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My Take: Let Lennon be Lennon and forget Cee Lo Green
Cee Lo Green performing in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
January 2nd, 2012
03:09 PM ET

My Take: Let Lennon be Lennon and forget Cee Lo Green

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.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Atheism • Celebrity • Culture wars • Music

soundoff (1,547 Responses)
  1. DrJames

    Cee Lo must sure consume lots of toothpaste. Look at them chompers!

    October 19, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  2. Marcoloh

    This hip-hop video is more realistic on the topic of suicide, watch this...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DCb-b6lHUc

    June 21, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  3. SBI Personal Loan

    Woah this weblog is excellent i like reading your articles. Keep up the good paintings! You recognize, lots of people are looking round for this information, you could help them greatly.

    April 21, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
  4. BEATLE OBSERVER

    Funny, in the final interviews of his life, John stated that he did infact have a spiritual faith, and if you want a quote from one of his final songs, " Beautiful Boy" ..."before you go to sleep, say a little prayer" ....as for a singer changing a lyric for a remake of a classic song, it's been done countless times, even the Fab Four did it themselves. ( Ringo singing "Boys" is a doozy..) Get over it , its only a song,

    January 24, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  5. periwinkle

    Cee Lo is disgusting. If I have to see his disgusting face talking about "puzzy" one more time, I will vomit.

    Saw him in concert and he was awful, disgusting, revolting, offensive, ill-mannered, untalented, and a total let down.

    Gweneth handles his one good song better than he does...

    He has no business touching a Beetles song.

    Did I mention he's disgusting

    January 24, 2012 at 3:11 am |
  6. DamienKnight

    I am a lunatic and Charles Manson is my hero!

    January 11, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  7. Juliam

    I agree.
    Cee-Lo's edit completely rips out the heart of the song.
    Getting rid of religion won't, of course, mean instant world peace but it is an important step in achieving it!

    January 11, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Derek

      I think it represents something great about this country. You can enjoy the ideas of another without giving up your beliefs. Cee-Lo is just singing from the heart.

      January 19, 2012 at 3:09 am |
  8. FrankC

    Shame on you, CNN!
    "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."
    To intimate that the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was calling for the end of religion in order to create a "beloved community" is preposterous! King was motivated by his religious conviction unlike your news agency which seems hell bent on promoting an America free of genuine religion; specifically, free of Biblical Christianity.

    January 9, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • rafael

      I agree that Prothero's statement could be clearer, but I think you are misreading it. The first sentence is what Martin Luther King Jr. said. The second sentence is what Lennon imagined it to involve.

      January 11, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  9. Squincher

    20 years from now, they'll still remember John Lennon. I doubt you will be able to say the same for Cee Lo.

    January 9, 2012 at 6:02 am |
    • Derek

      so?

      January 19, 2012 at 3:10 am |
  10. DVDA Amy

    oh CEEE LOW... you're so black.

    January 8, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • DVDA Amy

      Why do you even bother getting tattoos?

      January 8, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  11. DVDA Amy

    The Beatles? Sounds like a bunch of drug using hippies to me... no sir I don't like 'em.

    January 8, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
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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.