From Nietzsche to John Lennon: Death and Resurrection of Western Religiosity

From Nietzsche to John Lennon: Death and Resurrection of Western Religiosity September 9, 2022

Perhaps one of the most significant single quotations of the 19th century was by the prodigious and often misconstrued German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who said – among other things – “God is dead.” That little sentence has caused immeasurable trouble ever since it was published in 1882 in Nietzsche’s The Gay Philosophy and was reiterated in the seminal Thus Spake Tharathustra. The poor little sentence has been reduced time and time again to a mere statement if atheism. That reading could hardly be more wrong. 

In actual fact, when he said that God was dead, Nietzsche was not saying anything that would call for a God’s Not Dead style apologetic rebuttal. Sure, he was an atheist. Sure, underlying the famous statement is the assumption that God never existed in the first place. However, “God is dead” would be a pretty silly way to say, “There is no God.” The death of God is not a religious commentary but a societal phenomenon. “God is dead,” Nietzsche wrote, “and we have killed him.” This means that the post-enlightenment European culture had purged itself of its former obsession with God and possibly driven from its collective consciousness the ability to believe in God. 

 

Make no mistake, a man as critical of religion and the church as Nietzsche took no issue with the death of God. Since God was not real to begin with, the death of God as a popular idea was no tragedy. What it was, however, was an intimidating vacuum in western culture. The philosophical and social question of the century became, “What will replace Christianity as the guiding force behind western cultures?” This question made everyone, Nietzsche included, uneasy.  

The classic misunderstanding of Nietzsche is not unlike poor old John Lennon who set off riots, record burnings, and radio band in the US when he said that his band The Beatles was “bigger than Jesus.” As Lennon later clarified, he never meant that the Beatles were better than Jesus, more important than Jesus, or anything like that. He said that they were more popular among Western youth than Christianity was, and that was a fair observation at the time. Kids were more apt to catch Beatlemania  than Jesus mania in the 1960s. 

 

Despite being no fan of Christianity himself, Lennon was not exactly comfortable being “bigger than Jesus.” He seemed to be taken aback, maybe even a little scandalized underneath his jaded exterior, that a pop band was outselling the largest world religion among the new generation – even if he didn’t support the religion. In this way, Lennon became a lot like Nietzsche – a controversial commentator on current trends, critical of the church but dismayed at the gap left by it’s declining influence and the things that might arise to fill it. 

In a sense, Lennon’s observation was an answer to the question posed by the death of God. In the absence of a God-fearing culture, it was entertainment that seemed to rise up to become the predominant influence on the beliefs, feelings, and choices of the masses. The gatherings for worship were eclipsed by the wild-spirited gatherings for concerts. Spirituality, philosophy, and even salvation were outsourced to songwriters. 

In response, church after church has tried to convert itself into a rock concert in a desperate scramble to entertain crowds and maybe trick them into reviving God in the process. Of course, it worked a few times. Contemporary churches have grown quite large, and some genuine conversions have occurred as a result of their efforts. In many more cases, too, though, those who were already Christian left their traditions and hopped aboard the entertainment express, finding more fulfillment in these more entertaining liturgies. 

 

God died (in the consciousness of modern culture). The Beatles were bigger than Jesus. American Christians tried to turn Jesus into The Beatles. After more than a century of talk, rumors of God’s death have been greatly exaggerated, and religion doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Now we are all scrambling to adjust to this strange new world we’ve created. 

 


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