Erik Strandness reflects upon Unbelievable?’s recent discussion about John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and God, and shares why he thinks their work is neither “the devil’s music” nor something to be worshipped - instead, both musicians play an important role in pointing us to the divine.
Jon Stewart, lead guitarist for Sleeper, recently appeared on Unbelievable? to talk about the spiritual journeys of Bob Dylan and John Lennon in his new book ‘Dylan, Lennon, Marx & God’. Veteran music journalist Steve Turner also spoke about the search for God in the music of the 60s and 70s and engaged with Jon’s own journey in and out of faith.
More Popular Than Jesus
John Lennon famously quipped that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink … We’re more popular than Jesus now.” While his comment was simply meant to point out a cultural reality and had nothing to do with an assessment of lifestyles or moral character, it started a huge controversy in America prompting the burning of albums and cancellation of shows.
Bob Dylan similarly dealt with comparisons between himself and Jesus.
“For some, including Dylan’s producer Bob Johnston, the potency of Dylan’s material inspired messianic devotion: ‘I truly believe that in a couple of hundred years they’ll find out he was a prophet … I think he’s the only prophet we’ve had since Jesus.’ Dylan, however, found such comparisons tiresome. ‘Being noticed can be a burden’, he explained later, ‘Jesus Christ got himself crucified because he got himself noticed. So, I disappear a lot.’” (Excerpt from Dylan, Lennon, Marx & God)
The problem with these early controversies was that they assumed that relevance was measured by a cultural popularity contest and that being a follower of Jesus Christ was like joining a fan club. A sentiment which continues unabated in 2022 where Christianity is perceived as a cult of personality built on a collection of parables, miracles, and sermons rather than a personal relationship with the God of the universe. Dylan and Lennon will be admired for their corpus of earthly accomplishments, but Jesus will be worshipped for a Body of work hanging on a cross, a back catalogue not marked by sales but stripes. Dylan and Lennon will be remembered for their reminiscences of a life lived but Jesus will be worshipped for His promise of an eternal life to come.
Interestingly, as Turner engaged with the fan groups of these men he met resistance when he spoke of their spirituality.
“I’ve had some very interesting conversations with the various John Lennon Facebook fan groups cause I’ve been in there talking about the book, and they’re very, very, resistant to the idea that Lennon belongs in (the book) Dylan, Lennon, Marx and God, that God and Lennon should be in that title together, and I’m like, you understand he was calling televangelists in the 1970’s, he wrote songs about prayer and God with Yoko, and was profoundly interested in that stuff towards the end of his life…He was a deeply profound spiritual thinker.”
In order for a cultural icon to be a suitable savior he or she must be purged of their ideological impurities. Atheists wanted Lennon to be their secular messiah and so they recoiled when Stewart showed them that his materialist purity had been infected with the leaven of spirituality.
Stewart, in his book, shows how these two men initially embraced the role of “movement artist” becoming the political face of the anti-war movement but then rejected it once they realized that they had been transformed into caricatures of themselves. Many believed Lennon and Dylan could change the world because they were just like us yet had a public platform. Sadly, they confused the brightness of the cultural spotlight with purity and rather than accept them as human, made them objects of devotion. It is a terrifying thing to be placed on a pedestal and worshipped as a cultural savior.
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My Redeemer Lives
Humans will always be inadequate spokespeople for a movement because they are a bundle of contradictions and are too flighty to be pigeon-holed. Scientists wanted Darwin to be the ultimate evolutionary materialist only to find out he was conflicted about his own faith. Pro-choice advocates wanted Margaret Sanger to be the figure head of women’s rights and then were embarrassed by her racist eugenic roots. Christians wanted Ravi Zacharias to be the ultimate apologist but discovered that hearing he never really heard.
Stewarts book should be a warning that we cannot put our faith in humans as standard bearers. It isn’t wrong to optimistically recognize our image-bearing potentiality, but we must hold it in tension with our sinful actuality. Image-bearing means that we are worth saving but sin means that we cannot accomplish it ourselves. We fool ourselves if we think we are messiahs in need of a mandate rather than sinners in need of a savior.
Stewart described his own journey in and out of Christianity. It was his struggles with alcoholism that led him into a twelve-step program and ultimately Christianity. Stewart was grateful to the program for treating his alcoholism but ultimately found that Christianity failed to answer his intellectual questions. He then adopted a materialist worldview and accounted for the emergence of spirituality and religion in evolutionary terms, a stance most clearly on display in his chapter describing the spirituality of Lennon and Dylan. While his book is thoughtful and thoroughly documented this chapter was disappointing because it reduced the spiritual longings of these two men to nothing more than a chemical deception. He posited that their spiritual dabbling was due in part to a lack of exposure to the literature of evolutionary psychology.
“Supernatural beliefs may have inspired some of Dylan’s and Lennon’s most impactful songs, but today the cognitive mechanisms underpinning their subjective experience of faith can be explained from a material basis.” (Excerpt from Dylan, Lennon, Marx & God)
Therapy or Truth
Despite his atheism, Stewart noted that the happiest time in his life was during his Christian years. When asked by Turner what it was that ultimately disappointed Stewart about Christianity he replied, “Nothing, it’s the happiest I’ve ever been. Literally, I think it’s an amazing way to live and I would never ever want to discourage anybody from following it…. I’m quite a fan of the organization.” Unlike Richard Dawkins, Stewart believes that the God Delusion, rather than a blight on humanity, has important psychological benefits, and while metaphysically untrue, is still therapeutically useful.
