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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: Christianity

Book reminded me why I admire the "Father of Christian Rock"

Stephen H. Provost

I met Larry Norman once, backstage after a concert at a church called Bethel Temple in Fresno, California. It was sometime around 1980, and the encounter was brief, but it stuck in my memory.

Others were gathered around, wanting to greet him, and when my turn came, I asked him a question I’ve long since forgotten. What I do remember was his response – not to the question, but to me personally. He stepped forward, and I must have either taken a step or leaned back. He said something to the effect of, “You value your personal space.”

I was maybe 17 years old at the time, and I’d never even thought about that concept before, but I immediately knew he was right. What I later learned about Larry – and seems apparent, as I look back on it – was that he took pride in being “invasive.” In challenging the status quo. It was one of the things I liked so much about his music.

It’s not an exaggeration to put Larry Norman up there with Dylan, Paul Simon and Lennon as a songwriter. In fact, I consider him the most gifted of the lot. The Great American Novel may be the most literate protest song ever written, all the more so because it straddled two worlds, critiquing secular society and Christian culture with equal candor. That’s something Larry did throughout his career.

Reintroduced in print

After that single meeting, I never got another chance to talk to Larry or to know him beyond what he revealed in his lyrics. He died of heart failure in 2008 at the age of 60. But recently, I got the chance to know him better via Gregory Alan Thornbury’s superb biography, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock (Convergent Books, 2018).

Thornbury’s evenhanded approach to Larry’s life stands in contrast with a documentary called Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman, released the same year as the musician’s death. One writer described the video as a piece of “postmortem character assassination,” which doesn’t seem far wrong, considering it contains a number of vicious rumors that range from unsubstantiated to provably false. I won’t repeat those here. The video included interviews with an assortment people who had axes to grind against Larry and took the opportunity to do so; after all, the target of their criticisms was no longer around to answer them.  

Thornbury, by contrast, didn’t rely on recollections that might have been colored by the passage of time and the deepening of grudges. Instead, he was granted access to Larry’s personal archives – a collection of letters, notes, recordings, news clips, etc. – which contain accounts of events as they happened. The result is a sober picture of a man who was at once blunt and enigmatic, who fought a war for awareness on two fronts, challenging both secular seekers and the Christian establishment to look at themselves in a new light.

Two-front wars are hard to win, as reflected in songs such as Shot Down, his response to “rumors and gossip” from the church establishment that he was “sinful,” “backslidden” and had “left to follow fame.” “They say they don’t understand me, but I’m not surprised, because you can’t see nothin’ when you close your eyes.”

But the secular establishment was no more friendly. They didn’t want to hear songs about Jesus unless they were one-off fluff pieces like Jesus is Just Alright. Larry didn’t write fluff pieces.

An intentional enigma

On some level, Larry made himself hard to understand on purpose. But was that such a bad thing? It forced people to think for themselves rather than just accepting someone else’s easy answers. Jesus had done the same: In Larry’s words, “he spoke in many parables that few could understand, yet people sat for hours just to listen to this man.” Larry’s provocative lyrics and concert monologues had much the same effect.

That’s one big reason I related to him – and still do. In my own writing, I strive for originality. Repeating “the same old story” holds no appeal. If all I’m doing is reinforcing others’ biases, that’s neither loving nor illuminating. “I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal.” I don’t know whether Larry ever quoted that verse from 1 Corinthians in this context, but he might as well have. He refused to write songs filled with popular Christian catch phrases, and Thornbury relates that he once said, “I believe that clichés are a sin. Maybe not to God, but to the muse of art.”

Larry wrote in one of the letters Thornbury quotes: “Music is powerful language, but most Christian music is not art. It is merely propaganda. It never relies on – in fact it seems to be ignorant of – allegory, symbolism, metaphor, inner-rhyme, play-on-word, surrealism, and many of the other poetry born elements of music that have made it the highly celebrated art form it has become. Propaganda and pamphleteering is (sic) boring and even offensive you already subscribe to the message being pushed ... which is why Christian records only sell to Christians.”

The second album in Larry’s trilogy of albums was pure allegory, focusing on man’s past in the Garden of Eden. It didn’t mention Jesus by name at all, so the Christian audience assumed he’d “gone secular,” finding further “proof” in the album cover, which featured a naked Larry playing the part of Adam. Never mind that he was only shown in a silhouette that was overlain by the image of a lion: You couldn’t even see his skin. What mattered was the self-righteous Christian establishment didn’t want allegory; it didn’t want to think. It wanted its spirituality spoon-fed in black and white, which was something Larry refused to do.

