Tag Archives: Christian Rock

Original Sinner

Musical preferences are a personal matter. In the case of the kind that loudly thunders from open car windows, often they should be more so. Still, music is a deeply moving phenomenon. When a musician is paired with a compelling personal story, it can be quite a gripping narrative. Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock is one such account. Although Larry Norman was never popularly famous—many people today have never heard of him—he was a tremendously influential person. Like most true innovators he was, as Thornbury shows, a difficult person. He often had more enemies than friends, but there can be no doubt that he lived, at least in his own mind, by his convictions. And on his own terms.

I didn’t know until reading this brief biography that it was common for Larry Norman to wait around after concerts and talk with fans. When a friend invited me to see Larry in concert I was, as is generally the case, so wrapped up in my own issues that I hadn’t done much research. I was thrilled to see the artist that I, like Thornbury, had discovered during college. It was my friend’s idea to go backstage to talk to him. To this day those few minutes remain some of the most thrilling of my life. Norman was a name dropper, according to those who know, and I’ve met a few famous people over the years, including Jeff Bezos, but Larry was different. The breadth of his impact on rock in the 1970s and into the ’80s, was vast. Many secular artists count him among their most profound influences. And he had time to sit and chat with a seminarian from nowhere.

While my friend and I waited to see him, the guy in front of us wanted to play Larry a song. In an act of hubris I can’t fathom, he’d brought his own guitar to the concert. Larry kept saying “I don’t understand why you want to do this.” But surely he knew. Throughout his career he helped start many younger artists on their track, some to Christian stardom, others to more quiet lives. He had, however, something he couldn’t give away. Larry Norman was a true original. Despite his uneasy dalliance with fame, he was willing to sit and talk with a star-struck young man who would go on to become a lifelong admirer of an artist who remained true to himself, even if he was too Christian for some and too secular for others.

Situation Norman

It was in a locker room. I couldn’t believe I was here. First of all, at Gordon College—that bastion of conservative Christianity. Second of all, in the same room as him. A friend had offered to drive me up here from Boston, where we were both in seminary. I was a little saddened to see less than 200 chairs set up on the gym floor, carefully arranged on a tarp so as not to mar the shining wood beneath. Larry Norman came onto stage to great applause, and was remarkably intimate with his fans. He’d been a big name in the 1970s, almost single-handedly starting the Christian rock genre. After the concert was over, my friend said “Do you want to meet him?” Here he was, in the locker room, taking the time to speak with fans, individually. He refused to sign autographs, preferring to give the glory to the Lord. But he listened, he responded, and, it was clear, he loved.

While the sections of the brain that process religion and music may not be the same, we know that our gray matter is intricately interconnected. Analysts have noted that the most famous religious leaders of modern times have quite often been deeply affected by music. Religious services without some form of music are in the minority for a reason. And it really doesn’t matter what style said music takes, it moves people. Instead of apologizing for my own musical tastes, I’ll simply note that I was exposed to Larry Norman at a young age. Although his religious perspective and mine had parted ways before I had the chance to meet him, I’ve never disparaged his music. It is authentic, innovative, and above all, sincere.

Gregory Alan Thornbury has just published a biography of Larry Norman. I will surely read it. Although Christian rock has grown insipid and cloying since it began, it is still a remarkably lucrative business. Evangelicals will pay good money to get those rock rhythms with unthreatening words and praise of Jesus thrown in. Norman’s songs, however, were complex and nuanced. Equal parts love and social justice, they might not even mention Jesus. Or when they did, they might suggest he was a UFO. Unconventional. Blasphemous to some. As the ‘70s faded into the ‘80s, Larry Norman was considered old news. He had, however, started something that was bringing other people lots of money. And he looked me directly in the eyes late one night in the locker room of a conservative Christian college, and told me to keep on believing. Obscurity, he showed by his life, is no measure of a person’s actual importance. And music and religion can never be separated.

Buying Intangibles

Perhaps it seems that I’m writing quite a bit about music these days. Being a theoretical and practical failure in the practice of music, it may seem presumptuous. If I’m honest, I’d admit that visiting the site of Woodstock was kind of a religious experience for me. That experience and the fact that popular musicians from my younger days have been in the news of late compel me to analyze a bit. My wife shared a blog post on John Pavlovitz’s website entitled “Bono Called Out Christian Musicians For a Lack of Honesty. He Didn’t Go Far Enough.” The screed is both about the Christian music industry and about current trends in evangelistic super-churches that share in the glitz and glam and leave you wondering what Jesus would do. The message of early Christianity and the sixties was similar: social justice, peace, non-judgmental attitudes, care for others, love all. Don’t worry about the bottom line.

