C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer . . . and Larry Norman

Larry Norman, “father of Christian rock,” has gone home. After suffering a severe heart attack and other ailments, he slipped away at 61.

Larry Norman was the writer of a number of popular Christian songs, including “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” many people’s first encounter with the chilling eschatology of the Rapture. He popularized, and perhaps even invented, the “One Way” gesture of the index finger pointing straight up. He helped launch the careers of many talented artists, including Randy Stonehill (my personal favourite, from whom Norman later became estranged), the Daniel Amos band, and many others on his “Street Level” and then “Solid Rock” labels.

For me, however, Larry Norman in particular was a larger-than-life figure who, with authors C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, helped this Plymouth Brethren teenager, in the backwoods (literally) of northern Ontario, look out onto a larger world of Christian possibilities. Indeed, he helped me to look out onto the larger world itself and feel that perhaps I could actually live there, rather than just briefly venture out into it to evangelize a soul or two and then hurriedly withdraw to the sanctuary of my sect.

I saw Norman in concert only once, but it was while I was attending a Brethren Bible school in Edmonton, Alberta. And the contrast between his “cool,” his sarcasm (God bless him), and his driving rock’n’roll over against the staid and square culture of my denomination and Bible school experience was paradigm-shattering.

He was electric and we were acoustic. He was backbeat and we were 6/8. (Take that, Bob Larson.) He was wild and we were repressed. He was “out there” and we were definitely “in here.”

He gave us permission to like stacks of Marshalls and fuzz boxes and wah-wah pedals and countertenor wailings (let the reader understand). He sanctified the idea of being a smarty-pants for Jesus–while also producing art of accessibility, wit, beauty, and fun.

“Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” Larry asked, echoing William Booth of the Salvation Army a century before. It was a good question then, and it’s a good question now–in this era of unrelentingly derivative “CCM” (Christian Contemporary Music).

But the bigger question was simply, “Why should we yield the world to the devil–the world of rock music, the world of clever joking, the world of funky fashion, the world of authentic protest?” As Lewis and Schaeffer helped my generation engage the most intimidating of philosophers, Norman helped us engage the music our parents feared—and loathed.

The rest of my youth group was into “The Imperials” (a pop-country Nashville quartet–whom I liked, too) and the really edgy ones listened to Andrae Crouch, a good black gospel singer. For this one and only time in my life I was actually cool, because I listened to the “Jesus Rock” of Norman, Stonehill & Co.—much too racy for my peers. (Thanks, Larry.)

But ‘way beyond “cool” was Larry Norman’s prickly integrity. Norman was a rocker and used that language to express good things about Jesus and the world. And if rock’n’roll could be claimed and used for Christ–well, what couldn’t be?

Rest in peace, Uncle Larry. I look forward to turning up the amps with you in the Great Jam Session to Come.

0 Responses to “C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer . . . and Larry Norman”

  1. Phill Ellington

    Your well written perspective of Larry Norman engaging culture is a reminder of how Jesus shook up the status quo and challenged the norms. Even those who seek to do the same today (ex. emergent church)ruffle a lot of feathers.

  2. Glenn Keeler

    Thanks, John, for this thoughtful piece. Coming from a non-Christian home, my early faith was deeply impacted by Larry, Randy, et al. I recall a concert at the Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton with both Larry and Randy where I learned that I could be a Christian, and laugh and crank the amps too.

    Another important aspect of Larry’s music, however, was that it also showed me, very early on, that I could be for social justice — his anti-war (at least Vietnam), anti-poverty, anti-racism stance didn’t win him a lot of friends in some circles. But it was the first dawning for me of something bigger than the narrow Churchianity that I saw around me.

  3. Michel Savard

    Well said, John! Thanks.

    I discovered Larry around the time I discovered Evangelical Protestants, in High-School. I loved his music right away. The beat, the words, his concern for the poor and for social issues.

    Just last Monday, before I heard of Larry’s passing, I happened to be playing in my car a CD of a live concert he gave in your neck of the woods (Vancouver) several years ago.

    He came to Ottawa many years ago – it was great to see him live.

    His message is still so relevant today. He has left a huge legacy. He will be missed by many. And will be discovered by many more, I hope.

    You were “only visiting this planet”, Larry. You were “ready”…I am happy that you have finally entered into your rest…

  4. John Stackhouse

    It’s integrity that nettles others. Larry Norman was willing to nettle others both wholesale (as in his concerts) and retail (as in his personal relationships) out of his strong convictions. I think that quality of his was widely recognized.

  5. John C

    Another blogger talked about LN’s ‘rebellious orthodoxy’ – a phrase that captures him nicely. He enabled many Christians to negotiate their way between the counterculture and the Christian subculture. The sad thing is that the CCM movement he practically founded soon became so anodine and lost his edginess. LN may have been a dispensationalist, but he was a dispensationalist against war/racism/inequality. The other paradox about him is that his gift for cutting sarcasm and social critique never slipped into cynicism about Jesus. Stanley Grenz used to describe himself as a Pietist with a PhD; LN was a Pietist with a rock band, and there was a sweetness and tenderness about him that was a vital part of his appeal.

  6. unfinished

    I did post a link to your blog entry here, but really didn’t comment on it. I thought I would now (not that you might care ;):

    I think what resonated me with me about what you wrote was your linking of Lewis, Schaeffer and Norman and their showing you a larger world “out there.” Likewise, I was influenced by Lewis and Norman. In college (Messiah College, a Brethren in Christ school), I was acquainted with Schaeffer, but never really read him — although I did skim some of his works. Maybe I need to pick up one of his works again, and this time actually read it. What would you recommend?

    And as for you being cool once, in my book, you’re still cool, if you know who Larry Norman and Randy Stonehill is and can connect him with Schaeffer.

    One more comment: Heidi Renee, I remember Honeytree, Lovesong, Malcolm and Alwyn (sp?) and Barry McGuire, etc. I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I remember them as fondly as I do Norman, but I do remember them. 🙂

  7. John Stackhouse

    The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason are probably the two most important and representative of Schaeffer’s books–with He Is There and He Is Not Silent rounding up a trilogy of sorts.

    My sense is that Schaeffer was more important sociologically as an exemplar, in a very broad sense, than he was intellectually as a particularly acute interpreter of Western intellectual history. That is, Schaeffer demonstrated in his career that it was appropriate for Christians to wrestle with, say, Freud or Nietzsche and to think Big Thoughts about Big Things in the World.

  8. unfinished

    Thanks, Professor Stackhouse. I didn’t see your response until today. I’ll look for those three books. As a graduate of a Christian liberal arts college, I am in wholehearted agreement with you and Schaeffer that it is appropriate (I would say, more than appropriate) for Christians to wrestle with Freud or Nietzsche or the like and to think Big Thoughts About Big Things in the World. Thanks again.

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