One can’t justify what Lennon said. If you read the apology he issued in a later interview, you get the sense that he didn’t see what all the furor was about and it may be that, in a way and in regards to some people, he was just telling the truth when he said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.
Two factors contribute to that reality. First, I was born in 1958 so I was only six when the Fab Four’s invasion of America commenced. Second, my good parents were faithful to the point of compulsiveness when it came to church attendance and in the deep South of my childhood participation in Sunday evening worship was considered an extra mark of devotion ”as someone once said, “You go to church on Sunday morning if you love the church, you go on Sunday evening if you love the preacher, and you go on Wednesday night if you love the Lord” ”and my family was there at all of those times, the point of which is, of course, that I never saw an episode of that Sunday night American tradition the “Ed Sullivan Show” in my life including the one on which the Beatles tried to make themselves heard over the hysterical shrieks of a roomful of teenaged girls.
Which brings me back to Denise and Rhonda, the daughters of my mother’s younger brother Sandy and his wife Dot. I was an only child and Denise and Rhonda, who were a few years and a couple of years older, respectively, than I, were the closest things to siblings that I ever had and their household contained Beatles records and Beatles devotion and Beatles conversation so it was in that house that I soaked up a little of Beatlemania.
Next door to their house lived two other girls named Kathy and Debbie. Sometimes some combination of those four would decide to pretend that they were the Beatles. My memory is a little fuzzy on the details, probably because of the surreal nature of my experience at being the only boy in the group, but the partnership that I remember was made up of Rhonda, Kathy and Debbie; Denise was a little older and probably above such childishness. I was, as I have already said, the only boy in the group and I was also the youngest of the bunch and so I would stand there silently while the three girls decided which of them would be Paul, which John, and which George. Once they settled that, they would turn to me and someone would pass sentence: “And you can be Ringo.”
I think that explains a lot. I’ve always been Ringo.
But it’s OK. I’ve forgiven them (imagine how relieved they must be). Besides, Ringo may be Ringo but he’s been married to Barbara Bach since 1981 and I may be me but I’ve been married to Debra Kay Johnson since 1978 so we’ve done all right for ourselves.
What got me to reflecting upon my magnanimous act of forgiveness after all these years? It was the reports in the media over the weekend that a Vatican newspaper has forgiven John Lennon for his infamous 1966 remark that the Beatles “were more popular than Jesus.” Do the math with me, now ”2008 minus 1966 is 42, so forgiveness has come to John 42 years after the fact and, lest we forget, 28 years after he was murdered. The article said, “The remark by John Lennon, which triggered deep indignation mainly in the United States, after many years sounds only like a ‘boast’ by a young working-class Englishman faced with unexpected success, after growing up in the legend of Elvis and rock and roll.”
I remember the furor that erupted even in Barnesville, Ga., when Lennon’s remark became known. I was all of eight years old at the time but I seem to recall that a crowd burned Beatles’ records and memorabilia in a bonfire.
The Vatican’s words of forgiveness inspired me to find the original London Evening Standard article that contained the controversial quote. It’s a rather rambling piece by Maureen Cleave, a friend of Lennon’s, in which she tried to describe Lennon’s lifestyle and mindset in the wake of the advent of sudden fame and fortune. The picture she painted was of an impulsive, intelligent, rambling young man who had way too much time on his hands, way too many financial resources on which to draw, and way too much opportunity to say whatever popped into his head. There but for the grace of God and for having to live in the real world go many of us.
Here’s the quote that raised such a ruckus, offered in its context in the article:
His enthusiasm is undiminished and he insists on its being shared. George has put him on to this Indian music. ‘You’re not listening, are you?’ he shouts after 20 minutes of the record. ‘It’s amazing this-so cool’ Don’t the Indians appear cool to you? Are you listening? This music is thousands of years old; it makes me laugh, the British going over there and telling them what to do. Quite amazing.’ And he switched on the television set.
Experience has sown few seeds of doubt in him: not that his mind is closed, but it’s closed round whatever he believes at the time. ‘Christianity will go,’ he said. ‘It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first-rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.’ He is reading extensively about religion.
He shops in lightning swoops on Asprey’s these days and there is some fine wine in his cellar, but he is still quite unselfconscious. He is far too lazy to keep up appearances, even if he had worked out what the appearances should be-which he has not.
One can’t justify what Lennon said. If you read the apology he issued in a later interview, you get the sense that he didn’t see what all the furor was about and it may be that, in a way and in regards to some people, he was just telling the truth when he said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus; given that he was living in the center of way too much adulation, it must have seemed that way to him. As for his other comments about Christianity ”well, I pay about as much attention to what a rock ‘n’ roll artist says about religion as I do to what Rosie O’Donnell or Chuck Norris say about politics ”and so should you.
For what it’s worth, Lennon talked in the same article about how cool he thought it would be to ride around town in a gorilla suit.
Anyway, I guess it’s fine that the Vatican has offered words of forgiveness to John Lennon 42 years after he spoke the offending words and 28 years after he died. He’s probably at least as relieved as my cousins and my old friends will be to learn that I’ve forgiven them for making me play Ringo ”which they probably don’t even remember doing ”40-something years after the fact.
Maybe it would be best for all of us if we just work on the relationships that we have in the present world at the present time and seek forgiveness where it’s needed right here and right now.
After all, Beatlemania is ancient history but our family and friends are priceless current treasures. It’s better to guard and to develop those present wonders than it is to dredge up old silly stuff ”as fun as that might sometimes be!
Michael Ruffin is pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga. This column appeared previously on his blog.
Curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia.