Thinking, Not Imagining

Sometime back, I wrote a little piece about John Lennon’s hymn to original sin (aka “Imagine”), expressing my bafflement at the fact that people (including Catholics who ought to know better) regard this as a hope-filled anthem of the Coming Great Rosy Dawn and not as what it is: Music to Accompany the Machine Gunning of the Counter-Revolutionaries. I got lots of mail for it, but one note that particularly stands out as Illustrative of the Problem follows, with my responses:

Dear Sir,

I am a life-long Catholic, educated by Holy Names sisters in Seattle, WA. Do you actually write for a catholic magazine?

Yes.

Everybody wants to think they know everything about something, here’s my attempt: Lennon experienced the 1960s — a lot.

The 1960s was a decade. They were not the apex of human experience, and the generation that came of age in that decade is not the summit of human life. If you ask me, the generation that came of age in the 1930s and 1940s has much more to pride itself on than the Boomers. Indeed, the generation that came of age in the 1960s (I speak as a member of the Baby Boom myself) is singular in its massive narcissism, in its belief that it more or less discovered all the great human questions such as sex and sacrifice, and in its calm assurance of its superiority to both its parents and its children. Everyone who lived through the 1960s experienced them a lot. Some of them even learned from the folly of that decade.

I don’t know how rich he was or how much he gave.

He was worth $25 million when he died, I believe. Most people who experienced the 1960s a lot did not have the enormous cushions of wealth and fame to buffer their experience.

I only know that he was an advocate for world peace and was savagely shot to death.

Everyone is an advocate for world peace, just as everyone wants to be happy. We can’t not will our own happiness. Sin comes not in wanting something good (we all do), but in trying to get that good in wrong ways. “Imagine” is a sloppy-minded song that seeks the good in wrong ways and so invites chaos, folly, and destruction. As I pointed out in my article, the things the song advocates were all advocated by the great totalitarians of the 20th century. The fact that these foolish sentiments are wrapped up in a gauzy and hypnotic melody doesn’t alter that. Nor does the fact that Lennon was a victim of a foul murder render the song other than intellectually pernicious drivel.

His song is a poetic, ironic comment on what the world chooses to fight over.

There is not an ounce of irony in “Imagine.” Lennon could be plenty ironic when he wanted to be. “How I Won the War” is irony. “Imagine” is a straightforward plea — practically a manifesto — of Lennon’s vision of the Ideal World. The only problem is that his ideal, when somebody tries to implement it, creates hell on earth.

He was inviting the world to STOP! Please don’t take it out of context as so many others have — as you well pointed out.

I didn’t take it out of context. I quoted virtually the whole thing. Anybody can naively invite the world to STOP! and shout “Down with Bad Things!” But Lennon does more than this: He proposes his own solution: the Good Things. Anybody can say war is bad, killing is bad, greed is bad. Lennon doesn’t do just this. He says a number of good things are bad, too: faith in God, eternal hope of heaven, a transcendent vision, nations, possessions. This is sophomore high school philosophy — not serious thought, not good poetry, and certainly not good theology.

 

It will be replied, “Well, Lennon was not a philosopher or theologian.” True enough. Which is why it is so dangerous to take him as a reliable guide or prophet (which is clearly what many of the devotees of the song do). When he wrote “Imagine,” he was a naive man spouting doggerel nonsense that many people foolishly regard as full of profound ideas. And the problem is: Ideas have consequences. If people believe nonsense, they will act on what they believe. If they believe we would be better off without people who believe in heaven, then (as the 20th century shows) they will see to it that those who do wind up in concentration camps.

Again, it will be replied that belief in God has led to crimes as well. Yes. However, in the Catholic worldview, this is a corruption of the revelation (even when Catholics do it). In an atheistic worldview, there is no such thing as a “corruption” of atheism, because there is no revelation higher than the Strong Man to correct him. As Dostoyevsky says, “If there is no God, then everything is permissible.” Lennon, when you boil it down, is wishing for a world in which Everything is Permissible. That is the essential folly of the song.

As you know, Muslim leaders were furious over a statement by our pope taken out of context. And countries in civil war and upheaval are using starvation and genocide to achieve their own selfish, materialistic goals. Catholics are oppressed in China. Lennon was making us ask ourselves, why?

No, he wasn’t. He wasn’t interested in why. He was advocating, in an intellectually lazy way, a wish that all that stuff would just go away and not bother him anymore. So instead of bothering to find out what causes social injustice, he just wished for a world where nobody had any possessions (except him and his $25 million). Telling a starving man that you hope he has nothing is not a glowing and poetic sentiment. It’s a sloppy cop-out from the hard work of recognizing that it is sin, not possessions, that is the problem, and that all have a right to a fair share of the world’s goods. Telling a victim of genocide that “above us, there is only sky” is another way of saying, “The death of you and all you love means nothing in the grand scheme of things. All that matters is power. The regime that slaughtered your people wins!” “Imagine” is a poem by a dilettante who wants to fancy himself a philosopher, but doesn’t want to be bothered with the hard work of thinking.