Many churches, it has become clear in this age of nones, are struggling to compete in the spiritual marketplace. Since every institution must have “product”—not books, music, reverence, or worship, but “product”—money must change hands. If you have any doubts look at what the mega-church pastors are driving. Christian bands seem not to have a social conscience so much as a desire to feel good. It’s a thriving industry, for sure. Music that makes you feel safe is delivering false promises, though. The deity thundering on that mountain might ask you to sacrifice your own son, and there could be a good, solid backbeat to that. What is the role of religion in an entrepreneurial society? It used to be that you couldn’t buy what they were giving away. Everything now has a sale tag on it.

Back in college we used to argue about whether U2 was a “Christian band” or not. Clearly they recorded on a secular label. Amy Grant, the darling of 1980s believers, matured and seemed to fall from grace. Larry Norman, never part of the establishment, died too young. Music and religion both stand, in fact, out of the reach of sticky capitalist fingers. Anything that you have to pay for is more a cheap imitation. YouTube has made all of recorded history available for all. Even mainstream churches are experimenting with tablet hymnals and virtual communion. Grace mediated through a touch screen. Debit cards accepted. The only thing that seems to be missing is that human touch. That down in the mud reality of it all. Music that had a message and that message wasn’t about supporting convention. “Upon this rock,” you can almost here the man say, “I will build my church.”

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Vox Humana

You know how it is when you get a song stuck in your head? This is one of the few scenarios that will actually lead me to buy music. I have very specific (some would say “odd”) tastes in music. I love the originals. Long ago I ceased listening to “Christian Rock.” It was a thing when I was attending a Christian college, of course. Many who feared the terrors of the drugs and sex part felt they could be slightly rebellious with the rock-n-roll side of things by listening to various groups that pounded out evangelistic messages with electric guitars and overheated amps. There were, however, amid those groups pretending they were a saved Metallica, some real artists. Somehow some of the songs of Daniel Amos came to my mind. I had all four albums of the ¡Alarma! Chronicles—still do up in the attic somewhere—but we left most of our sound system in Wisconsin. I hadn’t bothered to buy a new needle for my turntable, and I’m not sure I still have the patch cables to connect it if I did. It’s been at least a decade since I heard Vox Humana. The internet made it too easy.

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To understand my quest, you have to imagine the context. It was 1984. I was a rising senior in college and I hadn’t seen much of the world. Having grown up in humble circumstances, I didn’t have money for travel or many material things. When my roommate took me to visit his house and he introduced me to a friend who had a room dedicated to sound equipment and albums, I felt as though I was on another planet. Daniel Amos’s Vox Humana had just been released. Our host slipped it from its yellow cover and played it with all the blinking green and red equalizer lights flashing and I was completely blown away. It was Christian music unlike I’d ever heard. In fact, it was ahead of much of the pop music of the time. As soon as I got back to campus I ordered it from the Christian bookstore. The songs still come back to me when I least expect them to.

Call it a guilty pleasure. My theological outlook is lightyears away from what it was when I was an undergraduate. I still haven’t seen much of the world, but what I have seen of it has changed me in ways that there’s no means of reversing. Although I really can’t afford to be buying music—we’re only paying for electrons any more—I just couldn’t help myself this one time. It’s no longer the ‘80s, and the 1950s sci fi movies DA references in the lyrics are closer in time to the album’s initial release than that release is to me now, but still large swaths of the lyrics are imprinted in my mind, taking me back over the decades. It’s the music of my youth. And it was edgy then. It sounds more conventional, perhaps even old fashioned now. Still, when you get a song stuck in your head, pagan or Christian, there’s really only one thing you can do about it.

Driving the Point

“I drive my car, it is a witness. My license plate, it states my business.” The words are from a song by one of the most creative Christian Rock groups ever, Daniel Amos. While I don’t listen to Christian Rock much anymore, I’ve always appreciated the fresh outlook of this particular band, which was, at least in the ‘80s, ahead of the curve. The lyrics came back to me when reading about a legal suit in New Jersey concerning vanity plates. Like many states, New Jersey has rules against offensive words being spelled out on license plates. When a woman applied for a license reading “8THEIST” it was rejected as “offensive to good taste and decency,” according to a story in NJ.com by Thomas Zambito. Trying the application with “BAPTIST” led to no objections. Others have tried other variations on the word “atheist” and have come up with rejections as well. In a country that prides itself on religious freedom, this is ironic, to say the least.

