John Lennon
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John Lennon’s Work of Faith

Removed from the pandemonium of Beatlemania, John Lennon knew the limits of his influence. All he could do was sing his truth and suggest people “imagine” a better world for themselves. Or not.

John Lennon
9 September 1971

In March 2020, film star Gal Gadot and some of her famous friends recorded an online montage a cappella version of John Lennon’s 1971 anthem, “Imagine”. The performance was intended to comfort people in early COVID. It was widely panned for seeming self-important and butchering a revered song. Hearing Lennon’s “Imagine” for the first time in a while, I was reminded of what an incredibly unique and controversial song it is. It is remarkably subversive but sort of not. It is complicated yet simple. It is beloved and despised.

The song’s lyrical themes are still certainly hot-button issues today. To anyone unfamiliar, the song’s lyrics represent Lennon’s attempt to move past, and even negate, what he saw as barriers preventing world peace and unity: nationalism, greed, and religion. Many, then and now, however, have seen the song as a direct attack on Western concepts of patriotism, capitalism, and Christianity and loathe Lennon for writing it. Detractors have primarily been politically right-of-center and more conservative Christians, but some on the left have also had their misgivings about the song

So how far out there are the values that Lennon is singing of, including his particular sense of faith? There is much to unpack. There is the timing of the song’s initial release and lyrical matters such as the morality of material possessions, the nature of an afterlife, free will, sorting out the world’s competing religions, and even understanding Lennon’s experience with primal scream therapy. Did I mention that this is a deep and complex song? “Imagine” somehow addresses these issues in an innocuous manner, with Lennon’s relaxed vocals, a sleepy melody, and, oddly, no demands being made on listeners. Lennon simply suggests we imagine creating a better world.

Indeed, the deepest meanings and implications of “Imagine” are often under-appreciated and misunderstood by detractors and fans alike. A point-by-point breakdown is needed to understand what Lennon was saying in “Imagine” and why.

Lennon’s previous legendary band, the Beatles, had broken up in 1970, and he released the solo album Imagine, with the hit title song, the following year. In the ensuing decades, “Imagine” would resonate with people worldwide, including being highlighted in Olympic ceremonies and at the largest charity events, and generally providing a sense of unity and hope in times of crisis.

Lennon sings the song and accompanies himself on the piano, backed by bass, drums, and strings, and production by Phil Spector. “Imagine” is a slow, almost sluggish-seeming ballad at first, but with a deceptively powerful melody. Lyrically, Lennon offers a utopian world vision of peace, love, and unity, including suggesting that listeners imagine a world with “no countries”, “possessions”, and “no religion” nor a “heaven” or “hell”. In such a world, Lennon sings, there would be “nothing to kill or die for”.

The song’s odd notion of simply suggesting listeners imagine a new vision (an idea directly inspired by poems written by Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono) makes it a rare sort of non-protest protest song.

The World Around “Imagine”

As the 1960s ended, Lennon and others of the counterculture were disillusioned in many ways. In their view – and despite significant advances in the civil rights, peace, and youth movements and the Beatles’ staggering success, and Lennon’s own early solo efforts with protest songs such as 1969’s “Give Peace a Chance” and 1971’s “Power to the People” – the Vietnam War raged on. Nuclear bombs continued to be stockpiled; corporate greed still directed the world’s economy; and a detested Richard Nixon had gained a second term in the White House. While Lennon publicly acknowledged his admiration for Jesus, many self-identifying Christians were unwilling to act to make positive change and were seen as ineffectual. “Imagine”, then, was Lennon simply taking all of this in and recalibrating his hopes for the future.

The Cold War was also at the forefront of people’s minds at the time of the song’s release. The Soviet Union had done away with “ownership of capital for private gain”, and it was effectively an oppressive and atheistic regime. As “Imagine” suggested a world without possessions or religion, many considered it as both a communist and atheistic anthem and thus borderline both treasonous and sacrilegious. That view was further bolstered by the fact that Lennon did not seem to otherwise offer up specific economic, political, or religious ideologies to replace these Western ideals he was, to some, undermining with his song.

