- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 2010

Taio Cruz, an up-and-coming British singer, will ring in 2011 by singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” live for the first time ever in the Times Square celebration tonight. The performance is being promoted heavily, and Mr. Cruz has promised he will not jazz up “such a classic song” because it is beloved by so many.

Which raises a perplexing question: Why has “Imagine” achieved the status of a secular hymn? Most Americans prefer their classics to be uplifting, but the theme of “Imagine” is sad and depressing, starting with the very first verse:

“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.”

Atheists have embraced the song as their own, a popular topic on their blogs. In fact, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the most prominent American atheist organization, waged a national billboard campaign in 2009 featuring the Lennon-inspired words “Imagine No Religion” on a stained-glass window.

But 92 percent of Americans believe in God, according to a recent Gallup poll, and “Imagine” seems to resonate with many of them as well. Otherwise it wouldn’t be featured on ABC’s Dick Clark special on New Year's Eve. And Rolling Stone wouldn’t have named it the third-greatest song of all time, outranking all 23 Beatles songs on the list of 500.

Lennon, who would be 70, was murdered 30 years ago this month. Yet he continues to be enormously popular, which may account for some of the song’s success, but not all. He wrote many better tunes.

Even many Christians and other believers are convinced “Imagine” contains a powerful spiritual message, despite its lyrics, which implore us to imagine there’s no religion, heaven or hell. They insist Lennon didn’t really mean what he said.

Blogger Carl Colemen wrote in “The Gospel According to John” that “Imagine” is a “profoundly Christian song” that simply criticizes “the kind of childish cosmology that really does posit a heaven ‘up there’ and a hell ‘down below.’”

Shortly after the Sept. 11 tragedy in 2001, a Methodist pastor in my Southern California community organized an “interfaith” evening of prayer and songs, including “Imagine.” When Isuggested to him that Lennon’s atheist anthem served to dishonor both the victims and our country, he was incredulous, insisting the song was simply a metaphysical criticism of religion and politics.

As one who has worked with many famous people, I know how powerful a celebrity can be. Especially one like Lennon, held up as the man who simply wanted to “give peace a chance” but was tragically killed before his time. Celebrity worshippers project whatever qualities they want on their heroes.

To be fair, Lennon never actually said he was an atheist. He appeared to be a nowhere man spiritually, dabbling in Christianity, the occult, psychic phenomena, signs of the Zodiac, I Ching and Buddhism.

But he did write a song called “God” in which he said he didn’t believe in Jesus, the Bible or the Beatles, only Yoko Ono and himself. His lyrics described God as “a concept by which we can measure our pain.”

Anyone who views God as nothing more than a concept thinks He was merely created, not that He is the Creator. And anyone who doesn’t believe in anything bigger than himself obviously isn’t even capable of believing in God.

Lennon asked us to imagine “there’s no country” and that “the world will be as one.” Yet he was not even able to be at one with the Beatles. It’s not that I’m suggesting Lennon was a dreamer because he was not the only one. Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Lenin had a similar dream. But trying to achieve it resulted in a nightmare.

There’s an ironic twist to this story. Even though I think “Imagine” is insidious and a horrendous choice for New Year's Eve, I also think that “In My Life” - also written by Lennon with a little help from Paul McCartney - is the perfect song for the occasion. It is as haunting and poignant yet uplifting as Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne.” Imagine all the people kicking off 2011 by singing:

“There are places I remember

“All my life, though some have changed

“Some forever not for better

“Some have gone and some remain”

It’s easy if you try.

Dave Berg was, until recently, a co-producer for “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”