“God” by John Lennon (1970)

I grew up somewhat religious. A belief in God was cultivated in me at a young age; my maternal grandparents (who I spent my early childhood with) were practicing Catholics. I said my prayers every night and occasionally went to church on Sundays. And if you know me and you’re thinking I went to Aretha Franklin-style churches with hollering choirs and people “catching the spirit”, you’re wrong. The church services I remember attending as a kid had a lot of standing up, sitting down, reading of scripture, hushed “peace be with you”s and not much else. Most Caribbean-Americans (and Latin Americans) go to services more reminiscent of those attended by Whites.

My relationship with religion grew way more complicated as I got older and experienced the world. The fact that I was well aware of my same-sex attraction (from as far back as elementary school) further complicated matters. I had a brief atheist phase in high school, but the pull of Christianity was always there. My aunt tried to pressure me into getting confirmed during my senior year of high school, but I never went through with it. As I wound my way through my twenties into my early thirties, my faith ebbed and flowed. I found myself praying mostly when I felt hopeless, as I believe most people do.

The first line of “God”, a key track on John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band album is “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” That line floored me the first time I heard it, and it still floors me a good twenty-five years later. I don’t know this definitively (there are very few things any of us knows definitively), but experience has shown that a lot of people unconsciously or consciously view God or whatever deity they worship as a convenient way to explain away the ills of the world or the personal pains we go through. In an abusive relationship? God’s will. Dealing with an illness? God’s will. God is a way to explain the unexplainable.

Lennon used “God” as a way to disavow his belief in many things. Perhaps more sacrilegious to some of his fans than his disavowal of various religious texts and figures was his assertion that “I don’t believe in Beatles”. John was making a clean break and making that clean break public. I’m sure it shook a lot of people back in 1970 when The Beatles were rock and roll gods of a sort. The fact that this disavowal of “God” in the traditional sense sounds like an actual church hymn is irony at its highest. I’m sure John was aware of this when he composed it.

I’ve come back to that opening line many times over the years. With hindsight, I realize that God is not only a concept by which we measure our pain, it/He is a concept by which we measure our fear. How many people profess to convert after coming through life-saving surgery? Or on their deathbeds? I can’t say whether God exists or whether heaven or hell exists. I don’t do the blind faith thing. All we have and all we know is now. And if I’m proven wrong in the afterlife (if there is an actual afterlife), then so be it.

But I think John Lennon hit it on the nose in a lot of ways with that one line.

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