When in 1966 John Lennon said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ, he sparked a firestorm of acrimony that spread throughout the southern U.S. with all the hoopla of a second coming. Boycotts were kindled. Records were burned. Anti-Beatles invective was heard from pulpits and radios. You’d have thought Lennon was Pontius Pilot, for chrissakes. But just think what it would have been like if social networks existed.
The offending comment came in an interview with Maureen Cleave in the London Evening Standard.
“Christianity will go,” said Lennon. “It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
Cleave later noted that Lennon was reading about religion at the time. A current Beatles fan site, which provides a transcript of the article and reactions to it, asserts “No one took notice of it in Britain.”
But in the United States the kerfuffle took on headline-making proportions and media scrutiny. So an incredulous Lennon apologized. Here is that transcript:
John: “If I had said television is more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it, but I just happened to be talking to a friend and I used the words ‘Beatles’ as a remote thing, not as what I think – as Beatles, as those other Beatles like other people see us. I just said ‘they’ are having more influence on kids and things than anything else, including Jesus. But I said it in that way which is the wrong way.”
Reporter: “Some teenagers have repeated your statements – “I like the Beatles more than Jesus Christ.” What do you think about that?”
John: “Well, originally I pointed out that fact in reference to England. That we meant more to kids than Jesus did, or religion at that time. I wasn’t knocking it or putting it down. I was just saying it as a fact and it’s true more for England than here. I’m not saying that we’re better or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. I just said what I said and it was wrong. Or it was taken wrong. And now it’s all this.”
Reporter: “But are you prepared to apologize?”
John (thinking that he had just apologized, because he did): “I wasn’t saying whatever they’re saying I was saying. I’m sorry I said it really. I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing. I apologize if that will make you happy. I still don’t know quite what I’ve done. I’ve tried to tell you what I did do but if you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then OK, I’m sorry.”
What would happen today? Would the Twittering, Facebooking and blogging be unrelenting? Or would the web have allowed his supporters a chance to protest on his behalf.
Like most bloggers, I’ve written and said things that readers don’t always like. Sometimes it is their problem. Other times it is mine. Nonetheless, I take criticism to heart. I respect it when offered with respect (and a touch of wit). I embrace it when I can learn something. I suspect it when it is vitriolic, knee-jerk or opportunistic.
The blogosphere can be an anti-social network. Comments are only words. But words, especially in public spaces, can sting. What if the internet were around when Lennon made his misstep.
At the time, Lennon was perplexed that his words would cause such an uproar. People were indignant and many acted irrationally. Today, the comment field offers an even easier opportunity for invective – some of it gratuitous. So perhaps before pressing send, a little circumspection is in order.
As someone once said: “let those without sin, cast first stone.”
(Illustration from Beat Crave.)