Outsider looking in

Larry lived his life as a perpetual outsider who once said, “I don’t feel like belonging to anything or anyone.” The cover of his most acclaimed album shows him scratching his head in bewilderment, and its title proclaimed he was Only Visiting This Planet. Lost behind the obvious Christian message was the sense that he must have felt that way on a personal level, too. Indeed, he once said he felt “like an orphan with a small, isolated voice crying out in a cultural wilderness.”

The cover to Gregory Alan Thornbury’s book.

The cover to Gregory Alan Thornbury’s book.

Perhaps Larry’s childhood helps explain why he apparently felt so out of place. Thornbury writes that Larry grew up in a Christian household, but that he found church boring and street preachers joyless. His conversion at age 5 was personal, “without benefit of clergy.” It wasn’t to please his father, with whom he had a strained relationship, but to fill a void left by the man’s absence during a childhood where bullies outnumbered friends. Jesus became his best friend, and he “didn’t feel so alone after that.”

From then on, Larry knew Jesus was the answer, but he still felt he had to ask the questions, and this is what set him at odds with a church establishment that wanted people to accept its proclamations on faith. But Larry’s faith was in Jesus, not doctrines. Never was this more apparent than in the early ’80s, when his Phydeaux record label issued a T-shirt with the slogan “Curb Your Dogma!” (With Phydeaux being a faux-French spelling of Fido, the dog’s name. More wordplay.)

Larry even questioned “sacred cows” like the church’s knee-jerk condemnation of homosexuality. “Is homosexuality a real issue?” he asked. “Well, (in the church) you can’t talk about it on the grounds that the gay (community) wants to discuss it. They say, ‘We were born this way.’ But we ‘know’ that it’s not natural, that they’re not born that way. But do we know that? Have you thought about it?”

The implicit answer was no, they hadn’t. Congregations were merely parroting the judgments they had been thought, rather than thinking for themselves.

Larry didn’t fit in with either the secular questioners who didn’t like his answer or the religious establishment, which didn’t like his questions.

A time of hope

For a while, though, his approach appeared to be working. In the heady aftermath of the 1960s, there was a degree of synchronicity between American culture and the type of Christianity that Larry was espousing. He shared the egalitarian goals of the civil rights and anti-war movements, and listeners were at least open to songs about spirituality by mainstream artists such as George Harrison (My Sweet Lord), Blind Faith (Presence of the Lord), Norman Greenbaum (Spirit in the Sky) and Ocean (Put Your Hand in the Hand). The Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar made Jesus “cool” and helped open the door to a certain degree of cultural commonality between Christians and non-Christians.

Grassroots movements such as The Vineyard, which started as a Norman-led Bible study, helped make Christianity more accessible to those who didn’t care for the formality or hierarchy of a traditional church. This wasn’t really anything new: The concept of the priesthood of all believers (translated in modern language as “a personal relationship with Jesus”) dated back to Martin Luther’s insurgent campaign against the Catholic Church. The 1970s were the same thing happening all over again.

The upstarts weren’t entirely innocent. There was even some ugly, even vicious anti-Catholic propaganda created by, among others, Keith Green, an incredibly gifted but often very judgmental musician whom Larry had steered toward Christianity. There was plenty of animosity to go around. And just as the Catholic Church had struck back against Protestantism in the Middle Ages, the mainstream church struck back against Larry Norman and others like him, branding them wolves in sheep’s clothing who were willing to “compromise with the world.”

Scapegoat and change

It didn’t help that egalitarians like Larry had no idea how to take their movement to the next level. They started out as critics of structure and organization, but when they tried to adapt this model to business, it created a series of misunderstandings and bad feelings. As a result, Larry’s vision of a record label built on a community of artists came quickly crashing down.

When one band signed to Larry’s label wanted to jump ship for a secular record deal, Larry was, by Thornbury’s account, willing to eat his own investment. But he said the band would have to keep its agreement to release an already-recorded album because he’d made a commitment to his label’s distributor. This wasn’t good enough for the band, which led Larry to dig in his heels on other points, as well, and although he wound up with nearly everything he fought for, he was subsequently blamed for much of the acrimony that ensued. This happened in part because of a failed business model and in part because the establishment was just itching to blame Larry for everything that went wrong.

