The Beatles - The Fool on the Hill

The song: The Fool on the Hill - Paul McCartney - YouTube 

The lyrics: The Beatles – The Fool on the Hill Lyrics | Genius Lyrics  

Having sculpted the sixties’ musical counterculture with a Rickenbacker guitar and mop top mania, The Beatles are widely regarded the most influential band of all time. Together for only eight years, the band’s legacy has stretched across over half a century and continues to impact people’s spirituality and musical identity even today. They remain to be the best-selling music act of all time.  

In 1967, The Beatles released their album Magical Mystery Tour, which marked the peak of the band’s collective fascination with Hinduism and psychedelics. For this album Paul McCartney penned his song The Fool on the Hill, which follows the story of a misunderstood man who is perceived by others as foolish but is, in fact, encapsulated by wisdom. The song was written about spiritual master, Maharishi, with whom he and the other Beatles had bonded in India. However, feelings for Maharishi shifted a year later when the band recorded a ‘diss track’ titled Sexy Sadie in which John Lennon accuses Maharishi of breaking “the rules” and making “a fool of everyone” who loves him. This followed an alleged inappropriate advance on actress Mia Farrow by Maharishi. The guru died leaving behind excessive wealth and serious allegations of cult-like behaviour and sexual misconduct, most of which remain speculative.  

For my last Everyday Theology blog, keeping in mind that even masters and saints are human and can do wrong, let’s discuss if “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NRSV). It’s incredibly easy to put religious figures, celebrities and even fictional characters on a pedestal high enough to touch the diamond encrusted skies which cover Heaven above. But if even the fool on the hill is too far from Heaven, what does that mean for the rest of us?  

Day after day, alone on a hill 

The man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still 

But nobody wants to know him, they can see that he’s just a fool 

I want you to first consider ‘how’ you read the Bible: seriously, or literally?  

This blog will be written from the point of view of someone who interprets the Bible seriously, and seldom literally. “We are dealing with the condition of access to God” (1). However, the Bible has been edited, added to and translated so much so that, if it ever was before, surely it no longer is God’s true Word. Unless divine infallibility exceeds the harm of human error (which we discuss in this workshop), from the point of view of someone who studied theology academically, the entire Bible cannot with confidence be read literally. Our scripture is a fractured reflection of something that may once have been divine, a mirror of Christianity that is still reflective yet unsafe to keep hung.  

While this may seem like an incredibly pessimistic understanding of scripture, it in no way undermines its importance. To read the Bible literally is to think humans fall short; to read it seriously is to consider why that might be and address it thoughtfully, taking into consideration context, authorship, translation and intent. Just because something is deemed unhistorical today does not mean it must lose its authority. In the Bible, there are countless stories about persecution, sexism and conflict that should be read seriously, regardless of belief in their literalism, so “that these terrors shall not come to pass again” (2). Thereby, it is appropriate to read scripture seriously, as an ally to correctness and social improvement, observing the ways in which ethics has changed in the Bible itself as well as the modern age. Science is understood literally because it aims to prove something about the world, whereas religion, for believers, has nothing to prove. Yet, this trust does not make the Bible something to be rejected by Christians and atheists alike.  

Seriously though, what does it mean to fall short of the glory of God?  

On its own, this quote does not offer a solution to humanity’s sinfulness nor suggest one way or another what salvation will, thereby, look like. What it does is predestine the fate of humanity as something of grand disappointment. However, perhaps imperfection is part of our design. Likeness to God is dissimilar to exactitude. Not even Jesus considered himself God’s equal stating that “God alone” is good (Luke 18:19). Meaning, though we are inherently lesser than Him this should not alter our afterlife (our soteriology) as it’s regarding our ability to practice virtue for virtue’s sake that should account for our salvation. Our sins and our limitations do not make us irredeemable, nor necessarily immoral. They make us human; it is part of our design that we have the capacity to learn, learn to do better and learn to love more.  