Things become even more complicated. While “Imagine” can certainly be seen as atheistic, Lennon professed a belief in an afterlife and God. In a 1965 interview, Lennon and the other three Beatles had collectively referred to themselves as agnostic. Lennon continued to grapple with his spirituality and looked into various religions, maybe never more fervently than while struggling to kick a heroin addiction in the early ’70s. At one point, he may have even considered himself a born-again Christian, though for no more than a couple of weeks. He would, however, express certain clear religious beliefs, once stating: “I believe in God but not as one thing, not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us.” In other words, Lennon’s personal view of God was akin to what Jesus was referring to when he said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.”

So, if Lennon was not an atheist yet negated religion in “Imagine”, why didn’t he put forth some specific conception of God in the song? Arguably, he did, but not in name. Instead, he used more generalized terms to deliver a message of peace, love, and unity. Can one still find a morality and/or God in “Imagine”?

What Good Are Material Goods?

Many were also dubious of Lennon’s suggestion of a world without private possessions. Even a decidedly left-leaning folk legend like Joan Baez used to express her doubts about the line to audiences before she performed “Imagine” live. And there was, of course, the very awkward fact that Lennon became a wealthy man. Still, as an ideal, this, too, seems pretty clearly in line with the teachings of spiritual masters throughout history, including Jesus, again, who stated: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21-24, KJV) Jesus is also quoted as saying, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:23-26, KJV) Thus, to strive to have no possessions is a lofty ideal, to say the least, but it is not exactly radical. Further, if Lennon’s wealth and possessions made him a hypocrite, he was at least acknowledging and promoting the ideals of someone that the conservative establishment purportedly revered in Jesus.

Lennon elsewhere expressed support for certain communist ideals (though he was not communist) – further condemning him in the establishment imagination. “Imagine”, however, explicitly calls for every individual of every social class to personally choose this vision of the world for themselves. In contrast, Marxism specifically calls for the working class to take power away from the ruling class. Thus, even the peaceful, anti-communist Czech revolution of 1989 adopted “Imagine” as its anthem. This could happen because “Imagine” speaks in broader terms than specific religious, political, or economic models.

Lennon’s lyrics could have perhaps been written differently, but the salient point of this line seems clear enough: people can choose to strive to overcome materialism and greed, and the world, as a whole, would benefit. Maybe now the song can be seen as slightly less controversial. Except, what about the lines that specifically address religion?

Lennon on The Afterlife

Even Lennon’s drummer on the recording of “Imagine”, Jim Keltner, noted being “uncomfortable” with the line about imagining no heaven or hell, at least at first. One interpretation, however, is that the line does not suggest that an afterlife does not exist, but it is, as Lennon also sings, a call for “Living for today”, or in the present, cosmic moment (e.g., “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10, KJV). This also fits the song’s relaxed pace and feel. Further, there may be a distinction in being present to do good deeds for the sake of doing good deeds, as opposed to bargaining for a later reward or avoiding punishment.

Lennon had also explained that his problem with religion was when it turned the worship of God into a divisive “my-God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing”, with discriminating against others who are deemed to be all but damned, anyway. And this is where things really get touchy. This lyric can also be understood as questioning the notion that all saved Christians are going to Heaven for eternity while everyone else is punished and brutally tortured forever. In other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, as examples—and both of which Lennon had embraced to some degree—or for anyone subscribing to “universal salvation”, there can be an afterlife where misdeeds are accounted for, but it is not eternal damnation. Yet, even those who relate to Jesus’ message can struggle with reconciling such a punishment which can never allow for redemption, versus the message of forgiveness and loving thy enemy that Jesus otherwise spoke of.

So, “Imagine”‘s lyrics are understandably controversial. Lennon asserted a position contrary to the cherished beliefs of others, and (at least arguably) he did not clearly explain what exactly he meant by it. This was possibly a bit arrogant, and Lennon readily admitted to having a healthy ego. At the same time, though, the lyrics address a quandary a great many could relate to and for reasons that do not seem entirely unreasonable. This still leaves at least one more crucial question regarding “Imagine”. Why did Lennon only make mere suggestions to imagine this important vision and not something of a demand?

