Fifty years ago this month, John Lennon said about the Beatles: “We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ’n’ roll or Christianity.” It was published as part of an interview in the March 4, 1966, issue of the London Evening Standard.
And nothing happened. There was no public reaction. Not a whisper.
To be fair to Lennon, what he had said in context was, “Christianity will go. 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 was wrong about Christianity and we’ll come back to that, but it’s what happened next that caused the Beatles to fear for their safety when they toured the USA. It also changed the way they worked. This tour was their last and they subsequently became a studio-only band.
In August 1966, the interview was run in Datebook, a US teen magazine. However, this time around, the designer decided to put the “We’re more popular than Jesus . . .” sentence in bold on the front cover. Suddenly there was anger and controversy.
When Tommy Charles, DJ on Birmingham Alabama’s WAQY heard about the quote, he said, “That does it for me. I am not going to play the Beatles any more.” That became a front-page news story in the New York Times.
There was open condemnation of the Beatles; other radio stations banned Beatles songs; their records were publicly burned; and there were large protests. The publication coincided with their US tour. The protests meant press conferences were cancelled, tour events were disrupted and threats were made. Even the Ku Klux Klan picketed them.
Lennon and manager Brian Epstein tried to quiet the conflict, but to no avail.
“Christianity will go”?
The “Christianity will go” comment probably came about because, at the time, Lennon was reading widely. Many of the books in his library challenged Christianity. More importantly, church attendance in the United Kingdom in the 1960s was in major decline, with Christian leaders struggling to work out how to stop it. It did, indeed, appear that Christianity was dying.
However, as A N Wilson, in God’s Funeral, notes: “The God-question does not go away. No sooner have the intelligentsia of one generation confirmed the Almighty to the history books than popular opinion rises against them.” Christianity refuses to go away.
Also, Christianity is a global religion that may see decline in some areas, but be quite vibrant and growing in others. Academic Philip Jenkins, in The Next Christendom, puts it this way: “Over the past century . . . the centre of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward to Africa, Asia and Latin America.” Most Christians are now found in these areas.
On the number of Christians, Jenkins predicts that by 2050, there will be three Christians for every two Muslims, and Christians will account for 34 per cent of the global population, which is about what it was in 1900.
Lennon and Jesus
Lennon apologised for his Jesus comment at a press conference in Chicago while on the US tour. He reckoned that “if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it.” It wasn’t enough to stop the protests, however.
It’s no secret that the four Beatles attempted to find a meaning for life or enlightenment in various ways. The most famous of them was an extended stay with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India. They denounced him later, but transcendental meditation became a part of their lives to some extent.
In 1969, when asked about his Jesus comment, Lennon said that it was “just an expression meaning the Beatles seem to me to have more influence over youth than Christ.” And he added: “Now I wasn’t saying that was a good idea, ’cos I’m one of Christ’s biggest fans. And if I can turn the focus on the Beatles on to Christ’s message, then that’s what we’re here to do.”
“One of Christ’s biggest fans”? That’s quite an admission.
But he went further—from being a big fan to a “born-again” follower. A television addict (his fame kept him from going out in the streets), he watched many of America’s best-known televangelists in the early 1970s. Steve Turner reports in The Gospel According to the Beatles how Lennon wrote to a televangelist confessing his dependence on drugs and his fear of facing up to “the problems of life” and worried that he had said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.
After quoting the line “money can’t buy me love” from the Beatles’ song “Can’t Buy Me Love,” Lennon said, “It’s true. The point is this, I want happiness. I don’t want to keep on with drugs. . . . Explain to me what Christianity can do for me. Is it phony? Can He love me? I want out of hell.”
It’s unknown how long this phase lasted, but several months before his murder (in 1980), he objected to fellow musician Bob Dylan’s Christianity (see page 47) because he didn’t believe there was only one way to God or salvation.
“There isn’t one way to anything,” he claimed. If he favoured anything it was Buddhism, with one of the reasons being that it didn’t attempt to evangelise.
The Jesus advantage
Jesus has never gone out of favour. Not really. Christianity, on the other hand, does and will. And the tragedy is that often it happens because Jesus’ followers act badly.
Jesus is admired as a kind, compassionate, caring Person who was, at times, a straight-talker. He helped the downtrodden. He was available for children. He encouraged the suffering. He performed miracles of healing.
He taught a better way. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) is a challenge for any who want to take Him seriously. In this sermon He said: Be like light to the world with your good deeds. Don’t commit adultery in your mind. Love your enemies. Don’t let money rule your life.
Good strong, moral teachings. Good strong, moral life. That’s Jesus. That’s attractive, but not why His impact continues. For the believer; for the follower; for the Christian, Jesus offers two things that no other person has or can:
- He died for our sins.
- He rose from the dead and gives us the option of life eternal.
That’s basic Christianity—and Jesus’ teaching. Jesus was more than a teacher of morality, He was a bringer of salvation.
The Beatles may have been game-changers in music and the world of celebrity, but Jesus changed everything.
The Beatles brought music. Jesus brings hope.
The Beatles had their day (and continue to have their influence), but it was always really only about their music and the fame that came from it. For some people Lennon was right about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus, but now the Beatles is no more. Jesus remains.
Jesus has never been about popularity. As the One who proclaimed Himself the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6), He offers so much more.
Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Jesus
John Lennon had huge respect for Bob Dylan, but when Dylan became a Christian (in 1979) he was horrified. Steve Turner, in The Gospel According to the Beatles, suggests that what particularly galled him was that on Dylan’s album Slow Train Coming, every song “was delivered with a confidence that had always seemed to elude John. Dylan seemed certain that his sins were forgiven, his eternal security was assured and that God was actively involved in his life.”
When asked about it, Lennon said, “If he needs it, let him do it.” He was past his Jesus “years.” He did add, though, “But I understand it. I understand him completely, how he got in there, because I’ve been frightened enough myself to want to latch onto something.”
As a response to Dylan’s song on the album, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Lennon wrote a song, “Serve Yourself,” where he argues that no-one can save you and the only one you can serve is yourself. Yoko Ono said in 1998, “He was kind of upset [about Dylan’s song] and it was a dialogue. It showed his anger but also . . . his sense of humour.”
The evidence is that Dylan has remained a Christian.