10 - The Beatles and Religion
10 - The Beatles and Religion
The charter of the Facebook group Beatleism – the Beatle religion– is JPG&R, our true Lords. Believe their Word and you’ll see the true path to salvation.
Another group, The Beatles are my religion, states that membership is open for anybody who is: sick of wars over religion and think that everybody should just listen to The Beatles and be happy.
When he heard that during The Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan there was no crime in America for that one hour, The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi said:
“It was at that point that I knew The Beatles were angels on earth.”
Counterculture icon Dr. Timothy Leary declared that The Beatles were mutants – prototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species, a young race of laughing freemen.
Radio personality Howard Stern told Paul McCartney of the importance of the music of The Beatles in his life:
“The Beatles are more of a religion to me than any organized religion. Their music does more for my spirit and elevates me to a higher plane than any religious ceremony ever did.”
Stern was relaying what many Beatles admirers feel. There is a ‘cosmic” connection to the band which is not so easy to define. To many, they are a form of religion. After their breakup John remarked that The Beatles were a kind of religion and that the festivals at Woodstock and on the Isle of Wight were the youth getting togetherand forming a new church.
Could The Beatles be defined as a religion?
The resident expert on the subject of The Beatles and religion is Steve Turner. In 1994 he wrote A Hard Day’s Write on the story behind The Beatles songs, and since then has authored books on Van Morrison, Cliff Richard, Marvin Gaye and Johnny Cash. In 2006 he published The Gospel According To The Beatles about the religious and spiritual influences of the group.
Turner reveals that the religious allure of The Beatles was a vital factor in allowing the group to endure. He believes John Lennon was onto something in 1966 when he compared the group’s popularity with that of Jesus Christ.
The Beatles were spiritual apostles of sorts who may not have explicitly sought converts, but they evangelized a kind of gospel that resonated with numerous devotees across a broad spectrum of beliefs. The search for a meaningful spirituality was an important part of their motivation.
The British author writes: “The root of the word religion is the Latin ligare, meaning to “to bind.” Re-ligare is therefore “to bound back to our original innocence, sense of wonder, and source of meaning. It’s not surprising to me that The Beatles sought out wonder, meaning, and innocence in their lives and music and that a huge international audience looked to them to find much the same thing.”
As religion has its roots in spiritual bonding, The Beatles had a powerful appeal to a generation in calling forth a spiritual bonding. They were elevated to a kind of mythological sainthood and have become modern counterparts to the religious figures of the past.
In Robin Sylvan’s Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimensions of Popular Music, he supports the assertion that The Beatles became “like” a religion:
“Myths were codified into a canon (i.e., Paul is dead, the stories behind the songs), rituals were established (concerts, play the record backward and it says ‘this’, ritual garb: Beatles boots, Lennon’s national health glasses, psychedelic paisley crud), doctrines were propagated (lyrics) and released in a timely manner, and The Beatles gained ‘god men’ status with the mothers bringing their sick children in to be healed.”
George’s commitment to his religion
George was the first leader of the 60s generation to embrace religion. Obviously, Christianity could not bring the masses of young people closer to God. He gave them something a little “lighter” and more “authentic” by merging the spirituality of the East into the focus of the West.
Beatles scholar Ian MacDonald writes: “Arguably more responsible than any other individual for popularizing Oriental and particularly Hindu, thought in the West, George Harrison was a countercultural figure in his own right, albeit that his natural modesty would not have allowed him to relish the accolade.”
George’s role in the group was the glue that merged the brilliance of Lennon and McCartney into a unified vocal sound. This is why he was third on the totem pole and not in the spotlight as much as the other two. He never rebelled against McCartney-Lennon for not giving him the chance to record his songs. He could have quit- joined another band. He was there for another purpose – a higher spiritual purpose –to unify their sound into the same oneness that he found in the “oneness” of his god.
One of the most difficult feelings for musicians and singers to describe is what music means to them. This is because music and singing are such inherently spiritual acts. George’s vocals are his spirituality speaking directly to us. The spiritual message that he found for us was delivered through his music.
Says MacDonald: “Harrison was the one with the most coherent belief system and the one most likely to think his lyrics through. This makes his lyrics perhaps more dogged than Lennon and McCartney’s but at least the listeners of the future have more chance of working out what he was driving at.”
George’s quest was not for hit records, fame, or monetary rewards, but to seek out that which humans have pursued for millennia: the meaning of life and our higher spiritual purpose.
The meaning of his legacy was not in his musical contributions. What he was as a person was much more important than the musical contributions he made to their sound. The spirit was more relevant than the physical.
Parallels between The Beatles and Christianity
Reverend Ellen Cooper-Davis, the minister of Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston, believes that like the man from Nazareth, two millennia earlier, Lennon carried the banner of social revolution and was murdered in his prime.
