Today’s song is a little more controversial than last weeks song by Simon and Garfunkel. But it is a song worth reflecting on because according to the latest Watch and Listen magazine poll from the 9th July 2023, John Lennon 1971's hit Imagine is now considered to be the Greatest Song in the History of Music. I guess different polls give different results, but it certainly shows that it has been hugely popular and has inspired people all over the world.
Growing up as a teenager, I couldn’t help being drawn to the simplicity and beauty of the song… but I was also a little conflicted about it. As a fervent young Christian should I have been enjoying
it at all when it’s lyrics appeared to be anti-religion and seemingly promoting an idealistic atheism.
Before we examine the song itself, the background story to the song is quite interesting in itself.
While John Lennon took full credit for writing the song for almost 10 years after it was first released, a year or so before his death he admitted that his wife Yoko Ono should really have been credited as the co-writer of the song because some of the lyrics had in fact been inspired by some of her poetry that went back as early as 1964. For all the idealism expressed in the song, he had to admit 9 years later that in “...those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution”. It is another example in history of a man taking credit for something where at least part of the credit belonged to a woman.
Another source of inspiration for the song was interestingly a Christian book on prayer that was given to John Lennon by Dick Gregory an American comedian, civil rights leader. In an interview with David Sheff, John Lennon spoke of how in that prayer book he was quite taken with the concept of what he calls ‘positive prayer’, for example, that if you can imagine something you can bring it into being, if you can imagine a world at peace…. then it can be true.
That is quite a powerful statement. It reminds us of the power of imagination. Before anything can become a reality in this world, it begins as an idea in the imagination of someone. What if we had to all begin to imagine a world at peace with itself? That in a sense is the first step in what might actually be a long and hard journey to making it a reality… but if it is going to begin anywhere, it first has to become a seed in the imagination.
In the 1800’s in Victorian England, it took inspired Christians to imagine a Britain without poverty, to begin to advocate for political and economic changes that would help to make that vision a reality. Without the possibility having been planted as a seed in some-one’s mind, (positive imagination one could call it), the kind of grinding poverty that Charles Dickens wrote about might still be a part of life in the United Kingdom today. Social change begins with an imagining of how life might be different?
And that is what John Lennon seeks to do in his song “Imagine”… He invites the listener to imagine with him a world living in peace and harmony. It is filled with a sense of idealism and a sense that this could actually be achieved if enough people are able to imagine it with him.
And I think that this is a large part of the power of the song – it taps into a universal human longing for a life of greater peace and harmony in this world. In the depths of almost every human heart, there is a longing for some kind of ideal world where things are peaceful and harmonious.
There is almost something religious about this longing. We long for peace… Peace on earth and good will amongst humanity.
And that is perhaps one of the ironies about John Lennon’s song “Imagine”… it imagines a world without religion, and yet there is almost something religious about his idealism. In fact some of the imagery in the song could be said to be almost thoroughly Biblical echoing ideas expressed in book of Revelation,, where the author in the last few chapters likewise invites us to imagine a world made new, a new creation.
The parallels are striking:
Firstly, in Revelation, the final vision is not of people getting beameded up to heaven, but rather a vision of heaven coming crashing down to earth, heaven and earth somehow becoming one in a cosmic marriage. In the final vision of Revelation, ironically, it also seems that there is a doing away with religion, for the author of Revelation sees a new creation in which there is no temple… The Divine Presence is everywhere and so there is no need for a Temple. In other words, no need for religion.
Secondly, in Revelation, the final vision is also of a new creation in which the boundaries and borders between people have been erased. It is a vision of people coming from all corners of the earth, from different nations and countries and all living in a new harmony with one another. In the New Jerusalem the city gates are left open for people to come and go… no border posts.
Thirdly, John Lennon imagines a world where people are free from their attachments to possessions suggesting the people of the world living lives of greater simplicity in which everyone has free access to the necessities of life. This is echoed in Revelation with the idea that the fountain of the water of life is freely available to anyone who thirsts. People’s needs are freely met.
For anyone who has read the Gospels with any degree of seriousness one can see echoes of these themes in the life and teaching of Jesus. Jesus repeatedly calls his followers to a life of greater simplicity rather than living for the accumulation of possessions. He calls us to be rich in spirit rather than having large back accounts. Jesus, by his own actions, also demonstrates a life lived in which the divisions caused by race and nationality are transcended. He crosses the boundaries that keep Jews separated from Samaritans and Gentiles. All people appear to have equal value in Jesus eyes, and not just the people from his own Jewish nation.
And so, it is quite ironic that John’s Lennon’s vision of a world living in peace and harmony, a world without religion, without borders and without materialism or the hoarding of unnecessary stuff is in fact a vision that is in fact echoed in various parts of Scripture… The Bible also invites us to Imagine, to imagine a new heaven and a new earth.
