The Beatles? My wife and I, children of the seventies, remember them as the creepy guys with stringy hair and granny-glasses. But the four are groovy once more, and our 14-year-old son loves them. So we draft along in his excitement and head to the Beatles concert in Virginia Beach.
It is July 4, and we're on vacation. "The Beatles" aren't. This version of the fab four goes by the name "Revolution" and makes (one imagines) a pretty good living doing dead-on covers of Beatles songs, complete with wigs and changes of costume that go from the sleek thin-tie look of the early sixties to the sunburst radiance of the late-sixties. The resemblance of "John" to John is particularly uncanny, even eerie, but George's hairpiece is awful. Ringo's "With a Little Help From My Friends" rings true, if a bit heavy. Paul is bright, light, young, and magnetic. He even plays left-handed bass.
It works. The crowd, the Atlantic Ocean to its back, chants and sways. The evening begins with sunshiny harmonies, Sinatra, Como, and Cole not so far away. It ends with Lucy in the sky with diamonds imagining there's no heaven, guitars unshackled, voices unthrottled, the crowd swept into another summer of love, guided, indeed, through a revolution, as true a revolution as we in our time have known.
I watch. My son joins in.
The distance between "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "I Am the Walrus" seems inexplicable. How do you move in less than four years from Oh please say to me/you'll let me be your man to Yellow matter custard/dripping from a dead dog's eye?
These guys do it every night in two hours. From the start the crowd knows what's coming, that the sweet chirpy harmonies are only preparing the way for the raw intensity of Real Rock and Roll. When the Sergeant Pepper's transformation begins, the number standing at the stage triples and all manner of manic activity breaks out. My wife and I notice (what she calls) "the bouncing girls," a pair of pretty teenagers who, seized by the spirit, enact the famed psychedelic rhythms with enormous infectious creativity, bending, swaying, entwining with shrieking serpentine delight, utterly enraptured by the moment. They bounce from the right side of the stage to the center, directly beside our son. He's so taken with the music he barely notices them (or so he says).
This concert, compressing the Beatles' lifespan into one short evening (yet somehow giving it the feel of eternity), makes it clear that in the 1960s an encompassing tautness, a still lingering tension, was swiftly and permanently eased, neck-ties turned magically to tie-dye. Tightness, once the friend, quickly became the enemy; flowers, formerly dainty, now had power. We began to rock!
What do the Beatles stand for if not this change?
What happened? What does it mean?
All kinds of names have been given to this transformation. But this concert leaves me thinking one thought: We're on vacation with the new pagans. They're everywhere.
Paganism: an old word with enduring resonance, and for good reason. Think of it as the state of heart and mind that has emerged as the reality of Law has come, over the past century, to seem less and less real—a long historical process that reached a kind of climax in the '60s, when to "question authority" meant, among other things, to question the very existence of authority.
Crucially, though, among the varying norms and mores Americans challenged were many that reflected misguided perceptions of Law, often rooted in the idiosyncratic culture of American Protestantism. In the 1960's aftermath these received ideas, on matters ranging from hair length to alcohol to race relations to worship, fell quickly. Vast space opened up in which efforts could be made to (re)define freedom, authority, and law.
This chaotic, intoxicating sense of new space is what marked the 1970s, and it extended right into the heart of the evangelical world. The "biblical" warrant that had once helped sustain Jim Crow, for instance, suddenly became an embarrassment. Perhaps even more telling was the 1976 publication of The Act of Marriage, fundamentalist pastor Timothy LaHaye and his wife Beverly's surprisingly graphic answer to the considerably more graphic The Joy of Sex, published in 1972. The times certainly were 'a changing,' and with them old time religion itself.
Forty years on, it's possible to appreciate more fully what has—shall we say—been goin' on. The moral direction and tension the Law had long foisted on Western civilization has by our day nearly vanished. With the sweeping away over the past century of innumerable small-L laws came the overarching dismissal of Law itself. A recognizably Christian culture has given way to a new paganism. What is this?
It is the embrace of nature without Nature. It is the reverence of bios, physical life, in tandem with a dimming awareness of zoe, spiritual life. It is, in fact, the mistaking of physical life for spiritual life, with all the historically ingrained religious sensibilities rushing toward bios with a very familiar zeal.
So now, for us twenty-first century pagans, being 25 is all—the most alive we'll ever be. Men and women on both sides of that envied age try with holy fervency to attain it, whatever the cost in dollars or dignity. The hair must be cut just so (and then cut again and again—just so). The body must be kept trim, ever prepared for a 25-year-old's feats. Old age never looked so bad. What red-blooded American male today would ever want to wake up and find himself married to a grandmother? What American woman wants to look like one?
