They met at a church party. John was an Anglican choirboy, and Paul was a not-very-active Catholic. And the band they created, John would later claim, became “more popular than Jesus.”
The Fab Four made it commonplace to mix rock ‘n’ roll and religion, says Steve Turner, author of “The Gospel According to the Beatles.”
“You could have ‘The Gospel According to Karl Marx,’” Mr. Turner says. “Anyone who has thought there is something not quite right with the world and reckoned they’ve got a solution to offer, however profound or not so profound the solution might be, you could say that is a gospel.”
His book details the religious background and personal beliefs of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr and examines how spirituality manifested itself in their music. Freeing people’s minds and expanding their consciousness are at the heart of the Beatles’ gospel, along with love, peace, hope, truth, honesty and transcendence, Mr. Turner says.
“They talk about the problem that we are somehow blind or misunderstanding things,” Mr. Turner says. “You needed to open up your mind, so everything you experienced had much more impact on you.”
Like other pop culture sensations, the Beatles communicated cultural values and provided a social critique, says William D. Romanowski, author of “Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture.”
“The Beatles were a unique and unprecedented phenomenon in popular music,” says Mr. Romanowski, professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. “They took rock ‘n’ roll to a new level in musical sophistication and thematic content.”
Although Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Zen Buddhism later influenced the Beatles’ outlook, Mr. Lennon and Mr. Starr had been baptized as Anglicans, and Mr. McCartney and Mr. Harrison as Roman Catholics.
However, Mr. Lennon was the only one raised in church. He knew a fair amount of Christian theology from the Church of England Sunday school lessons and Bible classes, Mr. Turner says. On July 6, 1957, Mr. Lennon first met Mr. McCartney in the halls of St. Peter’s Church in the Liverpool neighborhood of Woolton, when Mr. Lennon’s first band, the Quarrymen, played at the church’s annual garden party.
Abandoned by his father, Mr. Lennon was raised largely by aunt Mimi Smith. She was a strict disciplinarian who made sure young John attended church. From the time Mr. Lennon was a teenager, he drew blasphemous pictures, and Jesus became a figure against whom Mr. Lennon compared himself and reconsidered throughout his life, Mr. Turner says.
“Christianity wasn’t such a big influence in [Mr. McCartney’s] background,” Mr. Turner says. “It’s got to loom pretty large in your background for you to want to mock it.”
The differences in Mr. Lennon’s and Mr. McCartney’s experience of faith informed their songwriting, Mr. Turner says, noting that Mr. Lennon’s song “Imagine” supposes that “there is no heaven,” but songs such as “Let It Be,” “Lady Madonna” and “Eleanor Rigby” — chiefly composed by Mr. McCartney — use Catholic imagery.
In 1967, when the Beatles met with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the resulting publicity introduced many people in the West to Transcendental Meditation, Mr. Turner says. Mr. McCartney later said, “If we had met the Maharishi before we had taken LSD, we wouldn’t have needed to take it.”
When Mr. Turner interviewed Mr. Lennon in 1971, Mr. Lennon said he didn’t believe in God. However, in 1972, Mr. Lennon corresponded with evangelist Oral Roberts, inquiring about Christianity. In spring 1977, Mr. Lennon told friends that he had become a born-again Christian. His profession of faith lasted about eight weeks, mostly because of Yoko Ono, his wife, Mr. Turner says.
Mr. Lennon changed his views often. At one point, he showed interest in trepanation, a belief that drilling a hole in the skull can expand consciousness. In final interviews before he was fatally shot in 1980, Mr. Lennon talked about wanting to re-examine New Testament parables.
“If it was a machine or a technique or whatever, John would have a try,” Mr. Turner says. “He would sometimes talk about being aware of a greater power or energy. He might have called it ‘God’ at some point. I don’t think he was ever not an atheist, except for the brief time in the ‘70s.
Other members of the Beatles continued to experience spirituality in different ways, Mr. Turner says, with Mr. McCartney making causes such as vegetarianism and environmentalism his religion. Mr. Harrison was associated with the Hare Krishna movement until his death in 2001. On Mr. Starr’s 2005 album, “Choose Love,” the song “Oh My Lord” asks for help when he is “dark and full of fear.” In recent years, Mr. Starr reportedly has attended Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, where “a higher power” is endorsed.
“The Beatles raised a lot of good questions,” Mr. Turner says. “I personally found it quite encouraging at the time, because I always thought religion seemed to be on a divergent path to rock ‘n’ roll.”
The Beatles should be credited for ushering in the “Jesus Music” of the 1960s and 1970s — pioneered by performers such as Larry Norman — which was the Christian component of the hippie counterculture, says Mark Joseph, author of “Faith, God, & Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
“Until then, rock was hesitant to get into spirituality and religion,” says Mr. Joseph, producer of “The Passion of the Christ” CD.
Years after Mr. Lennon penned his song “God,” which says, “I don’t believe in Jesus,” U2 responded with “God Part II,” Mr. Joseph said. U2 songs such as “God Part II” and “Grace” contrast the idea of “karma” espoused by the Eastern religions explored by the Beatles, Mr. Joseph says.
U2 lead singer Bono has spoken of the “mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people,” and told author Michka Assayas, “The thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between grace and karma.”
Although many churches in the 1960s protested the Beatles, today’s churches are more attuned to popular culture, Mr. Joseph says.
“The church refused to engage the Beatles, so Bono took it up 20 years later,” he says. “Instead of saying, ‘Those guys are hippies, doing drugs,’ the songs deserved to be engaged. You can agree or disagree, but you should engage them.”