Forty-nine years ago this month, John Lennon began piecing together the musical collection that would become his second solo studio album. The album was titled after a song that he suspected was too fanciful to become popular (Yoko Ono had to convince John that he had a hit on his hands). “Imagine” would become the best selling single of John Lennon’s astronomical and far too short career.
The honors earned by this simple three-minute tune are too many to list in this space; as is the catalogue of other performers, stars to street buskers, who have covered the song. And despite the many who have parodied it – and notwithstanding those who have performed it with a galling lack of social awareness during this pandemic (I’m looking at you Gal Gadot) – “Imagine” has remained an inspiration for five decades.
I listen to Lennon’s opus routinely, much to the chagrin of some of my friends who criticize “Imagine” for being unrealistic, too new age, or utopian. That, and it’s “insufficiently Christian” I’ve been repeatedly told. Whatever. It remains an immensely powerful song that speaks to our “better angels” to quote Shakespeare, another great British wordsmith. It invites us conceptualize a future that is appreciably better than the present.
If such a challenge is deemed “insufficiently Christian,” then maybe the critic should return to the words of Christ. He is the one with the far-fetched idea that “love of God and neighbor” is the ultimate concern. Remember all that “do unto others as you would have done unto you” idealism? Recall the unrealistic talk about “selling one’s possessions and giving it to the poor?” And don’t forget the impossible utopia of “turning the other cheek” and “loving your enemies.”
Besides, what person of conscience, of even the slightest ethical sense, does not hope for a world where there is less division and more unity; less hate and more peace; less injustice and more equality – a better world for our children and grandchildren. If one fails to dream of a more compassionate future, that is not a problem of the imagination. It is a problem of the soul, a soul turned cynical.
This rampant cynicism is what I’m fighting these days; in others to be sure, but mostly within myself. It’s why I return to the words of Jesus and the spiritual masters who have followed him. And yes, it’s why I keep listening to Lennon: Because on the other side of these strange and difficult days, a new world awaits.
It’s a world where religions will put aside trivialities for the sake of serving the common good; where compassion and justice are stronger than ruthlessness and greed; where shared dignity replaces selfish identity; where workers are regarded as “essential,” without reviewing their financial statements or pedigree; and it’s where substance and competency are valued more than ugly screeds and television ratings. That’s the world I am dreaming of on the other side, and God knows I’m not the only one.