Thursday, August 03, 2006

An Apology for John Lennon

Michael just picked up John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album, one of my favorite albums from anyone, anytime. Good move. So let me tell you a story about how that album got me in trouble.
I owned that album and listened to it all the time when I moved in to a Christian community in the late '70s. I played "Working Class Hero," loudly, over the ol' stereo system, and countless brothers and sisters heard "You're all fuckin' peasants as far as I can see." Uh oh. The red flags went up. Not only did John Lennon cuss, but he was a well-known, certified Pinko Commie, a Peacenik, someone who thought he was Bigger than Jesus, and a drug user. None of these things recommended him to the ecclesiastical powers of the day.

So a dear sister (truly, although she could drive me crazy) came over to set me straight.

"You know, don't you," she began, "that John Lennon is not a Christian?"

Yep, I knew that.

"And that he uses drugs?"

Uh huh.

"And that he's made some very antagonistic statements about Christianity?"


"So why do you listen to him?"

My response was long-winded, but it was basically my standard spiel that I've given at conferences at Christian Colleges a few times now, the Why You Should Not Listen to Christian Music But Should Instead Listen to Music as a Christian speech. And it went (and it still goes) something like this:

We live in the world. We have not retreated to caves and monasteries. And since I don't look that great in a monk's robe, I plan to keep in that way. And since we live in the world, that means that countless times every day we are confronted with occasions for sin. I turn on the TV and I'm inundated with images of beautiful, scantily clad women selling everything from laundry detergent to automobiles. And I'm ready to buy what they're selling. Sex works for me. I'm driving to work, somebody cuts me off on the freeway, and I find my middle finger ready to extend magically, unbidden, from the steering wheel, prepared to flash half a peace sign. I'm sitting in my office, working away, when the guy the next office over decides to share a, shall we say, less than edifying joke with me and my co-workers. In each situation, an occasion for sin has arisen, tapped me on the shoulder, and said "What are you going to do about this, Buckwheat?" I didn't actively seek out any of these situations. They're simply part of what I encounter every day.

What's the answer? As best I can tell, it's hold on to the good, reject the bad, love God, love the people you encounter, ask for forgiveness when you blow it, and be sensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit in your life. That applies to music you encounter while cruising in your car or that you put in the the CD player, just as it applies to all of life. Obviously there are songs and albums that have no redeeming value, that are so blatantly offensive that they should have no part in our lives. But my guess is that most of us don't struggle with this stuff anyway, because we tend to not spend a lot of time and attention on things we genuinely dislike. But most of the music we encounter (and most of the films, and most of the books, and most of the human beings, for that matter) occupies some middle ground that is neither wholly offensive nor wholly praiseworthy. I believe that there is much that is valuable here. And there is, of course, much that is also potentially dangerous.

Take the case of, oh, John Lennon. I love The Beatles, and I particularly love John Lennon. I grew up with this music, and it had a tremendous impact on my life. And it's not that uncommon for me to think about John Lennon, about what he has meant to me. Yes, it's absolutely true that John Lennon was not a Christian. At times he was antagonistic toward Christianity. Certainly he espoused ideas and advocated a lifestyle that is at best questionable and at worst antithetical to the Christian message. And he influenced me greatly, sometimes in not very good ways. Overall, I love John Lennon's music. I still listen to it. But I don't love everything about it. When he sings "Imagine there's no heaven/It's easy if you try" I think, "Nope, sorry John, but you got that one wrong." When he sings "God is a concept/By which we measure our pain" I disagree with him, but I also understand, at least to some extent, the pain that may have led him to that statement, and I sympathize with the tortured existence he was leading when he wrote those words. When he sings "Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain/Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies/Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers/That grow so incredibly high" I think about part of my past, and I tell myself to just let that go, that there are some places that are not worth revisiting. And when he sings "All you need is love," I think, "You poor, noble, naive, admirable idealist; unfortunately, sometimes you need a bullet-proof vest, too."

In short, I view him as a marvellously talented singer and songwriter who was fallen, fallible, lovable, irritating, vulnerable, right, wrong, and a fully realized human being. I guess I sort of love him as a friend. I don't know how to escape that process when listening to music. It's not easy. There aren't any magic formulas. But if I didn't engage in it, I would have never discovered John Lennon as a friend.

I don't view this as a "new approach to music." As far as I'm concerned, it's the only approach to music. It's the interior dialogue that has to occur whenever a Christian encounters art of any kind, including that released by the CCM industry. There's never a place where you can uncritically accept what you're hearing. So do it. And pick up John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album while you're at it.


mg said...

the thing i like about 'Plastic Ono Band' and alot of his music is John's ability to communicate. He communicates pain in a way that I think everyone can relate to, because everyone has been there in that place before. And if they haven't been there, they will be there soon.

He also has these really sweet melodies adn softer songs to balance out the angst numbers. I think it's a good mix of both. Because life is both -- good times and bad.

mommy zabs said...

good stuff (your writing that is). I'm not the biggest john lennon fan myself... but i'm not a hater either. i just fall more into a pet sounds/ brian wilson camp :) But i really like the way you articulated this.

John McCollum said...


How strange that this morning I woke up and told my wife, "I just had the oddest dream. I was in Chicago, and there was a Christian Rock band playing really bad music while ice skating. And Andy Whitman was there. And he was drowning kittens in a pond."

Go figure.

HCJoel said...

Growing up (I'm a mere 29 now), I loved the Beatles. Don't ask me how a kid whose first musical fascination was 'Thriller' by Michael Jackson made his next step to the Beatles. Maybe it was 'The Girl Is Mine' or 'Say, Say, Say' with Sir Paul. Anyhow, I loved them for several years before I threw out my cassettes of the Fab Four in my young Christian zeal. Trotting down the life path, I, like Mommy Zabs, fell head over heels for Brian and the Beach Boys. I remain in the 'Pet Sounds' camp today, though I enjoy when a Beatles track comes on Oldies 1150 AM (the only radio station I listen to) and I sing along.
Why should you care? I don't know. I just wanted to share. Anyhow, I'm a lurker and thought I'd let you know that I appreciate the blog in general and this entry in particular. I loved the engaging monologue. If you ever wanted to flesh it out and turn it into a long essay or a short book, I'd read it and share it with friends. Thanks, Andy.

Anonymous said...


I can go get all my John Hiatt CDs out of the trash can now.

I'll turn up Paper Thin real loud in honor of you Andy.

Celebratin' ART!