Bigger Than Jesus

I know, I know . . . I vowed to stay away for a week. And I really am on my way out the door to go interview a source, but I just couldn’t let this go past.

Over the weekend, the Vatican announced that it had “forgiven” John Lennon for his 1966 comments in which he remarked that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. According to the article on the BBC website (which you can see here):

The semi-official Vatican newspaper marked the 40th anniversary of The Beatles’ “White Album” with an article praising Lennon and the Fab Four from Liverpool.

The paper dismissed Lennon’s much-criticised remark that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus Christ as a youthful joke.

The paper described the remark as “showing off, bragging by a young English working-class musician who had grown up in the age of Elvis Presley and rock and roll and had enjoyed unexpected success”.

Um. No.

Give Lennon a bit more credit than that. While Lennon was certainly indulging in a bit of “showing off,” he and his views were a lot more complicated than the Vatican is giving him credit for. For the record, here are Lennon’s remarks, in their entirety, and in context with Maureen Cleave’s interview and article in the March 4, 1966 London Evening Standard:

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.

Once can certainly parse Lennon as much as one wants — and back in 1966, Lennon’s remarks were widely interpreted as enormously sacrilegious, with Lennon daring to displace Jesus with the Beatles at God’s right hand.

But what Lennon was actually trying to do was make a point about Christianity — which, in 1960s England, Lennon viewed as being subverted by the Church of England to the point where its message had been lost. Consequently, English teenagers were choosing the Beatles — or television, or pop culture, or just about anything else — over religion. That, to Lennon, was why Christianity would fade — not because of the Beatles, but because the Church had failed to advance its message. And that — again, to Lennon — was the real problem.

Here’s Lennon trying to explain just that view in a 1966 interview in Los Angeles — and not really making things much better:

Finally, after countless protests in which Beatle records were burned in bonfires (“Hey, they had to buy them to burn them!” Ringo later joked) and the KKK began making gauzy threats, manager Brian Epstein had had enough. After a formal statement of apology failed to cool tempers, the Fabs were finally persuaded to sit before the cameras in Chicago for a hastily-called press conference at which Lennon offered a half-hearted, though Officially Formal Apology:

Once again, however, the press don’t seem to get it, and Lennon — normally quick-witted and articulate to a fault — still couldn’t make his point clear. And obviously, even 40 years later, there was still some confusion from the Vatican as to what Lennon was really saying.

Still, even if it missed the point, I give the Vatican credit for taking notice of the Beatles for their “unique and strange alchemy of sounds and words.” Which rather sounds like the way one would describe a blind date.

All right, I’m outta here. Really.

One response to “Bigger Than Jesus

  1. Stephen Parrish

    Loved the videos, thanks. That hair!

    I remember Beatlemania in 1964 (they were storming the British charts already in 1963, but the American invasion took place the following year). Beatles songs were almost all you ever heard on the radio. At one point they had numbers one through five on the Billboard chart, topped by “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” Those were interesting days.