My daughter writes music. In one of her songs, she sings

“Nothing is right, ’cause we fight
For what we love.
But why, I ask, can’t we just love?
‘Cause nothing would get done.”

A poetic rock song, Mr. Shea. What does it mean? — don’t answer that.

“Don’t answer that” is another way of saying, “Don’t think.” There is a whole cultural subtext behind that admonition. It’s the notion that it is more authentic to feel something strongly than to hold a conviction arrived at by the use of reason. It’s the notion (and Star Wars films are full of this sort of thing) that we are more truly guided by “the gut” or by instinct or “The Force” than by the use of our heads. “Don’t think; feel!” says Obi-Wan to the young Anakin. Looks great on screen, and it always works in movies. But who except a fool would entrust our lives to a pilot or a cab driver who just shut his eyes and lunged?

I have a healthy respect for intuition, poetic insight, nonlinear ways of approaching life, and the mysterious side of things we associate with mystics, children, and poets. But as a Catholic, I also believe that truth is one and that errant nonsense is not rendered “profound” by being dressed up with rhyme and meter. “Imagine” is errant — and dangerous — nonsense.

It may likely be filled with the spouting sulfuric acid, nuclear fire shrapnel that you had in your article, and I don’t think I could handle any more of that stuff.

You do realize, don’t you, that you just used a very low form of emotional manipulation to score off an opponent and then run away? Here’s how it works on instant replay. Instead of addressing the merits of my argument, you instead opt to give me a sample of your daughter’s poetry, knowing that nobody but a true heel would respond with anything but, “That’s so beautiful!” to a mother’s offering of her daughter’s poetry. (You will notice that I did not take the bait, and confined all my remarks to your admonition not to think and to “Imagine.”) Then, you peremptorily sign off with a cutting remark about my sulfuric acid and nuclear fire shrapnel (by which you mean my analysis) of “Imagine.” Message: “A brute like you would probably savage a young girl’s poetry in front of her own mother, too, and I’m not going to sit around and let you do that! Good day to you, sir!”

Thank you.

You are welcome.

Mark P. Shea

By

Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

  • David Ambuul

    I’ve heard narcissism is often the result of tragic events, like a child always being told he is right. Or another child being so abused or hurt that he over-relies on himself to scrap through life. I don’t know since psychology is not my bag. But if it’s true, the Boomers could be explained as the tragic result of a war torn century where secular countries pitted themselves against secular countries as though life had no meaning. There was also the genocide that made the Spanish Inquisition look like friendly child’s play. My parents are Boomers so I’m careful as to how to address them.

  • Brian English

    “I only know that he was an advocate for world peace and was savagely shot to death.”

    I do not have a source handy, but I do believe Lennon gave a great deal of money to the IRA, an organization not known for pursuing world peace.

  • Pammie

    I would like to add my thank you Mr. Shea for dissecting this song and explaining what it actually means, for those who don’t seem to think the words mean exactly what they say. Every time I hear someone heap praise and worship on this song, I want to ask, “Do you really want to imagine there’s no heaven?” Imagine” is just another brain-dead anthem to nilhism written to a catchy tune.

  • Brian

    It struck me earlier this month, when the radio station’s were celebrating his 70th birthday, that the society Lennon envisions in this song sounds an awful lot like North Korea.

    Listen to “Dear Prudence” instead…

  • Jessica

    Love this post. Love that someone finally spoke out against the unreasonable statements in the song. Agree wholeheartedly. The song bugs me more each time I hear it.

  • Ioannes Andreades

    I remember thinking for so long that I was the only person I had ever met who didn’t like the song.

  • Barbara C.

    John Lennon was an extremely broken man. I always find it interesting when people hold him and Yoko as some paragon of love; most people gloss over his “lost weekend”. He’s held up as a the model of peace and love, but he certainly didn’t show a lot of peace and love to his first wife and son.

    “Imagine” is the anthem of people who don’t really think about what it means. I personally love his anthem about being a stay-at-home parent…”Watching the Wheels”. And “Jealous Guy” was probably his most personally insightful song. I look to Lennon for good music, but not good philosophy.

  • AC

    I’ve never liked the song, and frankly think the beatles and j lennon were over hyped, but then I was born after teh 60’s.

    Can I imagine a place where no demands are made upon me? (no heaven, no hell, no war, etc) I suppose, but at some point I have to turn off the TV and go to bed so I can go to work the next day. I might at times enjoy fantasy land, but I live – like everyone else – in reality land.

