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Did the composer of (perhaps) the most secular song ever written, later disavow that song?

March 22, 2012

Growing up I listened to a lot of music. And, like a lot of teenagers, I didn’t pay much attention to the words, they were just another instrument in the whole melody of the song. As I got older, I started paying attention to the words and was often shocked at what I had been humming.

Like many people my age, one of my favorite songs was John Lennon’s “Imagine.” A beautiful melody, in a thoughtful and meditative tone.  But oh the words! When I finally got around to paying attention to them, I stopped listening to the song. For in it, Lennon imagines, with approval, a world without God, religion, or country. In effect no piety, no loyalties. He also dismissed the idea of heaven, hell, and more than implies that religion, faith and God are the source of violence, greed and disunity. Here are some of the lyrics:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You, you may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions ….etc.

The song become quite the ballad of the secular humanists, and though peaceful and serene in its cadences, was a real slap in the face to faith, religion, Church, Country, piety, patriotism and the free market economy. The song reached beyond secular humanism, more than implicitly endorsing atheistic Communism, or at least Socialism in its dream of “no possessions.”

In effect the song says to faith and to all holding the other traditional values above, “Your day is over, you have caused evil, and we are moving toward a utopian paradise without you. You are not invited for you are the problem.”

Yes, there it was: Imagine, perhaps the most secular and radical song ever written, dripping with contempt, deconstructionist, revolutionary, and reductionist, a Magna Carta for secular humanism, and Communism.

And yet, it would seem John Lennon either disavowed the song, or never meant it in the first place. In an interview given shortly before his death, perhaps his last, he says some remarkable things that indicate a very different John Lennon than the song portrays.

I do not read, and will not even mention, the magazine in which the interview originally appeared (in 1980). But am quoting a secondary source which references that final interview. It is an interview that seems largely forgotten, since Lennon’s murder wholly changed the conversation and froze his image in place as the “60s radical.” It would seem he was far from that when he died. I am only here quoting a small part of the article, which you can read in its entirety here: Stop Imagining

Here are the pertinent excerpts:

In his definitive song, “Imagine”….[Lennon]  famously dreams of a world with “no possessions.” The mature Lennon explicitly disavowed such naïve sentiments: I worked for money and I wanted to be rich….What I used to be is guilty about money. … Because I thought money was equated with sin. I don’t know. I think I got over it, because I either have to put up or shut up, you know. If I’m going to be a monk with nothing, do it. Otherwise, if I am going to try and make money, make it. Money itself isn’t the root of all evil.

The man who famously called for imagining a world with “No religion” also jettisoned his anti-theism. “People got the image I was anti-Christ or anti-religion,” he said. “I’m not at all. I’m a most religious fellow. I’m religious in the sense of admitting there is more to it than meets the eye. I’m certainly not an atheist.”

Even more shocking to the idea of Lennon as a secular leftist, or a deep thinker, the man rejected evolution. “Nor do I think we came from monkeys, by the way,” he insisted. “That’s another piece of garbage. What the hell’s it based on? We couldn’t’ve come from anything—fish, maybe, but not monkeys. I don’t believe in the evolution of fish to monkeys to men. Why aren’t monkeys changing into men now? It’s absolute garbage.”

……His final interviews make clear he was above all concerned with his family. “I’m not here for you,”he said, speaking to his fans. “I’m here for me and [Yoko] and the baby.” He revered the institution of marriage, explaining how much it meant to get the state approving his union with Ono. “[R]ituals are important, no matter what we thought as kids. … So nowadays it’s hip not to be married. But I’m not interested in being hip.” [1]

So there it is, the revolutionary, it would seem, either reconsidered, or never fully embraced the radicalism of the song “Imagine.” Elsewhere in the article he is quoted as saying, “It’s easier to shout ‘Revolution’ and ‘Power to the people’ than it is to look at yourself and try to find out what’s real inside you and what isn’t, when you’re pulling the wool over your own eyes. That’s the hardest one.

I do not hold John Lennon up as anything other than he was, a singer and composer, and quite a good one at that. I personally cannot stand it when we elevate movie stars, and entertainers to the status of cultural and political experts. But given the fact that others do, it is worth noting that one of the icons of the secular humanist movement and the radical left, made something of a journey back to traditional values, family, faith, and personal accountability.

I do not sanction everything Lennon says in the article, I only note the journey he made and claim the hope that Lennon did not die the radical atheist some thought him to be. I pray too others will and are making the journey he apparently did.

Comments (31)

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  1. Dismas says:

    This song never fails to make me think about the distinctions, differences or similarities between imagination and wonder. I realize imagination is a gift, but this song is such a good example of how sterile imagination can be used in an absence or vacuum of wonder of natural law and God.