Case in point: Thornbury relates that Larry fought to save his first marriage despite his wife’s drug use, visits to the Playboy mansion, multiple alleged affairs and admission that she had cashed thousands of dollars in checks made out to him. Larry was never accused of being unfaithful himself, but when he slept with a woman as a single man after his second marriage collapsed, he was castigated for it. Years later, the woman claimed he had fathered her child. That claim was never definitively proven (or disproven), but just the possibility it might be true confirmed everything the established church wanted to believe about the old thorn in its side – and provided the ammunition it craved to discredit him.

This all happened even as it embraced such “leaders” as Jim Bakker and Tony Alamo, both later convicted of major crimes, and Jimmy Swaggart, who was forced to admit his own infidelity. But however egregious their actions might have been, none of these people committed the ultimate transgression against the Christian establishment: asking too many questions. This was Larry’s cardinal sin, and even though he arrived at the same answer as they did (Jesus), they cared far more about how he got there. And because it was different than the way they’d gotten there, they condemned it.

At the end of the 1970s, Larry Norman appeared at the White House to play for one of his fans. President Jimmy Carter was a socially conscious Christian who shared many of Larry’s views. But when the ’70s ended, a different kind of Christianity rose up on the wings of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. This more judgmental, less inclusive movement ushered in a new establishment that slammed the door shut on egalitarian brand of Christianity that Larry espoused.

No room at the inn

There was no room for questioners like Larry Norman in the new world of black-and-white Christianity, and he never again attained the level of popularity or acceptance he had achieved during the 1970s. In the end, he died young and relatively unknown to many, despite being recognized as the “Father of Christian Rock” and the man behind the most critically acclaimed Christian album of all time.

Larry may have engaged in a degree of self-pity at times, but that’s a natural human response to the kind of attacks he faced. Given his immense talent, he could have probably made a fortune as a musician catering to either secular or Christian tastes. But he refused to cater to anyone, and that brought both scorn and frustration from both sides of the fence.

As an artist myself, I can relate. I’ve always insisted on asking the hard questions, refusing to settle for clichés in place of real answers. When it became clear the church didn’t want to listen, I stopped going. Unlike Larry, I didn’t start out with the ultimate answer. When I became a Christian, it was a trial run rather than a leap of faith. I recall saying to myself, “I’ll give this thing a chance. If it works, great. If not, at least I’ll know why.” Ultimately, it didn’t work for me, and what drove me away is the same narrow-minded intransigence Larry encountered all of his life.

The same evidence led us to different conclusions. Larry chose to continued the battle, while I stepped away from the war zone. I couldn’t understand why people who followed a prince of peace felt the need to remain continually at war with those they said they loved – even those who shared their core beliefs. I still can’t. And in the years since I left the church, those wars have only intensified. The conformist Christianity that marginalized Larry’s message during the 1980s has, if anything, gained a firmer foothold. The same people who excused men of dubious character like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart now place their hope in a similarly corrupt president, sacrificing their principles for the sake of a worldly kingdom no god would ever claim.

Larry Norman, prophet

Larry’s lyrics from The Great American Novel turned out to be prophetic": “The politicians all make speeches, while the newsmen all take notes. And they exaggerate the issues as they shove them down our throats.” Such are the times we live in, and we need voices like Larry’s today more than ever – voices that challenge us to be a better version of ourselves. Articulating that challenge was Larry’s greatest gift, and it’s why I still listen to his music today, long after I stopped going to church.

Consider this lyric from the same song: “You kill a black man at midnight just for talking with your daughter. Then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water. And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on. And with every meal, you say a prayer you don’t believe, but still you keep on.”

Few others had the insight, integrity and guts to write lyrics like that, even at the height of the protest era. I can only imagine how many evangelicals would react to them today, in an era when most congregants admire a president who also enjoys the ardent support of the KKK.

My affinity with Larry stems in part from the fact that I, too, feel like I’m fighting a war on two fronts, with two things at stake: my personal integrity and my artistic vision. I have no desire to be either a religious robot or an embittered existentialist. Like Larry, I feel like a voice in the wilderness fighting an uphill battle. I refuse to conform for the sake of conformity or stop asking questions for the sake of “peace” – not when that peace is really a thinly veiled form of oppression.

I like to think, in some ways, that I’m following in Larry’s footsteps. Whether that’s the case or not, there’s no arguing that he inspired me.

I’m sorry I didn’t get another chance to talk to Larry Norman after that night in 1980, but I’m grateful to Gregory Thornbury for letting him speak to me again.

A prophet has no honor in his own country.
— John 4:44
The church doesn’t think I’m a Christian.
— Larry Norman