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Christ, You Know It Ain't Easy: the Beatles & Christianity

‘Television will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and will be proved right. We’re more popular than Ed Sullivan now. I don’t know which’ll go first - Rock and Roll or CBS. Lew Grade’s alright, but his disciples are thick and ordinary.’

If John Lennon had said this to Evening Standard journalist Maureen Cleave in 1966 instead of holding a mirror up to the diminishing masses huddled in religious ceremony across the Western world, it’s possible that he may have avoided the trigger finger of a crazed fanatic fourteen years later. But he didn’t. Instead, he compared the Beatles’ astonishing popularity to Christ’s, or more to the point, His followers.

Lennon's blasphemy, believe it or not, is the offending article here

The challenge when discussing religion from a secular perspective, as Lennon quickly discovered, is that some Christians have little time for some of the core teachings of the Messiah, such as forgiveness or a reluctance to judge. ‘It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.’ Quite.

Lennon did have a point, though. As the global population of the 2020’s attempts to overcome the challenges of ‘long Covid’, Christianity is still to recover from ‘Long Sixties’(Hugh McLeod), a result of the crisis of identity it underwent in the second half of the 20th century. Church attendance during the 1960’s diminished to the point where churchmen were convinced that numbers would collapse and disappear entirely. Such was the urgency, a special Church of England conference was called in 1964 in an attempt to conjure up some gripping new innovation that might put bums on seats. As by then there were so few that ‘only handfuls’ were thought to be occupying pews across the land. In an innovation that had already occurred, but not in their favour, the best composers of the age were now writing the devil’s music, packing out crowds wherever they went.

Preaching to the choir

Hugh McLeod, in his The Religious Crisis of the 1960s⁠ (2007, Oxford University Press), makes some interesting observations in his attempt to understand what happened to Western Civilisation in the years between 1958 and 1975, a period he calls the ‘final crisis of Christendom’. Theorising on whether the decline in church attendance was a result of evolution (yikes for Creationists) or revolution, he never quite got to grips with what that revolution was. Suggesting that ‘these years may come to be seen as marking a rupture as profound as that brought about by the Reformation’, he hits the nail on the head but misses the wrists.

In moral panic, there were several accusatory fingers pointed at possible causes. 1963 brought what Bernard Levin called ‘the holy rage’, a collective gasp at the appearance of a naked woman at an Edinburgh literary conference.

Anna Kesselar - Edinburgh's naked model

The Profumo affair scandal and the lawsuit against the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover were further markers for the social rapture. British cultural historian Robert Hewison argues that the 1960’s didn’t even start until 1963, whilst Callum G. Brown⁠ (Professor of Religious and Cultural History, University of Dundee) further piles the blame on that year as the point when ‘Christian culture, as a hegemonic feature of British society, died and instigated sharpened gradients of decline in virtually all statistical indicators of religiosity and social conservatism.’ Snappy stuff. McLeod counters ‘if one year is to be selected as marking the turning-point it should be 1967’.

Interesting. Yet no one seemed willing to make even the slightest reference to the whopping great quartet of elephants in the room, the Beatles. Their debut album, Please Please Me, kicked off the decade by appearing in 1963, and their ‘turning point in Western Civilisation’ (so said Kenneth Tynan, Times literary critic) album Sgt. Pepper was released in 1967. Paul met John in 1957 and Lennon, for his part, was mostly active during 1958 and 1975, spanning exactly the ‘final crisis of Christendom’. Coincidence? Scholars will want to point to something destructive when analysing the decline in popularity of Christian based religiosity. Some insidious influence has to be at play to tear the masses away from, well, Mass. Perhaps it’s something more obvious than that. It usually is.

Funny then, that a story that has inspired goodness, togetherness, hope and love, and one that quickly amassed a crazed following the world over was unfolding unnoticed, right under their noses. Ironic too, that a man whose story bares more than a passing resemblance to Christ’s, and perhaps one more relatable to the youth of the day, was ignored. If either of these statements feel heretical, then hold on to your stones. We’ll get to that.