“Imagine” is written to recognize personal choice. That is, a core premise of “Imagine” is that every person has the power to choose love and unity and thus help create a veritable Heaven on Earth. Does this mean Lennon believed humans should cut God out of the picture? Not really. Lennon was certainly aware that even Jesus did not coerce others to follow what he was saying—or not in any traditional sense—i.e., Jesus was nonviolent, he did not command armies, he did not occupy a political position, nor did he have any wealth. There was no guarantee that anyone would accept his message. Jesus’ message was rooted in peace, love, and free will. So, too, is “Imagine”‘s message. For some, the ideals of peace, love, and free will can all be seen as aspects of higher intelligence, though Lennon did not explicitly make such a connection for listeners. The song retains a more universal message, but is this also a fatal flaw? One more twist in this story may provide an answer.

Lennon At His Most Primal

The year before the release of Imagine, Lennon released his other solo masterpiece, John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band. That album was directly inspired by Lennon’s work with the psychologist Arthur Janov, the progenitor of primal scream therapy. In primal therapy (Janov later dropped the “scream” from the name), clients get in touch with deeply-repressed feelings, especially rage and grief, from earliest childhood traumas, and then literally scream or otherwise emote so as to “clear out old blockages” in their psyche. Janov considered working through these painful feelings as essentially the cure to all human neuroses.

Lennon had anger issues, largely stemming from his own chaotic and sometimes violent early childhood and being abandoned by both parents. Later, he would publicly acknowledge and apologize for his acts of domestic violence. In 1970, Lennon and Ono separately worked with Janov for a period of six months, and then each produced their own Plastic Ono Band albums as a direct result. For Lennon, the anguish and wailing heard on “Mother” best exemplifies that process and the impact of the work on him.

Lennon had high praise for Janov and primal therapy and not just because of the music that it helped him produce but also because it led him to what he would describe as a more personal conception of God. This was most clearly outlined in Lennon’s exasperated dirge, “God”, the last track on Plastic Ono Band. There, Lennon sang about letting go of a long list of ideas and individual icons of politics (e.g., Kennedy, Hitler), religion (e.g., Buddha, Jesus), and even rock ‘n’ roll (Elvis, the Beatles). In short, Lennon sees all of those icons as eventually being worshipped to a point that worshippers will over-rely on them and either be exploited or otherwise lose themselves. It is not a knock on the named icons but Lennon’s observation of the human condition. Instead, Lennon sings there are only two things he can still truly believe in – himself and the love he shares with Ono.

For Lennon, the concepts of God and love seem to be interchangeable. Lennon had certainly and eloquently sung of essentially a limitless, cosmic love/God concept previously, and never more clearly than on his Beatles song, “Across the Universe“. Or, as in the Bible, “God is love.” (John 4:9. KJV) Whether “Imagine” could have been more carefully or just differently worded or not, it was a bold attempt to reconcile the relationship between humans and the universe while offering a measure of hope.

Lennon’s ego was substantial, and he made bold challenges on many fronts in “Imagine”. Yet somehow, the song is also a remarkably humble effort. “Imagine” is Lennon letting go of the notion that anyone will change their viewpoint of anything just because they hear one of his songs. A few years removed from the worldwide pandemonium of Beatlemania, Lennon now understood the limits to his influence. All he could do was work on his own issues, sing his truth with a positive message, and suggest that people imagine choosing such a view for themselves. Or not.

Lennon seemed to believe that everyone had that sense of God inside (or perhaps the “Kingdom of God within”, if you will), though he was not particularly confident that enough people would choose to be aware of it. Still, he sang his song anyway, recording it while sitting side-by-side on a piano bench with Ono. The manner of its creation and the song itself is not a bad definition of faith, and as even song detractors will likely admit, “Imagine” is set to some remarkable music.

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