    I think an entire generation of people set up beatles and lennon as some sort of voice for themselves because it is easier to feel than to think

  • John

    As a student in college during the sixties(they were not yet called universities) I am grateful to Mr. Shea for expressing my exact opinion of Lennon and the rest of the self centered children of the sixties. I remember one partiucular event on campus when a strong advocate of the sixty’s counterculure and anti war movement was bragging about how he stole his books from the book store as his way of getting back at the establishment. When I told him that all he accomplished was to make the rest of us pay more for our books he looked at me in an uncomprehending way. He had no idea that actions have consequences which are not always positive. I think that this was the world that Lennon and the Beattles lived in. By the way the college was a Catholic College that was rapidly internalizing the new theology of the Lennonites. Unfortunately these people are running the American World State today and creating more and more moral chaos.

  • priest’s wife

    thanks for this analysis

  • Cornelius

    Finally, someone dissects “Imagine” and puts its deep sickness on full display. Thanks, Mr. Shea. I’ve always LOATHED that song, for both its asinine lyrics (and pernicious outlook on life) and its monotonous melody. I’d prefer a dentist’s drill any day.

  • Tim

    Excellent!

    One almost unrelated note . . . you mention the generation that came of age in the 30’s and 40’s as having more reasons for pride in itself than the 60’s crowd. I’d go back even one more generation – the ones who sired those who took us through WWII must have been something. Many of them lived as most people had lived for centuries before – small farming, etc. If you buy the Hegelian sort of thing, they were the group who made it possible for the WWII generation to do what it did. They did what they were supposed to do – pass on the best of traditions and opportunities. The WWII generation ran with it and were able to conquer fascism. But as great as that generation was, somehow they forgot about passing on the best to their kids. And after a war like WWII who could really blame them for gettin’ a little sloppy? But then we got what we got in the 60’s crowd.

  • Mary

    As the year 2000 approached, the Canadian CBC radio had a poll of listeners as to what was the favourite song of the millenium — yep, “Imagine” won (by a landslide!). I was disgusted. Like many of the other commentators here, until reading this post, I had no idea that there is a widespread group of those who agree that the song was both stupid and damaging! Good for you!

  • sibyl

    I used to love the tune of this song, and one day I was singing along when I sort of trailed off — “Imagine there’s no heaven”???!? It sort of stuck in my craw.

    Also must nominate another song just like it — “I Did It My Way,” sung by the immortal Sinatra. How can you help but sing along to it? Until you listen to what he’s saying. I hate that.

  • Mark Wilson

    I never much liked this particular song but like the songs of the Beatles and 60’s music in general. One particular group I have grown to like recently is 60’s folk pop icons Peter Paul and Mary. I find their harmonies voices soothing and many of their lyrics to be quiete spirtual and biblical even. But after research I discovered that they have played at some pro-choice events.

    This fact has made it hard for me to listen to them but their catchy melodies can’t seem to disapear from my head. Several of their songs are aimed at children none the less and some of their music seems to have a pro-life messege despite the fact that they have played at events to the contrary.

    I supposed my post is somewhat related but off topic. I just wanted a chance to get some feedback from others if they care to let me know their thoughts. Can one disagree about what artists actually supported and still recognize any good work that they actually produce. I believe that some of their work is better material then the causes theys stand for. And the interesting thing is that Paul of PP & M is a confessed Born Again Christian.

    Sorry if I got off topic but I thought it was a good oppurtunity of this tug of war that has been going on in my mind about this topic.

  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    Mr. Shea wrote:
    It’s the notion (and Star Wars films are full of this sort of thing) that we are more truly guided by “the gut” or by instinct or “The Force” than by the use of our heads. “Don’t think; feel!” says Obi-Wan to the young Anakin.

    That’s very true. But if you’ll notice: The end of the story is a complete rejection of that.

    The “classical” Jedi (of which Yoda was foremost) was a very Buddhist worldview: Salvation is attained by separating oneself from the world and all its passions and “becomine one” wit the Force. Which is why Yoda counsels Luke to forsake his friends, even if it means their deaths.

    But Luke does not. Luke rejects rejection.

    Rather than “giving in” and “letting go,” he chooses to sacrifice himself to redeem his father, even if it means his own death. And it is motivated entirely out of grace. Vader certainly has done nothing to earn forgiveness. Luke does it simply because he chooses to love his father.

    So the philosophy of the classical Jedi was one of “letting go,” rejecting self, and rejecting other selves. Which is why they fell.

    Luke doesn’t just return the Jedi. He redeems them. He chooses love over detachment.

  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    Pete Townshend said it best:

    I asked Bobby Dylan
    I asked The Beatles
    I asked Timothy Leary
    But he couldn’t help me either

  • Melinda T

    To the Peter Paul and Mary fan> Sorry to burst the bubble here but Peter, if I remember correctly was accused of having sex with a minor, and this has always stuck in my memory because the girl in question was the 14 year old sister of one of my closest friends – I believe they settled out of court…ah the sixties…as the wicked witch of the west would say, ” what a world, what a world!”…sigh….

