Oh the Places You’ll Go: Liverpool and Tupelo

Reflections from Dr. Howell

I love the way Church creates not just religious beauty, but secular beauty as well – if the distinction even makes sense.

In February, I was treated to a personal, guided tour of Elvis Presley’s childhood home by the developer of the park and property – which features the First Assembly of God Pentecostal Church, where Elvis’s family worshipped, and where he fell in love with music and sang in public for the first time. All he wanted, as a kid, was to grow up to be a Gospel singer. He did – and much more. When he was 11, he wanted to buy a gun, but his very spiritual mother Gladys insisted he buy a guitar instead. Church inspired what he did with it.

A decade ago, I finally fulfilled a childhood dream when I drove into Liverpool to visit the childhood homes of John, Paul, George and Ringo, their schools, Penny Lane, Strawberry Field, the Cavern Club, and Eleanor Rigby’s grave marker (which Paul swears he does not remember!). John and Paul were choirboys, and they met – yes – in church. In the summer of 1957, John’s skiffle band, the Quarry Men, was playing at St. Peter’s Parish, Woolton. Paul was in the crowd, approached John, and they struck up a deep if sometimes tumultuous friendship. Rock and Roll’s greatest, birthed in the church basement.

I always liked Elvis Presley, but I loved (a gross understatement) the Beatles. In retrospect, I am dumbfounded that grownups were so upset by them. Long hair? Not by our standards – and they wore nice black suits and ties!!

The Beatles haven’t just been a diversion for me. I played and sang “Here There and Everywhere” at my best friend’s wedding. I won $5 in my high school talent show for performing “And I Love Her” with my other best friend; like blood brothers pricking their fingers, we tore the $5 in half, and we still have both. When I was 11, I heard “When I’m 64” on the radio and promised myself I’d listen to it on what then felt laughably futuristic: my 64th birthday. And I awakened on that morning to that song.

Elvis was Paul’s idol. Some of the music is just fun, but most of Elvis’s and the Beatles’s music breaks open the heart and puts us in touch with our dreams, fears, wounds, and passions – which is what the Bible and church try to do, and sometimes not as well.

There’s social revolution in pop music, usually far in advance of what a timid church can muster. John Lennon sang “Give Peace a Chance” when churches were still praying for victory. And my favorite moment, when I paid more than I should have for 2nd row seats at a McCartney concert, came when Paul introduced and then sang “Blackbird” – which was a slang term in Liverpool for “black girl.” Paul was keenly aware he’d grown up in what had been a heavily trafficked slave port, and he wrote this song in 1968, attentive to and grieved by racial tensions in America, and just a couple of weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

You might be surprised that John displayed a Bible and crucifix in his house. Biographer Ray Connolly suggested that “Religion was always lurking for him, and an ever-easy target.” Famously, Lennon said out loud in 1966 “We’re more popular than Jesus now,” a remark greeted with a yawn in the U.K., and outrage in the U.S., especially in our Bible belt. John was not wrong: he’d grown up in increasingly empty church buildings, and then in young adulthood couldn’t elude mobs of screaming adorers who didn’t attend church or did so much more calmly.

I think about those clergy and uptight Christians who condemned John and tried to ban the sale of their records. Perhaps instead of getting defensive or hurling blistering criticism, religious folk might humbly notice that in their music the truth got told.

And I think I’d want to say to John or any other creators of beauty who’ve given up on church, “You came from us. You are one of us; we’ve not relinquished you.” I suspect God feels something akin to this. Wouldn’t God say “Every breath you’ve taken, every step you’ve taken, what you overheard in church, any love or good you’ve received in your life: it’s all grace, all my gift to you; your creativity, talent, yearnings are all gifts I implanted in you. And I must say, I love your music.”

Musicians – the good ones, even if we ding them as merely “secular” – break your heart and dream of beauty, such God things, right? The movie “Elvis” depicted Elvis at his last performance – when he could barely stand up or speak understandably – singing “Unchained Melody.” The movie version, which is way cool, isn’t as agonizing and lovely as the video of Elvis himself, singing just days before his untimely death. I glimpse so much of the Gospel in Elvis, and his struggles, the plaintive plea for love and touch in the face of intense loneliness, and the passing of time, even with someone so profoundly successful, wealthy and popular.