Tag Archives: Larry Norman

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.

Doomsday, Again?

It’s hard to keep a good apocalypse down. Ever since Jesus of Nazareth did his best Arnold Schwarzenegger impression of “I’ll be back” some of his followers have obsessed when just when that will be. Sorry for the late notice, but the current prediction is for tomorrow. If you’ve got any weekend plans, you might want to rethink them. I know traffic in Jersey is already bad enough without white horses breaking through the clouds. An article my wife promptly sent me from NPR, “Is The Apocalypse Coming? No, It Isn’t!” by Marcelo Gleiser, addresses the documentary The Sign. No doubt about it, there’s some impressive astronomical gyrations here, but planets moving through constellations do not an apocalypse make. As Gleiser points out, the real question is why people believe such predictions so passionately.

Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” captures the mood nicely. Growing up in a tradition that believed, as only literalists can, that this world is the center of the cosmos, Norman’s song haunted my teenage years. These were the heady days of Hal Lindsey and a very hot Cold War. I had to register for the draft. There was unrest in the Middle East. Sonny and Cher had split up. The signs were aligned, it seemed. As they had been nearly every year since about 30 CE. Paul of Tarsus was waiting. And John of Patmos. And Timothy LaHaye. True believers all. Conviction begets conviction. Seeing another fully convinced is a powerful incentive.

Even now, if I’m honest, I shudder a little when I hear such predictions. What if, by some odd chance, they are right? Raised in that tradition, it’s nearly impossible to jettison that private fear. Rationally I know that clever people can make all kinds of connections that have nothing to do with the Bible. I know that John’s Revelation isn’t about the end of the world. I know that the views of Paul were bound by the developments of his age. I know the Rapture was invented in the nineteenth century (CE). Still, the chill slithers through me when I consider how it felt as an uncertain teen on the brink of Armageddon. I could envision it clearly. Some who were utterly sure swayed me. Specific dates and times weren’t biblical, but the wait for any moment now was even more terrifying. Tomorrow will begin and end just as any other day on planet earth. And another apocalypse will enter the planning stages, coming soon to a universe near you.

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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Flying Sorcery

In a post on the Huffington Post recently Michael Zimmerman, founder of the Clergy Letter Project, wrote about the strange antipathy of Ken Ham to the search for extraterrestrial life. Ham, founder of a creationist museum and self-appointed spokesman against evolution, has gone on the record saying that aliens cause problems for a creationist worldview. Therefore they can’t exist. Indeed, creationists should reject aliens because of the flat earth the Bible presents. Zimmerman, with his usual unfailing reason and wry humor, demonstrates the multiple difficulties both with Ham’s understanding of science and of the whole alien agenda. The Bible doesn’t address the modern world on many fronts, which is why literalists so often find themselves out of step with the issues of the day. When the final period (an anachronism, I know) was placed at the end of Revelation, it was expected that the world wouldn’t be around much longer, tottering as it was on the underground pillars that held it up. Somehow the Roman Empire came and went without any kind of cataclysm ending it all, and literalists have been backing and filling ever since.

Ham’s angst about extraterrestrials, however, is not shared by all Fundamentalists. I recall going to a session way out at a country church as a child where the guest speaker, a firm believer in aliens, talked about the “sheep in other folds” referred to by Jesus as aliens. I recall the eerie feeling as we drove home under a dark sky with fliers depicting flying saucers and assurances that we were not alone. In college, when I discovered Larry Norman’s music, I was struck by his lyric “If there’s life on other planets, then I’m sure He must know, and He’s been there once already, and has died to save their souls.” Literalists, like Catholics, take multiple views on the question. It seems a terrible waste of space if, in this infinite universe we’re the only sparks of consciousness around. I’ll leave “intelligence” for time to decide.

What would Genesis do?

What would Genesis do?

Ironically, Ken Ham doesn’t seem to have considered the up side of aliens, at least for his point of view. If the extraterrestrials end up looking like us, that does raise some serious questions about evolution. How did it work identically on two different planets to produce such similar results? You’d think maybe Fundamentalists might welcome aliens with open appendages. Of course, some have gone far off the other end and declared that angels and aliens are the same thing. The problem of the literalist world view is that it is severely limited. The Bible never foresaw the internet or the airplane or even the true nature of our own solar system, let alone the infinite sea of space beyond. In charting a course for belief, accurate maps are necessary. As Zimmerman points out, those maps, of necessity must contain the stars. And as we continue to evolve infinite worlds of possibilities await.

