Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Re: BBC on John and Jesus

If you listened to this BBC Radio program about "more popular than Jesus" or are otherwise well acquainted with the details of the row, you know what John's defense was. He claimed that his words were taken out of context - long live the "context" defense! - and twisted into something that was far removed from what he had intended. John insisted that he wasn't denouncing Christianity or the person of Christ or God but merely observing that the church in England had reached a pitifully low ebb by 1966, to the point where, especially among the youth, The Beatles held a higher standing than Jesus himself. He added that he could have substituted "TV" or "cinema" for "The Beatles," and his remark would have remained true. The point wasn't that The Beatles were massively popular (which, of course, they were). It was that the church was massively unpopular.
In his explanation, John did sound very sincere. According to Tony Barrow, The Beatles' longtime press officer, John suffered a major breakdown during the band's U.S. tour that year, which was atypical of him. It clearly wasn't his aim to create a media firestorm or provoke fans. The backlash caught him completely unawares, and it stung.
However, what feeds my skepticism a bit about his defense is the snide and arrogant tone of his words to Maureen Cleave. It seems to belie his appeal that he was just making an observation and there was no value judgment involved. Here's the relevant part:
'Christianity will go,' he said. 'It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first - rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.'
I think I can be excused for not mistaking John for a social scientist here. What he's engaging in is not impartial analysis but triumphant gloating, however premature. "I'm right and I will be proved right." That's the sound of someone who's just fine with the withering away of Christianity. Of course, John's entitled to that view, but it certainly doesn't square with his defense. Furthermore, the chutzpah on display is a tad vexing. There's John – not an academic or an intellectual but an uneducated musician – making brazen armchair predictions about the future of Christianity, a belief system that was still in existence nearly two millennia after its founding. He was simply out of his depth. Maybe he had read a couple of books on the subject, but that hardly would've made him a qualified commentator. He probably should've held his tongue or, at the very least, softened his tone.
All told, I still sympathize with John over what he endured. The reaction in America was unhelpful and way overdone. Still, he didn't really do himself any favors in the matter.

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