In March 1977 Yoko traveled with John Green to Cartagena in Colombia to meet a witch who had been recommended to her as someone "who could do anything." Green had to accompany her to check out the witch's validity. Yoko paid the witch sixty thousand dollars to perform a series of rituals culminating in the sacrifice of a dove. When they returned to New York; Yoko insisted that they had to fly via Los Angeles and Alaska to avoid having to fly in a northeasterly direction because she believed this would bring her bad fortune.
Next came one of the most extraordinary turnabouts in John's life. A television addict for many years (it was his way of looking at the world since he could no longer walk around anonymously), he enjoyed watching some of America's best-known evangelists—Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, Jim Bakker, and Oral Roberts. In 1972 he had written a desperate letter to Roberts confessing his dependence on drugs and his fear of facing up to "the problems of life." He expressed regret that he had said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus and enclosed a gift for the Oral Roberts University. After quoting the line "money can't buy me love" from "Can't Buy Me Love" he said, "It's true. The point is this, I want happiness. I don't want to keep on with drugs. Paul told me once, 'You made fun of me for taking drugs, but you will regret it in the end.' Explain to me what Christianity can do for me. Is it phony? Can He love me? I want out of hell."
Roberts sent him a copy of his book Miracle of Seed Faith and several letters explaining basic Christian beliefs. In the second of his letters Roberts said:
John, we saw you and the Beatles on television when you first came to America. Your talent with music was almost awesome and your popularity touched millions. Your influence became so widespread and powerful that your statement-the Beatles are more popular than Jesus- might have had some truth in it at that moment. But you know, our Lord said, I am alive for ever more. People, the Bible says, are like sheep and are often fickle, following this one day and something else the next. However, there are millions who have received Jesus Christ as their personal Savior and have been filled with the Holy Spirit. They love him. To them He is the most wonderful and popular man who ever lived because he is the Son of God and His name endures.
I thank God that you see this, John, and finally regret thinking any man or group could be more popular than Jesus. Jesus is the only reality. It is Jesus who said "I am the way, the truth, and the life." So, you see, your statement that because of your hard background you've never wanted to face reality is actually really saying you've never wanted to face our loving Lord. What I want to say, as I tried to say in my other letter, is that Jesus, the true reality, is not hard to face. He said, "Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." You said, John, that you take drugs because reality frightens you. Remember as you open your life to Jesus, He will take all the fear away and give you peace. Peace that passes all understanding.
This correspondence and his exposure to TV evangelism didn't appear to have any effect until he suddenly announced to close friends in the spring of 1977 that he'd become a born-again Christian. He had been particularly moved by the U.S. television premiere of Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth, starring Robert Powell as Jesus, which NBC showed in two three-hour segments on Palm Sunday, April 3, 1977. A week later, on Easter day, he took Yoko and Sean to a local church service.
Over the following months, he baffled those close to him by constantly praising "the Lord," writing Christian songs with titles like "Talking with Jesus" and "Amen" (the Lord's Prayer set to music), and trying to convert nonbelievers. He also called the prayer line of The 700 Club, Pat Robertson's program. The change in his life perturbed Yoko, who tried to talk him out of it. She reminded him of what he'd said about his vulnerability to strong religious leaders because of his emotionally deprived background. She knew that if the press found out about it they would have a field day with another John and Jesus story. John became antagonistic toward her, blaming her for practicing the dark arts and telling her that she couldn't see the truth because her eyes had been blinded by Satan.
Those close to the couple sensed that the real reason she was concerned was that it threatened her control over John's life. If he became a follower of Jesus he would no longer depend on her and the occultists. During long, passionate arguments she attacked the key points of his fledgling faith. They met with a couple of Norwegian missionaries whom Yoko questioned fiercely about the divinity of Christ, knowing that this was the teaching that John had always found the most difficult to accept. Their answers didn't satisfy her, and John began to waver in his commitment.
In an unpublished song, "You Saved My Soul," he spoke about "nearly falling" for a TV preacher while feeling "lonely and scared" in a Tokyo hotel. This must have referred to a trip to Japan at the end of May when he stayed at the Okura Hotel for over two months while Yoko visited relatives. Feeling isolated because of the language barrier, he locked himself away in his room for long stretches of time. At night he suffered terrifying nightmares. According to John Green, who makes no mention of the born-again period in his book, John told him, "I'd lie in bed all day [in Tokyo], not talk, not eat, and just withdraw. And a funny thing happened. I began to see all these different parts of me. I felt like a hollow temple filled with many spirits, each one passing through me, each inhabiting me for a little time and then leaving to be replaced by another."
The image was remarkably like one suggested by Jesus and recorded in Luke 11. It's hard to imagine that John was unfamiliar with the passage. Jesus was warning of the danger of merely ridding oneself of evil spirits without taking in the good. He says that an unclean or evil spirit, finding nowhere to rest, will return. "And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first."
