Wednesday, January 3, 2018

In defense of John Lennon's "Imagine"

By Chuck Bauerlein 

This week a good friend of mine (Matt Stromberg, a pastor at St. George’s Episcopal Church in upstate New York) started a discussion on Facebook about his dislike of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

He wrote: “John Lennon's ‘Imagine’ is an awful song. Lennon is an amazing performer, but whenever I hear anyone else sing the song, the spell is completely broken. If I have to hear one more rich pop-star dufus croon, ‘Imagine no possessions’ I am going to gag. When I first heard the song as a kid it seemed dangerous and deep, but as an adult it just seems vacuous and inane. The lyrics sound like they were written by some teenager from the suburbs who just discovered Marx."

I was surprised to hear this but interested to read his post because I always admired the song and I knew Matt was a huge Beatles’ and Lennon fan. He wrote: "I love the Beatles, love nearly everything from Lennon, but (although I love the album) I am not really crazy about the song... the vision of this song is neither romantic or passionate. It is a world without transcendent values. A life where there is nothing worth living either. He seems to mistake peace for the absence of conflict....That kind of passivity doesn't seem like Lennon's style. I much prefer the Lennon who hovers on the edge of zealotry in 'Revolution' who can't help but whisper 'in' under his breath." 

I was surprised at the number of Matt's Facebook friends who agreed with him on his thread. Among the comments were these: that after Lennon was murdered “he found out there really was a god and a heaven that maybe he didn’t get into.” And that "it smacks of the belief so prevalent among Boomers of 'If there were no religion, we would have so many less wars'. Which is just not true, especially not in this century. I agree, it's thinking peace is the absence of conflict." And this: “Imagine that Nietzsche was right.” These comments seem to suggest Lennon's song as an attack on Christian faith. I don’t see it that way. I see it as a question thrown into the cosmos, a kind of quest to understand the divine consciousness of God more profoundly.

Surely there is obvious hypocrisy when a rock star as wealthy as John Lennon asks his listeners to imagine a world without earthly possessions. But that is precisely what makes the suggestion so powerful. It’s easy for a Woody Guthrie to make this kind of suggestion, someone who struggled all his life to feed his family while channeling his muse to change the way people think about poverty and wealth and to teach people lessons of building community.

Lennon certainly knew this sentiment would make him an easy target but he wrote it anyway. I humbly suggest to my friend that this was Lennon’s way of working out his own immense (and possibly lucky or “undeserved”) wealth and that the words of Jesus that Lennon heard at services he attended with his Aunt Mimi at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in South Liverpool had touched him. In “Imagine”, his lyric echoes one of the Christ’s most famous injunctions.

When I Googled “What does the Bible say about earthly possessions?” I came upon this link, which shows 99 Biblical verses (many in Jesus’s own words) on the idea of repudiating wealth:

To me, “Imagine” is not a song “against” religion, (although I suspect Lennon knew it might be taken that way), it is a song against religious dogmatism. I believe he was suggesting there are many paths to an understanding of the divine and that not every faith adopts a belief in life hereafter. Maybe he was influenced by his wife, who grew up practicing both Buddhism and Christianity? Or maybe he just saw the hypocrisy evident in earnest God-fearing churchgoers who believe God “loves everyone” but who openly suggest their rigid belief is the only path to an eternity in the presence of the Lord. Imagining “there is no heaven” does not necessarily mean Lennon imagines there is no God. I do not see the song (as many critics do) as an atheist manifesto.

As a number of Matt's pro-Lennon Facebook friends suggested in their comments, “Imagine” came out in September, 1971, as the war in Vietnam was beginning to wind down and when more than 50,000 American lives already had been lost. It was designed to spark consideration and discussion of the U.S. involvement in war and it asked of its listeners to imagine an alternative to global military conflict. That’s putting a lot of burden on one 3-minute pop song and asking an awful lot from his audience. The fact we are having this debate on Facebook suggests “Imagine” achieved its intended goal: it made people think.

In 2004, WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania’s public radio station (which caters to music aficionados and alternative music lovers) asked their listeners to submit a list of their five favorite songs. “Imagine” came in at number 2, behind “Thunder Road”. (Philadelphia is notoriously famous for its unbridled support of Bruce Springsteen.) Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” came in third. In 2014, when XPN again asked listeners to list their favorite songs, “Thunder Road” maintained the top spot, Dylan’s song had surpassed Lennon’s, and "Imagine" finished in third place.