    Imagination – self, earthly, atheism, secular humanism
    a : a creation of the mind; especially : an idealized or poetic creation b : fanciful or empty assumption

    Wonder – self, transcendence, natural law, God
    a : rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience b : a feeling of doubt or uncertainty

    I suppose pretty obvious to most, but I love pondering these things.

  2. Jeff Galloway says:

    I agree that the lyrics, at face value, are troublesome. But I would hesitate to read too much into them or view every sentence as secular. It would be wonderful, surely, if people didn’t view territory as something to kill and die for…or if people didn’t kill, steal, and worship possessions.

    I know no one would interpreted the lyrics literally and based their world view on them. Rather, I think people view it as a somewhat bland and vague call to a better world.

    • Brian A. Cook says:

      Thank you. Horst Wessel Lied is an example of a song PROMOTING killing for race and territory. Indeed, I am not willing to see communist conspiracies under every rock–I can chalk Imagine up to bland and vague appeals to bring hope and healing.

  3. Dee says:

    Thank you for pointing this out – this is the kind of “apologetics” that can appeal to the secular, “revolutionary” youth (and boomers) in our culture today. One of their greatest pioneers has seen the light and now understands his ignorance and naivete. Powerful ammunition – of course to be used charitably. Thanks!

  4. Michael Barber says:

    Monsignor:

    Actually, there have been scattered reports about Lennon’s conversion for years and by people close to him.

    These have come from people who were close to him. This was the most recent one:
    http://m.torontosun.com/2011/06/28/lennon-was-a-closet-republican

    Such stories are quickly squelched by Yoko’s people and the mainstream
    media though via character assassination. If you follow this stuff closely though you begin to think there really is something to it!

    Also note the lyrics in his latter songs: Watching the Wheels, a song on his last released album is about rejecting fame and a life of rock ‘n’ roll for his family. And Grow Old with Me, a song he never got a chance to properly record because he wrote it so near his death, mentions God blessing marriage in every chorus. There are some great cover versions of it out there. It is truly a beautiful song!

  5. Richard says:

    Great article. I agree, IDOLATRY by the media and fans of “celebs” is out of control. Probably a topic for another post. I too loved music, especially those with drums and electric guitars. Not one for lyrics, and most of the time I couldn’t quite understand them–it was the driving rhythyms and guitar solos that I liked. But when I matured as a Catholic, it became quite difficult to listen to rock bands and pop music that promote a culture quite opposite to our faith.

    As always, thank you for great articles and teachings.

  6. marcus says:

    I am always surprised to hear this one in church settings, due to the obvious anti-religious sentiments expressed. But I guess people like to hear the music and not think about the words.

  7. Daniel Latinus says:

    I had a high school buddy who insisted that the sentiments expressed in “Imagine” and in some other Beatles songs were part of a “cosmic joke” and not meant to be taken seriously.

    OTOH, “Imagine” shouldn’t be sung at Mass, or other church services, either.

  8. Newmaniac says:

    I see the point that Dismas is trying to make, but I would just like to throw out there that Blessed John Henry Newman had a pretty high view of the human imagination, and its necessity in the human mind, especially in regards to Faith and assent to the mysteries of Christianity. For Newman, where the rational/logical mechanics of the human mind can only draw us so close to certain truths about reality, the imagination allows us to apprehend the convergences of many pieces of evidence. For him it is much more than “a creation of the mind” or “an idealized or poetic creation,” but, rather, a habit of the mind that, when developed, can perceive the truth before it can give an articulate, reasoned explanation for it. Somewhat analogous to “Faith seeking understanding.”

    In short, Imagination does not have to be atheistic or secularistic, nor is it necessarily “a creation of the mind” or “fanciful or empty assumption.” I think imagination helps us to incorporate or integrate objects or events of wonder into our mind and heart.

    • Dismas says:

      My intention wasn’t to criticize imagination, but to analyze an example of it’s use. .

    • Blake Helgoth says:

      There is a connection between wonder and imagination. When one is struck by wonder the imagination can begin to sound forth all sorts of images and ideas that give expression to the truth experienced. Wonder is the birth place of great art, literature, philosophy, poety, and theology. Imagination then gives expression through the art. When Imagination comes first one can get lost in it. It becomes sort of a way to escape reality rather than embrace it. Wonderless imagination can bring one close to the experience of true wonder, but it is just a weak counterfeit. This is where much of modern culture has lost its way.

