Fortunate to visit New York this summer, one morning we set off through Central Park to visit the memorial to John Lennon known as Strawberry Fields. As we climbed the path to the spot its first manifestation came in the form of a lady selling John Lennon and Beatles badges, with a slew of anti-Trump badges on the side. ‘Have you got any pro-Trump ones?’ our friend teased, receiving a good-natured but firmly negative response.
Then, round the corner, we came across the actual roundel, made by Italian craftsmen from Naples in the style of a Roman mosaic, with the word IMAGINE at its centre.
Although it was fairly early in the day there was already a good crowd of mainly young people there, circling the memorial with their cameras, crouching down to be photographed with the Imagine in the foreground, or sitting on the benches alongside lost in thought.
In my younger days I visited Assisi, the Italian town associated with St Francis, and it struck me, 40 odd years later, how similar in tone and spirit the two places were. Of course Lennon was a thoroughly secular figure, living in a secular age, and with absolutely no pretensions to any kind of religious status. Yet if one takes the feelings present that morning at Strawberry Fields and projects them back into past ages – where scientific knowledge was largely lacking and an atmosphere of myth-making prevailed, one can see how powerful people could be invested with an aura of divinity, which was then ‘bigged-up’ by star-struck storytellers with their tales of miracles and divine entries and exits from the world.
In this context it’s interesting to note that the Greek mythologies also attributed qualities of power and strength to divine intervention – Hercules and Achilles both resulting from unions between mortals and gods. It’s only a small cultural jump from those stories to that of the Virgin Birth.
‘Jesus never came down from the sky to save us all’ Lennon told two students in 1969, demonstrating his humanistic understanding of the historical Jesus. ‘He was just an example of a good guy’. And he understood in a very personal way the position Jesus was in. For the New Testament phrase ‘They came to him from all quarters’ is a phrase that could equally be applied to the Beatles themselves.
For me, what is ultimately being represented and memorialized at Strawberry Fields is a human quality, encompassing charisma, power, beauty, insight – and leadership. Its appeal, as seen through the visitors to Strawberry Fields, enables us to witness, as an astronomer witnesses the birth of stars, the human impulses that led to the creation of Christianity and perhaps other religions.
John Webster 2018