Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Imagine This

(This was originally written in anticipation of the 25th anniversary of the muder of John Lennon, but unpublished until now. Thanks to Blogspot for the opportunity to get it out at all.)

In 1980, I had an ongoing ambition in life - to meet John Lennon. To me, Lennon was more than a great artist or a pop star - he was a kindred spirit. An old friend I’d not yet personally met. A living, breathing validation and vindication of my avant-garde soul.

On December 8, 1980, I found myself in need of a new life’s ambition.

To this day, John Lennon’s pointless murder is for me one of the great losses of the ages. Not because it was the antithesis of everything he apparently stood for. Certainly not because it forever silenced any serious ideas of a Beatles reunion. Not even for the far more grievous and personal reason (lost on most of us) of his family, bereft of a loving, committed husband and father.

Perhaps the death of John Lennon brought home for many of us the real nature of death: Its cold finality, its unsurpassable ugliness, its glib, businesslike cancellation of God’s image in human form. Who would have thought such a lively, imperfect rogue, fresh into a new burst of creativity after five years devoted to raising a child, should be the target of a madman’s revolver?

I would gladly have taken those bullets instead. Part of the tragedy of John Lennon’s death is one he would doubtless agree with: His elevation to sainthood, his increasingly unassailable image, his name (misspelled “Jhon”) painted on the back of buses in Venezuela, his statue unveiled in Liverpool, New York, Havana. And for those who love dirt, the sleazy unauthorized biographies and remembrances, mingling Lennon’s eccentricities and foibles with lies and conjecture. One need only read his actual interviews to see neither saintly humility nor monstrous ego. He was just a Liverpudlian musician, an artsy guy, a thinker, a member of a band that, in his own words, “happened to make it very big.”

Of all Lennon’s amazing songs, “Imagine” is the one that seems to get more attention than all the others combined. A well-intentioned piece of utopian naïveté, its vision of a world devoid of possessions, religion, countries, and almost anything else that could be considered bad by anyone, “Imagine” raises good questions but misses the point. A younger Lennon, paradoxically both more and less cynical than his later persona, probably knew better. His 1965 poem “The Fat Budgie” instead suggests we “Imagine all the people/laughing till they’re sick.”

Music’s power to bypass the head and go straight to the heart often results in an uncritical acceptance of its message, be it “The world will live as one” or “You and me baby, we ain’t nothing but mammals…” Anyone who has the slightest acquaintance with history can see that the human race is, barring a miracle, blundering its way toward self-annihilation, not some vague, quasi-Marxist “brotherhood of man”. Still, I would not belittle Lennon’s contributions to pop music’s quest for enlightenment: As early as 1965 he was advocating love (via his song “The Word”, on the Beatles’
Rubber Soul LP) as more than romance, rather as the meaning of life, a musical idea that would culminate in his 1967 anthem “All You Need is Love”.

Both of these statements were overshadowed in 1966 by Lennon’s infelicitous observation to a journalist that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”, a statement that landed him in no end of hot water. In the largely ignored context of the interview from which it was taken, Lennon had kind words for Jesus but not for His disciples nor the church. The evangelical outcry that ensued forced him to issue an apology of sorts (so the final Beatles U.S. tour could go on as planned), but doubtless served to reinforce to Lennon what a “thick and ordinary” lot Christians must be. Still, Christ appeals to sinners, and after a couple of years of dabbling in eastern mysticism with the other Beatles, Lennon punctuated his 1969 appeal for world peace with the declaration, “We want Christ to win.” If Christ’s own declaration that “whoever is not against us is for us” is to be taken seriously (and in context), then it is better left for Him than for us to decide whether Lennon was “not far from the Kingdom”.

I would not paint John Lennon as a saintly pagan, worshiping the Creator as best he could according to his limited knowledge. Yoko Ono spoke of him being on a trip to Japan, stopping to worship at religious shrines she’d long ignored. On the other hand, she and John engaged in the biblical practice of tithing, giving 10% of their income to charity. And so those of us who contemplate a non-universalist eternity are left to speculate.

It’s widely bandied about in Christian circles that we will one day be astonished to find a) who’s in heaven, and b) who isn’t (provided of course we’re there to find out!) Those who will be, according to Calvinists, are the predestined; according to Armenians, those who persevere to the end; according to traditional denominations, the baptized (which would include John Lennon, Mother Teresa, yours truly, and Adolf Hitler).

God isn’t the slightest bit confused on this issue.

If I had written this twenty years ago, I’d have been lamenting Lennon’s eternal loss, his having died without having confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

I’m now far too wise to think I’m half so smart.

Yes, I believe that Jesus is the only Mediator between God and man. And if I were a Universalist, I’d never have bothered to become a missionary in South America, would I? And as a cradle Catholic who has since seriously examined Roman Catholic doctrine and apologetics, I have seen respectable, honest and biblically-based cases given both for and against the doctrine of purgatory. So where do I stand on the eternal fate of my erstwhile hero, John Lennon?

Nowhere. I can’t do that. Instead, I kneel before the Cross.

One of the most comforting passages of scripture for anybody who believes in God’s absolute goodness is found in Romans 3:6 (as well as other passsages) - "God is certainly fair! If he weren't, how could he judge the world?" Unless we are among those who think they’re nicer than God, we can lay a burden as heavy as this one at His feet, trusting that the One who created John Lennon also knows exactly how to handle this. Hell is for those who could never bow the knee to the Son of God. And Protestants don’t generally pray for the dead, but in this case I’ve asked the Father for His mercy to triumph over judgment and even justice.

In Christ my life has purpose and passion as never before, but I’m thinking of adding my old life’s ambition to my list of things to do.

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