Alien Bears

“And if there’s life on other planets, I’m sure that he must know, and has been there once already, and died to save their souls.” Larry Norman, one of the original Jesus Freaks, may not have been the deepest theologian, but his words come to mind as I see scientists reluctantly admitting that maybe life on earth is not so unique after all. It’s been in the news that Kepler Space Telescope’s data have been indicating that other planets like earth may be quite common. It has always amazed me that people have been so reluctant to let go of the notion that we are the only spark of intelligence in this vast, vast, cold, and dark universe. We seem to need to think we’re special. Religions generally indicate that the gods made us for some purpose or another, some love us, some are indifferent, others may be hostile. But generally, we’re unique. The Mormons have for years taught that there is life out there, but mainstream Christianity has generally been agin it, mainly owing to the crucifixion. Larry Norman, the original Christian rock artist, speculated that cosmic history repeated itself: if Jesus died for us, well then, he must’ve done the favor for them too.

Once Edwin Hubble stepped away from the telescope, stuck his famous pipe in his mouth, and said “huh,” I would’ve thought other scientists might’ve considered, like H. G. Wells, that “they” were out there looking back at us. Why this reluctance to suppose that we’re not alone? The story in the Washington Post cites the typical reason: the Goldilocks effect. Scientists, perhaps unwittingly influenced by the anthropic principle, have supposed other planets, if they existed, were either too hot or too cold to support life. We, like Goldilocks, happened to inhabit the only planet among the billions of galaxies of billions of stars, that got it just right. More like God-ilocks. The idea derives from Genesis where, it is strongly implied, we are the only ones. Religion influences culture, whether materialists want to admit it or not. The earth-only bias is inherently religious.

Who's looking back at Hubble?

Who’s looking back at Hubble?

Astronomers will gradually come around to the idea that there are other planets like ours. It will likely take decades, perhaps centuries, before they will commonly admit that life forms like ours are out there walking around. Eventually they may decide that there’s something to UFOs after all. Meanwhile, various New Religious Movements have already hitched rides on those flying saucers and they will be laughing once the rest of us catch up. We tend, under the influence of those who claim religion is always Bronze Age drivel, to forget that religion often leads the way to new territory. When the little green men and women land, we’ll find that many religions have beat science to the punchline. I’m not so sure, however, that the aliens will know who Jesus is. After all, this chair’s too hard, and this one’s too soft.

Christian Rocks

ViolFemsSitting in traffic outside the Lincoln Tunnel, I see that the Violent Femmes are coming to town. The billboard sends my mind spiraling back to college, when the Violent Femmes had released their debut album. Not that I ever listened to it (then), but in the fervently evangelical atmosphere of Grove City College, many students rooted and grubbed for any whiff of esoteric Christianity in a culture on the—pardon the genre-switch—highway to Hell. Rumors abounded that the Femmes were covert Christians, just like another up-and-coming band called U2. Not only the Femmes were violent—reaction to such Christianizing assertions was as well. I remember one of the dorm-mates in my housing group getting into a shouting match that U2 was not a Christian group and slamming his door to sulk, literally for hours. This was important stuff. We were Christians in an underground world.

Of course, some of us knew that Gordon Gano clearly betrayed the influence of Larry Norman in his voicing. And there were rumors and rumors of rumors that the Violent Femmes were coming out with a Christian album, despite the popularity of “Blister in the Sun,” the homage to masturbation that raised the group to stardom. This rumor turned out to be partially true, as Hallowed Ground took on spiritual themes, a little bit country, a little bit soul. There was some tension in the group as Gano’s lyrics began to suggest something more overtly Christian. All of this was going on long before I discovered the Femmes. At Nashotah House I taught a guest lecture on Christian themes in rock music. I researched the Violent Femmes and found that I liked their sound. They made the cut for the lecture.

In a culture as deeply steeped in the Bible as ours, it is difficult to avoid Christian imagery altogether. The Femmes were from Milwaukee (not far from Nashotah House, as the raptor flies), the heartland where beats the pulse of unadulterated religiosity. Even Iron Maiden, after all, had released the platinum album The Number of the Beast. And David Buckna points out in a recent MuseMash post, that even Ozzy Osbourne has some religious aptitude. (I always thought there was more going on in “Iron Man” than meets the ear.) This may all be chalked up to cultural Christianity—there need not be too much conviction here. Those who feel oppressed, however, huddled together in their evangelical college dorms, will always suspect that there is something more beneath the surface that makes even the “Prince of Darkness” the bearer of light.