By Alf Cengia
Recently, I spent a few days in New York City with my family. One of the guided tours we took was through Central Park and one of the scheduled stops was at the Strawberry Fields memorial for murdered ex-Beatle John Lennon. The memorial is often laden with flowers arranged in the shape of a peace symbol although it wasn’t on this occasion.
Some of the other tourists had obviously looked forward to seeing it with some degree of anticipation. Some of them even lay on their backs on the mosaic floor and took photos of the overhanging trees from that position. I searched a few of the faces and thought I detected a certain amount of solemn reverence for Lennon.
On December the 8th 1980, a typical headline read:
“Former Beatle John Lennon has been shot dead by an unknown gunman who opened fire outside the musician’s New York apartment. The 40-year-old was shot several times as he entered the Dakota, his luxury apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, opposite Central Park, at 2300 local time.”
Although I was never a Beatles fan I can remember exactly what I was doing and the shock that ran through my mind when someone told me John Lennon had just been murdered outside his hotel. I can say the same thing for John F Kennedy, Elvis Presley and Princess Diana.
One of Lennon’s most famous and iconic albums was “Imagine“. Just about everyone I knew rushed out to get a copy on its release. My friends played it incessantly and the lyrics haunted me because, among other problems, I was working through a crisis of faith in my life. I think John Lennon was as well.
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
I resented those lyrics. I wanted a Heaven. I couldn’t understand why everyone liked that song. Doesn’t everyone want a Heaven?
I guess if neither a heaven nor hell exists, there are no consequences. In hindsight, most of my friends would have digested anything Lennon produced, yet he also struck a chord and influenced what the younger generation was thinking.
The album was released in 1971 and the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Lennon was speaking to concerns about war and the draft. The song also affirmed the new-found sexual freedom and drug experimentation that my friends were indulging in.
Imagine that there were no countries; no one to kill or die for or no religion to tell you what to do. Life would be great then wouldn’t it?
I was a Lennon skeptic even though he is still remembered as a great peace activist by his ardent fans. In the real world you could try to “give peace a chance”. But if the other party wanted to clobber you just for the sake of it, you had no peace regardless of how many times you sung that song.
The school yard taught me that lesson.
It was a catchy slogan then and many still subscribe to it now. Sadly Lennon’s tragic death demonstrates that peace can only be realized when everyone equally wants it. Today’s Middle East crisis is a perfect example.
While researching Lennon, I came across information which is, arguably, of disputable accuracy. His fans claim that he’d often been misunderstood, especially regarding his controversial statement about Jesus’ popularity. But what’s obvious to me is that, despite the lyrics in “Imagine” and all the contradictions in his life, he was actually searching for some deeper meaning. I can even see some parallels in my own life.
Raised as a “nominal Christian” Lennon had no faith in organized religion and briefly sought meaning in other systems like the New Age and the Occult, just like I did. One famous and short-lived encounter was with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Author Robert Rosen claims that Lennon’s interest in the occult was largely due to Yoko Ono’s influence.
According to Rosen:
“There is absolutely no question that Yoko got him into all of the occult stuff because she was very into it. She believed in numerology and astrology in part because these are Japanese traditions.”
Regardless of how he got into it, I was surprised to learn that he once considered Christianity. Christianity Today cites excerpts from a book “The Gospel According to the Beatles” by Steve Turner. Given to spending long hours watching television, Lennon was exposed to the likes of Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, Jim Bakker, and Oral Roberts. He reached out to Oral Roberts.
Turner records that Roberts communicated with Lennon via letters and sent him his book “Miracle of Seed Faith”. The correspondence didn’t seem to take affect until the spring of 1977 when Lennon announced to his friends that he had become a born-again Christian. Yoko did not approve. Turner claims that he became antagonistic to her and told her that she’d been blinded by Satan. In turn, Yoko felt that the situation compromised Lennon’s dependency on her and her occultism.
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.
It didn’t take Lennon long to recant. The song “You Saved My Soul” was Lennon’s last unreleased recording and an ode to Ono.
When I was lonely and scared
I nearly fell for a TV preacher
In a hotel room in Tokyo
Oh only you truly saved me from that suicide
Turner states that, later, Lennon became “incensed” with Bob Dylan’s song “Gotta Serve Somebody” because it opposed his view that there was no single truth.
The song said, as bluntly as possible, that whatever your station in life, you were either serving God or the devil. This wasn’t an avoidable choice. John wrote a riposte titled “Serve Yourself,” arguing that no one can save you. The only person you have to serve is yourself.
The problem is that if there is no single truth then my truth might be that John’s truth is a lie. And if the only person I have to serve is myself then it would seem to contradict at least some of the lyrics in Lennon’s “Imagine” having no possessions; a brotherhood of man; sharing the world; and the world living as one.
“Serve Yourself” strongly reminds me of Aleister Crowley’s, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” That philosophy is the antithesis of Christ’s teaching.
It’s not hard to see why Lennon rejected Christianity.
John Lennon is gone. I don’t want to judge his final hours but I believe his life was tragic, quite apart from his untimely death and despite the success and adulating fans. It’s a pity so many people have looked to him for inspiration and answers that he didn’t have.
John Lennon isn’t imagining anymore.