Whatever happened in Tokyo, it marked the end of his personal interest in Jesus. "You Saved My Soul," said that he "nearly" fell for the TV preacher, but that Yoko "saved me from that suicide." So the salvation of the title refers to being saved from God, not by God. Yoko had again become the captain of his soul, the mistress of his destiny. Yet his life didn't improve. He sank into a depression, concerned that his creativity had deserted him and that he had no real purpose in life. The only real joy he experienced came from spending time with his son, Sean.
His life was out of his control. He worried about his health and his eyesight, about making the right investments with his money, about his personal safety. The only way out, as far as he could see, was to pay for the services of people who claimed to see into the future. But then, which ones could he trust? If the advice of the tarot card reader contradicted that of the astrologer, which should he follow? Instead of the freedom he wanted when he broke away from the Beatles, he was now completely enslaved. He couldn't travel anywhere without advice from a directionalist, do deals with anyone without knowing their star sign, or make plans for the future without consulting the I Ching.
In January 1979 he and Yoko traveled to Cairo, having heard that there was a major illicit archeological dig taking place. Both of them believed that ancient Egyptian artifacts contained magical powers, and Yoko had dedicated one of the rooms in their apartment to Egyptian artifacts. "I love Egyptian art," she said. "I make sure I get all the Egyptian things, not for their value but for their magic power. Each piece has a certain magic power." They stayed at the Nile Hilton and toured the pyramids, but when word got out about their intentions they were prevented from visiting the dig.
By the time Frederic Seaman became John's personal assistant in February 1979, John's main interest was reading books on religion, psychic phenomena, the occult, death, history, archeology, and anthropology. Specific books Seaman can remember him asking for included Rebel in the Soul: An Ancient Egyptian Dialogue Between a Man and His Destiny, by Bika Reed; Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today, by Margot Adler; and Practical Occultism, by (Madame) H. P Blavatsky. He also listened to a thousand dollars' worth of taped lectures by Alan Watts.
Vacationing in Florida in the spring, he again watched Jesus of Nazareth on its by now regular Easter showing, but his reaction was completely different from the one he had had two years before. He kept joking that they should just get on with it and fast-forward to the crucifixion. Seaman, who was present with John's sons, Sean and Julian, recalled, "John began working himself up into a tirade against Christianity, saying that it had virtually destroyed what was left of pagan culture and spirituality in Europe-a great loss to civilization." He then announced that he was now a "born again pagan."
Later in the year, Bob Dylan recorded Slow Train Coming, a gospel album born out of personal experience. Dylan told Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times that he'd recently accepted that "Jesus was real … I had this feeling, this vision, and feeling. I truly had a born-again experience, if you want to call it that. It's an overused term. But it's something that people can relate to." Hilburn asked him what "born again" meant. "Born once," he answered, "is born from the spirit below, which is when you're born. It's the spirit you're born with. Born again is born with the Spirit from above, which is a little bit different."
Slow Train Coming was a direct and challenging album. Unlike most gospel recordings, it didn't simply praise Jesus but attacked opposition to him, whether that was religious syncretism, false saviors, or lack of commitment. It was addressed to people like John. In "Precious Angel," the first single, Dylan sang, "Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there ain't no neutral ground.' In the title track, he sang of "Fools glorifying themselves, trying to manipulate Satan."
Dylan's transformation took John completely by surprise. After all, Dylan had been the Beatles' only peer and remained someone whom he deeply respected. What made it particularly galling was that everything Dylan sang about on the album was delivered with a confidence that had always seemed to elude John. Dylan seemed certain that his sins were forgiven, his eternal security was assured, and that God was actively involved in his life.
When asked in 1980 about his response to Dylan's conversion, John was less than honest. He said he was surprised that "old Bobby boy did go that way," but "if he needs it, let him do it." His only objection, he said, was that Dylan was presenting Christ as the only way. He disliked this because "There isn't one answer to anything." This is why he favored Buddhism. It didn't proselytize. In what can now be seen as an allusion to his own born-again period, which hadn't yet been made public, he said, "But I understand it. I understand him completely, how he got in there, because I've been frightened enough myself to want to latch onto something."
His private feelings about the conversion were expressed in his songwriting. He was particularly incensed by the track "Gotta Serve Somebody" because it opposed his view that there was no single truth. The song said, as bluntly as possible, that whatever your station in life, you were either serving God or the devil. This wasn't an avoidable choice. John wrote a riposte titled "Serve Yourself," arguing that no one can save you. The only person you have to serve is yourself. "He was kind of upset [about Dylan's song] and it was a dialogue," said Yoko in 1998. "He showed his anger but also … his sense of humor."
Excerpted from The Gospel According to the Beatles by Steve Turner, published by Westminster John Knox Press, 2006. Used with permission.
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Alistair Begg talks about the Fab Four's cry for "Help" and why no one answered it in a Dick Staub interview.
"Amazing Myths, How Strange the Sound," is a Christianity Today interview with Steve Turner.
Steve Turner also wrote 'Watered-Down Love' on Bob Dylan for Christianity Today.