by Glenn on August 23, 2014


Is there a song that drives you crazy? Hum a little bit of “It’s A Small World” and I know many people will shout, “No-o-o-o-o-o-o!” to try and keep the tune out of their head. I don’t know why. It’s a simple truth: “There’s so much that we share / That it’s time we’re aware / It’s a small world after all.”

I had a colleague for whom the mere mention of the title of the Journey song (let alone hearing the actual song), “When the Lights Go Down in the City,” would produce a visceral, near-angry reaction. He never shared the reason and it never felt like it was okay to ask, so I respected what seemed like a pretty serious boundary.

I suppose we all have those songs, though the level of our reactions to those songs varies.


One of the challenges of a secular and pluralistic society is creating experiences that are spiritually inclusive and meaningful for all. We all have such different understandings of what is meant by the word God. For me, God is a distinct Other, but many would say we are all part of The God. How do you create a moment of reflection so that each person in a diverse group of people, with all their various understandings of what is meant by spirituality, feels part? Or, at the very least, how do you create a non-sectarian spiritual experience that doesn’t offend anyone?

I think this is among the great challenges of our time.


Over the weekend I volunteered at an event that brings together what I imagine is a wide range of religious views and practices, including Protestants and Catholics, Buddhists, every manner of modern spirituality, and the non-religious, too, I’m sure. It is Portland after all.

Before we started the event we took some time as volunteers to “set an intention for the weekend.” I’m not sure what that means, but I’m not offended by that kind of language. I took it as an opportunity to quiet my heart. I repeated the breath prayer that Brennan Manning used to write and talk about: “Abba (breathe in), I belong to you (breathe out.)” A labyrinth had been laid out for us to walk and meditate as we prepared ourselves for the busy weekend ahead.

Music was played to help create a mood. At first it was the sound of bells, like the sort you might hear at a Buddhist Temple. Next there was some arpeggiated guitar music. And then a version of what I will assume was “Amazing Grace.” It was the familiar tune, but the words were in a foreign language so I have no idea what they said. As it played, I thought (because I am easily distracted), “This is nice.” I also thought, “I’m so happy to hear this song, but it feels a little sectarian. I hope no one is offended.”


As I prepared to enter the labyrinth, John Lennon’s song, “Imagine,” came on. For me, this is one of those songs. I don’t want to be a person who is constantly offended by things other people do, but this song definitely pushes my buttons. I have walked out of grocery stores when it came on and stood outside for a few minutes waiting for  it to end before finishing my shopping.

My issue with this song started a few years ago when I was sitting with a group of people and the song was played as a way to create a spiritual mood without, I assume, trying to offend anyone.

Perhaps for the first time in my life I really paid attention to the lyrics.

“Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…”

Meaning no disrespect to the people who love this song, I realized in that moment that from a Christian point-of-view, this is the “Anthem of the People Going to Hell.” I know others don’t see it that way and could be offended by that statement. But beneath a lovely tune and a reasonable tone are lyrics that ask Christians (and other traditions, I assume) to deny their faith. This is an altar call for a materialist worldview.

I didn’t want to make a scene, so rather than continue to stew, I quietly and as unobtrusively as possible stepped outside.


As I think about Imagine, I like to assume John Lennon was a humble guy trying to create a better world. (That Andrew Fletcher quote comes to mind: “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.”)  He saw religion as part of the world’s problem. And I can’t argue with him that religious people have done a lot of bad things in the name of their religion. Christians are no exception (the Crusades, just for starters). And some of our worst fighting has been infighting, especially Protestants vs. Catholics.

There’s no “but …” We shouldn’t justify any of it. It’s not the whole picture, however. And it should be pointed out that when Christians behave badly, the standard we use to define bad behavior is the Christian faith itself—”Do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12)


As much as we’d like religion to be this thing where everyone has their own experience of the divine and no one way is better or worse than any other (“We’re all climbing up different paths on the same mountain.”), I don’t think you really have a religious practice if it doesn’t have some exclusive claims. It’s those exclusive claims that cause problems between religions and worldviews.

The irony of Imagine is that its gentle request to consider disbelieving in Heaven is, in a way, an exclusive claim. Lennon appears to be arguing that reality is only what we see. There is nothing beyond this material world. This is THE way to understand life. Respectfully, isn’t there some arrogance to that claim? To know with absolute certainty that there is no heaven presumes a great deal of knowledge about this universe.

For a mellow song, it packs a big philosophical punch. I wish I didn’t find myself reacting so strongly to John Lennon’s no-religion religion, but I think he is trying to convert me. Doesn’t he admit as much: “I hope someday you’ll join us.”


Christians are often rebuked by the world for being too evangelistic. We’re trying to convert people to our beliefs. What right do we have to privilege our beliefs over those held by others? We should leave people who aren’t Christians alone. That would be fine, unless the claims of Christianity are true. If there is a Heaven and a Hell, the cruelest thing would be not to say anything about it. “Live and let live” would mean “Let die.”


This weekend has me thinking about how to be true to my faith but considerate to others. When it comes to religious inclusion, the lowest common denominator is really low. If you are genuinely trying to create a moment for people to “get grounded,” then we may want to stick with instrumental music or quiet.