K.V. Turley writes from London.
In January 1969 on a rooftop in central London The Beatles played their last concert together — or rather, not so much a concert as a makeshift performance, part of a documentary film then being shot. It was a dismal end to the band’s live appearances that had been among some of the most glittering of recent times.
Fifty years on, The Beatles and their anniversaries are remembered with almost religious awe by their legions of fans who, it appears, grow more numerous as the decades pass.
But what of The Beatles and religion?
Much is made of the flirtations of the Fab Four with Eastern religions of one sort or another and the resultant iconic images of the four musicians in India on retreat. Little is made of the band’s Christian roots. Two of the band, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, were both baptized Catholic; John Lennon and Ringo Starr were Anglicans.
It would be fair to say that the Christian influence on the four men’s upbringing was negligible. The word “nominal” barely covers it. All four were part of postwar Britain, one not noted for religious fervor. In fact, by 1960s the country was increasingly secular. Religion was relegated to the private sphere. It was often noted that, unlike in, say, Ireland or America, an Englishman who was perceived as religious was exceptional, often thought of as eccentric.
So, in 1960s, it was unsurprising that during interviews The Beatles talked of their bafflement at the overt religiosity of the United States. Furthermore, the comments made to a London journalist by Lennon about the pop group being “more popular than Jesus” caused no stir when published in a British newspaper in March 1966. Lennon’s comments made him sound more pantheist than Christian. The remarks were received very differently across the Atlantic — so much so that due to the angry backlash against these remarks Lennon had to try and rationalize and downplay what he had said. The problem was not so much that Lennon had set out to offend Christians in his comments but that in the society — and particularly the artistic world — in which he moved, religion in general, and Christianity in particular, was now simply an irrelevance.
In fact, very early on and emphatically, The Beatles had declared themselves agnostic. Religion was not something they wished to spend time discussing. Yet all this was to change in 1966 when Harrison and his then wife, Patti Boyd, visited India. Harrison had already been drawn to the music of India. Now, partly through the influence of his wife, he became equally attracted to the world of Hinduism and its then à la mode form found in the West — the Hare Krishna Movement. This attraction inevitably spread to the other three Beatles and their wider entourage.
Although all The Beatles were to go on Eastern retreats in Wales and India and to dabble with Transcendental Meditation, with the exception of Harrison, none of this really impacted on the band, more a pose adopted than a proposition embraced. A case could be made that mind-altering drugs during that period had a larger influence upon all concerned.
During the years that followed, Harrison continued to explore Hinduism — often his songwriting revealed this, his discovery of Eastern mysticism was to prove no passing fad. To Catholics, his expounding of this religious path in his later years can seem baffling, however. Especially so, as the mysticism and religious concepts of which he speaks are all to be found in Christianity, especially in Catholicism; some would say more so there than in any other religion.
Reading of Harrison’s upbringing, one senses that his Catholic identity was merely a cultural one, passed on through his Irish mother. This also seems to be the case with McCartney whose Irish Catholic mother’s death left him and his brother to be brought up by a nominally English Protestant father. It would be safe to say that neither McCartney nor Harrison had any real Catholic formation, not least because, for most of their lives and in their pronouncements, they appear oblivious to this dimension of their lives.
In a political sense, Lennon was the most outspoken of The Beatles. With Yoko Ono, Lennon attached himself to the then-trendy causes of the late 1960s. His songs, such as “Imagine,” are no longer just secular odes but instead declarations in outright opposition to all religious beliefs. These sentiments, however, need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Like his earlier flirtations with Eastern religions, these new political stances formed part of the world in which Lennon and Ono then moved. It was a world open to new beliefs — as long as they were drawn from the ragbag of New Age ideas — but one openly hostile to all established forms of religion, which was rejected as part of the cultural fabric of society that the then avant-garde counter-culture was attacking on all fronts.
A decade later, Lennon had withdrawn from the music world. By then, in 1974, it is said he claimed to have had an encounter with a UFO and, thereafter, for a while at least became a devotee of that phenomenon. More interestingly, a few years on, he is said to have come across Christian cable television channels. It is claimed by some that Lennon experienced a religious conversion while watching one of these channels sometime in 1977. By all accounts, Ono fiercely opposed any intimation of a conversion. Lennon’s re-found Christianity soon disappeared. In retrospect, one wonders what he would have thought of EWTN. Sadly, Lennon was dead years before that channel commenced broadcasting, gunned down unexpectedly on the Dec. 8, 1980.
Of all The Beatles, Ringo Starr seemed the one least likely to have any interest in religion. He was the first to vacate the Indian retreat after 10 days, telling the others as they sat in Eastern attire covered in flowers that he was off for some “egg and chips,” a quintessentially British blue collar dish that reminded the others that this latest interest was as far from their roots as it was possible to get.
That said, in recent years there have been reports, somewhat vague, that Starr has “found God.” As yet, it is unclear which God he has discovered. Although he arrived at the same publicly announced agnosticism as the other band members, Starr’s youthful Protestantism was the most evangelical of all The Beatles and so he would have had more exposure to the Bible than the others. We await further developments, and hope that Starr has discovered EWTN.
McCartney remains a mystery. As a man who seems to have his public image constantly under control, one would not expect to hear him announce any time soon that he has rediscovered the religion into which he was baptized. That said, occasionally, he says things that suggest he is aware of the supernatural.
The rooftop concert 50 years ago was later released as a film and an album entitled Let It Be. The title track, although credited to Lennon and McCartney, is very much the latter’s creation alone. In that song the lyrics speak of “times of trouble” and “Mother Mary” coming to McCartney “speaking words of wisdom, let it be.”
McCartney recounts that the song came from a dream he had of his mother, Mary, and how it helped quell some of his then anxieties as he became ever more famous. Some have been disappointed that the “Mother Mary” of the song is not the Blessed Virgin. The presence of the faithful departed coming to the aid of loved ones, however, expresses a deep Catholic sensibility. Who is to say that such Things cannot manifest themselves again while pointing to the true source of peace, namely the Prince of Peace Himself.