My family and I go to a Methodist church that has one of those contemporary services -- you know, the ones where folks pull out the electric guitars and drums and get away from the traditional hymns.
We like it quite a bit, but I've always wondered why the church never bothered to play any Larry Norman songs. He is, after all, considered to be the grandfather of contemporary Christian music, so why not?
It occurred to me today that Norman's stuff still might not be appropriate in a church service for the simple reason he never preached to the converted. No, Norman exercised more of the gentle evangelism advocated by Saint Peter and practiced extensively by Christ himself. Norman reached out to folks who he believed needed some hope and faith -- junkies, whores and people who were generally a mess. If you're already a believer, why should you sit in church and listen to music that was made to convert the nonbelievers?
Besides, songs like "Why Don't You Look into Jesus?" were a bit hard to take by mainstream Christians back in the early 1970s due to graphic warnings about the dangers of hard drug use and sexual promiscuity. Those messages are still a bit rough, particularly if children are present (I'm a firm believer in letting kids enjoy their childhoods -- they can find out how rotten society is when they get older). Still, those very direct, graphic messages got the attention of people that Norman wanted to reach.
Norman died of heart failure in February, but his legacy is impressive. In addition to practically founding what became contemporary Christian music, Norman was friendly with the likes of Paul McCartney and even screwball artists like Black Francis (a.k.a. Frank Black) of the Pixies respected the man (want proof? Go right here to see a couple of videos, one of which features Frank Black playing live with Norman). The Pixies were one of my favorite bands, so the fact that Black Francis loved Norman says a lot about the man both in terms of sincerity and appeal.
Still, Norman's embrace of rock n' roll and social advocacy never did set well with the more conservative Christians and his constant harping on the Gospel made him roundly hated by the more strident atheists out there. The extreme elements of both of those groups never have had a sense of humor or the ability to shut up and let things lie, so Norman remained an outsider throughout his career.
Of course, the man's most solid support should have come from the Christian community, but he was too controversial for that. That's a shame, too, as even those of us among the converted could use Norman's very direct teachings, life affirming messages and sense of humor (the song "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" is a hoot).
For those wanting to experience the greatness that is Larry Norman, check out the three albums that make up the famed Trilogy -- Only Visiting this Planet (1972), So long Ago the Garden (1973) and In Another Land (1975). You'll find some blues-based, light rock, Norman's impressive vocal range, plenty of enthusiasm, a great sense of humor and constant calls for justice. That's all great stuff.
Maybe churches still don't warm up to the sometimes graphic music banged out by a man who looked like a dirty hippy and hung around trying to convert undesirables. Still, Norman produced the kind of music that maybe Christians ought to embrace -- honest confessions of faith and an unwavering belief that Christ's message can bring hope to anyone are infinitely valuable. It might be inappropriate to play Norman's stuff in church to the converted, but he can certainly inspire us Christians the rest of the time.