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.