John Lennon’s hopeless humanist hymn, “Imagine”, is the wrong song for the Olympics
It happened again. First it was the Olympics in 1996, then the Winter Olympics in 2006, then back to the Olympics in 2012, then the Winters in 2018; and this year the Olympic opening ceremony did it again. They sang John Lennon’s “Imagine”. It seems as though this has become the secular humanist hymn for our times, the godless prayer that must be uttered on any occasion – sometimes even by Christian clergy.
It is an appropriate anthem/prayer because it reflects the hubris, hypocrisy and hopelessness of secular humanistic values.
Ten years ago, as I was recovering from a serious illness, I received hundreds of cards from all over the world. I couldn’t reply to them all, but one I had to respond to was from a couple of proud atheists who told me that despite our differences they were praying for me! To whom?
When we pray “Imagine” we are praying to ourselves. We are saying that we are the ‘Bob the Builder’ of the universe. We can fix it. All we have to do is imagine. John Lennon was an intelligent man. He didn’t write emotional guff. At the time of “Imagine”, he was going through his revolutionary socialist, Mao T-shirt-wearing phase.
He knew the teachings of Marcuse, the progressive philosopher who argued that the first step to change is to imagine it. Yoko Ono was a devotee of this kind of thinking. John and Yoko sang “Happy Xmas War Is Over” – “if you want it”. That’s the way to end war apparently – to want it, imagine it. That kind of fanciful thinking is now deeply ingrained in our culture. I believe I can fly. I believe I can touch the sky.
A few years ago my daughter returned from her primary school and informed me she was in trouble with the teacher. Why? The teacher had asked them all to close their eyes, to think pink, and to imagine that Saddam Hussein and George Bush were together in the same room. This would bring peace. My daughter got in trouble because when the teacher asked her – ‘what can you see?’, she replied ‘nothing, my eyes are closed!’. I was so proud of her!
In the beginning God spoke and the universe came into being. Today our delusion is to imagine that our imagination will change reality. It will – but only in our heads.
The other aspect of this hubris is that a secular elite are imposing a godless world on a world where 90 per cent of people are religious. As Rebecca McLaughlin in Confronting Christianity puts it: “Today, we must wake up to the fact that Lennon’s dream was a fantasy. What is worse, it was a fantasy fuelled by white Western bias and grounded on the assumption that the world would follow where Western Europe led.”
The hypocrisy is breathtaking. They sing “imagine there’s no countries” as the anthem of a competition that is based on countries! If their imagination came true, the Olympics would not exist.
Elvis Costello hit the nail on the head when he observed in his brilliant song, “The Other Side of Summer”, “Was it a millionaire who said imagine no possessions?”.
Even the video of Lennon recording ”Imagine’ has him singing it at his baby grand piano in his white mansion. As a Lennon fan, I visited the Lennon shrine near the Dakota building in Manhattan, where he was shot. Singing “imagine no possessions” while living in a grand apartment in one of the most expensive areas in the world, is a fitting image for a hypocritical society. Rich celebrities sing “imagine no possessions”. The poor don’t have to imagine.
Lennon wants us to imagine that there is nothing to kill or die for. It’s a neat soundbite, but as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us ‘it’s meaningless vanity”. Would you not be prepared to die for your children? Is there anything to live for, if there is nothing to die for? Martin Luther King declared: “There are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for. And I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” A life without something worth dying for is a hopeless life.
As is an imagined world with no heaven. It’s almost beyond parody that some people sing this hopeless song at a time of mourning. My father died a couple of weeks ago. It is a distressing and hard time – especially when you are at the other side of the globe. I had hoped to see him again in this life, but this was not to be. However I am certain that I will see him again. The hope expressed in the funeral was sure and certain. We grieve and mourn, but not as those with no hope. If I followed Lennon’s imagination I would be in despair.
“Imagine” is a song about hope that is hopeless. There is no hope. There is no meaning. There is no community. People won’t live together in peace because there is nothing to base it on except the radical narcissistic, nihilistic individualism that characterises those who are at the top of the tree in our celebrity culture.
The Biblical Solution
The biblical vision is the direct opposite of the hubristic, hypocritical, hopelessness of “Imagine”. Through Christ we are offered humility, honesty and hope. And it’s reality, not fantasy – from the One who is The Way, The Truth and The Life.
When the Olympics come to Brisbane in 2032 I hope and pray that they will have found a different song. I can suggest one. It’s a 3,000-year-old song from the Middle East – which is for the whole world; not a 50-year-old Western cultural imperialist fantasy.
“Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.
“Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
“Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations” (Psalm 100).
Imagine this ringing out!
May the earth be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea! (Habakkuk 2:14)