We're already hearing a lot about The Beatles during this 40th anniversary of the haplessly-called "Summer of Love." With the June 1967 debut of the era-defining album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the simulcast that month of their single All You Need Is Love, John, Paul, George, and Ringo were the reigning princes of pop psychedelia.
Such hoopla should not be lost on Christians, especially if we take seriously the call to understand "the times" (1 Chronicles 12:32). The recent release of two books about The Beatles affords an opportunity to know our times today by doing some Christian cultural analysis of yesterday-the '60s. After all, even ardent despisers of Sergeant Pepper cannot deny the enduring influence of The Beatles on contemporary culture.
Of the two books, Steve Turner's The Gospel According to The Beatles (WKJ Press: Louisville, 2006) offers an easier "ticket to ride." Turner is known in Christian circles for his Hungry for Heaven: Rock 'n' Roll and the Search for Redemption (Intervarsity, 1995). In his Beatles book, he does comparable analysis. Among other things, he demonstrates convincingly that, while the Fab Four were indifferent to Christianity (and clueless about its Savior), they were nonetheless hungry for transcendence.
It was this hunger, Turner argues, that propelled them to start "looking through" their unprecedented musical success, turn on to drugs, study under the Maharishi, popularize "the inner light" of transcendental meditation (George would actually devote his life to Hinduism), fall in love a second time (most notably John with Yoko) and, after "a long and winding road" eventually decide to "let it be" as a group.
In one of Turner's better insights, he observes that "the love they said could change the world couldn't even keep" The Beatles together. Their gospel, based on a naïve remaking of "the word" love, was a cheap imitation. By it, to quote "Eleanor Rigby," "no one was saved," not even John, Paul, George, or Ringo.
Bob Spitz's The Beatles: The Biography (Little, Brown, 2005) may sound a bit pompous with its subtitle, as if no other biography about the four has been written. But The Beatles actually does have a magisterial authority. It offers a David McCullough-esque biography of epic proportions (nearly 950 pages of text and notes) in which voluminous research and humane common-sense "come together" with a fast-paced transparent style-a must read for anyone interested in the guys from Liverpool.
Nevertheless, as "a ticket to ride" into Christian cultural analysis, it offers a more demanding challenge than Turner's book. Spitz is not a self-identified Christian like Turner and makes no attempt to put his subject in Christian perspective.
Still, The Beatles provides plenty of material for Christian reflection. For instance, given that human culture, though fallen, partially reflects the image of the Creator, Spitz's well-informed accounts of the ingenuity behind various tracks of Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sergeant Pepper can't help but prompt "something" like wonder in the Christian reader. Truly man (or men, four of them) with his creativity is the crown of creation.
Or again, as the apostle teaches in Acts 17:27, humanity seeks God "in the hope that they should feel their way toward him and find him" (verse 27). What better display than Spitz's version of the February 1968 retreat to Rishikesh, India, "an answer to The Beatles' prayers" to get away from misery, "the craziness, the drugs, the fame" (750)? And with what pathos one learns of their hope's collapse as one-by-one they depart for England in various states of disillusionment with the Maharishi and God so-called?
If you have time this summer, read The Beatles. But be prepared to "think for yourself" and interpret the story of John, Paul, George, and Ringo from a Christian standpoint. If you don't have that kind of time, then get "help": Read The Gospel According to The Beatles. Why? "Because" 40 years later, the Fab Four are still too big for Christians to ignore.
-Matt Ristuccia is a pastor in Princeton, N.J.