As I prepare to host some friends for a 50th anniversary screening of the The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, I've been thinking about that period in history when people went so nuts that John Lennon could suggest The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Beatlemania really was something like a religious experience; kids acted as if rock and roll could save them.
Some American Christians responded to John's comment by burning their Beatles records and banning their songs from the radio. Today Lennon might only get some "Farewell, John" tweets, some blog posts about our anti-religious culture, and then some counter-responses trying to rise above the fray by suggesting there might be some truth to the idea.
I also imagine a facebook meme, in black and white, of Jesus in a collarless Beatle-suit being chased by adoring fans down a London street over the word "JESUSMANIA." This would be an inevitably ironic reference to the opening scene of Hard Day's Night, which, if anything, dramatizes the very phenomenon that sparked Lennon's comment. And it's hardly even drama; the film used actual fans and The Beatles themselves were amateurs, so what we get is not just a New Wave realism but nearly cinéma vérité. Nor are we over The Beatles; witness the number of tribute bands, or the continual release of repackagings of their music, or even The Beatles Rock Band. I myself avoided them until college precisely because "everyone" was into them, but when I actually started listening, they quickly won me over. I can't imagine myself getting flushed and sweaty and screaming just for being in the presence of the Fab Four, but maybe a part of me is fascinated by that ecstasy, that longing for a fantasy of total freedom. I rarely have that in music, art, or faith. In fact, I suspect it, like they did in the 18th century, of "enthusiasm."
After all, rock and roll channels a liberative, individualistic, often sexual energy that the Church will always be in tension with. Rock says: It's all about you. If it feels good, do it. Christianity says: It's all about the Christ. If it pleases Him, do it. That will never be a popular line.
Christ also said to cut off your hand if it offended you, so it's not entirely far-fetched to think it better to burn your Beatles CDs than to burn in Hell, but we also know to suspect absolutes: some people might need to trash their CDs, but that doesn't mean we all do. It's not necessarily The Beatles that should concern us but our relationship to them. If they really were more popular than Jesus, that couldn't be their fault (nor should it probably be very surprising).
What's strange (or not) is how we look to things like rock groups (or politicians or self-help gurus or Bachelors) to save us. It's the old "you have to serve somebody" line. The Beatles' broad appeal enables them to offer an attractive version of the self as acceptably erotic and rebellious. You can't found your whole life on that, but you can enjoy it for what it is for the brief time you're engaging it if we understand the difference between enjoying and idolizing.
If you've never seen the film, the anniversary is a decent excuse to enjoy a movie characterized by creative cinematography, an anarchic sense of humor reveling in wordplay, a reflexive system of metaphors for celebrity, and really fun music. I have to think God likes us to enjoy these things so long as we don't depend upon them.