What are perhaps some of the difficulties with John Lennon’s song -
Firstly, the song gives the impression that John Lennon was advocating and idealistic atheism...
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky
But the truth is that John Lennon was not an atheist. Just two quotes can help to clear that up:
John Lennon said: “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. I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right. It's just that the translations have gone wrong.
He also said: “Christ said, "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you." ...We all have everything within us and the Kingdom of Heaven is nigh and within us, and if you look hard enough you'll see it.”
And so John Lennon was not anti-God. In truth he was in fact rejecting is an outdated world view. In a pre-scientific world, the idea of God living up there somewhere beyond the sky was an acceptable and an understandable idea. For people today, schooled in Newtonian physics and having a faint conception of Quantum Physics, this is a view of God that makes very little sense to many people today. I think it is one of the reasons that many people no longer see value in coming to church. The churches conceptions of God or the Divine as up there as and old man sitting somewhere up there above the sky just doesn’t connect with a lot of people any-more. But there are other conceptions of God or the Divine that can make more sense to modern people. For example the idea that God is the very Wisdom and Intelligence of Life itself and that to live in harmony and in relationship to the Divine is in fact to live in harmony with the Wisdom and Intelligence of Life itself.
The conception of a hell below us where God condemns people to an eternity of suffering is another concept that many modern secular people cannot relate to any-more and in fact find repulsive. If a human parent couldn’t conceive of throwing their own child into a lake of burning sulphur how on earth are we to believe that God could do such a horrendous and barbaric thing and on top of that, keep people in that state of suffering for all eternity. To paraphrase words of Jesus, if we as human beings, as self-serving as we are know how to give good gifts to our children how and why do we believe that God’s love is less than that of imperfect human beings.
Is it possible that the conception of God that John Lennon rejects in this song might well be a conception of God that we too might do well to consider rejecting as well, because there are in fact better and more inspiring conceptions of God or the Divine that are not simply projections of our frail imperfect humanity onto some Big Controlling Man in the Sky.
Secondly, John Lennon said he was not actually anti-religion but in this song I think he may have expressed a one-sided view of organised religion. It is true that over many centuries, religion has at times been divisive, and responsible for many terrible atrocities, and this includes all the major religions.
While fundamentalist religions of various creeds have been responsible for fuelling many atrocities and conflicts in the world over the centuries, it is also true that at other times, religion has been the inspiration and impetus behind some of the greatest acts of love and compassion, the establishment of hospitals and schools and also the inspiration behind eradicating poverty and creating more just and equal societies. The problem is not religion per se, but what direction our religion motivates people… CS Lewis believed that religion could either make us much worse than we already are, or make us much better than we are… In what direction is our religion taking us? Is it making us more hard-nosed and bigotted or is it making us more humble, open, kind and compassionate?
Those who believe that religion is the source of all the evil in the world, forget that the atheist states of Communist Russia under Stalin, and Communist China under Mao Zedong were responsible for far more deaths than perhaps all the religious wars of Europe combined. Atheism has it’s own dark shadow that is not always acknowledged by those who espouse it as the saviour of the world.
But there is also a realism that needs to temper our idealism. John Lennon gives the impression that if we just did away with countries and religion everyone would suddenly live in peace. It is a naive view that doesn’t take into account that not everyone across the world shares the same values and that cultural differences can even at the best of times be a challenge to navigate quite apart from the selfishness that often lurks within most human hearts. Sometimes it is difficult enough just getting along with one’s family members with whom we hold much more in common.
But admitting the reality of our cultural and national differences shouldn’t mean that we give up on the idea of trying to foster greater understanding and co-operation between different people. It is right that we be inspired by John Lennon’s vision of a world living in peace and harmony, just as we should be inspired by St Paul’s statement that in Christ there is no more Jew or Gentile… but our idealism needs also to be held in dialogue with the reality of the world in which we live.
In the book of Revelation, the new earth is only possible after the people have passed through the purifying fire of Divine Love, and I believe that God still has some work to do on all of us yet! A new earth is not going to be possible without the purifying of people’s hearts and minds, and this is spiritual work.
But by the same token, we should not allow the reality of our human imperfections to make us give up completely on the vision of a world of peace and harmony. The word needs a few idealists and dreamers to help us imagine a better world, which is why, for all its imperfections, I personally still find John Lennon’s song inspiring. I don’t take all its phrases at face value, but I still value they way it encourages me to play my part in building a world that is a little more loving, a little more peaceful and a little more harmonious. It might be said that Jesus was a bit of a dreamer too when he taught us to pray: “Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” Your Kingdom of Love, Joy and Peace and sharing come, here on earth. Amen.