Jesus preached a great good news about love. He also preached social revolution and challenged the status quo by asking his followers to look at things from a different perspective than that to which they were accustomed.
He didn’t set out to record his own teachings. Likewise, The Beatles never set out to write their own gospel. But they ended up recording the gospel, the good news of a generation full of imagination and hope, and creative rebellion.
The gospel according to The Beatles is a story of spiritual exploration, of transcendence, and of love, love, love. Their gospel is still being written by those of us who responded to their message.
Cooper-Davis says The Beatles’ version of the “good news” begins with despair and loneliness and even irrelevance of individual lives such as Eleanor Rigby and Father Mackenzie, the Nowhere Man,The Fool on The Hill, and Rocky Raccoon. The message was not that the Nowhere Man, the Fool on the Hill, and all the others existed, but that they could become aware of their spiritual selves. They could change their condition through love, awareness, enlightenment, and transcendence.
She points out that Jesus preached this same gospel. Like Jesus, The Beatles message was powerful because it was progressive. It was filled with imagination.
In a 1967 International Times interview McCartney stated: “The most important thing to say to people is, ‘It isn’t necessarily so, what you believe. You must see that whatever you believe in isn’t necessarily the truth. No matter how truthful it gets, it’s not necessarily even the truth because the fact that it could be right or wrong is also infinite, and that’s the point. The whole being is fluid and changing all the time and evolving. For it to be as cut and dried as we’ve got it now it’s got to be cut and dried in an unreal way. It’s a fantastically abstract way of living that people have got into without realizing it.”
Beatle songs as hymns
Music critic Al Bargar says that in religious terminology, Strawberry Fields Forever serves something of a secular answer to the 23rd Psalm. John leadeth me beside the still waters to a place of safety and calmness where nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about.
Other famous Beatle songs such as Here Comes the Sun and Sun King can be seen as religious metaphors for the coming of Christ or a “Messiah.”
Turner wrote that the life and teachings of Jesus had always intrigued Lennon and when he became recognized as a leader, he began to empathize with Jesus. For instance, he wondered whether
Christ, like The Beatles, had had divinity thrust on him by over-zealous followers. Had Jesus been someone with a gift for storytelling, insight into the human condition, and the ability to foretell the future, who had been turned into a god figure against his will?
“Lennon admired his central teachings of love, justice, and seeking the kingdom of heaven but felt that Jesus had been co-opted by people with a different agenda. He speculated that Jesus’ claim to be the son of God might have been a way of telling us that we’re all divine but that most of us don’t recognize it.”
When he was asked in 1980 why The Beatles would never reunite, Lennon’s reply alluded to at least three Gospel stories: “Do we have to divide the fish and the loaves for the multitudes again? Do we have to get crucified again? Do we have to do the walking on water again because a whole pile of dummies didn’t see it the first time or didn’t believe it when they saw it? That’s what they’re asking. ‘Get off the cross. I didn’t understand it the first time.”
Enshrining The Beatle legacy
The American academic Robert J. Kruse has written extensively on the issue of how important geography was to the Beatles legacy: “The quasi-religious faith in the power of music icons. renders the range of physical spaces that they occupied or passed through sites of crucial importance, imbued with sacred meaning.”
Today, any items The Beatles used or once owned are treated as heirlooms and sold in auctions for astronomical sums. Beatle tourism is thriving because many people want to see and experience where they have been, lived, worked, and recorded – just as they do religious figures. Their childhood homes are national historical sites. The Beatles are today, and have always been, worshipped as god-like figures.
It’s interesting to note that there was only one Beatle song, Revolution, which had two public versions. Much more recorded Beatle material was never released until 20-30 years after it was created. In the same way, the “official catalogue” was a “cannon” of literature and nothing else should penetrate it. It eventually did – and more of this material was released – but only much later on. It’s as if the rest had to be purposely kept out of the public’s eye, just as the early Roman Church culled the “New Testament” to include an “official cannon” of content.
In their own way, The Beatles really are a nucleus of some type of new religion. For instance, their gospel presupposes that they believed that something was wrong with the world. You don’t go around dispensing “good news” if you think everything’s fine. The Christian gospel was meant to be good news to people who were enslaved to wrong desires. The central concern of The Beatles is harder to pin down because they didn’t believe in a cataclysmic event such as the fall or in a definitive redemption act such as the atonement.
Their unfolding philosophy always pivoted on freedom of one type or another. The human problem, in their eyes, was one of limitations and constraint. We couldn’t reach our full potential if we were inhibited.
Their music was a vehicle they were able to use to reach us – to get us to pay attention – to perform the traditional, historical role of the Prophet in all societies and religions.