What does John Lennon’s Song “Imagine” Mean?

Some singers in my community choir have voiced trouble in singing the lyrics of this song. I was baffled because I have always loved the melody and the ideas in “Imagine.” It seems the lines they have trouble with are: “Imagine there’s no heaven,” and “Nothing to kill or die for and no religion too,” the “no religion” part presenting the problem. Here is my exegesis of Lennon’s song.

Lennon is asking us to imagine a world where the things that divide us are no more.  Heaven and hell are theological constructs designed to separate the good and the bad, the sheep from the goats. Judgmentalism perpetuates enmity. Something judged evil deserves eradication, at least, punishment. To imagine there is no heaven or hell is to imagine that people are not divided, are not categorized, or judged better or worse than others. This extends to ethnic groups, to nations, and beyond to customs and to religion. Historically, religion was another way of dividing people, of creating hatred. Witness all “holy wars,” all crusades against the infidel. Remember the Christian knights shouting “God wills it!” as they stormed Jerusalem in the 12th century.  Consider the wars against the Cathars of southern France, the Thirty Years War where Protestants and Catholics fought. See Moslem and Christian Africans at each other’s throats in Sudan today. Consider the division of Pakistan and India over Hindu and Islamic hegemony. Bosnia-Herzegovina,  anybody?

Let’s imagine a world where religion is not divisive.

The telling phrases come near the end of the song: “a brotherhood of man” and “the world will be as one.”  That means a new religion of the brotherhood of man. The “no religion” means the elimination of the divisive kind the world has known until now. The point is unity, an imagination large enough to visualize a world where cultural divisions evaporate, even to dream the impossible dream that the division between rich and poor dissolves, that hunger is abolished, that no human being goes without while someone else is filthy rich surrounded by possessions.  Separation is no more. We are one.

That takes incredible imagination.  The cynics, the cold realists, and the pragmatists will say he is a dreamer, but I believe Lennon is not the only one. I join him in singing his dream of a world that is one.

Usually, when someone has trouble with a poem, a song, any work of fiction; they are being too literal-minded. They are not grasping metaphor. This is why so many literal-minded fundamentalists had trouble with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.  Art relies on imagination. The brotherhood of man depends on imagining you walk in the same shoes as your brother. We all walk and share the same earth.  Above us only sky–the same sky.

I like that . . . just imagine.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Carole Arthur on April 12, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    Superb interpretation!!!!!! Thank you, Olivia…..my thoughts exactly! Except you know how to put them into words.


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