same children's books he had read as a child; and that sense of trust undoubtedly made John feel more candid than he might have felt with any other journalist.

In a relaxed mode, John was, in 1966, apt to avoid truly confessional pronouncements; he seemed to prefer breezy repartee in this interview. Perhaps Lennon also felt liberated by the venue. The Evening Standard was hardly a teen tabloid, but would actually be read by (heavens) adults! And no doubt John was considering that, among adults, he could let loose with a little irreverent humor of the type he used to enjoy as a student in art school.

Cleave's prose is thus suffused with irony. She herself admired Lennon, and appreciated his humor. But the portrait that emerges is a dry, witty look at an alleged pop idol who (as John makes clear) doesn't know what day it is, how to operate a telephone, how to assess how much money he has; a man who has just thrown his long-lost father out of his house; who socializes with no one but his closest neighbors (who happen to be Ringo and George); who buys all manner of witless possessions (from blinking boxes to a gorilla suit); who is self-described as the most physically lazy man in England ("...sex is the only physical thing I can be bothered with anymore"---wonder why *that* statement didn't cause a ruckus with American teens! :-) ; who revels in his richness and famousness; and who thinks Christianity has no future.

There's enough packed into this article to set off a passel of primminded patricians. And of course that was the point, more or less. Cleave and Lennon both knew it. And for Lennon, this was a chance to misbehave literarily. His intent was to mildly shock. Except for the end of the piece, where Cleave (perhaps unknowingly) captures a poignant moment in Lennon's diatribe ("you see, there's something else I'm going to do, something I must do---only I don't know what it is.... All I know is, this isn't *it* for me"), the article is full of Lennon's mildly outrageous arrogance. It's also hilariously funny.

Cleave is no simple acolyte. She has a keen sense of ironic commentary. Ed quoted the famous paragraph, but since a few weeks have passed (pardon me for that; I'm still catching up) here it is again, for those who want to focus on what was really said:

"Experience has sown few seeds of doubt in him; not that his mind is closed, but it's closed round whatever he believes at the time. 'Christianity will go,' he said. 'It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that. I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first---rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.' He is reading extensively about religion."

John's words are only half-serious; he's obviously no significant religious theorist. If he'd had any grounding in the history of religion, he'd never had said such a thing. Rock 'n' roll's popularity is fairly uncontestable, but in no way does it mirror the entrenchment of various world religions, whether Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Buddhism.

Rather, John seemed fascinated by the passion with which pop fans pursued Beatlemania. I think it awed him, and excited him a little, to consider what energy was expended upon rock 'n' roll at the expense of former (and more mainstream) passions, like religion. It was the only way John could assess, for himself, just how big the Beatles were, and what they meant to the masses. He had no concept, really, of his own (or the group's) monetary worth; he knew the records sold but he knew that wouldn't last.

What I *don't* think John was saying, anywhere in the article, was that it was a shame that people were neglecting religion for pop music. His apology may have implied this, and later pundits may have wanted to excuse Lennon's stark opinion by shedding a more compassionate light on his statement; but I don't think the context of the article supports this, and I suspect it was not what was in Lennon's heart.

Was John really anti-religion, then?

Even with brief exposure to the Church of England via his Aunt Mimi, John was not classically religious nor fond of churchgoing. He even considered such activity hypocritical when politicians or public figures indulged in what he thought might be empty religious gestures; Cliff Richards' alleged sanctimony was particularly irksome to the Fabs.

This hardly suggests that Lennon was entirely bereft of personal faith.

Much later John spoke to Ray Coleman about his sense of spirituality, and this seems to indicate John's reasonable affinity for organized religion: "I was brought up as a Christian, Sunday School and all that. It's OK, I have nothing against it except that it organizes itself as a business, the Church.... If I could do what Christ did, be as Christ was, that's what being a Christian is all about" (Coleman, "John Ono Lennon", p. 112).

Did John believe in God? "I don't know that anyone like me, who questions everything down to the colour of his socks, can believe in an old man in the sky.... I believe in something, definitely. I believe there is a force at work that you can't physically account for" (Coleman, p. 112). Perhaps John's search for that "force" was behind his (and the other Fabs') ill-fated quest with the Maharishi in 1967-68. It was a journey made in earnest, but for Lennon the answers were not forthcoming from that particular route.

Certainly John's public rebuttal, made in America as the Beatles nervously contemplated a backlash against Cleave's excerpted article, clarified and embellished his original statement. By that point he was forced to become serious about his flip religious analysis because a new audience had read and misunderstood the context. It wasn't that John's thoughts on Jesus and the Beatles was wrenched away from surrounding text that would have made everything perfectly clear. The missing context was, in fact, the sardonic framework of the original piece. And unleashed upon a society like that of the United States, which rarely mixes irony with religion---and intended for teens, no less, whose comprehension of such subtleties was all the more tenuous---John's "more popular than Jesus" pronouncement was a publicity disaster. Neither John nor, it goes without saying, Brian Epstein could have anticipated the controversy.

Clearly John never meant to insult anyone's beliefs. But the Cleave article was not a forum for serious philosophical statements. It's uncertain exactly what John believed in 1966, at least in terms of standard religious worship. He was trying very hard to placate a populace whose wrath he only vaguely understood. He really believed that the Beatles *were*, in fact, more popular than Jesus---at least at that time. He wasn't speaking, as he said, of a situation that *should* have been true; it was not his position to denigrate "Jesus as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is". He was being pressured into saying that he was wrong (the closest John could come to that was "it was taken wrong"---which it certainly was!) And it wasn't music as a whole which John felt had become more important than religion. It was his group.

What's remarkable is that this statement continues to generate opinions that John (and thus the Beatles...and thus pop music) was antithetical to spirituality. Even Cleave's article indicates that John was beginning his search for something meaningful...if only America had bothered to read the entire thing. But of course no venue was interested in carrying a rarified British article, presenting a well-known pop idol in a decidedly non-idolatrous light (no pun intended).

John's search was earnest enough. It just wasn't very mainstream. Previous generations had found similar disappointments at their coming-of-age; material goods only partially satisfy, and standard philosophies turn stale. Lennon and his musical cohorts spent much of their lives looking for what really mattered in life. It led them to the mysterious East and back again. It forced them to recant their musical output, to look to politics and revolution as substitutes. It eventually led them to accept elements of their past, to combine them with new discoveries.

For John, especially, it resulted in an understanding of the theory of reduction, if you want to call it that. The recitation "I don't believe in A, B, C,...Z" from his later song, I'm suggesting, helped him reduce his plethora of beliefs to a spiritual kernel. Here was the point from which Lennon could branch out again---to find the sincere, personal, idiosyncratic faith, for which he'd just begun to search in the public mode of his songwriting in the mid-sixties, when Cleave first wrote about him.

And it was this faith---this methodology of self-discovery, whether you call it classically religious or not---that fueled his life to the very end.

That's the kind of spirituality that truly matters.

--
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