I’m a bit too pragmatic for vanity plates, or even bumper stickers. Having had to commute long distances after being dismissed from my post at Nashotah House, I often thought that I didn’t want people to know too much about me by the decoration of my car. The culture wars, played out a few years ago by Jesus fish, Darwin fish, Jesus sharks eating Darwin fish, and so on, seemed an opportunity for aggression to me. Already when I’m driving and someone cuts me off or does some dangerous maneuver in traffic, they frequently bear some paraphernalia advertising Jesus on their bumper. Maybe it’s a prayer for protection that allows for stupid driving. It certainly isn’t a witness to the “others first” theology that characterized Jesus’ teaching.

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Is it an affront to decency to be an atheist, or only to advertise being one? The culture wars that plague the United States are based on instant prejudices that make decisions about a person without bothering to witness their behavior. Behavior, after all, is the true measure of goodness. Even higher education is not immune to this system, especially in religion departments. We only want to be surrounded by those who believe like us. Somewhere in this unholy mix is the neglected idea of doing the right thing. Ours is a culture in love with appearances. We object when Muslims want to build a mosque. We object when Roman Catholics run for President. Weren’t not even sure that we really trust the Presbyterian next door. Our differences, one of the historic strengths of this country, have become a liability. Especially when behind the wheel. How different driving would be if we’d just assume that no what the vehicle says, it is piloted by a human being just like us, no matter who they believe the co-pilot might be.

Heavy Metal

“I drive my car, it is a witness. My license plate, it states my business.” Only the hardcore may be able to place this quote from Daniel Amos’s impressive 1984 album Vox Humana. Even when I moved away from Christian rock after college, I kept Daniel Amos in my head—this is truly inspired artistry. Pop culture and religion courses have become a standard offering in religion departments over the past few years. We are, even as secular as we may be, a very religious society. When my daughter’s high school music program went off on its biannual concert tour, this year they headed south. On the itinerary: Dollywood. I came near to Gatlinburg, Tennessee on the trip I made to South Carolina to see my father for the final time, but I did not stop. I am told, however, that Dollywood is something to see. In one of the gift shops, my daughter snapped a couple of photos for my blog that draw all these disparate thoughts together.

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What we put on our cars is what we want the world to know about us without ever seeing us. This makes cars a perfect evangelistic tool for both the shy and the aggressive. The car becomes a tract. A statement that this vehicle is driven by an evangelical. I’m not sure it makes me feel any safer on the road. How many times have I been rudely cut off in traffic only to find a Jesus fish winking at me from the bumper of the offending car? Sometimes swallowing a Darwin amphibian. Religion speaks more loudly behind the wheel than it does from the pew. In the stress of traffic, what do we really believe?

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Cars are also the ultimate tools of self-assertion. Human beings, with little natural armor or predatory equipment, surround themselves with metal and accelerate themselves at velocities that nature never intended. We feel godlike behind the wheel. That metal box in front of us, driving too slowly, or having just pulled some stupid maneuver, is not a person. It is a thing. And those who choose to declare their faith on that object are under constant judgment. Well I know the evangelistic pressure to witness—fundamentalists are expert at manipulating guilt. Put these plates on your car and the world will know what you really are. But be careful. It’s not how you say, but how you play that will express what you truly believe.

From Bragg to Phelps

Religious freedom is proving to be a two-way street. The news is rife with stories of religious groups pushing the limits beyond their right to state an opinion into arguably unconstitutional behaviors. At Fort Bragg, the Army is sponsoring Rock the Fort, a Christian rock concert promoted by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. Although Christian bands are spiritually minded, they do not perform for free, raising the question whether military (government) money is being spent to promote a particular religion, a particular strain of Evangelical Christianity. In offering this concert, is the government endorsing this one religion? Statements that other religions are free to send their rock groups to Army bases rings hollow when, with rare exceptions, such groups simply do not exist.

Meanwhile, Time magazine brings the curious Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas back to the headlines now that Supreme Court has been called in to argue whether their outspoken condemnation of the military is constitutional. Fred Phelps, the founder of the church, has led divine hate campaigns across the country. It is his protests at the funerals of soldiers killed in action that has forced the question of whether his group has the right to condemn indiscriminately. The question of good taste need not even be asked.

What these Evangelical groups are pointing out is that God apparently suffers from schizophrenia. Simultaneously the great general upstairs loves soldiers and wishes to convert them and also hates them and condemns them to hell. The jury, it seems, should be the taxpayers. We are the ones footing the bill for Christian concerts and paying the not-insubstantial salaries for Supreme Court justices to argue about the legality of religious hatemongering. In these days when many feel that Islam is a threat (as Christian clergy threaten to burn the Quran), it might be worth asking where the real threat to religious freedom comes from. Religious zealots often make excellent soldiers, no matter what the religion.

These guys love God, but is the feeling mutual?