Sunday, August 17, 2008

Maybe that's why my church doesn't play Larry Norman

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.

12 comments:

FishHawk said...

"I Wish We'd All Been Ready" is one of his songs that your church ought to embrace whole-heartedly. It is certainly one of my all-time favorites, and DC Talk did an excellent job of reviving its appeal a few years back.

Here is the url unto a YouTube video of him performing the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1FcTKNXlO0

Here is the url unto DC Talk's rendition, which I actually like better than his: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzGWrsFp_WE

Da Old Man said...

This just got me thinking about the Simpsons episode where Bart slipped in In Dagadda Da Vida into the church service and no one noticed. People look at the messenger, and not the message in the case of Larry Norman, apparently.

lala said...

Heh, I uh, don't think Jesus preached to the converted either.

lot 2 learn said...

This is the first I have heard of Larry Norman. I am going to the YouTube clip and check him out now

Athena said...

I thought this was a really great post! I have no idea who Larry Norman is, but I grew up in a very strict baptist environment, and I think its important to help people see the inspiration in things a bit out of the ordinary.

The Natural State Hawg said...

FishHawk:

That is a great one, indeed. Steeped in Revelation, of course, but fine nonetheless. The DC Talk version is pretty good, but I still prefer the original.

The Natural State Hawg said...

da old man:

You got that right! Larry Norman looked like a dirty hippy and a lot of people never got past that.

It's a shame, really. He had a lot to share.

The Natural State Hawg said...

lala:

He certainly didn't. That's one of the reasons I like Larry Norman so much. He seemed to actually embrace the Gospel and do his best to emulate Christ.

Unusual, huh?

The Natural State Hawg said...

Lot 2 Learn:

Heh. You've got a lot to learn about the man ;)

Have fun! You'll not be disappointed!

The Natural State Hawg said...

Athena:

I grew up moderate Baptist and got concerned when the fundamentalist movement took hold (my old church ought to change it's slogan to "We put the 'fun' in fundamentalism!")

The Methodists are a lot more laid back and I enjoy the heck out of it.

And, thank you for your kind words!

Elle said...

I miss my contemporary Methodists. Hung out with them when we lived in a slightly bigger (read: progressive) town, where we live now they're such a staid bunch. I'm disappointy, to quote Max @ three.

And you are so right about Larry Norman. Who couldn't use a little renewal served up with a side of blues?!

The Natural State Hawg said...

elle:

Well, we're fairly small town around here and, as such, our church is fairly conservative. Regardless, it's still a Methodist church -- a Duke educated pastor intelligently discussing scripture rather than some maniac screaming at the congregation. By Southern standards, the church we attend is marvelously laid back and we feel right at home there.

And, yeah, Larry Norman was one of the greats. God rest his soul (and I mean that literally!)