  9. Charles Buxton says:

    One of John Lennon’s last songs was “Grow Old With Me” which contains the following lyrics:

    Grow old along with me
    The best is yet to be
    When our time has come
    We will be as one
    God bless our love
    God bless our love

    Grow old along with me
    Two branches of one tree
    Face the setting sun
    When the day is done
    God bless our love
    God bless our love

    Spending our lives together
    Man and wife together
    World without end
    World without end

    Grow old along with me
    Whatever fate decrees
    We will see it through
    For our love is true
    God bless our love
    God bless our love

    http://www.lyrics007.com/John%20Lennon%20Lyrics/Grow%20Old%20With%20Me%20Lyrics.htm

  10. JefZef says:

    I recall a story last year that had all the aging, hippie leftists in a tizzy. A close personal assistant of Lennon’s declared that he was “a closet conservative embarrassed by his radical past”.

    Seems like the devil determined his usefulness had come to an end.

    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2009562/John-Lennon-closet-conservative-fan-Reagan.html#ixzz1pxkV7dXY

  11. Greg says:

    Maybe one of John’s other lyrics is appropriate..from “Crippled Inside”:

    “One thing you can’t hide, is when you’re crippled inside”

  12. Jon White says:

    As an atheistic twenty-year-old in the early 1970’s, when “Imagine” came out, I disliked its lyrics (I ALWAYS listened to the lyrics.) and its melody. I have not changed. I did hear that Lennon had, for which I’m thankful for his sake. It’s too bad the self-serving secular media doesn’t clue everybody in to Lennon’s change of heart about the lyrics’ sentiments. But that is as likely as a typical crowd of people refusing the offers of a man on the street corner handing out $100 bills.

  13. J. Tool says:

    “I do not hold John Lennon up as anything other than he was, a singer and composer, and quite a good one at that. I personally cannot stand it when we elevate movie stars, and entertainers to the status of cultural and political experts. But given the fact that others do, it is worth noting that one of the icons of the secular humanist movement and the radical left, made something of a journey back to traditional values, family, faith, and personal accountability.”

    Good. For a minute there I thought you were elevating him to a great philosopher as well.

  14. Cynthia BC says:

    My father and stepmother have spent the past several years managing the affairs of a widowed friend of my grandparents. Shirley and her late husband had had no children, and she had no family. She was at times cantankerous and needy, and could exasperate my father to no end.

    What grieved my parents more than anything else was that Shirley had fallen away from the faith. Although she clearly was approaching death, and was uncertain about “what comes next” Shirley spurned any discussion involving faith.

    We stopped by this past Wednesday evening on the way home from a funeral. I hadn’t seen Shirley in over a decade, and didn’t recognize the comatose, almost-skeletal woman lying on the bed. The hospice nurse said that death would likely come within a few hours; we said goodbye, and headed home for dinner. As soon as the empty plates were carried into the kitchen, the phone rang with the news that Shirley had died.

    I don’t know where Shirley is now, but please pray for her soul.

  15. Peter Wolczuk says:

    Ecclesiastes 5:10 Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.

    Ecclesiastes 10:19 A feast is made for laughter, wine makes life merry, and money is the answer for everything.

    Early in the interview, a comment of John’s brings to light (or close to light) a common misconception. The biblical quote at source; 1 Timothy 6:10 “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” does not refer to “money” but rather “love of money” which is radically different. The part, “… all kinds of evil.” seems, to me, to have at least two possible meanings; each and every single kind of evil or (common usage as I’ve heard it) “all kinds” sort of a metaphor for “many kinds”
    Ecclesiastes also has two quotes that seem relevant (5:10 & 10:19) but this is about the song.
    When I heard it I relegated it to the category into which I’d put many idealistic philosophers; which is that they seemed to vaguely state a paradoxical tenet that, if we weren’t people we would be so much better off as people because we would no longer have the problems, which I always try to keep seeing as challenges. A composite of these other creatures may be happy in Plato’s Republic; the Utopia or Imagine but we have the opportunity to be so much more.
    In the Garden we took a wrong path as we seemed to rush too hastily toward dealing with the concept of good and evil but God does love us and, while I cannot understand Him or His ways, He certainly appears to be guiding us back on track through the very hazardous terrain we seem determined to keep venturing back into in spite of His warnings and directions of how to find a better path.
    Fantasy republics, utopias and imagine songs are like all things that aren’t real. They can only harm us if we bring it about by such means as, acting on them, letting them, others.

  16. taad says:

    I always thought the song to be satanic, if you listen to the last part where it says “come join us”, gives the image out of the Bible, “We are Legion.”