More than any ideology, more than any religion, more than Vietnam or any war or nuclear bomb, the single most important reason for the diffusion of the Cold War was the Beatles — Mikhail Gorbachev

If Gorbachev felt justified in claiming the Beatles had played a part in the opening of the Iron Curtain, it perhaps it isn’t too great a jump to suggest that at the height of their popularity the Beatles might have had a greater hold on the collective consciousness of youth than the teachings of Christ. There is evidence outside of records sold and fans camped outside of hotels to support this. During the years between 1963 and 1969 Anglican confirmations dropped by 32% and ordinations by 25%. Something more than coincidence was at play here.

Religious Historian, Podcaster and Beatles fan, Tom Holland speaking in 2021 (Guesting on the Word In Your Ear podcast with Mark Ellen and David Hepworth) gets straight to the point saying that the Beatles themselves ushered in an age that he calls the ‘New Reformation’, sweeping away long held, ‘too powerful and too overwhelming’ religious dogma for a more modern understanding of the core teachings of Christianity, such as love, peace and (whisper it) joy. The 1960’s, he says, became the playground where ‘fundamental Christian ideas get turned and come to be seen as antithetical to Christianity.’ So, these essential ingredients become the playthings of the Beatles and less to do with pious chin scratching over scripture. Ironically, the Beatles own work would suffer from no small amounts of chin-stroking syndrome, too. Not least here.

‘The 1960’s were as significant a decade for broad Western Culture as the first decade of the Reformation back in the 16th Century’, says Holland. ‘It set everything on a new course.’ And here we are now.

Humanity loves a story and the story of Christianity is a powerful allegory for life. Hope and morality form the basis of faith and this is part of the reason why it endures. It inspires and drives people, whilst providing the moral bedrock for Western civilisation. So, what happened?

Two world wars in quick succession applied so much emotional, financial and moral pressure on society that it eventually had to crack. British society was becoming increasingly secular and rigid class structures began to open up. Women’s Liberation gained momentum and recent wars inspired people to fight for an idealised vision of home, for a moral victory, instead of for the glory of Kings or a God.

After WW2, people took to looking upon more earthly matters from which to take inspiration. Battle fatigue was piled upon more than a century and a half of capitalist oppression (or opportunism, depending on whose side you’re on) to create a distinctly pragmatic population, one that was severely lacking in any kind of faith, or magic. Anything outside of financial gain lost value and so the population was bereft of spiritual aspiration. This pragmatism is essential when dealing with the gross hardships of poverty, overcrowded and sub-par urban living conditions, war, loss and a We Shall Overcome spirit. But when those concerns are consigned to even recent history, something has to take their place. Magic and a willing suspension of disbelief, the other half of Christianity, was getting edged out by the reality of modern life. Without magic (faith), Christianity becomes a but a moral tale. Its divinity is in belief in rather than aspiration, which can be seen as the root of capitalism.

Humanity then, needed another story. Something real and removed from glory or death. Something they could touch, but remained just out of reach. People were in need of joy, beauty and above all, hope, but with Christ on the subs bench, where does it come from? The aesthetic of religion was changed, but the feeling and human desire to aspire remained. So, the twentieth century saw the creation of fictional secular heroes, because what they needed was Superman.

The Beatles’ story is about much more than just a pop group having hit records. Though Beatlemania’s central protagonist (Lennon was the voice of the Beatles’ early popularity) had an arc somewhere between Noah’s (getting people on board) and Christ’s (his own personal story arc and finally, martyrdom), there was a richness of storied history behind the other three, and indeed the supporting cast, all dominant personalities in their own right. Ones that came to the forefront as the Beatles matured. This was no metaphor for life, but a vital cultural assault. These four working class boys seemed to have an answer, and it didn’t involve killing anybody. The perfect antidote to the first half of the 20th Century, in Britain and in America, as seen in their immediate rise to prominence in the wake of the assassination of JFK in November 1963. The Beatles lead a bloodless revolution that waged war on multiple fronts on many continents.

