Performing in Times Square on New Year's Eve, rapper Cee Lo Green caused a fuss when he changed the lyrics of John Lennon's classic song "Imagine." Instead of wishing for a world where there is "nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too," as Lennon had written, Green substituted the affirmation: "...and all religion's true."
If Green thought his revisionism would be appreciated by all viewers, he was wrong. Lennon's direct criticism of organized religion in "Imagine," a song released three years before Green was born, is an important mantra to millions of nonreligious fans, and the idea that it could be casually changed to an opposite meaning is, well, somewhat sacrilege. "Certainly it was disrespectful to John Lennon's intent and memory for him to have done it," wrote one secular activist and Lennon fan.
Green responded to objections via Twitter with a statement aimed at damage control. "Yo I meant no disrespect by changing the lyric guys!" he tweeted. "I was trying to say a world where u could believe what u wanted that's all."
And yo, based on this we can surmise that Green probably had good intentions, but it is just those good intentions that pave the proverbial road to hell. The staggering ironies in Green's revisionism are numerous.
First, there is the irony of a streetwise rapper turning a subversive, anti-establishment song into a soft, conformist tune. Green takes Lennon's radical message (Imagine a world with no religion!) and transforms it into a pop theology that would instead declare every fundamentalist preacher and every con-artist televangelist to be just as "right" as every true humanitarian. "Just believe something!" Green tells the world. We shouldn't be at all surprised to learn, as we do if we visit Green's web site, that this tough rapper is now working for Disney.
Then there is the irony of impossibility, of the fact that Green's message cannot possibly be true. Though Green's exercise of artistic indiscretion can be seen, as he implies, as a plea for tolerance, Green is naïve to think that the best way to convey a message of tolerance would be to suggest that all religious views are correct.
Because they aren't. Either Jesus was the son of God who rose from the dead, as Christians claim, or he wasn't. Either salvation is attained through faith alone, as certain Protestant Christians claim, or it isn't. Either the Catholic Church is the one true faith, which it has often claimed over the years, or it is a purely man-made institution. Either Muhammad was a prophet who received direct communications from God, as Muslims claim, or he wasn't. The same question about prophet status would apply to Joseph Smith and Mormonism. All the world's religions are based on specific claims of objective fact that are either true or not, and it's worth pointing out that many of these truth claims directly conflict with one another, to the point that they have been a basis for much war and violence. It is simply impossible that they could all be true.
It's nice that Green strives for harmony, but the unfortunate truth is that real harmony is highly unlikely among the world's organized religions, a fact that no doubt Lennon had in mind when penning "Imagine." When religions have held power, they have brutally enforced their version of truth, often exterminating even those with minor theological differences. Consider the widespread historical hostilities between Catholics and Protestants, for example, or between Sunnis and Shiites. Consider the cruel intolerance of seventeenth century Massachusetts Puritans, who executed fellow Christians on Boston Common over petty religious differences. Disney's dream of lions dancing with antelope would seem more realistic than Green's vision of harmony among the world's religions.
But there is even more irony linked to Green's feel-good lyrical revisionism, and that is the fact that it implicitly marginalizes a key group that Lennon's original lyrics empowered. By pretending that there are no disagreements between the world's religions, Green encourages the untrue assumption that all belief is harmless, that everything will be fine as long as we all believe something. Such dangerous assumptions about religion incorrectly exalt the very notion of belief, rather than more important notions of critical thinking, ethical behavior, and questioning power. Lennon told a generation to think, to act, and to challenge authority, whereas Green implies that all believers can simply hold hands and sing "Kumbaya." Perhaps Green never considered it, but his exaltation of belief - any belief - allows only one group to remain outside the realm of acceptability: nonbelievers.
This can't be what Lennon meant by "Imagine there's no heaven..."
Dave Niose's new book, Nonbeliever Nation, will be released later this year.
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