‘God‘ is the song in which John Lennon denied belief in anything but himself and Yoko Ono. The list of things he didn’t believe in included The Beatles, I-Ching, Bob Dylan, the Bible, Hitler, Jesus, Kennedy, Elvis and Magic.
The opening line is “God is a concept by which we measure our pain“.
As soundbites go, it’s a good one. As a lyric from the writer of Please Please Me, it’s pretty fucking heavy.
I grew up a Catholic. I swallowed the whole thing, from Catechism 101 all the way to being an altar boy and swinging the incense at Mass. Confession was a wonder – you’d go and tell the priest all the things you’d done, and he’d absolve you, and you’d leave the Church walking on air.
But one day, aged 14, I found myself sitting at Mass feeling very bored. A voice in my head said, very clearly: “If there is a God, you are being disrespectful”. I walked out and never went back.
And yet, and yet….I miss it.
I miss the comfort, the colour, the rites, the ceremony. Every now and then, for a wedding or a funeral, I find myself back in a church. They all feel good, but there’s something special, different, about a Catholic church. We were schooled to be awed by the whole ambience. This was not the cosy, almost liberal world of The Church Of England. No, this was a world where you knew your place. God was good, but he was also a very heavy dude. If you were bad you were going to hell, no matter how small or young you were.
Another of John Lennon’s lines comes to mind: “You think you’re so clever and classless and free“. The truth is that however grown up, smart and successful we become, how rationally we can talk about ‘the real world’, Catholic indoctrination never really leaves you. You’re never properly free of it.
I remember, for instance, being almost relieved when Bob Dylan went through his Christian phase. The albums Saved, and particularly Slow Train Coming, contained such comfortingly familiar themes, and were a timely reminder that we are all part of something bigger than ourselves. These songs didn’t necessarily convert anyone, least of all me, but they did at least legitimise the internal debate.
I remember someone saying at the time, in response to the surprise that Bob Dylan of all people could be Born Again, that anyone who was surprised by Dylan talking about God hadn’t been listening. And it’s true. It may not have been so overt, but Christian teachings are littered through Dylan’s earlier work.
I know some fervent people, true believers. Good people. Intelligent people. Worldly and successful. We talk. I truly want to understand what it is that convinces them about something they believe in, that I would love to believe in. I believe in something, but not the God of creation.
I was talking about this one night to my friend Martin Sacree. When I told him I didn’t believe in God, he said a really surprising thing. “And yet,” he said, “He turns up quite a lot in your songs.”
And he’s right. I had to look at my own songs a bit more carefully. And there was God, in the lyrics, sometimes explicitly, by name, for heaven’s sake!
One example is this week’s song, Not There Yet. It’s really a song about looking for a place in the world, and never really having found it. You’ll hear me wondering whether ‘God smiles as he points me in the wrong direction‘, and whether he knows who our ‘true companion’ is, and, if he does, ‘Why does he let us waste our time?‘
I’m in a better place now than when I wrote that song. It appeared on my 2012 album Now That’s What I Call Divorce (which is a bit of a giveaway as to my state of mind at the time).
But it’s not a doomy song. God appears as a bit of a joker, letting us go down wrong paths, get involved with the wrong people. But, in the end, we’re all on the same journey. Some of us get there early, others get there very late. For me it’s always been about the journey itself. I’m not complaining that I’m Not There Yet. I’m not sure I really want to arrive at all.