Religion Magazine

Penny Lane

By Nicholas Baines

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.

You might not pick it up from my accent, but I grew up in Liverpool – a city made famous by the Beatles. I used to get my hair cut at the barber shop in Penny Lane – the one mentioned in their famous song – and remember well how there were only two options for the back: straight or tapered. Not that it mattered much, because the barber’s hand shook so much that you usually ended up with serrated.

What intrigued me so much growing up under the blue suburban skies is that for us these places were ordinary. Strawberry Fields didn’t feel particularly special to us – it was just where we played football. Penny Lane was where the shops were. Yet, the ordinary became extraordinary when associated with the songs and, as I have experienced many times, you can mention Penny Lane anywhere on the planet and faces light up.

What is this thing about ordinariness becoming remarkable? Well, I suppose everything is ordinary, really. Everyday reality is what we see when we look out at the world around us and just assume that this is the way it is. Yet, sometimes there is a need to look beyond the immediate, the ordinary, the everyday, to imagine a different world – what one Old Testament theologian called having “a hopeful imagination’.

The appeal to God’s people in the biblical narrative is to not see ‘now’ as the ultimate – how it will be for ever. The people waking up in exile – living as unwelcome immigrants in a strange land and facing hugely challenging hardships every day, decade after decade … these people are encouraged to lift their eyes, to imagine a different future, to look beyond the ordinary … even though it might seem a futile fantasy now.

The Christian story in one sense defies what we take to be ‘things as they are’. Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God in the face of brutal Roman imperial power, inviting his friends to imagine a hopeful future and live now as if it were already here. He used story and image to fire the imagination, letting people be drawn by hope and not driven by fear. And I see this even today when friends of mine in Sudan watch their country burn, losing all they have, but remaining gripped by the defiant conviction that violence does not have the final word, after all.

Growing up around Penny Lane was ordinary and unremarkable, but the same perspective applies. Out of ordinary places and ordinary people emerge extraordinary things: the music, the poetry, the arts. Ordinary people do extraordinary things … and the world is changed. But it all starts with a hopeful imagination – one that dares to see beginnings where other people see only endings.

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