Last year my wife and I, with a group of ministry leaders, visited the ancient church of St. Anne in Jerusalem. It's a hauntingly austere and beautiful stone church built in the Middle Ages with such incredible acoustics that visitors cannot help but sing.
After our group sang some hymns together, a group of largely European tourists followed, locking arms, closing their eyes, swaying and singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." You know, the one from Shrek?
This ancient church sits by the biblical pool of Bethsaida, where Jesus healed the lame beggar, in a story that explicitly teaches that we cannot heal ourselves. How ironic here, of all places, to sing a biblically inaccurate song about sex that has nothing to do with God whatsoever.
It seemed like such a contradiction. The beauty of the setting, it seemed, stirred something deep inside them, but who exactly were they singing this song about nothing to? No one?
Then last week, actress Gal Gadot posted an Instagram video, that featured her and a few dozen other celebrities singing John Lennon's secular utopian anthem "Imagine."
The video was intended to encourage people during this global coronavirus pandemic, but many who've thought about the lyrics of "Imagine" deeply of all (which, by the way, Britons voted as the greatest song of all time), rightly wondered how it could possibly comfort anyone who finds themselves, as Lennon's pal Paul McCartney once sang, "in times of trouble."
"Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try," the song began. "No hell below us. Above us only sky. Imagine all the people living for today..." Other things Lennon asked us to imagine include no religion, no possessions, and a universal brotherhood of man (a line which, I'm sure, wouldn't be woke enough for today).
But how could such a world-one where there is no Higher Power in control, and where there is no life beyond death, and which nothing outside of us exists to ground human dignity or morality, and where history is an unguided accident headed nowhere--bring us anything resembling a utopia?
In such a world, without ultimate standards of right and wrong, what makes a so-called "brotherhood of man" or a "life in peace" any better than one of greed, or survival of the fittest? In fact, in such a world, why would a virus be any less valuable than a human? Why should we protect the lives of the elderly and frail instead of our economic bottom lines?
In other words, the imagined conditions of "Imagine" can never produce the imagined result of "Imagine." And herein lies the problem with just about every utopian vision: They're for a world that's imaginary.
In fact, even more than just being imaginary, such visions can be deadly. If the history of the 20th Century teaches us anything, it's that this-world-only political utopianisms always lead to catastrophe, in which individuals are sacrificed on the altars of the collective good, as with the totalitarianism of Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, and Mao's (and now Xi's) China.
Even so, I appreciated a tweet by friend Bryan Mattson, who reminded me to extend compassion toward the celebrities singing in that awful "Imagine" video, a compassion I probably should've been quicker to extend to those European tourists choosing to sing an empty "Hallelujah" ballad instead of something like the Hallelujah chorus last fall in Jerusalem.
You see, not only are they reflecting the image of God in their impulses to sing and look for some higher meaning or purpose of existence, grasping for beauty, for meaning, for consolation, for Truth that can only be found in their Creator and in His Son. But for now, "Imagine" and "Hallelujah" are the only hymns they've got.
Let's pray that one day these men and women will come to realize the truth of what C. S. Lewis wrote in "Mere Christianity": "If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world." Or as St. Augustine said, "Thou hast formed us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee."
During this time of global crisis, loving our neighbors must include pointing them to where they can find the hope and salvation they may not even realize they are looking for.