John Lennon, 'spiritual,' not 'religious'

Few images of John Lennon are as iconic as that of the ex-Beatle playing a white piano in a white room, gazing into the camera lens while singing "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," said Lennon, in the anthem that for many defined his life. "Imagine there's no countries. It isn't hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too."

Critics of the rock martyr have quoted these words almost as often as his admirers, especially in light of another quotation about religion that haunted the enigmatic superstar. In a 1966 interview about life in England, Lennon stated: "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue with that. I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now."

Months later, his words were published in America. Many churches responded with bonfires of Beatles records and some Bible Belt radio stations banned the group's music -- for a while. Lennon received death threats.

Responding to the firestorm, Lennon told American reporters: "I pointed out that fact in reference to England, that we meant more to kids than Jesus did. ... I was just saying it as a fact and it's true more for England than here."

Decades later, pop-culture scholars and religious leaders continue to argue about what Lennon believed and when he believed it. This is the kind of topic that is being discussed in England, America and elsewhere during the fall of 2010 -- when Lennon would have been 70 years old.

Despite the images in "Imagine," Lennon "certainly wasn't an atheist, he was clear about that," noted Father Robert Hart, an Anglican traditionalist from Chapel Hill, N.C., whose "Hard to Imagine" essay was recently published in the journal Touchstone.

"What he was missing in his life was the certainty of a specific, definitive revelation of a particular religious truth. It's not that he denied that this kind of truth existed, but he was never able to find it. That's what he lacked and he knew it."

In other words, he was a vivid example of an attitude toward faith that has only gained power in the decades since his death. Lennon was "spiritual," but not "religious" before that stance became all too common.

And what about his statement that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus?

"The real problem with what John Lennon said in 1966 is not what so many were quick to assume and to decry in a knee-jerk reaction," noted Hart, in his essay. "The real problem is the element of truth in what he said. The Beatles WERE more popular than the Lord himself among youth in England at the time, as was Frank Sinatra among the older set in America -- and as are television, video games and many other things of this world to very many people today.

"Lennon, the eccentric artist, poet and musician, spoke all too accurately."

Lennon's life was defined by symbolic moments, noted Hart. He was -- literally -- born during an air raid and died after being gunned down by a mad man. As a teen, the vicar of the Liverpool parish in which Lennon was baptized and confirmed banned him from services for laughing at an inopportune time, almost certainly during a sermon.

As a global superstar, Lennon pushed his art and psyche to the limit while trying drugs, Eastern mysticism, psychics, astrologers and other ways of coping with life and his fear of death. As an adult he exchanged letters full of spiritual questions with televangelist Oral Roberts, at one point writing, "Explain to me what Christianity can do for me. Is it phony? Can He love me? I want out of hell."

For a brief time, Lennon tried to embrace evangelical Christianity. In the end, he called himself a "Zen Christian," among other labels.

One would have to conclude, Hart said, that Lennon both reflected his times and influenced them. He did his searching right out in the open.

"This was a man who, if anything, was almost too honest about his doubts and his beliefs," said Hart. "There are people who keep things bottled up inside. Well, that wasn't John Lennon. The question is whether anyone really listened to what he was trying to say."

Baptist take on spirituality

Don Whitney knows what happens when people hear that a Southern Baptist seminary is offering a doctor of philosophy degree in spirituality. "For many people, connecting 'Baptist' and 'spirituality' is like 'military' and 'intelligence.' They just can't picture those two words together," said Whitney, director of the new Center for Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

But for Baptists, he stressed, it's crucial to underline the word "biblical" in front "spirituality," in order to stress the center's ties to Protestant reformers who rejected what they believed were the errors of Rome.

When Whitney and his colleagues talk about spirituality, they emphasize images of the great Charles Spurgeon spending hours in Bible study before preaching, laypeople meditating on the symbolism in John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress" and missionaries weeping while praying for the lost. They do not focus on monks chanting ancient prayers day after day, night after night, generation after generation.

"Why should we go to people who have locked themselves behind a door for 50 years if we want to learn about true spirituality, when the Bible tells us to go out and be salt and light in the world? ... This is not to say that we shouldn't go outside our tradition in order to learn, but we are saying that it's important to go to our own guys, first," said Whitney.

"We believe that biblical, Evangelical spirituality has not been tried and found wanting. It simply has not been tried."

