Why John Lennon's 'Imagine' Is Actually Not That Great of a Song | Sojourners

Why John Lennon's 'Imagine' Is Actually Not That Great of a Song

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Photo via Emka74 / Shutterstock.com

Just imagine: John Lennon would have turned 75 on Friday (Oct. 9).

I use the word “imagine” for a reason.

According to Rolling Stone magazine, his song with that name was the third most important popular song in history (the first being “Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan, and the second being “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones).

I never liked “Imagine.” I am not the only Jewish teacher who feels this way.

“Imagine there’s no countries/It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too.”

Lennon was saying: Let’s get rid of nations; let’s get rid of religion; let’s get rid of the idea that there is something above me that is worth dying for, and that might even be worth killing for.

Let’s get rid of the passions that help us transcend ourselves. Maybe that’s why the melody of “Imagine” is so subdued — almost like sleepwalking.

“Imagine” is a dream, and not a very good one.

Imagine no nations, no separate peoples, no distinctive languages, lifestyles, or cultures.

A world of radical sameness.

A world that erases difference.

I actually like cultures, and languages, and national dreams (as long as they are not lethal national dreams, and make room for others).

As for “Nothing to kill or die for,” ask the loved ones of the students who were killed in Oregon last week — simply because they answered “Christian” to the question “What religion are you?” — what that means to them.

Ask the loved ones of the Jews who have been killed in Israel this past week — killed because they are Jews.

When I was the rabbi in Columbus, Ga., every year during the High Holy Days we would welcome soldiers from nearby Fort Benning. I always called them up for a blessing. I would ask God for two things.

First, that God should return them to their families safely.

Second, that God would put them out of work.

That was my way of saying: May there be no more war.

But since there is still war, and because some of those wars are regrettable but necessary, I am glad that there are soldiers.

As for “And no religion too,” Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot imagined a world without religion. The results were demonic.

I don’t even think that it is possible to imagine no religion.

Consider the words of the late writer, David Foster Wallace:

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

“If you worship money and things, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. Worship power, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

I loved John Lennon. I loved his sardonic sense of humor. I loved his literary flair. I loved his musicianship. He was my favorite Beatle.

But, I am not a “Lennonist.” I don’t imagine that “there’s no heaven,” and that above us is “only sky.” I don’t long for a world in which people “live for today,” and only today.

My favorite Lennon song?

“Give Peace A Chance.” I love its hopefulness — not to mention that it is the only rock song in which the word “rabbis” appears. It was recorded during John and Yoko’s famous “bed-in” in Montreal, and the late Rabbi Abraham Feinberg, the retired rabbi of Toronto’s venerable Holy Blossom Temple, visited them and sang along.

My runner-up? “Starting Over,” from John’s final album, “Double Fantasy.”

I love its optimism, which, considering the album was released the month before his death, turned out to be tragic and poignant.

At this time of the year, when we begin reading the Torah again, returning to the opening words of Genesis — I like the idea of “starting over.”

Happy 75th birthday, John.

And since I cannot “imagine there’s no heaven,” let me imagine you in it — jamming with fellow Beatle George Harrison, B.B. King, and all the others in God’s rock ‘n’ roll band.