This article originally appeared in the November 4, 1988 issue of Christianity Today.
You know it ain't easy
You know how hard it can be
The way things are going
They're going to crucify me.
John Lennon, "The Ballad of John and Yoko"
Just call it "The Last Temptation of John Lennon." A new biography (The Lives of John Lennon), depicting the ex-Beatle as a drug-crazed, sex-obsessed introvert, has caused a media-grabbing stir among rock 'n' rollers and baby boomers alike. No one less than one-time partner Paul McCartney says the book is full of lies. And a recent poll revealed that 97 percent of those questioned "have their doubts about the book."
Talk of a "bio boycott" is in the air: A symbol-perhaps the symbol-of the sixties is being threatened. And with it, the legacy of a generation that promised the world peace, love, and community-qualities, according to Tom Morganthau of Newsweek, "that have sadly proven as ephemeral as flower power."
Lennon was, perhaps, the last, best hope for a now middle-aged generation wanting the assurance that it did not demonstrate in vain; that its youthful idealisms really do have a place in the real world-venereal disease and drug addiction notwithstanding. A fallen hero, a martyr (Lennon was murdered in December 1980), Lennon died-or so public perception goes with his idealism intact, his vision for peace in focus. Now we are told his life was programmed to self-destruct.
In our more common-sensical moments, age and AIDS tell us it could be no other way; Lennon simply lived out the consequences of a self-indulgent ideology. Says Morganthau: "The boomers are losing the hubris of youth in the big-little struggles of daily life: children must be fed and taught, bills and taxes must be paid. Drugs and promiscuity are every bit as dangerous as mom and dad said they were. Che Guevara is dead. Vietnam is drearily imperialistic and Jane Fonda has apologized for her pilgrimage to Hanoi."
You say you want a revolution?
Well you know we all want to change the world.
John Lennon, "Revolution"
From the lofty perspective of middle age, neither the Lennon revelations (be they true or false) nor the sixties postmortems currently in vogue hold any surprises, really. Yet there is a darker reality underlying these media machinations that demands more than fond memories and quick fix therapies: A nagging sense of hopelessness (the antithesis of the sixties spirit) persists in the subconscious of a generation in the throes of its own midlife crisis.
"'We are the world,' we shouted just a couple of years ago. And just a couple of years ago we were," writes "investigative humorist" P. J. O'Rourke. "How did we wind up so old? So fat? So confused? So broke?"
Probably because the gods of the sixties proved too uncontrollable and destructive. In the aftermath of a distant dream called the "Woodstock Nation," a community that was to have been built on the gospel of "luv," has come a disturbing alienation-the sense of every man for himself, by himself. "The communal ideal depended on an equal sharing of the load," reflected sixties musician Peter Tork, "and who in the '60s wanted that kind of hassle? The perpetually stoned ideal presupposed no commitments in the real world." Frustrated idealism has given way to the rabid demand for consumer goods in the seventies and eighties, and the growing realization that the one who dies with the most toys doesn't really win.
What this alienation will mean over the next 30 to 40 years for the largest single generation ever to populate the United States is anyone's guess. No doubt a common cause or two will momentarily capture our imaginations, complete with heroes articulating a new way to a brighter day (and, we can hope, symbolizing something more permanent and positively life transforming than Lennon, or Hugh Hefner, or Ivan Boesky did). But one thing is certain: In this search for a meaningful tomorrow, the church has a mission field cut out for it that 20 years ago it was unwilling to acknowledge.
God is a concept
by which we measure our pain.
John Lennon, "God"
The flower children of the sixties identified the church as a tradition of the "old way," and the church, in turn, responded by criticizing or ignoring the "new way." The church, which should have been a community of hurting and healed people (a model that, had it been preached, would have attracted more social dropouts than it eventually did at the time), polarized around sociopolitical issues and became a closed community instead.
Ironically, the wall separating "them" from "us" was eventually breached by an uncritical "do your own thing" ethic. Its legacy within the church, then and now, is the temptation to water down doctrine in an effort to be all things to all people.
But those who withstand that temptation today hold an unusually strong attraction to sixties survivors: the epithet, "Don't trust anyone over 30," has been replaced by an intensified search for something or someone-with a vision that can be trusted. The generation that is still struggling with a decade of bad drugs and bad dreams may finally be willing to heed the call to true servanthood as revealed by the God of the Bible rather than to sacrifice to the shortsighted gods of a particular age.
"I can't handle the uppers, downers, and all-aroundtowners which have skewed my life since the Sixties," said a former society dropout quoted recently in Mother Jones. "The means (drugs) gradually superseded the ends (decency, community, peace, love)," this Great Plains rancher wrote in his Christmas letter. "The party was over, but we didn't leave. It's time for me to take it the way the Lord made it. Turns out that isn't half bad."
The potential for spiritual renewal among the survivors of the sixties is abetted by the presence of their own children-a new generation destined, like the preceding one, to wander from acid to ashram to whatever is next in search of truth. For the generation once committed to the folly of "endless youth," the future is now. Living in the moment is no longer possible, as former flower children grow older, and their children need something to believe in that will help them avoid the mistakes of their parents.
The halcyon days of the sixties were short-lived and shortsighted. And a nation that mourns their passing is itself short-sighted, or frustrated that its "best" efforts lead to the same meaninglessness and alienation that its "flower power" was to have resolved once and for all. Burned by sensuality, hedonism, and materialism, the sixties generation is now primed to give true peace a chance. And the church is in a position to provide a Way that will finally lead us out of the past, and into a brighter day.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The Gospel According to the Beatles is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
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.
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