From ‘Imagine’ to ‘Material Girl’

July 12, 2010 | Viewpoints | Number 14
Phil Wagler |

As a fledgling whipper-snapper the great inherent threat to my young soul was said to be the subliminal messages being “backmasked” into music that would hoodwink me into becoming morally reprobate, or, worse, a Montreal Canadiens fan. Determined, and thoroughly misguided, religious groups fought to have backmasking on vinyl records banned forever.

Why, pray tell, do we hop happily down such rabbit trails to nowhere? Feverishly focused on what wasn’t there, we missed what actually was. Each generation’s anthems reveal a lot about its soul and map cavernous cultural expanses that are far from subliminal.

Let’s begin with John Lennon. The ex-Beatle released “Imagine” in 1971. I wasn’t born yet, but even I can discern the clear message of this boomer hymn: “Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too / Imagine all the people / Living life in peace.”

Imagine a world where the eternal and anything worth dying for is rejected, where today alone matters. Lennon was nobly challenging the imperialism and pie-in-the-sweet-by-and-by faith he believed led to wars and rumours of wars.

His mantra sounds eerily similar to the utopian dreams of some Christians who believe peace is the Babel-construct of our imagination, rather than the overcoming victory of the Prince of Peace. It’s a moving secular ballad that produced exactly what it imagined: a generation casting aside the eternal and any grand purpose for the self-imprisonment of the here and now.

Fast forward 15 years and a new singer found her voice. Following Lennon’s logic—though likely not to his liking—an upstart named Madonna declared: “You know that we are living in a material world / And I am a material girl.”

A world without the eternal suddenly fills with narrow materialists setting their sights not on Lennon’s utopia, but on the paradise of the mall. Milk this world for all its worth, and thanks be to John, who justified our imagination!

A not-so-subliminal cultural rhythm was being danced to, yet it was at this very point many Christians were scurrying about flummoxed over backmasking! Instead of engaging the empty doctrines of the day with the present and future hope of the gospel, they plugged their ears and missed the Acts 17 moment to answer the poets of the day with the prose of God’s story.

We went silent—or judgmental—and now wonder why boomers can’t imagine a church that doesn’t bend over backwards to satisfy their imaginations and why twenty- and thirty-somethings are being choked out by the concerns of a purely material world!

Now emerges a new cohort of poets. One of today’s top bands, Hedley, has uncovered its own generation’s shame. They scream: “All the sole survivors / Still stranded on the island / Lying through their teeth for money / So everybody dance, everybody sing! / If you wanna go far, if you wanna be a star / Yeah we can swing it, Cha-ching.”

Daily splashed before us on TV or YouTube is a generation ready to not only imagine, but literally do anything for, mere minutes of fame and any prize a material world has to offer. Cha-ching!

Hedley is sarcastically prophetic. They call out the hopelessness and shallowness they see among their own, but offer no solution. How will those who know the hope of the Eternal One do more than merely imagine a response?

Phil Wagler wrestles with the real and imagined cultural challenges of being God’s people as a pastor in Huron County, Ont. He is author of Kingdom Culture and can be reached at

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