The potential impact of this project is great, if only because 20 percent of all students attending U.S. seminaries study on Southern Baptist campuses. The center opened in January and seminary leaders believe they can handle five students in the Ph.D. program and 10 in their doctor of ministry program. While graduate programs teaching spirituality exist in a few U.S. seminaries, this Ph.D. program is the first targeting scholars and clergy among evangelicals.

One of the first challenges the center will face is defining "spirituality," a word that means one thing on the Oprah Winfrey Show and something else altogether then it appears in textbooks describing traditions in various world religions. For modern Americans, the word is so vague that it's almost meaningless, said church historian Michael Haykin, who teaches in the Southern Seminary programs.

Nevertheless, the word has great power and its appeal must be understood by anyone who wants to understand contemporary American religion.

When most Americans hear "spirituality," said Haykin, they think of "all of those areas in their internal experiences in which they come into contact with things that transcend daily life. ... It's all incredibly nebulous. The key is that the whole ritual of institutionalized, formal religion has nothing to do with this, for most people today."

Thus, researchers keep running into increasing numbers of un-churched adults who identify themselves as "spiritual," but not "religious." These seekers are interested in "spirituality" that is connected to emotions and personal experiences, but not in formal "religion" that comes packaged with history, doctrines and rules.

Meanwhile, many Protestant believers are anxious to escape what they believe is the dry, formal, merely rational approach to worship and prayer that dominates mainstream churches. Some turn to charismatic or Pentecostal churches and some turn to the so-called "emerging churches" that try to weave some ancient Christian prayers and disciplines into their progressive, "postmodern" take on faith.

"What unites all these people is an emphasis on personal experience," said Haykin. "For all of them, 'religion' is a bad word, something they are trying to get away from."

The Southern Seminary programs, he added, will emphasize that Protestant pioneers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther were interested in early Christian spirituality, but rejected what they believed were newer Catholic traditions. Then again, students will also study the works of latter reformers, such as the Puritans, who stressed personal piety while criticizing what they saw as the formalized, ritualized traditions of the Presbyterians, Lutherans and others.

This cycle keeps repeating itself, generation after generation.

"We already have people accusing us of trying to smuggle a kind of Roman Catholic approach to faith into an evangelical seminary," said Haykin. "What we are saying is that the Protestant reformers were trying to get past the whole medieval Catholic world and reconnect with the ancient church and its approach to the spiritual life. That's what we are trying to do, too."

Spirituality in the workplace?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Tim J. McGuire is a baseball fan, but that wasn't why he kept a framed Mickey Lolich card on his desk when he was the editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

That baseball card was a gift from a man who applied for one of the newsroom's top jobs and, here is the twist, did not get it.

"But he wrote me a beautiful letter and he remembered that Mickey Lolich was one of my favorite players," said McGuire. "Sending me that card was such a beautiful, gracious thing for him to do.

"For me that isn't just a baseball card. It's a sacred object."

McGuire mixes work and spirituality all the time, even though he knows many people think this is heresy. Still the former editor is convinced that journalists and other stressed-out professionals must find some way to stop ignoring the holes in their souls.

That's one reason the 53-year-old Catholic layman parachuted out of his newsroom last summer, weeks after finishing his term as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He wanted to be able to speak his mind even more freely than he did during his years as a journalistic gadfly known for his brash management style and profane wisecracks.

Instead of retiring, he began writing a syndicated column called "More Than Work," dedicated to values and faith in the workplace. He also is a leader in the Partners In Preaching network of Catholic speakers.

Work is the last place most people think about spirituality, said McGuire, speaking during a seminar on "Faith, Religion & Values" at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Instead of being the place where they express the values that are most precious to them, work becomes the place where these values are irrelevant.

"Work is brutal. Work is a four-letter word," said McGuire. "Most people don't think that work could possibly have anything to do with spirituality. ... They assume that these two worlds cannot mesh. But if we bring our souls to work, then we can transform our work. That is when our work can begin to transform us.

"The problem for most people is that their work transforms them into something bad, something bitter and tired and broken."

McGuire saw this happen day after day, but he doesn't think journalists are more "soul sick" than other people. All kinds of people struggle to find ways to cope with pain, confusion and anger. Some purchase mountains of possessions and others keep trading in one romantic relationship for another. Some turn to drugs and alcohol. Some literally worship their work, even though they may hate the work that they do.

This struggle is spiritual, whether people want to admit it or not. Finding a way to sleep at night is a spiritual process.

"Everybody has to have a spirituality and everybody does have one," said McGuire. "What we do with that personal madness that makes us who we are is our spirituality. ... Spirituality is about how we try to fill that hole in our souls."

