Bigger Than Jesus: Pope Benedict vs. Rock-n-Roll

New PopeIt's only rock 'n' roll, but he didn't like it. According to an Associated Press story published at the time of Pope Benedict's papal reign, in 1986 the then-Cardinal Ratzinger denounced rock music as a "vehicle of anti-religion." This is why Bono probably didn't give him any shades (recall John "The Funky Pontiff" Paul II). Now, with his pending retirement, we might all exhale a collective sigh of relief (and green smoke). Especially Christian hair bands who heretofore found themselves between a rock and hard place, which frankly is the closest they've been to rock. Perhaps the then new Pope's anti-rock denouncement was targeted at Eddie Murphy's "Party All the Time" which charted number seven on Billboard's singles list the same year and was so horrid that it could be considered anti-religion by virtue of the fact that if God existed he would never have let that happen.

Ah, the 80s. In the 1986-87 school year, I was a freshman in high school (the only year I would actually complete) and a self-styled anachronism in a nehru jacket and circular sunglasses totally smitten with the original four horseman of the rock apocalypse, The Beatles. As I recall, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was brought out on CD in time for Christmas and everyone within earshot fell over themselves to say how apropos it was we should be listening to the 20 year-old album seeing as the opening lyric goes "It was twenty years ago today."

And now, more than 30 years on, we can look back and fondly remember that, 28 years ago, Tipper Gore's music labeling zeal resulted in the creation of the Parents's Music Resource Center. This surely made things a awkward when the those kids, whose CDs were besmirched with a black and white "Parental Advisory" sticker, came of age over at Rock the Vote headquarters while her husband was running for President. Al Gore, of course, made up for this by inventing the Internet, which allows for the downloading of music that can't be labeled.

Ah, times have changed. Compare and contrast:

  • Wine, women and song
  • Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll
  • Oxycontin, Spotify and Facebook

Multiple choice: Which of the above did Pope Benny rail against? All of them.

Of course Pope Benny would have a grudge against rock, which by extension is youth culture (or so it seemed back when I was youthful and cultured). At the age my cronies and I were drooling over the replicants gyrating in back of Robert Palmer on Addicted To Love, the New Pope was enrolled in Hitler's Nazi youth movement. In our late teens, my pals and I were dropping out of high school, dropping acid and dropping our trousers any chance we could whereas the Pope spent his teens in a prisoner of war camp near Ulm with nothing but the spires of the local cathedral to occupy his imagination. Tough going, granted, but being anti-rock is so -- to invoke the parlance of my youth -- fascist.

Perhaps the Pope should pause and consider the words of comedian and political columnist Will Durst, "Pope Benedict XVI admitted he used to be a Nazi, but says he didn't want to join. He was forced to as a kid and got out soon as he could. I can relate. Because that pretty much mirrors my experience with the Catholic Church.''

Albeit, two wrongs don't make a Reich, but if our culture continues to skew conservatively, soon the only thing missing from the bonfires of books and albums will be the match.

nullThe arms race between rock and God began in earnest when John Lennon, arguably the most messianic of rock stars, mentioned off-hand to the Brit's Evening Standard that "The Beatles are bigger than Jesus."

"Christianity will go -- it will vanish and shrink," Lennon averred. "I needn't argue with that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We are more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first -- rock 'n' roll or Christianity."

Lennon's comments were picked up in the ever-ready American media four months later resulting in the maelstrom of anti-Beatles sentiment and his famous 1966 mea culpa at a Chicago press conference that August:

"I'm not saying that we're better or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person, or God as a thing, or whatever it is. I just said what I said, and it was wrong, or it was taken wrong. And now it's all this."

But is Jesus all that? As of this writing, Google lists 25,600,000 references to Jesus, but only 7,690,000 for "Beatles." Lennon himself garners 3,180,000, Paul McCartney yields 2,450,000 (so much for trying to put his name first on the credit listings), recently deceased George leads with 6,560,000 and Ringo Starr gets a comparatively paltry 877,000.

In total, that's about 14,000,000 -- even when I threw in the "Beatles" search, Jesus still leads by over a million. I tried to tip the scale by adding original drummer Pete Best's meager 53,000. Only when I supplemented the figure with ur-Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe's 184,000 hits did The Beatles begin to appear bigger than Jesus.

In "God," Lennon's Plastic Ono Band paean to a laundry list of things he no longer believes in (everything from Hitler, to Bob Dylan and The Beatles), he ends the rant with the line "I just believe in me." Bono, in his follow up "God II," sings that he doesn't believe in various social ills and sums up with "I believe in love."

In my monotheistic ditty, "God III," which I just wrote for the sake of this blog, I sing about how the Pope came down on my rock 'n' roll lifestyle, so I protest by having a same sex marriage and aborting a clone. It ends with the line "Can you believe what the frickin' Right is doing to our culture, man? No seriously, can you frickin' believe it?" I sing it in falsetto to signify the castration of free speech from the groping hands of Church do-gooders.

While discussing poetry selected for her published anthology "Break, Blow, Burn" critic Camille Paglia advised KQED's Michael Krasny that the hip ironist pose of many a contemporary artist must be shed if there's any hope of a fair fight in the Culture War.

"I want poets and writers and artists and the general audience to get out of that postmodernist mode of shallow, cliched, hip cynicism and realize we have got to recover some vitality in American arts as a counterpoint to the rising tide of religious feeling. Until art regains its spirituality the left is going to lose to the right."

Paglia may be correct. Her words are tantamount to a call to arms. To wit, it's without a wink of irony that I say: a thousand Hail Mary's may get you straight with the Lord but one good Hail, Hail Rock 'n' Roll can guarantee you never have to.

And rock outlasted Pope Benedict. Just say'n.

And now Brother Berry will lead us in prayer:

Hail, Hail rock n' roll Deliver me from these days of cold Long live rock n' roll The beat of the drums loud and gold Rock, rock, rock n' roll, The feeling is there, body and soul...