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Popular Culture: The Ballad of John and Jesus
Two books tell the story behind John Lennon's short-lived conversion.
By Steve Turner | posted 6/12/2000 12:00AM
Two new books on John Lennon claim that the ex-Beatle experienced a brief period as a born-again Christian during the 1970s. While living the life of a virtual recluse in New York's Dakota Building, Lennon became an avid viewer of American TV evangelists and, at some point during 1977, declared that he had been saved. Robert Rosen in Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon (published in June by Soft Skull Press) cites Billy Graham as the main influence, whereas Geoffrey Giuliano in Lennon in America (published in June by Cooper Square Press) mentions both Graham and Pat Robertson. Both agree that the period, during which Lennon peppered his everyday conversation with:
"Praise the Lord" and "Thank you, Jesus," was brief. Giuliano says it lasted for "a matter of months." Rosen suggests it was "about two weeks."
Both writers have based their information on sources close to Lennon and on the singer's personal diaries, which circulated shortly after his death and were then retrieved by his widow, Yoko Ono. The existence of the diaries has been known for some time, but so far no writer has divulged their contents. Because of legal problems, neither Rosen nor Giuliano has been able to quote directly from the diaries, but both have drawn on the information.
"One day [Lennon] had an epiphany—he allowed himself to be touched by the love of Jesus Christ, and it drove him to tears of joy and ecstacy," writes Rosen, a New York journalist briefly employed by Ono.
"He drew a picture of a crucifix; he was born again, and the experience was such a kick that he had to share it with Yoko."
Giuliano, who has written extensively about the Beatles, pinpoints the conversion to a Palm Sunday and says that Lennon was so moved by a series about Jesus broadcast on Robertson's CBN that he broke down in tears. In the following weeks, he attended church services and took his son, Sean, to a Christian theater performance. He even called The 700 Club help line to request prayer for his health and troubled marriage.
"He prayed for forgiveness when he stepped on insects or snapped at the maid," Giuliano writes.
"He became convinced that Jesus was personally protecting Sean."
Ono, whose first husband Anthony Cox became an evangelical Christian in the 1970s, was displeased with Lennon's changed outlook. Giuliano claims that Lennon began to challenge her interest in the occult and was disappointed that she wouldn't join him in watching Graham's telecasts.
"This dramatic conversion worried Yoko," Giuliano writes.
"She feared that John's new faith would clash with her own ideas about spiritualism and threaten her iron hold over him."
In the end Ono won. In his final years, the man best known for his lines "Imagine there's no heaven / It's easy if you try" was living a life dictated by astrologers, numerologists, clairvoyants, psychics, herbalists, and tarot-card readers. The one song that Lennon wrote during his born-again period has never been released. "You Saved My Soul," which recounts being prevented from attempting suicide while staying in a Tokyo hotel, is known only to Beatles bootleggers. Two years later, Lennon wrote a parody of Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" in which he urged his listeners to believe in no one but themselves—a line he had peddled on his first solo release in 1970. According to Rosen in Nowhere Man, Lennon wrote the song in Palm Beach after seeing the newly converted Dylan on a Grammy Awards TV broadcast.
Rosen writes that "Serve Yourself" was "a wrathful protest bristling with fury and despair."
"(You got to serve yourself / Nobody gonna do it for you / You may believe in devils / You may believe in laws / But you know you're gonna to have to serve yourself.")Unlike the other Beatles, Lennon was raised as a nominal Christian and attended Sunday school at St. Peter's Church in Woolton, Liverpool. This early exposure to Christianity may explain why he always seemed to regard Jesus as a figure who had to be dealt with, whether through comparison ("The Beatles are more popular than Jesus"), identification ("They're gonna crucify me," in "Ballad of John and Yoko"), or challenge ("I don't believe in Jesus," in "God").
Where his contemporaries ignored Jesus, Lennon had to continually take him on. In his final interviews, carried out just weeks before his death in December 1980, Lennon said his beliefs could be described as "Zen Christian, Zen pagan, Zen Marxist" or nothing at all. Speaking to Newsweek's Barbara Graustark, however, Lennon revealed that he still reads the Bible. "Some of [Christ's parables] are only making sense to me now, after a whole life of sitting in church or school," he told her.
"It was just moany, moany, moany for years, and then I hear it again and I think, God, that's what he means."
Steve Turner is a journalist and poet living in London.
"You've never felt the rain, my friend, until you've felt it running down you back".