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It was 50 years ago

November 2017 | by Ben Fiddian

The Beatles rose to the heights of fame and fortune with an image of youthful naivety and charm, but it came at a cost. When private remarks by John Lennon were taken as self-aggrandising blasphemy in the USA (Lennon denied this was his intention), church youth groups rallied at concert venues to burn Beatles albums and the Klu Klux Klan issued death threats.

No longer able to hear themselves playing because of the screaming emotionalism of Beatlemania, they were frustrated that they could not develop musically. Perplexed by this threatening turn of events, the band retired from touring and retreated to the studio.

Sgt. Pepper

Between November 1966 and May 1967, they produced their eighth album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Ground-breaking in its musical, artistic and technical creativity, it is considered one of the most important pop music records ever made.

John, Paul, George and Ringo were no strangers to the popular drugs of the era and were introduced to LSD in 1965. The psychedelic sounds of Sgt. Pepper established it as the suitable sound track to 1967’s so-called ‘Summer of love’.

Of the four musicians, George Harrison seemed particularly spiritually open. Having obtained more material possessions in a few years than his parents had had in a life-time, he acknowledged that worldly success left a void in life — which he perceived was the realm of religion.

He visited the centre of the hippy movement in San Francisco, hoping to find other spiritual seekers, but was so disappointed with what he saw that he stopped taking LSD. Transcendental meditation offered a purer, non-chemical path towards enlightenment.

With the other Beatles, he travelled to the Himalayas to learn from yogi holy men. The Eastern religious themes which pervade his subsequent compositions and his public support for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi gave mainstream exposure to New Age philosophies. Harrison also explored and promoted the Hare Krishna cult and practiced meditation until his death in 2001.

What would have happened if the Beatles had heard the gospel during this critical time of spiritual curiosity? Tragically, the ‘Jesus’ they encountered was never a viable remedy for their spiritual hunger. Growing up in post-war Liverpool, Christianity was a dogmatic, authoritarian Roman Catholicism, which said ‘Believe this, because we tell you to’. Touring America as young men, Christianity seemed to come across as a narrow, moralistic fundamentalism, saying, ‘We hate you’.

Living water

While Sgt. Pepper was being recorded, Martyn Lloyd-Jones was preaching what would prove to be his last sermon series, on the woman at the well in John 4.

Had they travelled the three miles from Abbey Road Studios to Westminster Chapel, the Beatles would have heard a man with far less hair and with a more traditional dress sense, and yet with a striking awareness of contemporary issues for a man in his late 60s, and seeking to address those issues with the teaching of Scripture.

Lloyd-Jones understood that people are holistic beings, needing emotional as well as intellectual satisfaction. He saw that Victorian formalism and intellectualism had combined with post-war emotional repression: ‘The most dangerous and the most obvious and evident aspect of the modern world is its failure to help people in their hearts, in their feelings, in their sensibilities’.

Repressed emotion seeks an outlet: ‘Perhaps the most pathetic indication and example of this at the present time is the way in which these poor, modern, young adolescents indulge in frenzies of screaming’.

But his response was compassionate and non-judgmental: ‘I am not mentioning these things because I want to denounce them. I am not here to do that. I am sorry for people who manifest such emotions … These primitive patterns of behaviour are an outlet for the cry in the heart for some satisfaction that the world cannot give’.

Similarly, Christian people ‘should be concerned about those who are indulging in drink and drug-taking’. But ‘it is no use just getting irritated and annoyed and condemning these practices’, for they too are seeking emotional satisfaction.

Real satisfaction is not found in the world: ‘Man is bigger than the universe … he is made for God, so he is too big for the world and the world cannot satisfy him’. But there is a sense in which unbelievers cannot help themselves: ‘They are blinded. Because they are spiritually dead, they lack a spiritual faculty’.

Astounding patience

In John 4, our Lord shows his astounding patience with the woman’s sinful ignorance: ‘Do we not feel rebuked as we read the story? He puts up with her interjections, her clever remarks, her glibness, her debating points. He suffers it all … he keeps on, he persists, until eventually he has brought her to face the vital question’.

Lloyd-Jones did not see the new youth culture as a threat. ‘There is a grave danger that we will take a wrong view of today’s adolescents. They are inheritors, let us not forget that; they are inheritors of a tradition, and much of what is true of them is the result of the failure of those who went before them’.

‘Let us remember that the philosophy underlying what they are doing is supplied by some of the most able in the country, some of the leading philosophers’.

Rather, he recognised it as an opportunity. ‘Can we tell people in the world that there is full satisfaction without drugs, without drink, without all this anti-intellectualism; and yet without all this cutting out of the heart, without turning people into mere intellectual machines, without this dry, unmoving, clinical attitude towards life?’

There is spiritual life that flows from the person, teaching and saving actions of Jesus Christ. It is experiential, heart-deep, all-controlling, powerfully dynamic and radically life-changing. The person who ‘drinks’ that living water will never thirst.

Jesus is holistically satisfying, answering the demands of conscience, intellect and emotions as well as the need for guidance and authority. The satisfaction he gives is eternal: ‘No one ever has been or ever will be bored in heaven. Heaven is going on to all eternity to know more about God: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It is an endless sea! It is as infinite as God himself!’

Attractive Christianity

The great need is for Christians to live in the light of our blood-bought privileges. ‘Why are the masses of the people outside the church? I do not hesitate to say that the reason is that they fail to see in us anything that attracts them, anything that creates within them a desire to receive what we have, or anything that rebukes them and condemns them for their way of living … The trouble at the present time is that we are living so far short of what is offered us here and what is possible to us’.

Fifty years later, the world is still characterised by a deep need for holistic satisfaction. It is tempting to interpret the current symptoms of emptiness, with fear, as a danger to Christianity. But Lloyd-Jones’ challenge to that unbelieving mindset still echoes.

Are you proving Christ’s adequacy by faithfully taking the Lord at his word and obediently living in his absolute sufficiency? Are you willing to meet sinners with our Saviour’s compassion, understanding and patience? Our Lord’s infinite abundance ensures that spiritual vacuums are places of opportunity not threat.

Ben Fiddian

References:

The Lloyd-Jones quotes are from Living water (Volumes 1 and 2), published David C. Cook, Eastbourne, 2008. The information on the Beatles and George Harrison can be found on two DVD documentaries: The Beatles anthology (©Apple Corps, 2003) and George Harrison living in the material world (Grove Street Productions Ltd, 2011).