Book review: The Gospel According to the Beatles
Welcome, Thunderstruck and RockRebel readers. Please feel free to comment on this review at the bottom, and thanks for reading.
Thanks also to the Spero News reader who pointed out in incorrect lyric reference in this review. The lyrics quoted toward the end of this review are from "Tomorrow Never Knows," not from "I'm Only Sleeping." Sorry about that. - AC
When John Lennon proclaimed that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus" during a 1966 interview with London journalist Maureen Cleave, it didn't cause much of a stir in England. But once word of the interview spread across the Atlantic and reached a radio station in the Bible Belt city of Birmingham, Alabama, the comment – and the media feeding frenzy that ensued – spurred millions, young and old, fans and non-fans, to start looking at the Fab Four in a new light. Soon, the lads from Liverpool were more than just fun-loving mop tops. They were spiritual guides for a generation of young people looking for answers from outside the mainstream world and its institutions.
Forty years later, the Beatles are again the subject of a spiritual examination. This one comes in the form of a new book, The Gospel According to the Beatles (Westminster John Knox Press, $19.95). Written by veteran British rock journalist Steve Turner (A Man Called Cash, A Hard Day’s Write), the new book addresses the spiritual backgrounds of John, Paul, George and Ringo, and analyzes their music in a religious context. Drawing on a broad array of resources – various books, newspaper and magazine articles, unpublished notes and letters – as well as 80 interviews the author conducted himself, Turner’s book is a comprehensive look at the band that helped to shape the spiritual and cultural outlook of an entire generation.
Turner uses Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” comment as the beginning of his study, and describes it as the turning point for the band. The quote brought widespread attention and new scrutiny to the band. They were no longer a mere pop sensation, but four evangelists to Baby Boomers searching for meaning through music, popular culture and drugs.
The Beatles probably did more than any other cultural figure at the time to introduce Eastern religious practices such as transcendental meditation, Hinduism, Buddhism and the Hare Krishna movement to teenagers in the West. Through their actions, interviews and music, they also promoted the use of mind-expanding drugs and advocated a general sense of consciousness expansion to young people. After Paul McCartney told the press that he and other band members had used LSD – ironically, he was the last Beatle to try the hallucinogen and only did so after yielding to pressure – the band, especially George Harrison, began to advocate TM and other Eastern religious practices as ways to free one’s mind.
While the messages of their music and lifestyle promoted a sense of liberty among youth, they also led to tragedy. The Beatles became messiah figures to millions of young people – and to deranged killers like Charles Manson – who thought the songs on The Beatles (the so-called White Album) were messages to him to lead a revolution that was to begin with the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders – and Mark David Chapman, a former Beatles fan-turned-fundamentalist Christian who shot and killed John Lennon in 1980.
On the cover of Turner’s book, Lennon is shown in the forefront. He also takes center stage in the text of the book. The default leader of the group, Lennon also saw himself as a messiah figure, once proclaiming himself to be Christ during an acid trip and famously comparing himself to Jesus in “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (“Christ, you know it ain’t easy” and “the way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me” were among that song’s lyrics). As Turner points out, Lennon’s Anglican upbringing was the most formally religious of the four, but Lennon was also the most openly hostile to organized Christianity. (Harrison, who was raised Catholic, was a close second.) McCartney, brought up in a working-class Catholic family, was taught to be skeptical of religious figures and remained the most pragmatic of the lot, while Starr is described as a happy-go-lucky agnostic who was willing to dabble in Eastern religions but never took it as far as Lennon or Harrison.
The Beatles began as pragmatic existentialists who lived for the day but ended up preaching a religion that called on their listeners, in the words of
“I’m Only Sleeping,”"Tomorrow Never Knows," to “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.”
Many of the concepts embodied in their later music – concepts like love (“All You Need Is Love”), peace (“Give Peace a Chance”), hope and transcendence – were secularized versions of Christian doctrine. As Turner points out, however, the Beatles’ “gospel” is incompatible with Christianity. The Beatles turned the notion of “God is love” inside out, advocating instead a teaching that “love is God.” As they once sang, “Love is all you need.” In Turner’s words: “There was no need for God to become incarnate and then die in order to bring salvation; they were saying that we could access the love directly. Love was a pathway to the divinity within us.”
In his introduction, Turner writes that he hopes to convince readers that “the search for a meaningful spirituality was an important part of the Beatles’ motivation.” In my view, Turner has achieved his goal through a well researched, richly detailed, and interesting, entertaining and informative work.
(This review also appears on The Phantom Tollbooth.)
Tags: book reviews, books, the Beatles, Beatles, music
:: Andrew 11:22 + ::