Is it possible that people are actually searching for God even when they are not conscious of it? Christian thinker St. Augustine (AD 354–430) thought so and made this provocative comment in his classic autobiography the Confessions:
Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you…. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.1
This question came to mind as I watched George Harrison: Living in the Material World, a multi-part HBO documentary about the former Beatle directed by Academy Award-winner Martin Scorsese. Among other aspects of Harrison’s life, the film takes an honest look at the popular musician’s struggles with fame and fortune.
The program also reviews the Beatlemania phenomenon, reminding me of the first time I saw The Beatles on television. In the early 1960s, my family and I always watched The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights. In February 1964, The Beatles made their first appearance on the Sullivan program to a record-setting audience of 73 million people. Some law enforcement officials later reported that parts of America experienced a record low amount of crime during the time The Beatles were performing on television. So it seems that even the crooks were swept up in Beatlemania!
The term “Beatlemania” was coined to describe the intense fan frenzy directed toward the British quartet during the early years of their career. Some people compared the unprecedented fervor of Beatlemania to a religious phenomenon. John Lennon even made the highly controversial statement, “The Beatles are more popular than Jesus.” While Lennon backed away from the comment because of the strong backlash from Christians, he nevertheless maintained privately that Beatlemania was a religious type of spectacle.
Reflections on the Documentary: Attempts to Explain Beatlemania
Why did the Beatles have such a profound impact on so many young people during the early 1960s, especially in America? Some would argue that the time period itself holds the explanation. The Beatles “invaded” America during the height of the Cold War, a time of great fear and angst about possible nuclear confrontations between America and the Soviet Union. Moreover, The Beatles arrived in the US a mere three months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Some people reason that American teens were looking for a diversion from this bleak period in history and found it in the British pop group. While this historical explanation seems viable to me, I still wonder if there were something more going on.
The HBO documentary shows Harrison talking about a visit he took to the counterculture capital of the world—Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco—during the Summer of Love (1967, at the height of The Beatles’ popularity). Harrison comments that the hippies he encountered there treated him as if he were the messiah. Again, it’s important to recognize that a member of The Beatles described Beatlemania in religious terms. But it wasn’t just The Beatles who sensed the fervor had religious overtones. The documentary also shows evangelist Billy Graham commenting on fans’ devotion to The Beatles:
I think a great deal of what we see among young people today is actually a spiritual search. These young people are searching for a creed to believe in, a song to sing, and a cause to follow.
Whether Beatlemania is best explained as a religious phenomena or not, I think St. Augustine’s statement above holds true. Because we are made in the expressed image of God (Genesis 1:26–27), human beings are often searching for God without even being consciously aware of it. Our God awareness runs to the core of our being, but our sinful state distorts our awareness. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga summarizes this condition well:
Our sense of God runs in us like a stream, even though we divert it toward other objects. We human beings want God even when we think that what we really want is a green valley, or a good time from our past, or a loved one.2
The God of the Bible is loving and gracious in illuminating our darkened minds and rebellious hearts and allowing us to hear and respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and thus to become sons and daughters of God (Ephesians 2:4–5; Titus 3:5). When we come into that saving relationship with Christ, our search—conscious or not—comes to an end and we can begin to experience the rest and peace that St. Augustine describes.
To be concluded…
1. Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1992), bk. 1, 1.
2. Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Engaging God’s World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 6–7.