“What’s interesting to me now is that those gray areas have been eliminated by science. There’s lots of interesting research as to the benefits of faith. I’m not somebody who says that religion is a bad thing, I think it’s an absolutely necessary way of organizing ourselves and I’ve benefited from it, I’m sober because of it, so I’m not somebody who takes that sort of Richard Dawkins view of religion as bad, I think it is profoundly necessary and very important to the human experience. Even if God doesn’t exist, he got me sober.” (Stewart)
Stewarts experience raises some very interesting questions – Is Christianity just a successful mental health program or the cure for sin that leads to death? Is Jesus just a salesman for a health and wealth gospel or is He the Great Physician? Is Christianity an opiate for our sadness or does it get to the heart of our addiction? Does the world need physical therapy or spiritual healing?
Acknowledging Our Lower Power
Stewart explained how his alcoholism led him to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and later to Christianity, but his intellectual questions led him back to his atheist roots.
I guess my own personal journey was just troubled by the reality of evolution. Working out the mechanics doesn’t necessarily mean that something profound and spiritual is behind it, but I guess that what I just read about was enough to kind of tip me back into my previous materialistic worldview.”
Is it possible that the modern or (postmodern) iteration of AA is too anemic to maintain a healthy faith? AA starts off well by recognizing the ability of alcohol to destroy a life and one’s inability to overcome it alone but then encourages addicts to choose a vague higher power to their liking to assist them in their rehabilitation. This higher power, rather than being a distinct entity outside themselves, becomes a god created in their likeness. The desire to be like God that got them into trouble in the first place is given primacy in their therapy.
Your higher power can be anything that you believe in: the universe, nature, Buddha, music, love, Allah, humanity or even AA itself. AA doesn’t require you to believe in anything that you don’t want to; each step is a suggestion along the road to a sober life. (American Addictions Center)
Perceiving of God as a higher power reduces him/her/or it to a performance enhancing drug which may briefly improve your track record, but in the end, leaves an asterisk next to your name in the book of life. Interestingly, my experience working with men at the Union Gospel Mission differs significantly from this definition because they were transformed not by a higher power but by a personal relationship with a lower power, a God Who emptied himself and became weak on their behalf. These men found themselves so deep in the pit of despair they couldn’t even see a higher power, but instead of losing hope, they found Jesus sitting next to them comparing scars and wounds. Suffering they encountered a fellow Sufferer. Stewart seemed to embrace a higher power but failed to see that that power was actually found in weakness. He listened for an utterance from heaven but missed God’s Word hanging on a hill. I think we miss out if we seek a distant higher power and miss His incarnate presence.
The popular form of AA begins by recognizing a broken and contrite heart but rather than recommending a heart transplant where the heart of stone is replaced with a heart of flesh it encourages a cultural heart healthy diet which ignores the persistent angina of angst.
Demon Rum or Chemical Conundrum?
Stewarts experience should help atheists see that even if they believe Christianity is metaphysically untrue, it can still be therapeutic. As he stated, “I feel sorry for atheists who have never experienced faith. I think they’ve missed out in a way.”
I think, however, that the atheist must also ask themselves what their worldview has to offer an alcoholic who wants to be healed. If we are just collocating chemicals and you have a chemical addiction, then aren’t you just hanging out with friends? Isn’t ingesting happy chemicals the proper response to sad chemicals? How can one exorcise the demon rum if demons don’t exist?
Thread of Christianity
Turner pointed out that Rock n’ Roll has its roots in the Christian tradition and has often been a dialectic between the sacred and secular. Many of its early practitioners struggled with taking a musical form that originated in a Christian milieu and making it into a secular stew.
“It’s really important to realize that rock n roll was built in the most evangelical Christian area probably of the world, the southern states. And almost all of the people that I can think of who were pioneers of rock n roll had this discussion going on in their head like “Am I doing the right thing…Should I be singing gospel?
Rock n roll has been called the devil’s music but maybe it is actually a necessary devil’s advocate in an important faith conversation. The works of Lennon and Dylan allow us to eavesdrop on this lyrical negotiation between the spiritual and the secular. We need to learn from their journeys, but we do them a disservice if we place them on pedestals. Lennon and Dylan cannot save us, but they may point us in the direction of the One who can. Artists often crack open the door of spirituality, but we make a mistake when we confuse them with the gate. We can’t, however, just admire the light from the door they have cracked open but must step inside for a meet and greet.
Christianity is woven into everything from science to music so, along with Lennon, Dylan and Stewart, and Turner the least we can do is follow the thread and see where it leads. As Stewart pointed out.
“I think there is something specific about Christianity that is really important culturally even if you are an atheist. You have to acknowledge that Christianity is a unique religion in that most of the scientific advances that we have today happened under Christianity…Much like music you can’t really pull them apart.”
Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.
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