When John Lennon said in 1966 that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus,” there was a furious reaction in the United States. Dozens of radio stations in the South and Midwest banned Beatles music and some concert venues cancelled scheduled appearances by the band. Their manager Brian Epstein quickly flew to the U.S. to try to quell the storm. Soon afterward, Lennon told a news conference in Chicago that he was sorry for making the comparison, although he added he still thought it was true. The Vatican, as far as I can see from online archives, stayed silent and aloof even thought it could hardly agree with or approve Lennon’s message. (Photo: Japanese band performs in Lennon’s memory, 8 Dec 2005/Toshiyuki Aizawa)
When the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano came out with a nostalgic look back at the Beatles on the 40th anniversary of their 1968 White Album on Saturday, it lead off the article with Lennon’s famous quote and promptly shrugged it off. “The remark by John Lennon, which triggered deep indignation mainly in the United States, after many years sounds only like a ‘boast’ by a young working-class Englishman faced with unexpected success, after growing up with the legend of Elvis and rock and roll,” it wrote. The Beatles’ music was creative and original, even more so than their haircuts and clothes, and has stood the test of time, it said. The Italian-language original has now been overtaken on the OR website by the latest edition, but an English translation will certainly pop up somewhere (on Zenit?).
At the risk of possibly over-interpreting an arts page story, I wonder what all this says about the ridiculing of religious leaders. The uproar back in 1966 was mostly from the U.S. “Bible Belt” and the Vatican seems to have been quiet. Would it be the same today? At the Catholic-Muslim Forum in Rome three weeks ago, the two sides agreed in a statement about religious minorities that “their founding figures and symbols they consider sacred should not be subject to any form of mockery or ridicule.” Muslim countries, which were not very vocal on the international scene back in the 1960s, are now working hard at the United Nations to push through a global blasphemy law.
What do you think would happen today if a rock band claimed to be more popular than Jesus? Or Mohammad?