January 2nd, 2012
03:09 PM ET
Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
New Year’s Eve is usually truce time in the culture wars — a moment to reflect and hope and forget your troubles (and the world’s). Not so on Saturday night, when Cee Lo Green changed the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine” while performing the song on live television in New York’s Time Square.
Instead of “Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too,” Green sang, “Nothing to kill or die for, and all religion’s true.”
This change has performed something of a minor miracle: bringing atheists and evangelicals together in common cause. Atheists are outraged that Green is messing with what they see as an anthem for their cause, while evangelicals object to his view that all religions are true.
Green has also infuriated Beatles believers, who see tampering with any Lennon lyrics as tantamount to rewriting the Bible. On Twitter, more than one Beatles fan has quoted Cee Lo Green back to himself: “Forget you” (or worse).
Pop stars routinely tweak lyrics here and there (sometimes because they forget the words), but “Imagine” is nearly as iconic as Lennon and the Beatles themselves — number three on Rolling Stone’s 2004 list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
One of the great debates about the world’s religions concerns whether they are toxic or tonic. In recent years, Christopher Hitchens and other New Atheists have argued forcefully that all religion is “poison.”
Lennon never said that. In fact, he was powerfully drawn to various forms and offshoots of Hindu practice, including Transcendental Meditation. In 1968, he went to India and the following year in England he engaged in a wide-ranging conversation with the Hare Krishna leader Swami Prabhupada.
But he was clearly a critic of organized religion in general, and of Christianity in particular. (Remember when he bragged that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus?) And as “Imagine” attests, he stood alongside those who saw religion as a source of lethal conflict in the world.
The message of “Imagine” is simple. Here Lennon allows himself to imagine what Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of as a “beloved community” wrapping its arms around the entire planet. Three things need to go away for that to be possible: countries, religions, and possessions.
So this was not some minor cut Cee Lo Green did to the song on New Year’s Eve. It was major surgery on Lennon’s “one world” vision.
One final quibble, this time about “all religion’s true.” Huh? What does that even mean?
If one religion says there is one god, another says there are millions of gods, and another says there are no gods, can they all be true? Perhaps in some mystical sense. But on some theological questions, at least, the logical laws of contradiction still obtain.
I say let’s leave the Christ in Christmas, and for the rest of 2012, at least, let’s leave the Lennon in Lennon, too.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.