Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music (Gregory Alan Thornbury) -- A Review

WHY SHOULD THE DEVIL HAVE ALL THE GOOD MUSIC? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock. By Gregory Alan Thornbury. New York: Convergent Books, 2018. 292 pages.

“Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” That's a question that resonated with me as I traversed high school and college during the 1970s. Growing up on the Beatles, Moody Blues, and Three Dog Night, I faced the question as a newly “born again” Christian whether I should abandon my former listening habits without abandoning the musical style in which it was conveyed. Could I as a good Christian enjoy rock music and be faithful to Jesus? Fortunately for me, there was a burgeoning Christian music scene that allowed me to enjoy the music of the day, only with Christian lyrics. By the time I entered this Christian music world, the offerings were quite broad, ranging from Barry McGuire to Andrae Crouch. Keith Green sang at my church before he became a household name. Many of these groups came out of Calvary Chapel and traveled up and down the West Coast, visiting towns like mine, even coming to my church. Like many of my friends I went through this stage where I got rid of my secular records and replaced them with Christian ones. Yes, I wanted rock and religion both, and I got my fill (though I later went back and added all that music back into the mix, along with new musicians). As a sidelight, I should add that we were told to view these concerts as worship settings. We were told to beware of a concert mentality, whatever that meant. After all it was a concert not a worship service, though there might be a lot of religious talk, but it was more evangelistic that worshipful. Besides, when the concert was over, albums were sold, and autographs sought.

Among those musicians whom I embraced was Larry Norman, though he was of a different sort than many of the other Christians musicians I encountered. He was more aloof and iconoclastic. He was also acclaimed as the father of Christian rock, and the most important forerunner of the Contemporary Christian Music scene. I had the good fortune to hear him at least once in concert in Portland. It was probably 1977. The Grateful Dead were to perform in the same venue the next evening, and Dead Heads were already camping out. Norman made comments about their devotion. He also had something to say about the Christian world, out of which he spoke and sang, noting that while the local Christian bookstores would sell his albums, they wouldn't promote his concerts (not that he needed much promotion as the theater was full of fans). I remember his seemingly deadpan humor, as he told stories that made you laugh, but as they were told with a straight face, you wondered whether laughter was the best response. While there were imitators, there was no one quite like him in the Christian music scene. 

Although I've moved out of the Christian music scene over the years of my adulthood, the memory of Larry Norman and his music have continued to resonate with me. Perhaps it was that concert that made the deepest impression—the same can be said for Andrae Crouch concerts (though they were a very different kind of experience). I knew that Norman was a pioneer in the Christian music field and that he seemed to have a different and difficult relationship with the church, but I didn’t know the full scope of that reality. While I knew that his music had a harder edge, as did his commentary, I didn’t know the full story of his life and the perils of the Christian music scene that undergird his message until I began reading Gregory Thornbury's biography of Larry Norman. I should say something about the author, who is trained in philosophy and is president of King's College, a Christian college, located in New York City.

What unfolds in this biography is the story of a complex man, who struggled to bring together his faith in Jesus and his commitment to pursue excellence in his chosen form of musical expression, and the challenges to that goal set up both by the broader secular culture, but also the Christian music scene, which was often less than “Christian.” The chapter titles signal Norman’s contrarian nature. While the prologue is titled “Jesus and Larry Norman,” the remainder of the titles contain the word “Jesus versus . . ..” Thus, we have “Jesus versus Superman” and “Jesus versus Frenemies,” with the concluding chapter titled “Jesus versus Larry Norman.” Perhaps this statement from the prologue says it best: “But forty years ago, Larry Norman rejected the notion that being Christian meant walling oneself off from the outside world, all the while pioneering the notion that young people could be close to God without listening to religious authorities or being a faithful attender of any church” (p. 7).

As I listen to his music today, some forty years later, in concert with this biography, I can hear messages that I didn't comprehend in earlier years, though perhaps I did take in some of his iconoclastic vision that pushed me toward questioning the religious authorities in my own life. What I discovered in reading this biography of Norman is, first of all, a person with a prophetic vision, who took hold of apocalyptic themes to challenge perceived social ills, including the racism present in the white church. What I viewed as apocalyptic pessimism, as in “I wish we’d all been ready,” spoke against the church’s embrace of Americanism, war, and capitalism. Of course, as we read the biography, we discover that Norman himself was intent on capitalizing on his growing fame. He didn’t just want to sing for the choir. He wanted to reach beyond the Christian scene, into a world that embraced rock but might not know the gospel. In all of this, he wanted to pursue excellence, and be known for that pursuit.