For those already established in the pre-Beatles world, their sudden ubiquitousness must have felt like the clip-clopping arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Each member had his own distinct personality that lay within one distinct voice. Bound together it swept away the established way of doing…nearly everything which saw the erasure of dogma. Within a pop idiom they broke the mould by being a self-contained unit with no obvious frontman but three very capable vocalists. They wrote, played and arranged their own material before their symbiosis with George Martin developed, allowing them to do more of the same. These behaviours, in entertainment or attitudes toward daily social life, simply didn’t exist before the Beatles.

‘As in the Reformation’, says Holland, ‘the hymns were a vital way in which Protestant ideas could transmit. In exactly the same way the music of the 1960’s was articulating a new understanding of values that nevertheless was drawing on an incredible, deep reservoir of ideas and values…but completely recalibrating them…everything that’s happened since is just the ripple effect, the echo of that decade.’ Hymns were replaced by songs that became so popular that their impact directly informed language, with themes that were so universal that they influenced culture and popular thinking. Teen sensation gave way to revolution of the head so seamlessly that few noticed when The Beatles stopped singing about young love to screaming girls and started singing about altered states of perception and ‘fixing holes’ or ‘needing a fix’.

The Beatles paved their own way, with help from key players at crucial moments. Styling themselves, they created new trends in their local scene before making suits cool for possibly the first time since the 1920’s. They wore their hair in a style that previously had only really been seen on Roman busts or ageing Parisian lesbians, before growing it longer than would have been imaginable in 1962, in the case of Harrison and Lennon, by 1968. Via their use of the media, they chose to communicate directly down the lens or microphone to their public, rather than through ghost written soundbites, enabling them to sound impossibly fresh and honest. They could sermonise from mounts in any city in the world and know that everyone was listening. That they did this whilst speaking in exaggerated Northern accents when a clipped Queen’s English was expected, responding to often patronising questions with a cheeky irreverence that paved the way for colloquialised expression from the hitherto unheard, was shocking until it became copied by everyone. This, for the post-war generations was akin to William Tynedale’s first English translation of the New Testament. For the pre-war generations, it was just as heretical.

In their wake everyone had the opportunity to shoulder barge their way into popular entertainment, democratising opportunity, wedging open the previously closed door. Their uneducated, musically illiterate, DIY approach to songwriting made instant anachronisms of formal rules and boundaries, rendering years of study at the Guildhall School of Music superfluous to success. The Beatles made what they were doing appear easy. Of course, it wasn’t, but that didn’t stop millions upon millions of people following in their wake, imitating until finding their own voice, their own medium and ultimately, themselves.

This new wave of individualism, expressed in music, fashion, career options and now on social media, has effectively replaced religion in popular culture in the 21st century. We’re constantly advised to look within ourselves, to find ourselves, to be our best selves and live our best lives. Not necessarily for spiritual improvement, but for instantaneous well-being and the promotion of brand ‘Me’.

The Beatles marked the beginning of the popularisation, and the acceptance of, this expression of self. So, by the time Lennon’s interview with Maureen Cleave was picked up by American teen magazine, DATEbook on the 29th July 1966, some five months after the interview’s initial publication in the London Evening Standard, the conservative right in America’s South were able to begin their retaliation. At last they had some ammunition. The Bible Belt, USA’s rural heartland, had been smarting since the publication of Time Magazines ‘Is God Dead’ issue of April that year.

The increasing suspicion of religious irrelevance was met with furious anger, the damning of souls and the last chance for redemption. Lennon’s apparent heresy gave those with something to protect a lightening rod with which to channel their fears.

But love always wins.

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