It all adds up to a great calamity, no? But if so, why do even the most holy among us don tie-dye now and then?
Clearly, for all their standard bemoaning of the fate of America after the '60s, evangelicals have in evident ways embraced the profound changes in sensibility, style, and thought the era brought—and often with good reason. Even paganism, it turns out, has redemptive worth.
In a recent essay on the Christian poet W. H. Auden, Alan Jacobs helps us to see this possibility more clearly. Jacobs notes that in the middle decades of the twentieth century, Auden came to reject the assumption, pervasive in Protestantism, that "our life in nature is at best an embarrassment," that God saves us to help us transcend the earth. On the contrary, Auden sensed, an embrace of our essential materiality seemed paradoxically to be what spiritual health required: a basic, primordial acknowledgement that we are not gods but creatures of God, living as biological beings under his reign.
Auden understood, in short, that the necessary response to our finitude is not the rejection of the material order but rather the reverent celebration of it. And it is this affirmation that Christians have been, over the centuries, prone to neglect or reject, right down to our times. To put it sharply: If there is a new paganism pervading America, we American Protestants have had a hand in preparing the way for it. In cultivating a spirituality that neglected the human, the earthy, the sensual, we fostered—in diabolical irony—a conceit that taught us to see ourselves as superior to our bodies, as well as the earth, regarding them as at best a species of a finitude that will, gratefully, some day pass.
But we are not superior to our bodies, nor the earth. In fact, we don't deserve them. And, fortunately, as Scripture teaches, we will never lose them.
Our too-spiritual spirituality ended up leaving us, as Christians but also as a wider populace, in considerable confusion about all things material, whether bathing suits or beer or bombs. And our disregard of the physical was bound to invite a walloping counter-embrace of it. By the 1960s, paganism was, once more, unshackled. Our creaturely identity, in all its post-Edenic glory and corruption, became impossible to box in. The body was back.
A study of history certainly reveals the race's bi-polar tendencies, as we swing back and forth between the enervating extremes of materiality and spirituality. The calling of Christians is to live at the point of tension between these poles, at the difficult but satisfying place that reveals the pathway to human flourishing and leads others to it.
How can we get there? How can we stay?
The answer might be through worship.
All religious gatherings end with a kick, if they're any good. And Revolution is good. As the concert builds toward its climax, John moves to the keyboard. The bics flick on, flames swaying as arms extend toward the heavens, sea breeze an incense to savor. The hymn, so familiar, had to come, and it rings out, prophetic. "Imagine all the people/living for today … "
If only we could live, today or any day. If only we could pour our longings for life into each other's hearts and watch them blossom. If only our desires could be satisfied with good things, renewing our youth like the eagle's.
Forty years past Woodstock, this much is clear: the fevered yearning for vitality, this paganism, has its place. And its place is within the church. "The outer ring of Christianity," wrote G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy, one hundred years ago, "is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom."
His next sentence is as chilling as the previous is warming. "But in the modern philosophy the case is the opposite; it is its outer ring that is obviously artistic and emancipated; its despair is within."
The lives of Chesterton's countrymen, the Beatles, born just a few years after his death, would become an emblem of this dynamic, this despair. Imagining there's no heaven didn't get them very far, it turns out, whatever the masses and marketers say today.
There are other things to imagine. One of them is a church whose worship flows from the beauty of creation, inspired not by Rock Band but by the Maker's hand, by he who fashioned majesty from clay, who sang us into our creaturely existence and who acts to guide us back into it.
You may say that I'm a dreamer.
I am. And I'm not the only one.
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Earlier Christianity Today articles on The Beatles include:
The Beatles' Spiritual Journeys | Steve Turner's The Gospel According to the Beatles. (Jan. 3, 2007)
John Lennon's Born-Again Phase | "Can He love me?" the former Beatle asked Oral Roberts. "I want out of hell." An excerpt from The Gospel According to the Beatles by Steve Turner. (Jan. 3, 2007)
Beatles' Spiritual Guru Dies | Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of TM, passes away in the Netherlands. (blog post, Feb. 5, 2008)
The Dick Staub Interview: Alistair Begg on The Beatles | The author and pastor talks about the Fab Four's cry for Help and why no one answered it. (Apr. 22, 2003)
The Ballad of John and Jesus | Two books tell the story behind John Lennon's short-lived conversion. (June 12, 2000)
The CT Review: Rock & Roll Apologetics | A brief review of The Beatles, the Bible, and Bodega Bay. (Nov. 13, 2000)