John Lennon: A New Jesus?
Only after the Beatles started experimenting with drugs did they begin to talk openly about belief in God.
The Beatles, at the height of Beatlemania, were agnostic and didn’t hide this belief. Religion, Paul said in 1963, was something he didn’t think about: “It doesn’t fit in with my life.” While touring Britain in October 1964 he admitted to Playboy, “None of us believe in God.” John clarified the group’s position: “We’re not quite sure what we are, but I know that we’re more agnostic than atheistic.”
Yet just a few months later this assurance in God’s nonbeing would be rocked by their first encounter with LSD. All their material dreams had been achieved so dramatically, at such an early age, that they were starting to ask themselves what was left to look forward to. Since their teen years they’d been motivated by the possibility of wealth, fame, sex, and acclaim, but now that they had these things a fresh purpose was required. Drugs seemed to offer new possibilities.
“The four of us have had the most hectic lives,” said Ringo. “We have got almost anything money can buy. But when you can do that, the things you buy mean nothing after a time. You look for something else, for a new experience.”
They began to question their assumptions and talk openly about belief in God. They cut down on drinking whiskey as they took up smoking pot, and read Aldous Huxley rather than Ian Fleming. George was saying that the only worthwhile pursuit was the search for the answers to the questions, who am I? why am I here? and where am I going? “We made our money and fame, but for me that wasn’t it,” he said. “It was good fun for a while, but it certainly wasn’t the answer to what life is about.”
Paradoxically, as they began to search for a meaning beyond the material, they themselves became a source of meaning to millions of fans around the world. As one father explained to Time in 1967, “The Beatles are explorers, trusty advance scouts. I like them to report to my kids.” This was made all the more exciting because the art was enigmatic and the lyrics ambiguous. They seemed to know more than we did, but what it was that they knew was hard to determine. We emulated their dress and behavior. We combed their interviews for insights. We played their music in the hopes that it would soak into our psyches and somehow make us more like them.
John would later refer to the mid-sixties as the Beatles’ “self-conscious” period, and during it he made his most contentious comment about religion: “The Beatles are more popular than Jesus.” It was an artlessly delivered observation that would have unforeseen consequences, both for the Beatles as a touring group and for John as an individual. Although the controversy centered on his opinion of the crowd-pulling power of Christianity in the mid-20th century, he was also saying something about the religious function of rock music. For the music he played to be anything like a challenge to Christianity, wouldn’t it have to satisfy some of the same yearning that traditional religion satisfied?
The life and teachings of Jesus had always intrigued John. When he and Paul were still teenagers, they started work on a play, heavily influenced by the absurdism of Harold Pinter’s plays "The Birthday Party" and "The Dumb Waiter," with a central character named Pilchard who lived in suburbia and believed he was a “Christ figure.” In November 1965 Paul mentioned it to New Musical Express, saying that it was “about Jesus Christ coming back to earth as an ordinary person.” John regularly poked fun at church dignitaries, parodied hymns, and drew blasphemous cartoons of Christ on the cross in a way that only the once-faithful can. It was as though he was trying to prove to himself that he was free from the influence of the Church of England.