Around 1542, Martin Luther complained, “Why is it that we have so many fine poems and so many beautiful songs of the flesh, but of the spirit we have such worthless cold things?” More than a thousand years earlier, the Church Father Tertullian had asked “What has Athens do to with Jerusalem?”—by which he meant to address not only the philosophical underpinnings of a Christian community that would be “in the world but not of it,” but also the nature of the resulting culture itself, not least its music and other arts. A couple of centuries after Luther, the Rev. Rowland Hill (1744–1833) opined that “The Devil should not have all the best tunes,” a remark that was, according to Helen Hosier, likely picked up in the form of a question by none other than Salvation Army founder William Booth.
All of which is to say that the discussion at the intersections of good music, bad music, and “Christian music” has been going on for a long, long time. Rev. Hill’s version of the statement is instructive since it mentions tunes and not words. Luther too understood that distinction, but in most conversations about “Christian music” music plays second fiddle to words. Christian music may typically have Christian words, but what does it mean to be a Christian who makes good music? And why should it matter?
Enter Larry Norman (1947–2008), one of the finest rock musicians and songwriters of the mid-1960s to the early 1980s (Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and Bono were fans; Billboard called him “the most important songwriter since Paul Simon”) and also one of the most overtly Christian, consistently interested in cutting-edge popular musical quality but also in a message that pointed—sometimes more clearly than others—to Christian truth. As Gregory Alan Thornbury aptly demonstrates in this richly detailed and enthralling new biography, Norman was thus a revolutionary whose influence musically, culturally, and spiritually far exceeds the extent to which his name is known these days. Like all great biographies, Thornbury’s work is also a deft social history of a momentous and tumultuous time. Among his most valuable insights, one finds this: “In many ways, the story of Larry Norman helps explain the rise of the Religious Right, the animosities that launched America’s ‘culture wars,’ and the recent rise of the religiously unaffiliated in the United States and Europe.” Thornbury, an accomplished philosopher, manages to work Nietzsche meaningfully into the conversation at one point, and frequently demonstrates Norman’s own deep thinking.
Indeed, according to Thornbury, Norman was “the godfather of Christian rock, but … stated repeatedly in his notebooks and interviews that he felt called to confront Christian culture … [Larry] wanted it both ways; he wanted to rock and he wanted to talk about Jesus, he wanted to follow Jesus and to offend other followers of Jesus, for people to enjoy his music but also be discomfited by it.” Moreover, Norman “was the Forrest Gump of evangelical Christianity … [, possessed of] a remarkable gift for finding himself in illustrious company.” (The cast of characters, both musical and non-musical, with which Norman had meaningful congress as detailed in this volume is jaw-dropping.) Despite the tensions between the rock ’n’ roll world and the Christian community, and notwithstanding his ultimate lack of superstar fame, Norman wasn’t a marginalized figure, and certainly no wilting violet. The quality of his musicianship kept him in conversations from which Christians of lesser talent were typically excluded. By way of example, Thornbury includes this tidbit from a British journalist in 1972: “If, like me, you see Christianity as a reluctantly but irrevocably dying mythology, Larry Norman is still worth hearing for his music and himself.”
As Thornbury paints it, it is not insignificant that Norman came to faith, music, and poetry, all three, at an early age, and had real interests in theater and psychology, too. The blessing of an integrated teenage life of thought, art, and religious devotion, coupled with an embrace of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement in the U.S., likely accounted for Norman’s ability to creatively synthesize Christianity, performance, and activism. Thornbury crystallizes the essence of Norman’s calling by noting that “Elvis, the Beatles, and everybody else were getting rich off their own secular version of [black] ‘gospel’ [style]. It would become Larry Norman’s obsession to steal that music back” for Jesus.
Music (again, apart from words) is especially useful because music is its own epistemology, its own way of knowing.
Until later in life, Norman’s father discouraged him from trying to mix rock with Christianity, seeing them as wholly incompatible. The pendulum has swung back and forth many times over the history of the church as to whether pop culture, and especially pop music, has any legitimate place in the Christian community. Larry Norman lived through—and in many ways helped to create—the cusp of a swing back toward the embrace of a variety of cultural features in service to the gospel; of those, music (again, apart from words) is especially useful because music is its own epistemology, its own way of knowing. The dynamic of vocal music, including “Christian music,” stems from the relationship between words and music, each of which speaks with its own language (words in a propositional way, music non-propositionally). In the best instances, the dialogue between these languages is rich indeed. Norman, recognizing this word-sound dynamic, insisted that “music is art, not propaganda,” but that his music was inherently Christian nonetheless.
Norman first hit the big time with a secular band in the San Francisco Bay area called People! [sic]—Thornbury colorfully labels it “psychedelic,” which has chemical overtones, though Norman himself seems to have stayed away from drugs—attracting the notice of Capitol Records in 1966. Christian rock didn’t even exist at the time, and—though in his wake a billion-dollar industry aimed at a new generation of Christian music consumers was forged, one from which he didn’t always profit—Norman didn’t write for the Christian community exclusively, sometimes not even primarily. Thus songs like his “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus,” written in the late sixties for Janice Joplin but not released until three years after her death from heroin and alcohol overdose, were all the more radical: using music at the center of drug culture against drug culture and for Christian witness.
Unfortunately, this often put Norman between centers of gravity. Still, he got traction in both worlds: he was offered a lead role in the late-sixties hippie Broadway musical Hair (which he turned down), for example, while at the same time he helped launch the “Jesus movement,” something Thornbury characterizes as another Great Awakening among America’s youth of the period. But all of this often meant parting ways with the conservative preachers who remained in traditional evangelical pulpits. (Thornbury rightfully points out that Billy Graham, himself an event-oriented missionary, was a refreshing exception.) This was a way of singing to and about Jesus directly, without the mediation of the organized church. Interestingly, over the subsequent decades, evangelicals would come to embrace American pop music styles with fervor at the heart of their worship services. In the process, however, Larry Norman’s edgy, artsy rock dynamic was too often bleached out of both words and music; even outside the sanctuary, Norman bemoaned that “music is a powerful language, but most Christian music is not [artistic].”
There have been times when “Christian music” meant “high quality music.” Today’s increasingly global churches too often embrace the least interesting aspects of American pop, yet glimmers of “ethnodoxology”—harnessing indigenous cultural musics for Christian worship—are emerging. And since rock is an original American music, one can see Larry Norman as something of an American proto-ethnodoxologist. Certainly, Thornbury reminds us, Norman never lost sight of an ideal perspective on the power of music in society (and not least in the Christian community), encouraging many others in the same quest, though with varying degrees of success.
Thornbury’s probing treatment—respectful and tactful as it is—reveals that Norman’s singular sense of God being “on his side” allowed him to ignore some of the painful realities around him. A frequently polarizing and irascible character (Thornbury sums it up as “mercurial, acerbic, and moody”), Norman lacked better judgment in too many important instances, drifting into business, legal, and marital difficulties. Still, Thornbury shows that though Norman was a flawed hero he was still an authentically Christian one. And one hell of a musician besides. “To the end,” Thornbury concludes, Norman “stood in the public square with a Flamenco guitar strapped to his chest, singing about Jesus, unapologetic about both his faith and his failures.” Surely Martin Luther—an accomplished musician himself who often wrote new hymn tunes in the beer-hall style of his day while having plenty of truck with Jesus, the Devil, and the things of this world—is having quite a conversation with Larry Norman just now.