As we read this book, we discover a man who had strong religious and ethical convictions. He was theologically conservative, engaging in conversation with, among others, Francis Schaeffer, with whom he developed a strong relationship. In fact, Thornbury shares how Norman wanted to create a community akin to L’Abri in Hollywood. He took conservative moral positions, and yet spent a lot of time with secular folks—perhaps to witness to them, but also enjoying their company. He married twice, and both marriages had problems, perhaps because he never really understood women and struggled with sex. His first marriage was to a woman who emerged from a Christian family but was attracted to the high life of Hollywood. She was beautiful, wanted to be a model, and pursued that world, got involved with drugs and posed for porn magazines, all the while complicating Norman’s image as a Christian evangelist.

Norman’s marriages, relationships with secular musicians, and his own often acerbic personality combined with mistakes in his business life, created difficulties with the church and fellow Christian musicians. One of Norman's problems stemmed from his vision of the music he sought to create. He wanted to express his faith through his music, but he didn't want to only reach the church-going public (the folks who often lined up to see the Calvary Chapel groups). He was highly critical of many of these groups, groups and singers I enjoyed at the time, believing that they weren’t up to his standards. He often found their music to be cheesy and shallow, while he sought to write more pointed and provocative pieces, while being frustrated that it was his more explicitly Christian songs that got him positive attention from fans. 

One of the aspects of the book that stands out is the somewhat seedy nature of the Christian music business. There are accounts here of jealousy, gossip, rumor-mongering, unethical business practices, and more. In other words, things weren't all that different in the Christian music world than in the secular music world. Indeed, apparently there was sex and drugs involved there as well. As I read the account, I thought back to my earlier days, and remembering that I was supposed to go and hear these groups without having a concert mentality. It’s important to remember as one reads the account that Norman was both a participant and a victim of this world of church and music.

The book’s closing chapter is titled “Jesus versus Larry Norman.” His life was cut short by a heart attack at age 61. He had long since moved from the center of the Christian music world, which in many ways, he launched. He lived with poor health and with many broken relationships. He had moved from Hollywood to Oregon. Questions about his past began to emerge that tarnished the reputation he had worked so hard to create. He had sought to demonstrate in his own music that the devil wasn’t the only one who had good music. One could embrace Jesus and still create good, culturally relevant music. That was his aim, even if he wasn’t rewarded either by the church or the broader culture.  In the book’s epilogue, Thornbury closes with these words:
Larry Norman believed in a world of objective truth and religious meaning and a strict code of ethics but died of a heart attack before his sins could find him out. He lived in a world where Jesus loved him, and this he knew. But he loved himself too, which in the final analysis, turns out to be the hardest thing for the rest of us left here on planet Earth to do. (p. 254)

The heady days of Larry Norman's musical genius are long past. For many the name doesn't ring a bell. It appears that many of my Mainline friends of my generation have never heard of him, at least not by name. They might remember hearing a song or two, most likely the most explicitly religious of these songs, but his name remains unknown. I have other friends, friends who were with me that night in Portland, who most assuredly remember Larry Norman. I expect they would find this book eye opening, not only what it has to say about Norman, but what it has to say about that Christian subculture we lived in back in the 1970s.

I found the book fascinating and enlightening. Even if you did not experience the early Christian music scene, and don’t remember Norman or any of his contemporaries, I highly recommend this book. It’s not a fun read, but an important one, because it not only provides insight into Norman's life, but also the Christian subculture that continues to perplex many in our culture. It also brings to life the debate that has existed within the Christian community about the proper place of music. Norman raised the question that many of us also raise. That is, "why should the devil have all the good music?" Perhaps that is its greatest gift. Even if you don't know the name, you may find this to be revelatory concerning the way in which religious subcultures develop within the broader culture, are sustained by that culture, and often fall victim to their own success.   


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