Larry Norman, a popular Christian rock musician, died this last Sunday. You might not know who he is, but you probably know Frank Black, whose early aesthetics were influenced by Larry, causing Frank to play onstage with him at his last concert.
Larry and gang founded “Contemporary Christian Music”, or CCM, a product of the 60s and 70s. He provided a soundtrack to my childhood years, as did Keith Greene, Daniel Amos, The Rez Band, and 2nd Chapter of Acts. A little later in life I resurrected a record player and listened to my Dad’s old LPs again , and still really enjoyed them.
Larry Norman and the other founding members of CCM were influenced by the Jesus Movement, when a large influx of ex-hippies invaded American Protestantism en-mass. Their counter culture ideals and modern tastes were reflected in their music, dress, theology and lifestyle. It was all about the “One Way”, following Jesus as a personal disciple instead of following a bunch of white suburban middle class morality. This was the beginning of what is now called the “Social Gospel”, or Protestant liberalism.
In the 60s and 70s most Protestants considered rock music “of the devil”. The Beatles and Elvis were Knights In Satan’s Service; leading the young people to grow long hair, smoke pot, have sex and abortions, believe in evolution, and hang out with black people. And to have a CHRISTIAN make ROCK?!? That was absolutely unacceptable, like a youth pastor making a porn video. Larry talks about hard conversations he had with his very religious dad, about whether he was serving the church or not. This later led Larry to write the apologetic but defiant”I am a Servant”, along with many other great songs like “The Outlaw” and “Why Should The Devil Have all the Good Music?”
Even today Bob Jones University doesn’t allow CCM to be played in their dorms; not even “Steven Curtis Chapman (or) Michael W. Smith”. My parents weren’t quite that bad, but they tightly regulated what kind of music was in the house, and G-d forbid if they’d ever found the “secular” music I snuck home and listened to in my headphones. My mom wouldn’t even let me listen to some modern Christian rock (POD, Poor Old Lu, Mx Px, Pedro the Lion, Prayer Chain, Starflyer 59, etc.) because it was “too noisy” or “too depressing”. I didn’t forgive her for that one until years after I’d moving out.
People like Bob Jones represent the worse of Christian culture, domineering smug in their assurance that their 50s Moral Values are eternal and perfect. Larry Norman reflected the better parts of religious life; one of community, creativity, openness and love. The Culture Wars have just began; and it’s because of people like Larry that oppressive fundamentalism can be beaten.
R.I.P Larry Norman; I don’t believe in heaven anymore, but I know the legacy of your art will live forever.