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

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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.

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