Welcoming spirituality into the workplace doesn't mean holding revival meetings and letting people speak in tongues at their desks, he said. Proselytizing is wrong and there are settings in which it would be wrong for believers to display the symbols of their faith. The key is to make personal changes and vows that help "bring Sunday on over into Monday," he said.

That's why McGuire treasured that Mickey Lolich baseball card. That's why he uses computer passwords such as "blessed" that make him stop and think. A glass eagle sculpture on his desk is a reminder to treat his staff like eagles, not chickens.

Believers can find way to seek holiness, without being "holier than thou," he said. Take office gossip, for example.

"What are you supposed to do about that? You should not participate in the sin. You have to walk away," he said. "So far, so good. But what you can't do is point at those people and say, 'You're sinning! You're sinning! You've got to stop gossiping!' ...

"No, the way you cut down on the gossiping is that you stop gossiping yourself. But that's the hard part anyway, isn't it?"

Buddhism for sale

It was a logical question for the Dalai Lama to ask his Jewish visitors, yet it caught them completely off guard.

Poet Rodger Kamenetz has pondered his question for a decade: "Can you tell me the secret of Jewish spiritual survival in exile?"

"Notice that the Dalai Lama asked about spiritual survival, not cultural survival," said Kamenetz, author of "The Jew in the Lotus," a classic travelogue of uncharted terrain between two spiritual traditions. "What he was really asking was, 'How do you survive spiritually until you can return to your homeland?' "

The exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader assumed that Jews had learned valuable lessons about survival during centuries of life in foreign, often hostile, cultures and lands. But he also assumed that this ability to survive was linked to the practice of the rites and prayers of the Jewish faith.

This is a haunting question for Jews in an age when so few actively practice their faith, said Kamenetz, during a prayer seminar for the Palm Beach (Fla.) Fellowship of Christians and Jews. But this question about spiritual survival should haunt all devout believers in an age in which ancient faiths seem to under attack -- by forces both obvious and subtle.

It's easy to focus on threats such as persecution, terrorism and war. While these forces are real, Kamenetz warned that ancient religious traditions are also being buried in commercialism and entertainment. Faith has become a "consumer good." For millions, a religious tradition is now a product that they purchase, not a way of life that they practice.

In his opinion, the worship, prayer and ethical traditions at the heart of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam should be added to a spiritual "endangered species" list.

Take Buddhism, for example, which appears to be flourishing and winning converts in media-soaked America. Simply stated, Buddhism is being bought and sold. And Kamenetz is not the only scholar who is worried about the rise of a consumer-friendly Buddhism in the spirituality marketplace.

Indeed, some forms of exile are subtler than others.

"All of the world's great religions provide profound challenges to the unexamined life," noted Stephen Prothero of Boston University, at Salon.com. "At their best, they offer devastating diagnoses of human sickness and radical remedies for it. They demand crazy things -- that we love our enemies, that we deny ourselves. ... At their best, religions are difficult, confusing and mysterious."

Meanwhile, the fad that many call Baby Boomer Buddhism is "all too often shallow and small," he said. "It soothes rather than upsets, smoothing out the palpable friction between Buddhist practice and the banalities of contemporary American life."

Consider one item sold in many spiritual bookstores. Consumers can now buy rocks with this inscription -- "What Would Buddha Do?"

There are other seekers -- including growing numbers of "JUBUs" or Jewish Buddhists -- who find Buddhism attractive because they see it as a form of spirituality without dogmas, creeds, beliefs, commandments and rituals that resemble anything they were required to learn as children. They simply ignore what traditional Buddhist leaders such as the Dalai Lama have to say about hot-button moral issues, such as abortion, homosexuality of sexual abstinence.

"Let's face it," said Kamenetz, "one of the reasons Buddhism has become so popular, with so many Americans, so fast, is that people have stripped away all of the rules and the precepts and the work that has to do with how you are supposed to live your life. In doing so, they have stripped Buddhism of its ethical content.

"You are left with a religion that makes very few demands of you. Is that Buddhism?"

Interfaith dialogues between Jews, Christians and Buddhists are sure to increase, as more Buddhists blend into the American mainstream. The number of Americans converting to Buddhism will also continue to rise.

Will the new Buddhists compromise and assimilate? Will they be able to spiritually survive while "exiled" in this strange land?

"It may take 300 years for a true Buddhism to come to America," said Kamenetz. "In the meantime, you're going to continue to see all of these hybrid forms. People are taking pieces of this faith and combining it with pieces of that faith. ...

"This is all so, so American."