This anecdotal evidence does not prove anything about the song except it is popular among listeners of a certain age who find the kind of choices on XPN to be of their liking. But I would argue the song has enduring power and justifiably is revered for reasons that go far beyond its alluring melody. I first heard “Imagine” I was just 20 years old and struggling with the inflexible dogma of my own Roman Catholic faith. Lennon’s invocation to “imagine there is no heaven” alarmed me because I was raised in the firm belief that heaven is a real place and the alternative seemed unthinkable to me. And yes, it did feel then as if Lennon was suggesting that without heaven, could there really be a God?

I am no longer certain of that equivalency: that because God exists, there must be a heaven too. None of us know for certain what awaits us in death. Many of us have a faith that something great awaits us. My own particular faith has shifted over the years away from hell as a pit of eternal flames, into a belief that hell is the absence of divine grace and God’s presence. I also believe, perhaps naively, that there are many different and legitimate paths to an understanding of divine grace and that no one religion has any “true” claim to God. I mean no offense to any reader who is certain his or her faith will bring enlightenment or salvation.

Lennon’s song led me into a much different search for God than my parents were on and that the Roman Catholic Church dictated to me. I owe a lot to that song. And I do believe Lennon was onto something: the world would be a safer, better, holier place if we listened to our neighbors who practice faith differently than we do and if we try to see the common bonds we share in our search for divine meaning. “Imagine” made me hunger for that kind of world. Yes, I am willing to admit: I am a dreamer, too.

This was Matt’s response to my blog, which I appreciate very much:


I respect your defense and certainly don’t have a problem with you sharing it.

I intentionally didn’t focus my critique on Lennon’s song as an attack on Christianity. Some of the commentators went that way. That being said, do I think the song is friendly or compatible with a Christian world-view? Of course not. The song is not “spiritual” unless you mean in a humanistic or naturalistic way. I believe the vision of this song is a world without transcendent values. What does that mean? Lennon writes,

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

If I had to paraphrase what he was saying I would put it this way,
Imagine this world, what can be seen with eyes, is all that there is. There is no God, no invisible guiding principle to the world, just you and me. Nothing higher.  The idea of good and evil, heaven and hell, is an illusion. Good behavior is not rewarded in some after-life nor is bad behavior punished. All we have is the here and now. That is a good thing because it means we are not oppressed by controlling religious dogma and moralism. We are not placated with the hope of heaven or terrified with the threat of hell. Instead we live for this world and this moment. We are free to live our lives as we choose without the constraints of the imaginary projections of “good and evil” as defined by our leaders.

Is the song moral? Not in a traditional sense, although I don’t doubt that Lennon motivated by his own moral sense. In this view, morality is something we choose. It doesn’t exist above or below us. That is what I mean by transcendent values. Presumably that is also what Dr. Witt meant when he said, “Imagine Nietzsche was right.”

It seems Lennon believes that it is our belief that our own convictions and values exists outside of ourselves—in other words that they are universally valid—which ultimately leads to conflict, division, and war.  But why is peace preferable to war? Isn’t Lennon’s own longing for harmony and goodness transcendent? I believe without transcendent values all that is left is the will to power. Neitzsche admitted this and even celebrated it. In that world, the vulnerable are just food for the Morlocks.

Lennon’s next stanza builds on his belief that it is the imposition of our own values upon others in the form of transcendent values that is ultimately the source of all violence and conflict:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

Like I said, this strikes me as odd. Are there not things worth dying for? Granted, violence is always a regrettable failure of humanity to realize its goodness, but in the face of evil surely there are things worth defending. I don’t want to kill anyone, but if it meant defending my family—my children—I would do what was necessary.  I am not much of a hawk, but I don’t see the desire to defend the true and the good as necessarily evil. The suggestion seems to be that it is our valuing of one thing good above another, our moral convictions, that leads to violence. I am all for peace, but this is an extremely misguided critique.

No, this has little to do with what Jesus taught. It does share a common conviction of the value of peace, brotherhood, and love but that only proves my point! These things are good in themselves and everybody knows them to be so. In other words, they are transcendent values!  

Probably the verse that I object to the least is the one about possessions. There is something to be said about “sharing all the world.” The Apostles were said to hold all things in common. My main objection here is that it rings somewhat hollow coming from a guy who lived in the Dakota. He wasn’t exactly Saint Francis! Which begs the question, is he terribly wrong? Should he have renounced his worldly goods and lived as a wander on the earth? Is there not a moral and an immoral use of wealth and possessions? That is a question much debated by the Church Fathers. We don’t need to get into it here.

In sum, my main contention is that a world of transcendent value is preferable to a world without them! It isn’t our belief in transcendent values that is the problem but our failure to live according to them.

No comments:

Post a Comment