  • Michaelus

    Peter Yarrow was not just accused – he was arrested and went to jail. He was pardoned by Jimmy Carter years later. This was after an investigation indicated that he was not a Catholic (sorry – that was sarcasm).

  • c matt

    I think you can appreciate the musical talents of an artist even if their lyrics or other conduct is abhorrent. Imagine is one of those songs that the melody is nice, the singing is hypnotic, but the lyrics are poison. Same with sports – Diego Maradona is considered by most to be the greatest player of all time, but he is a complete disaster off the pitch. You can certainly admire what the artists does well, as long as you don’t use that admiration to gloss over, excuse or get sucked into the shortcomings.

  • Carl

    When I find myself in times of trouble
    Mother Mary comes to me
    Speaking words of wisdom let it be
    And in my hour of darkness
    She is standing right in front of me
    Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

  • Richard A

    Imagine, like celebrity, famous for being well-known. Good post.

    My one quibble is that the “greatest” generation, having defeated the Axis powers and put a man on the moon, didn’t summon up the cojones to smack down their own children when they challenged their parents’ authority. We’re reaping the consequences of that in spades now.

  • Billy Bean

    The so-called progressives generally seem to believe that the moral perch from which they view the rest of humanity is so lofty that, if any of the great Unwashed Masses could even momentarily conceive their anointed vision, they too would be zapped with Righteous Indignation and attain to Instant Karma. I would just like to point out: it is not so.

  • Melinda T

    to C matt – agreed – you can definitely admire the music without admiring the conduct of the artist and Michaelus, thanks for the clarification – my memory is not as good as it once was –smilies/cheesy.gif LOL but he also settled a sizable amount of money on his victim as well –

  • Mike G

    I had not really heard this song for several years when, while I heard at a job I was working on, it really occurred to me what a depressing vision this song promotes.

  • jane

    Excellent analysis of what’s wrong with this idiotic song. Thanks for this, that song has always really bugged me. I can’t stand it and I can’t stand the way Lennon is idolized. I love the Beatles, Lennon was a great musician, but that song, and his other attempts at philosophy, make me want to throw up. You just explained exactly why, I couldn’t have explained it myself.

  • Brian Sullivan

    Paul wrote Let It Be. As per their songwriting arrangement, it was credited as Lennon/McCartney.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Let_It_Be_(song)

  • Mpav

    Years ago(90s)one of my (Catholic) HS students expressed some nonsense about Lennon as a great world figure and this as the best song ever. It was the basis for her personal philosophy. She was quite incensed when I expressed my view of the song which I did not express as well as did Mark Shea, but it was along the same broad lines. Students in the 90s were often envious of the children of the 60s. I still marvel at the papers I received about Woodstock.You’d think it was akin to the European Renaissance or the Golden Age of Athens.
    I advised the student who loved Let It Be to read Dostoevsky. I don’t know whether she took the advice.

  • CMinor

    Brian is correct–McCartney wrote “Let it Be” though all their songs were credited to both. And the “Mother Mary” in the song is actually a dream/memory of McCartney’s deceased mother, not the Blessed Mother, though I’m sure he wasn’t insensible to the potential implications of the lyrics.

    Excellent rejoinder, Mark. It’s a pretty enough melody, but the lyrics have always struck me as profoundly wrong. And Lennon’s personal life is nothing we should be holding up as an example.

  • Lisa

    Thank you for taking on this horrible song. I have hated the message behind it for years, but I too thought that I was pretty much alone in that. As for Peter, Paul, and Mary, they have a very mixed bag of very good and very bad. They have beautiful and lush harmonies that are rarely seen in popular music. Some of their songs lean way to the polically correct side, but there are also songs like “Danny’s Downs” about parents’ decision to raise a child with Downs Syndrome when they are advised by the doctors to let him die.

  • Mark Wilson

    Hi Lisa,

    I was wondering if you could give me an example of some of their politcally correct music. I can’t seem to think of an example of one. I really enjoy their gospel oriented and children orinanted music. Plus some of thier old fashioned folk story type songs. Danny’s Down’s is very pro-life in it’s lyrics. Yet why did they play at a pro-choice ralley? Why confess belief in God and yet have a link on their website to the ACLU? They have a beutiful song about sacramental marriage but yet ask for a song of theres not to be played at a rally supporting that type of marriage. Very odd how their music can be out of sync with some of their causes.

  • Aengus O’Shaughnessy

    A hundred thousand thank-yous for this article. I have always disliked the beatles and ‘imagine’ (dreadful song, really), but, now that I think on it, I don’t know many people who agree with me. So nice to know that I’m not alone. . .

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