[Originally posted 21 April 2007]
ecades ago now talented songwriter John Lennon was murdered by a born-again Christian missionary. Did we hear in the news about the murderer’s religion? About his missionary work in Lebanon? How he once belonged to a group that prayed for the death of John Lennon? Of course not. That would have been politically incorrect. Instead we were given a fairy-story about this guy being a demented fan—something asserted without any evidence—a bizarre twist on the blame-the-victim theme. It seems it was Lennon’s own music that drove this guy to take his life.
Okay, right. This is beneath contempt, and posthumously justifies Lennon’s crack about reporters being the simple-minded chroniclers of our times. Still, there is actually an interesting story here, though it has very little to do with Lennon, and much to do with the vagaries of the religion-addled mind. Let’s start by going back, back, back…
In the first century (we may suppose, direct evidence being missing) people started writing what were later termed “gospels”, short accounts that told of the message, as the writer saw it, of Jesus of Nazareth. The oldest extant gospel appears to be the one entitled Mark. The author liked to harp on certain themes—the notion that Jesus claimed secretly to be the king (which is what the term christ means), for example. One of these notions was that Jesus’ closest followers didn’t understand this. His followers, according to Mark, failed him on every level. One of them turned him over to the authorities, another one “cut him dead,” (as Mary Magdalene puts it in Jesus Christ Superstar), and still others fail to recognize or report on the significance of his tomb being empty. A miserable performance all round.
Now historically this tells us that the author of Mark was acutely aware he was presenting a notion at odds with the teachings of Jesus’ closest followers. A new teaching, as it were. For our purposes, however, the key point is that collectively the impression given by the gospel writers is that his key followers just weren’t all that bright.
This notion has informed a great deal of scholarship (and faux scholarship) since. On the one hand it fits with the notion that Jesus was a god or an emissary of a god—it’s not unreasonable that his merely human followers might not understand him clearly. On the other hand, for those seeking to create a better Jesus—to free him of having said some of the things that are (in that person’s mind anyway) clearly unworthy of him—it works too. Who was responsible for screwing his message up? Those idiot followers, of course.
Yes, those idiot followers have a lot to answer for.
Now skipping quickly over some nineteen centuries from the first to the twentieth we come to the next step in the narrative. In the 1960s a fellow named Hugh Schonfield wrote a couple of books that became best-sellers and stirred up a lot of debate. If memory serves they were called The Passover Plot and Those Incredible Christians. As I recall Schonfield argued, on the basis of a painfully naive reading of the gospel texts, that Jesus planned for his own resurrection, but the plot failed. His followers spirited the body away, but the attempt to revive him failed, thanks to a spear in the side from one of the guards. The missing body, along with wishful thinking, inspired the story of the resurrection anyway—or something like that. I haven’t reread the books myself for decades, and maybe I've confused it with others of its ilk. The thing is, as Schonfield correctly pointed out, the gospel narratives have been shaped by decades of church history that must be taken into account in examining the events of the time.
What John Lennon got out of this, when he read Schonfield, is that Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. He remarked as much to a journalist.
He also remarked in the course of discussion that Christianity would shrink in the future and ultimately vanish. Indeed, he said, it’s already happening—the Beatles are more popular than Jesus now.
Nobody seems to have had a problem with this remark until the Beatles publicly stated their opposition to racial segregation, refusing to tour the Union of South Africa. This was still a hot topic in the south of the US, which was then segregated, and a few southern radio stations seized on this Jesus remark as an excuse to attack the Beatles. The manufactured outrage spread. The DJs organized book and record-burnings in their honor. In the end even the press got hold of the wrong end of the stick and started beating the bushes with it, as Neil Innes put it. The Ku Klux Klan joined the fray with various empty threats. Obscure fundamentalist ministers seeking their fifteen minutes of fame hopped on the bandwagon to issue vapid statements to the press. Then Lennon apologized, after a fashion, and the whole thing blew over.
Except among crazed fundies. What they got out of the whole thing is that John Lennon was an evil person who hated Christianity.
A historical footnote here. Lennon’s religious views may be described as complex—or confused, depending on where you stand. A theist of sorts, he believed that the universe was eternal and uncreated, and that it was impossible to know anything about the past through archaeology, palaeontology, and the like. Evolution was impossible; things are now as they always have been. People who study the past just dig things out of the ground and make up stories about how life used to be. He had equal contempt for creationists, and as far as I can see, an equal lack of understanding. According to one story, he hired an investigator to check out European monasteries and other cultural backwaters for the spear that pierced Jesus’ side, apparently believing it had some sort of mystic powers.
Not an orthodox Christian, exactly, but not outside the pale either. He liked to think of himself as belonging to a tradition of enlightenment shared by Zen Buddhism, Sufism, and Gnostic Christianity.
He was a musician, for god’s sake. You wouldn’t expect him to be well-informed on these sorts of subjects. You’d ask him maybe about say Aeolian cadences or the like—though, come to think of it, he wasn’t well-informed there either. But you see what I mean.
But the fundies could hardly be expected to understand these fine distinctions. For them, or a small subset of them, actually, John Lennon was Evil Incarnate, maybe even the Antichrist. His songs, seen through the lens of hate, seemed to support this. “Christ you know it ain’t easy | you know how hard it can be | the way things are going | they’re gonna crucify me.” “God is a concept by which we measure our pain … I don’t believe…” “Imagine there’s no heaven … no hell below us … and no religion too.” Some of them prayed for the death of John Lennon.
It was one of these guys who decided to do more than pray. He decided to carry out god’s will. He studied his prey carefully, and kept himself psyched up by reading pieces about him that cast him in a negative light. And in December 1980 he struck, silencing the voice that had entertained millions.
So who bears the responsibility of having launched an assassin John Lennon's way? Who was it who made sure that it would be Lennon who was the target, rather than say George Harrison (a non-Christian), or Mick “Sympathy for the Devil” Jagger? Was it the Christian cell that prayed for Lennon’s death? Of course not. They were merely exercising their god-given right to believe whatever hateful and addle-pated thing they liked, regardless of consequences. What about those disc jockeys who started it all? Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and all that jazz. No, they can’t be held responsible for anything, far from it. What about Hugh Schonfield, or the author of Mark? Let’s not get crazy here. No, let’s just call the murderer a deranged fan and be done with it.
Except that in my book it is a short step from burning the works to burning the man himself. People who misrepresent what somebody says, who needlessly stir up hate against him—and for ratings, at that—, who organize public burnings, who fan the flames of hysteria—people like this can’t morally wash their hands of the results when some nutjob takes them up on their words. But that’s just my opinion. I’m sure they never lost any sleep over the matter.
[Arthur_Vandelay responded to the original post, “It’s an interesting point. On the one hand, we shouldn’t understate the fact that Chapman was mentally unstable (much of the debate regarding the VT killer Cho Seng-Hui seems to downplay this factor). On the other hand, he hails from a subculture that produces abortion clinic bombers.”]