  17. Nick from Detroit says:

    Monsignor Pope,

    It is interesting to note that it was interviews such as these that caused Mark Chapman to become obsessed with John Lennon. Chapman became convinced that Lennon had betrayed the “cause,” i.e., the leftist cause. Lennon was a hero to Chapman, until the former Beatle started giving interviews like the one you cite.

    Sad that so many left-wing extremists all too often resort to murder to silence those whom they perceive as enemies. Whether it be Chapman, Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, or the many, many others.
    God Bless!

  18. Doug says:

    Much of the best parts are also found in the Bible:
    Imagine there’s no countries
    It isn’t hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people living life in peace

    Come and behold the works of the Lord: what wonders he has done upon earth, making wars to cease even to the end of the earth. He shall destroy the bow, and break the weapons: and the shield he shall burn in the fire. Ps 46
    But in the days of those kingdoms, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, and his kingdom shall not be delivered up to another people: and it shall break in pieces, and shall consume ALL these kingdoms: and itself shall stand for ever. Dan 2
    nd in the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be prepared on the top of mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go, and say: Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob, and he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall come forth from Sion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge the Gentiles, and rebuke many people: and they shall turn their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into sickles: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they be exercised any more to war. Isa 2
    For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: and you shall seek his place, and shall not find it. But the meek shall inherit the land, and shall delight in abundance of peace … For the Lord loves judgment, and will not forsake his saints: they shall be preserved for ever. The unjust shall be punished, and the seed of the wicked shall perish. But the just shall inherit the land, and shall dwell therein for evermore. Ps 37

    And others. It’s a “secular” song only because it was written by a ‘bloke like us’, as Lennon might have said. All of us want these things, and the Bible promises them to the meek.

    • Doug says:

      BTW all quotes are Douay.

    • Well, you are really stretching the meaning of scripture if you think that the Bible envisions a world with “no religion.” I’ll grant your point about countries and wars but the Scriptures see this as the result of a work of God, not of human slothful relativism and a “care nothing” unpatriotic or anarchistic attitude typified by many on the left, particularly in the 60s and 70s.

  19. Steve C says:

    Msgr,

    Here’s a great audio sermon with many music & Beatle quotes (along w/ this song too)

    http://www.audiosancto.org/sermon/20120321-Lenten-Mission-Part-5-Building-on-the-Rock-of-God.html

    🙂

  20. Paolo says:

    I find it astonishing that anyone could find fault with a song or philosophy that promotes peace and love of humanity over materialism, greed and violence.

    I believe that it is the threat to dogmatic thinking which frightens those with invested interests in the continued adherence to dogma.

    It seems that preaching love and tolerance will still get you crucified: sometime figuratively, sometimes literally.

    • Well, its not the things you say that offend. It is the “imagine there’s no heaven, no hell below, no religion too.” These are the things that cause offense and offend against the tolerance you say you like, it is these sorts of things which it would seem that Lennon himself disavowed.

      • Paolo says:

        Nonetheless Msgr, you must admit that organized religion historically has a rather dark past in the areas of human rights, tolerance, war, oppression, etc. The same is true of governments and large aggregations of power where the meek and powerless are made to suffer while these institutions sought to implement their “greater goods”.

        I pose the question: if a person lives a Christ-like life without embracing the dogma of religion, is this person damned? Is this person righteous in God’s eyes?

        I posit that the actions of one’s life overrules adherence to dogma. If one lives a life where they have no need for the sacrament of penance, as opposed to one who is in constant need of penance, who is the better person? Who is more worthy of the kingdom of God?

        I know these are old questions: the majority of all Protestantism started with questions such as these, but ultimately should we seek goodness or dogmatism? I have to admit that in my school days, the Marists actually directed me to the former, rather than the latter.

        I think that this is the premise of Lennon’s song. Whether or not he disavowed later is largely irrelevant. It doesn’t negate the philosophical/theological issue he raised.

        It is conceivable that he once was righteous but fell into an “evil” built on comfort and indolence.

        • I don’t think you sound very tolerant. It is not a teaching of the Church that the rejection of dogma = damned and so in this you also exhibit bigotry that trots out stereotypes and misrepresents Catholic doctrine. The opposition dogma to goodness is a false dichotomy that further demonstrates your ill presumptions about faith. Further your argument that actions overrule adherence to dogma is another false dichotomy and all shows all or nothing thinking. Whatever the Marist taught you it certainly wasn’t philosophy nor would it seem they taught you the faith. As with most who reject the Church or the faith you are not really rejecting either, rather you are rejecting your own caricature of them. As for your classifications of people as falling into simple categories as: More worthy and, righteous, and evil, this too bespeaks the likelihood that you are projecting your own tendencies on to others, claiming they (we) do what in fact you do: i.e. judging (condemning) others etc.