"There's A Place" and "Imagine" - What we learn from John Lennon's change of world-view - that we must love one another or die

The five bar gate overlooking Shobrooke
I'm sure you the phenomenon. You are out for a quiet walk when a song suddenly pops into your head for no obvious reason. As it goes round in your head you wonder why on earth you're singing that particular song?

Recently, on a long quiet walk whilst in Devon, I stopped to lean on a five-barred gate at the top of a hill to look south-west across a low, sunny valley, to the village of Shobrooke when, in quick succession, two songs arrived in my head, John Lennon and Paul McCartney's song, "There's a Place", from the first Beatle LP (Please, Please Me), and John Lennon's big solo hit from 1971, "Imagine." Why? As I walked back through the woods to the cottage where Susanna and I were staying I tried my hand at crafting a helpful enough answer.

Bill Ander's Earthrise photo from Apollo 8
Although on that hill I was at no great height it was possible to see, or at least get a real sense of, the curvature of the earth upon which we spin our jewelled way through the darkness space. I realised that I had almost sensed this without being fully conscious of it because, since Bill Anders took his, not quite every-day holiday snap of the earth as he and his comrades in Apollo 8 rounded the moon and began to head again for home on December 24, 1968, knowledge of our planetary condition has become part of the everyday background given of every child. We all now simply know that we live upon an extraordinary globe floating through the darkness of space.

Although we hardly comment on this today, this knowledge was not always so everyday. Startlingly, it was not even fully obvious to the astronauts of Apollo 8 until after launch. That this was so was revealed when, as Anders memorably said of that mission, "We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth". Thanks to their brave and adventurous journeying, this picture of our home planet, for all its awesome wondrousness, is now as familiar to us all as a picture of 'home' as is, to me, a picture of the street where I live in Cambridge.

It was as I finished this thought that "There's a Place" came into my head:

There is a place
Where I can go
When I feel low
When I feel blue
And it's my mind
And there's no time when I'm alone

I think of you
And things you do
Go 'round my head
The things you said
Like "I love only you"

In my mind there's no sorrow
Don't you know that it's so
There'll be no sad tomorrow
Don't you know that it's so

Now, you need to know that I'm a pretty committed Beatle fan and so, for better or worse, I carry around in my head a lot of extra information about their songs. The important and relevant extra information connected with "There's a Place" is that it was inspired by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's song, "Somewhere (There's a Place)", from West Side StoryBernstein and Sondheim were highly sophisticated composers and Paul McCartney recalls that their sophistication inspired both him and Lennon to be a little more adventurous in their own song-writing. McCartney recalls that "the place [in their own song] was in the mind, rather than round the back of the stairs for a kiss and a cuddle. This was the difference with what we were writing: we were getting a bit more cerebral" (Barry Miles, "Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now", Secker & Warburg, 1997, p. 95).

As the song ran through my head I recalled McCartney's words and was struck by the fact that, in 1962/1963, this inward turn towards the mind or some other ideal realm in order to find true solace and security, was very much an expression of a world-view that was already seriously beginning to lose its absolute hold over many people within Western culture. However, in this Lennon and McCartney song they reflect well our culture's old background and the essentially Christian Platonic, cerebral idea that our true home is not to be found in this earthly place, where we so often feel "blue, "low" and "alone", but "up there" in some timeless, safe "place" where "there's no sorrow", "no sad tomorrow", - in nothing less, of course, than "heaven above".

As "There's a Place" finished, I was surprised that it was so quickly followed in my imagination by Lennon's song, "Imagine":

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

The change of world-view displayed by Lennon is, I think, striking. Whilst another place is still clearly being referenced - namely, the better world Lennon is imagining is possible - it is clear that this other place is not to be found in his mind or, by extension in God's heaven above or even in Plato's more cerebral ideal forms, it is going to be found, or made, right here on earth, amongst the people "living for today". Lennon is, therefore, still seeing a kind of another world but here, a decade later, it is not so much really "another" world as it is "this" natural world seen differently.

I do not think that it is entirely accidental that "There's a Place" and "Imagine" bookend the year 1968 and Bill Anders' Earthrise photo. In the West during the nineteen-sixties human religious and spiritual self-understanding was going through an extraordinary period of change and one of the things that was clearly changing was our idea of God.

