When “Imagine” feels jarring

Mark Stephens ponders the irony of John Lennon's song "Imagine" featuring in the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics.

For many, the singing of church hymns is but a distant memory. But music remains sacred, even in a disbelieving age. Of all candidates, perhaps John Lennon’s “Imagine” can most easily lay claim to being a “secular hymn”. It has spawned hundreds of cover versions and has featured in the formalities of more than one Olympics, including the recent opening ceremony in Tokyo.

The perceived charm of “Imagine” is its uncomplicated hopes for peace and unity. The essence of the song is salvation by subtraction. Get rid of nations, religion, and possessions. Job done.

Yet the irony may be that Lennon’s ode lacks imagination. The song cannot countenance that there might be a better way. To be honest, it felt a little jarring watching John Legend and friends sing “Imagine there’s no countries” at an event which only works because of nations. The call to “imagine no possessions” is noble but easily reduced to a trite platitude. The real challenge lies at the end of that stanza, with the call to people to share “all the world”. Dreams are one thing, but generosity is the kicker. Little wonder that Elvis Costello later sang: “Was it a millionaire who said ‘imagine no possessions’?”

Finally, on the question of religion, I appreciate Lennon’s intuition. Religious faith can be used and abused for the purposes of tribalism and the worst excesses of human nature. But there are many examples that show a better way is possible. In my own Christian tradition, the centrepiece of the story is a hope of salvation that extends to “every nation, tribe, people, and language”. Differences can be celebrated without the unity being disrupted. Little wonder that Christianity, far from being a “white man’s religion”, now finds its biggest constituencies in Asia, Africa, and South America. Imagine that.