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John Lennon, U2, Larry Norman and a Trilogy of God Songs

01/25/2013 12:27 pm ET | Updated Mar 27, 2013
  • Michael Gilmour Professor of English and biblical literature, Providence University College, Manitoba

John Lennon's debut solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970), includes the remarkable "God." The former Beatles' well known distrust of religion is on display in this album as he announces "There ain't no Jesus gonna come / from the sky" ("I Found Out"), likens Jesus and Paul with junkies pushing cocaine ("I Found Out"), and with a nice conspiratorial touch, voices concern about a system that keeps people "doped with religion" ("Working Class Hero"). Believers think they are "so clever and classless and free," but to Lennon they are "still fucking peasants / as far as I can see." In "God" he adds, bluntly, "I don't believe in Bible," "I don't believe in Jesus," nor do I believe in I-Ching, tarot, Buddha, Mantra, Gita or Yoga.

U2 offers homage to Lennon and "God" in 1988's "God Part II" from Rattle and Hum. If Lennon is openly critical of religion, sweeping it away without distinction or explanation, Bono's lyrical engagements with the Bible and religion in "God Part II" are much subtler. Like Lennon, lyricist Bono lists items he refuses to believe, beginning with the line, "Don't believe the devil [sic] I don't believe the book / But the truth is not the same without the lies he made up." This song is largely about Albert Goldman and his book "The Lives of John Lennon" (see below), but there is a religious dimension as well, unmistakable given the band's persistent exploration of spirituality. U2's song does not reject religion or its claims (like Lennon), avoids overly simplistic conclusions (like Norman, see below), and demonstrates a willingness to live with paradox and ambiguity. U2's music often includes religious content, but it is a highly creative, restless and wondering relationship with religious mysteries. They look for the baby Jesus under the trash and would take bread and wine if there were a church they could receive in, but their articulation of sacred themes is often playful and always incomplete, as if they never quite find what they are looking for.

Fewer know Larry Norman's music but his work represents a seminal contribution to the Christian rock movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I am oversimplifying but whereas Lennon tends to reject religion outright and U2 sings about its mysterious ways and at least partial un-knowability, Larry Norman represents a Christian conservatism both confident of its rightness and critical of those failing to embrace a particular definition of orthodoxy. His God song, which appears on the 1993 album Stranded in Babylon, lacks Lennon's cynicism about spiritual realities and U2's playfulness, and states clearly "I'm gonna walk the streets of gold" (cf. Revelation 21:21).

Norman opens with the assertion "I don't believe in beatles," taken directly from Lennon's God song, as if stressing the danger of putting too much faith in (secular? mainstream?) celebrities. It also uses U2's phrase "[i] don't believe the devil." However, Norman's "God Part III" is unambiguously confessional and a departure theologically from the earlier two God songs. Seven times Norman asserts "i believe in God," thus departing from U2's less specific phrase "I believe in love," and he rejects Lennon's view that "God is a concept / By which we measure our pain," which is to say a human construction. Norman also embraces a very specific understanding of orthodoxy when he informs listeners, "i don't believe the papacy when fallible lies are told," and announces his rejection of evolution. Both concerns suggest he is a product of late 20th century American fundamentalism. If Lennon is critical of religion and Bono creative in his writing about it, Norman is confessional.

For Lennon, God is a psychosocial phenomenon ("a concept / By which we measure our pain"). This recalls lines from the same album ("I Found Out" and "Working Class Hero") that equate religion with the false comforts provided by drugs. Lennon subsumes all religion and all religious experience without distinction under that catchall concept he labels God, and blurs sacred texts, practices and beliefs with human celebrity and the accolades afforded to them, whether rock stars (Elvis, Zimmerman [= Dylan], Beatles) or politicians (Hitler, Kennedy). This may explain why U2, rather unexpectedly, does not use the term "God" at all in their song, apart from the title. Bono refuses to group all religion together or mingle sacred language with reverence for renowned individuals.

U2's God song offers instead a far more nuanced understanding of the Divine, which includes a theological particularity absent from Lennon's lyrics. Though subtle, Bono grounds "God Part II" in Christian biblical tradition by substituting Lennon's term "God" with the term "love." In doing so, he seems to allude to 1 John 4:7-8:

... let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.

This is a fascinating twist on Lennon's God song. Bono's repeated use of the phrase "I believe in love" affirms and celebrates Lennon and his oft-repeated mantra that love is the answer to all the world's problems, as we hear, for instance, in "Mind Games" (Mind Games, 1973) or the Beatles' "All You Need is Love" (1967; written with Paul McCartney). Bono embraces this most familiar Lennon-ism while deftly rejecting the underlying theology. Lennon tells the world to love one another but so does the New Testament. Bono suggests, on the one hand, that Lennon is absolutely right. Quite unintentionally, the ex-Beatle aligns himself with the very God he rejects because according to 1 John, everyone who loves (a fitting description of Lennon) is born of God. But he is also absolutely wrong according to Bono because he fails to recognize a theological detail evident in this same biblical passage. Whereas Lennon declares, "There ain't no Jesus gonna come / from the sky" ("I Found Out") and "I don't believe in Jesus" ("God"), Bono's allusion to 1 John recalls the central place of Jesus in Christian thought.

Larry Norman's "God Part III" does not include the same subtlety or affection for Lennon we find in Bono's lyrics. Norman begins his song not with a statement about religion, like Lennon and U2, but instead with the words "i don't believe in beatles, i don't believe in rock," taking the first phrase directly from Lennon's song. The liner notes to Norman's Stranded in Babylon describe "God Part III" as a "response to John's song," which suggests something far less affectionate than U2's note that their song is "for John Lennon." Unlike U2's generous affirmation of the rightness and truth of Lennon's emphasis on love, Norman's direct confrontation with Lennon, the Beatles and rock more generally suggests there is no truth to be found in music; "you can easily hit number one with a bullet," he says, "and totally miss the heart." Bono disagrees, finding truth in Lennon, even if he is misguided in certain particulars.

Norman's opening phrase creates greater distance between "God Part III" and the Lennon precursor than we find in U2's God song. Bono does not name the Beatles or Lennon explicitly, nor is there any veiled criticism of their music. Instead, there is an unambiguous lyrical nod to Lennon in the phrase "Instant karma's gonna get him," referring to his single "Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)" (1970). It almost sounds like a judgment directed at Lennon but it actually refers to "[Albert] Goldman" who wrote the unauthorized 1988 biography "The Lives of John Lennon." This is a highly critical account of the former Beatle, one Bono clearly rejects. The ambiguous "Don't believe" that begins the stanza is either the singer's declaration (as if to say, I refuse to believe Goldman, and that Lennon is anything less than great) or an imperative demanding audiences ignore Goldman (don't you believe Lennon is anything less than great).