Don't forget that in 1963, the year "There's a Place" was released, John Robinson, the Bishop of Woolwich, published his now famous and influential book, "Honest to God." This book was controversial even before its publication because an interview in the Observer newspaper with Robinson bore the striking and, to many, shocking headline, "Our Image of God Must Go" (17 March 1963) [Please Please Me was, incidentally, released on 22 March 1963]. The book's basic contention was, as many of you will remember, that having rejected the idea of 'God up there', modern secular people need to recognize that the idea of 'God out there' is also an outdated simplification of the nature of divinity. Instead, Christians should take their cue from the existentialist theology of theologians like Paul Tillich and consider God to be 'the ground of our being' (cf wiki article on Honest to God).

During this period old religious beliefs and certainties had crumbled to such a degree such that it became possible for Lennon to say in a 1966 interview something which, even just a few years before, would have been utterly unimaginable and forbidden. He said:

"Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I'll be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first—rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."

Of course Lennon, as was his wont, somewhat overstates things here (but not by much I think) - and he got into a great deal of trouble for saying it, But I quote him here because it helps us see how quickly the world - and, therefore, also Lennon - was changing its view of God and the world.

Today we can see that the world of 1962 and the writing and recording of "There's a Place" was not even the world of 1963 and the publication of "Honest to God" and release of the Beatles' first LP. Remember Philip Larkin's (1922-1985) wonderful observation of this fact in his poem, "Annus Mirabilis":

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

We can also see that the world of 1966, and Lennon's "more popular than Jesus" quote, was not the same as that of 1968 after our first shared view of planet earth hanging there in space. Lennon's song "Imagine", without it's heaven above is, surely, a song that speaks from out of this new, world view.

His song clearly played its part in helping many of us begin to focus ever more keenly on the fact that, if we truly want to experience a place where "there's no sorrow", where there's "no sad tomorrow" - at least none of the unnecessary sorrows and sad tomorrows willfully caused by human stupidity, hate and brutality - then this was not going to come to pass either by retreating into our minds or into some transcendent, heavenly place with a far-away God, but only in so far as we kept our feet firmly on the ground and began to work towards making this possible in this place, right here and now, on the good planet earth.

It is important, I think, to realise that Lennon did not see this song as being anti-religion per se, so much as being anti all dogmatic, totalising religion; of the more peaceful world he was dreaming about, he once eloquently said:

"If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion — not without religion but without this my God-isbigger-than-your-God thing — then it [i.e. what the song hopes for] can be true" (ref. here).

Lennon seems to have seen that if we are going to make this world a genuinely better one then one thing we most certainly must get rid of is the dangerous religious hubris that is so often promulgated by dogmatic monotheism which is the classic expression of the idea that "my one God is bigger than your God". This totalising idea - copied by, of course, certain political mono-atheisms (such as Nazism and Soviet Communism) - has, over the centuries, done, and continues to do, more than almost any other idea to ensure that all around our home planet there remains both great "sorrow" and almost countless numbers of "sad tomorrows". (The extremely brutal group ISIS in Iraq that we are hearing about in the news at the moment is just one of the most recent incarnations of a totalising religious and political monotheism.)

So, as I came down from that Devon hill I found myself comforted by the thought - though you may say I'm a dreamer - that there *is* a place, where I can go, when I feel low, when I feel blue. But it is not in my mind, it is not in heaven above with the classical God of monotheism, No! It's on this hillside in the natural world, it's with the people I love, my wife, family and friends, it's with my neigbours (who Jesus reminds us must include even our enemies) in every village, town and city across our home planet. It's here, too, I know, in this church community I share with you, full of those still willing to dream and where I know "I'm not the only one."

Once, when Susanna and I were walking in the Lake District around Wasdale Head we stopped into the small church there (the smallest in England they say) and came across some lettering in a single pane of glass quoting the psalmist who said that he was going to "lift up his eyes unto the hills" from when would come his strength and help in the form of a single, supernatural God from on high, the "Lord who made heaven and earth" (Psalm 121:1).

I realised that the "strength" which came down for me from this Devon hill was no longer that believed in by the Psalmist but, instead, it was nothing less than the strength of the natural hill itself (or in a "God" that is Nature and a Nature that is "God") which helped me to see more clearly than I had before how, on this shared home planet (with no hell below us and above us only sky), that we are truly all in this together and that, as Auden realised in his poem, "September 1, 1939", "We must love one another or die."

This same poem ends as follows:

May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

It seems to me that Lennon, in what is, perhaps, his most famous song, clearly showed us such an "affirming flame". May we, in this church community, carry this forward better to light and warm this beautiful world of ours, our common home.