Today I would like to revisit a story from America’s history of Christian persecution….in case the details should be lost to time.
If I were to make a reference to The Beatles being more popular than Jesus, most of you would know what I was talking about. In 1966 Beatlemania took an ugly turn in America when a John Lennon quote was singled out on the cover of Datebook magazine. The original article was written by journalist Maureen Cleave, a friend to The Beatles, and appeared months earlier in London’s The Evening Standard. Here is the actual referenced paragraph from the article:
Experience has sown few seeds of doubt in him: not that his mind is closed, but it’s closed round whatever he believes at the time. “Christianity will go,” he said. “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 is reading extensively about religion.
In an impressive display of mass hysteria born from a lack of reading comprehension, Christians across America (mostly in the bible belt) decided to fight back. Believing The Beatles were attacking god with their blasphemy, they organized record burnings and took to the media to declare all kinds of ignorance about what he meant. Some religious folks came to his defense, claiming that he was right about Christianity becoming less popular than rock and roll; and asking the very relative question of what did that mean about its future? But it was no use, and John was receiving daily death threats.
This was not an ideal way to kick off The Beatles’ upcoming American tour, so a press conference was arranged for their first stop in Chicago. (Want to read a sad story about how my mom was supposed to be there? I wrote about it once on another blog, and you can find it here.)
For those of you who do not own every book ever written about The Beatles and John Lennon, let me share a favorite point of view on this moment in time. The Beatles’ Press Officer, Tony Barrow, had this to say about the meeting he had with Brian Epstein and John in preparation for the press conference:
Never before or afterwards did I see John in such a distraught state, not because he believed he owed anyone an apology, but because he knew that the tour could be cancelled unless he swung the media over and gained their support at the imminent conference. After hearing what we had to say, John leant forward in his chair and fell silent, his head in his hands. We realised that he was sobbing and Brian put a comforting arm around his shoulders. John raised his head: “I’m willing to apologize if you tell me that’s what I must do. I’ll do anything, whatever you say. How on earth am I to face the others if this whole tour is called off just because of something I’ve said? I didn’t mean to cause all of this.” I suggested to John that he should concentrate on tying to explain rather than telling the press he was sorry. Brian Epstein broke his own rule by warning John directly that there was a very real fear of an attempt on his life if the mood of America’s bible bashers did not improve. He said: “I would sooner cancel the concerts than take such a risk, John, and I’ll take the responsibility for telling George, Paul, and Ringo.”
At the press conference John said:
“Look, I wasn’t saying The Beatles are better than God or Jesus. I said Beatles because it’s easy for me to talk about Beatles, I could have said TV or the cinema, motor cars, or anything popular and I would have got away with it. My views on Christianity are directly influenced by The Passover Plot by Hugh J. Schonfield. The premise is that Jesus’ message has been garbled by his disciples and twisted for a variety of self-serving reasons by those who followed.”
The reporters continued with questions asking if John believed in god, and if he was sorry about his statements concerning Christ. At one point when a reporter asks, “Do you really think Christianity is shrinking?” Paul chimes in with, “And we deplore the fact that it is, you know, that’s the point.”
John offers more apologies.
I don’t know if John thought he could win any points with Christians by referencing The Passover Plot, since Christians were typically not fans of the book. Perhaps because it was a recent bestseller they would believe he was taken in by it. I’m not sure. But Paul’s desperation to side with Christianity is clear. Do we really believe that The Beatles were Christian role models? Did they join hands in prayer before each performance? No. And the fact that their views on religion might differ from those in the bible belt should not have been surprising.
They caved to the demand not because they needed to sell more records or prove their Christianity. No, they caved to the demand out of fear. Because if they couldn’t convince bible belt Christians that they supported Christianity, John Lennon’s life may actually be in danger.
All of that in reaction to a more than reasonable view on Christianity. He was right, after all. Wasn’t he? Surely there had been sermons all over America at the time convincing youth that it was dangerous to be worldly, or to put music and celebrities above Christ. How many record burnings included a sermon that almost completely agreed with John’s original statement?
And yet the fact that a celebrity (who Christian teens might have actually worshiped more than Jesus) would admit it was not acceptable. He was the enemy. Working for Satan, no doubt. And the way mobs formed in reaction to that should be terrifying. I mean, seriously terrifying.
Have we made progress in the bible belt over the last 50 years? I suppose as a nation we are certainly more tolerant of our celebrities and their views on Christianity. I think it is getting better, but I can think of many who would say we are nearing the end times over it.
Persecution is at an all time high!
But if most of the country still identifies as Christian, then how can that be true? Isn’t the tolerance coming mostly from Christians themselves? It seems like maybe Christians are persecuting Christians, but that can’t be right. Perhaps then it is not persecution at all, but rather a sign that Christianity is evolving faster for some Christians than it is for others.
Revivals will happen, as we are seeing now, but overall it’s getting a tiny bit closer to reason. Sometimes you must have some history to compare it to in order to regain your sanity. So as you go through your social media today, hold on to that slight ray of hope. And remember: for many people, The Beatles are still more popular than Jesus.