John Lennon: A New Jesus?
Only after the Beatles started experimenting with drugs did they begin to talk openly about belief in God.
BY: Steve Turner
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.
When he became recognized as a leader, he began to empathize with the person Christians referred to as “the Lord.” He wondered whether Christ, like the Beatles, had had divinity thrust on him by over-zealous followers. Had Jesus been someone with a gift for storytelling, insight into the human condition, and the ability to foretell the future, who had been turned into a god figure against his will? John admired his central teachings of love, justice, and seeking the kingdom of heaven but felt that Jesus had been co-opted by people with a different agenda. He speculated that Jesus’ claim to be the son of God might have been a way of telling us that we’re all divine but that most of us don’t recognize it. When asked to nominate his heroes for the cover of Sgt. Pepper, John included Jesus, but it was eventually decided not to use this image. “It was just too controversial,” says designer Peter Blake. “I’m not even sure that he was actually made into a cut-out.”
In interviews John regularly alluded to biblical events and paraphrased memory verses. When asked by Mersey Beat about the origin of the name “Beatles” in 1961 he wrote: “It came in a vision—a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, ‘From this day on you are Beatles with an A.’ Thank you, Mister Man, they said, thanking him.” This alluded in part to Saint Peter’s vision as recorded in Acts 10: “ And [he] saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth”; in part to the story told in Genesis 17 about the origin of Abraham’s name: “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him . . . Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee”; and (possibly) in part to the story in Isaiah 6: “Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.” In 1973 John referred to his “flaming pie” story as “imitation Bible stuff.”
In 1980, when asked why the Beatles would never reform, his reply alluded to at least three Gospel stories. “Do we have to divide the fish and the loaves for the multitudes again?” he said. “Do we have to get crucified again? Do we have to do the walking on water again because a whole pile of dummies didn’t see it the first time or didn’t believe it when they saw it? That’s what they’re asking. ‘Get off the cross. I didn’t understand it the first time. Can you do it again?’ No way. You can’t do things twice.”
Occasionally this empathy was so consuming that, as he later admitted, when he was under the influence of drugs, “I thought, ‘Oh, I must be Christ.’” His boyhood friend Pete Shotton told of a meeting John called in May 1968 to tell Paul, George, and Ringo that he was Jesus Christ reincarnated. He wanted an authorized statement to that effect put out. Apple’s press officer Derek Taylor, who was also present, listened attentively but wisely ignored the plea, knowing that the drugs would soon wear off and this new Jesus would go back to being John.