The other day I was driving about and my iPod batteries ran out just in time for me to hear the last two songs in the local college radio station’s countdown of the 897 greatest songs of all time as voted by listeners. Number two was Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and number one was not “Stairway to Heaven,” as it should have been, but “Imagine” by John Lennon. I let out an “Oh, come on!” My first reason for protesting is that, as a piece of music, “Imagine” does very little for me. It’s nice enough, the melody is OK, but it’s no “Stairway.” It’s not even an “Eleanor Rigby” or “Hey Jude.” But besides the not-so-special music, I dislike the song because the lyrics are a naive, simplistic, pie-in-the-sky, anti-God, anti-religion smackdown. Observe:
Imagine there’s no Heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
The song goes on to invite us to imagine all the people who would live in peace if there were no religion. In addition to not having countries or possessions, a large part of Lennon’s prescription for fixing things so that the world can “live as one” is to get rid of religion and all thoughts of God.
I don’t want to debate that point. Suffice it to say that while I acknowledge the harm that some religious worldviews are causing and have caused, I disagree with the sentiment that getting rid of religion altogether is in the best interests of humanity. What I am curious about is why so many religious people love this song, given it’s message. I doubt that many of the voters in that radio station poll who, on their own, put “Imagine” in their top ten favorite songs of all time are anti-religion evangelists. Given the level of religiosity in American culture, I’m sure that plenty of them at least believe in God.
And it’s not just the poll. I seem to remember from a few years back an apparently religious American Idol contestant singing “Imagine” just weeks after singing a gospel song. Also, when I asked my (believer) wife about the song she said she likes it. She says she never really noticed the anti-God sentiment. It’s a common enough phenomenon to be exposed to a song for a long time and never really get it. It happens to me all the time.
So, do people know what “Imagine” is about and like it anyway? Or do they not really get what it’s about and they just like it because it’s a nice little pop song? Can/should a believer know what it’s about and still like it? If my perception that many people like the song without really getting it is correct, is it troubling that such a negative message (from a believer’s perspective) can so stealthily become ingrained in our popular culture?
For the record, I don’t dislike all art that can be considered anti-religion or anti-God. I think that learning how other people see the world and understanding why they believe or don’t believe can be valuable. For instance, I love the Ingmar Bergman films I’ve seen even though his protagonists usually struggle with belief and his perspective is that of a non-believer; I find his films endlessly fascinating and challenging and thought provoking. “Imagine” does none of that for me.