John Lennon never actually boasted that the Beatles were "bigger than Jesus," but that hardly matters: The phrase, a more reductive version of what Lennon actually said, has taken on a life of its own. It has been used for band names, song titles, the name of a theatrical play, and has been riffed on by Mystery Science Theater 3000, The Onion, and the web comic Bigger Than Cheeses. Simpsons fans will remember it as the title of the Be Sharps' second album.
The quote (or at least the sentiment behind it) originated in a 1966 interview between Lennon and the London Evening Standard's Maureen Cleave, a close confidante of the group's members. The 25-year-old Lennon mused, philosophically, "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first — rock'n'roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."
Ironically, it was Lennon's own words that were twisted — not immediately, but five months later, when his comment was republished in the American teen magazine Datebook's cover story, "The Ten Adults You Dig/Hate the Most." Outraged Christian fundamentalists boycotted the group, and the Ku Klux Klan burned Beatles records in public bonfires. Of course, if you're pissing off the Klan, you must be doing something right. Even the Vatican eventually absolved Lennon in a 2008 article in L'Osservatore Romano. PHILIP SHERBURNE