The fool on the hill  

Sees the sun going down  

And the eyes in his head  

See the world spinning round  

If we consider ‘the fool’ to be a Christ-like figure, then we can begin to understand their loneliness. “Nobody seems to like him” McCartney sings, because nobody stops to see the world through his eyes which shake with the universe and the secrets they themselves are still searching for. Leading up to his death, Jesus struggled with the answers he did not have. As his sweat turned to blood on his brow in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:44), finally accepting the cup from God filled with his gruesome fate, Jesus was acting out of trust and faith. These are two incredibly human qualities and one reason why many theologians claim that “Christ is the second Adam” (3), the Federal Headship of the Church and of the people. If humanity, including Jesus, is descended from Adam this implies that humans have an innate ability to, while fall short of the Godhead, grasp an element of godliness through following the teachings of Christ.  

Christ as human; Christ as flawed; Christ who condemned calling people fools (Matthew 5:22); Christ who called others “hypocrites” and “fools” (Matthew 23:13; 17). Jesus did not know all the answers and neither do we, so how can we be sure that Jesus’ flaws come from his human qualities and not his godly ones? Let’s consider quickly the possibility that God is prescribed more righteousness than He deserves, making Him better to fall short of than exceed. Ivan from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Karamazov Brothers believes just that. Observing needless pain and suffering, Ivan addresses God for His lack of right to gloriousness returning to Him his ticket to Heaven and in doing so a seat at His right hand (4). Ivan refuses eternal refuge from a God he believes is inglorious, falling short of salvation yet ostensibly exceeding Him in virtue.  

While it is impossible to resolve the problem of evil, that too is down to serious interpretation, Ivan is made a better person as a result of his rejection of God. This is why, for me, justification through faith alone is far from a glorious concept. Nonetheless, there is something to be learnt from believing that sinfulness can be forgiven by God as opposed to purposefully caused by Him. For someone else believing in God may change their life by bringing them closer to a joy they never had before. Perhaps, God is good. Perhaps, They are bad. Perhaps, it is Jesus’ imperfections that made him human. Perhaps, it is the rest of humanity’s innate likeness to Christ that makes us stronger than the deity who is always great and glorious. We’ll never know for sure. Though we may fall short, working hard to be good and kind is arguably more valuable than dwelling on the theology of if God is necessary to do that.  

Returning to the initial question of this final blog, how can “human beings be pure before their maker” when we will always fall short of Him (Job 4:17; Romans 3:23)? When read in its entirety Romans 3 explains that our sinfulness (within reason) will not affect our salvation because Jesus was “put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood”, the blood on his brow, to bring life to humanity despite our imperfections (3:25). God brings life to “the one who has the faith of Jesus”, who trusts God despite their questions, who learns despite their doubts and walks the long and winding road to Heaven despite their fears and uncertainties (3:26). John Henry Newman famously expressed “to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards” (5). For a Catholic cardinal to so overtly place his trust in his own conscience over the authority of the Pope suggests he believed it to have divine weight, one which aimed to propel him in his search for goodness. God revealed Himself through Jesus, who is the Word, who became flesh (John 1: 1). Man took the Word, interpreted it, and they made it into scripture because it was something to be taken seriously. Therefore, while we may always “fall short of the glory of God”, maybe we aren’t entirely inferior when it is glory Himself that escorts us through life, step by step, leaving footprints in the sand and fingerprints on the pages of our minds that no one else can see.  

Just as Jesus stood atop a mount to give a sermon that came to define Christian ethics, the fool on the hill is both wise and reckless in the eyes of those who see him there. Only fools will believe that either of them will provide all the answers to the universe; but it’s not about that, it’s about learning how to cram the questions into your backpack and climb the mountain anyway.  

Good luck!  


Cited References

(1) Heidegger, M. and Fritsch, M. and Gosetti-Ferencei, J. A. (translators) (2010) The Phenomenology of Religious Life. First paperback edition. United Stated of America: Indiana University Press.  

(2) Trible, P. (1984) Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia, USA: Fortress Press.  

(3) Smart, N. (1996) Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs’. Berkeley, Los Angeles, United States of America: University of California Press.  

(4) Dostoevsky, F. and Briggs, A. D. P. (Introduction). (2009) The Karamazov Brothers. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics.  

(5) Newman, J. H. (1875) A Letter Addressed to His Grace the Duke of Norfolk, on Occasion of Mr. Gladstone’s Recent Expostulation. New York: The Catholic Publication Society.