‘Yesterday’ and the Forgotten Gospel

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
— Psalm 126:1

(Spoiler warning: This post contains a spoiler of a plot point in the recent film Yesterday.)

Danny Boyle’s Yesterday may be my favorite movie of the year. In it Himesh Patel plays Jack, who discovers after a momentary global blackout that nobody has any idea who The Beatles are. Suddenly the struggling musician is able to draw on a deep reservoir of pop musical genius—if he can remember the lyrics—and catapult to stardom via the hard work of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, because nobody knows he’s plagiarizing the tunes.

It’s a fascinating conceit—and the viewer discovers along the way that there are other things that suddenly don’t exist post-blackout too, things like Coca-Cola and cigarettes—and it prompts questions about where the appeal in The Beatles’ oeuvre came from, whether those songs could be pop hits in 2019, and so on. During Jack’s rise to superstardom on borrowed genius, there is a recurring thread of ominous portent about his being found out. One scene promised in the trailer where talk-show host James Corden threatens to bring out Lennon and McCartney is revealed in the film to simply be one of Jack’s nightmares, as he’s increasingly convicted about the hoax he’s perpetrating on an unwitting public.

But the public isn’t entirely unwitting. As part of that ominous thread, we see two reappearing figures across some concert scenes—one a hulking Russian man and the other a matronly British woman—who appear to know Jack’s secret. The movie builds up the anticipation and the threat of Jack’s exposure. (I confess I feared the lesson we were about to learn is that to steal someone’s genius is also to steal their life—and death—as I expected these figures to attempt assassinating Jack, a la Mark David Chapman’s murder of John Lennon). Instead, the scene where Jack finally meets his stalkers is climactic in an entirely different way.

Jack fears this couple is going to expose him. And in fact, they do recognize the songs. They do know that he is singing songs by The Beatles. And rather than being angry—or even hostile—about his elaborate sham, to Jack’s pleasant surprise, they are happy he is performing the songs. They have felt alone and sad that nobody remembers the greatness of the Fab 4, that they “alone” now know these songs but are unable themselves to perform them. “It’s just so nice to hear the songs again,” the woman says to a sheepish Jack, surprised they aren’t livid with him for passing the songs off as his own. “It’s so lovely.”

They are practically in tears. They no longer feel alone. They feel understood. They feel a shared vision of something beautiful that everyone else has evidently forgotten. They feel heard and seen. They feel like what had begun to feel like a dream is now in fact proven to be real.

I was practically brought to tears myself. Why? Well, not because I love The Beatles (though I do). But because I couldn’t help but make a parallel connection to the preaching of the gospel in difficult places. (Yes, I know connecting movies in some arbitrary way to “the gospel” is just the kind of fresh content you come to TGC for, but bear with me a bit in a connection that’s not as arbitrary as you might think.) When I went to rural New England in 2009, there were already some great, seasoned gospel preachers there. I wasn’t innovating anything in joining them to preach it myself. But in many places around us there were indeed towns and villages where gospel witness had long lain dormant.

Many towns in rural New England have only one or two churches, churches where the gospel is not preached, and many of them have no church at all. The “old, old story” is like a song everyone’s forgotten. From some pulpits you get tidy little moralistic fables, homey little homilies doled out like condensed chicken soup ladled lightly into tea cups. In others you get outright heresy. In some you get sets of steps, tips, action points, imperatives, ginned-up rhetorical PowerPoints sure to drain us to 4 percent battery life by the time next Sunday rolls around, in time to get another set.

Then word gets out. Some preacher or another is opening up the Bible again. He’s preaching the glories of redemption! He’s holding up the beauty of Christ! Is he cheating? Yes. It’s not his own material! He’s unabashedly and unashamedly declaring “thus saith the Lord.” And saints start trickling in.

Every week my gospel comrades and I would meet a few people who’d followed the rumors to our sanctuaries. Occasionally they’re in tears. Usually they’re just smiling, happy and relieved. “It’s just so nice to hear the song again,” they say. “It’s so lovely.” They had almost given up ever hearing it again. They knew the song themselves, and now they’re glad to know somebody on a stage, behind a pulpit—at the prow of a thing—knows the song and is cheerfully singing it and teaching it to others.

Large swaths of the United States will be in this position soon enough. Which is why I’m glad for the vast army of theological plagiarists being trained up among the younger generation. Unlike my own, they know the best work in service to the church and to the world is not their own good ideas cooked up each week, not their enlightened visions for the future, but rather the finished work of Christ rehearsed over and over and over again. They know that, as G. K. Chesterton said about the Creed, “it is making them, not they it.” As our culture and even the church itself rapidly slips into a kind of gospel amnesia, it’s time to re-evangelize the whole lot of them not with what we’ve created, but with what we’ve received (1 Cor. 15:3).

In other words, there’s no need to make anything up. Just preach Christ crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). If you want to call that cheating, go ahead. I aim to bring nothing new except the new wine of the ancient gospel. And I hope your aim will be just as un-creative.

But this is the wonder of the ongoing gospel recovery movement—we have reached an era where the foundational truth of Christianity is itself new, radical, unheard-of. Let’s play the song, brethren. Every week. Every day. Again and again. Those who’ve never heard will be amazed, and those who have forgotten will be refreshed.

Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.
— Proverbs 25:25