By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK – He was dubbed the “Father of Christian Rock,” but his influence and even his fan base was often more among secular musicians and music-lovers than his own tribe. But, for Larry Norman, Jesus was the most counter-cultural subject of all, and that’s what he wanted to write and sing about.
In his new biography of Norman, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” Gregory Alan Thornbury chronicles the life of one of the seminal figures of “the Jesus movement.”
The Jesus Movement was an evangelical-led initiative that swept through North America and Europe in the 1970s and 1980s with a strong emphasis on the early Christian Church, often marked by radical and counter-cultural ways of living.
Despite first making a name for himself in the world of mainstream music – Paul McCartney reportedly once told him: “I really love your music, but you’ve got to shut up about Jesus. You could be a big star if you stopped talking about religion” – Norman found his home and his identity in Christianity, though it was often an uneasy fit.
In an interview with The Tablet, Thornbury talks about the surprising, and largely untold, influence of Catholicism on Norman.
You write that institutional Christianity was Norman’s “Moby Dick.” What, then, did he make of Catholicism?
Thornbury: Norman’s primary target was Protestant evangelicalism, because that was his tradition. He didn’t really talk much about Roman Catholicism per se, with the exception of a few concert references here or there, and one lyric about the Vatican late in his career (e.g. “if they really want to help the poor they should sell some of their gold”).
During the height of the Jesus Movement, Larry would mention in concert that there was the perception that post Vatican II, the Church was “changing some of the rules” which threw average people off base. He took this as an opportunity to say that a personal and direct experience with Jesus could be a way past the maze of traditions and positions.
Despite keeping the Church at arm’s length during this heady time in his career, Larry ironically turned out to be the object of quite a bit of anti-Catholic bigotry. Certain fundamentalist pastors thought he was a Catholic spy sent into the camp of their youth to undermine their pastoral authority. One of Larry’s concert posters during the era was defaced with the slur “Jesuit lackey” for instance, among others.
In retrospect, Larry’s earliest assessments of the Catholic Church were incredibly naive. But, almost all of Larry’s intellectual heroes and favorite writers were Catholics: Graham Greene, Malcolm Muggeridge, William F. Buckley, Jr., and, of course, G. K. Chesterton. I think that tells us quite a bit about his private views on Catholicism – he knew that they produced the better writers and thinkers.
Norman spent a lot of time in the U.K. becoming friends with the noted Catholic convert Malcolm Muggeridge. He was fascinated by Muggeridge’s conversion but kept his interest private. Why do you believe this was the case?
He talked quite a bit actually about his love for Malcolm and Kitty Muggeridge. When asked who his “favorite singer” was in interviews, Larry would always reply: Muggeridge – a joke for certain, but he actually meant it because Muggeridge’s prose was so lyrical.
I think the reason why Larry didn’t talk much about the Catholic nature of Muggeridge’s conversion owed much to the fact that Muggeridge was so ecumenical. Not many people remember Muggeridge’s leadership role in the National Festival of Light in the U.K. in 1971, but it was an attempt to bring Christians from every denominational tradition together to protest the amount of sexually explicit and violent material that was allowed into the mass media. At the Festival of Light, Muggeridge made the “One Way Sign” along with thousands of others, including the pop star Cliff Richard and actress Dora Bryan.
So from the very early going, I think Larry saw Muggeridge as being a fellow traveler in the Jesus Movement rather than being a “Catholic convert.” I think it was only later on, when Norman saw Muggeridge’s brilliant performance at a debate with an atheist in L.A., that it began to dawn on him that there was something distinctive about the Catholic intellectual and moral imagination that was quite different from the other evangelical apologists and evangelists with whom he was familiar.
Larry always wanted to go spend a few months visiting and studying with Muggeridge, but it never materialized. Who knows? Larry might have converted himself had that ever happened!
You reference his love for G.K. Chesterton several times in the book. How did this interest begin and how did it shape him? Norman believed that Chesterton was a greater figure than C.S. Lewis. How so?
It shaped Norman enormously. Like so many others, Larry got turned on to Chesterton through Orthodoxy. But, he quickly consumed other books of collected essays and the Father Brown mysteries. His personal library of Muggeridge and Chesterton volumes was quite extensive. And when his first marriage tragically ended in divorce, he made reading Chesterton a barometer for any future marriageable prospects.
Chesterton appealed to Larry for several reasons. First, Chesterton was a self-made man who went to college, not art school. He had the perspective of an artist, which Larry considered to be an advantage when speaking to non-Christian audiences about the faith. Further, Chesterton perfectly balanced deadly seriousness with an incredible sense of humor. That combination kept readers off balance, and Larry deployed this technique throughout his performing career. I think he understood that these distinctions had something to do with Chesterton’s Catholicism.
Lastly, Larry has a legacy with Chesterton. He introduced his then young brother-in-law Dale Ahlquist to Chesterton, and the rest is history. Dale later converted to Catholicism and founded the American Chesterton society. He’s spoken about Larry’s influence on his early intellectual pilgrimage.
Regarding the comparison with Lewis, I think that Larry saw Chesterton as being more direct in his appeal – more a man of the people. Larry took his guitar out onto the streets of Hollywood to sing and witness to the people at the margins of society at the dawn of the Jesus Movement. He wrote a weekly column for the Hollywood Free Paper and sought to engage the zeitgeist in both an intellectual and yet accessible way.
Chesterton was his role model in this respect: he was a journalist who used his wit and writing prowess to pack a punch in a short-read format. When you think about it, that is not unlike a pop song which has to make an artistic statement in 3-5 minutes. It was that combination that interested Larry: the truth must be pithy, poignant and trenchant. That was Chesterton. Lewis, who was an academic, lacked those qualities in Larry’s mind.
Norman championed the idea that one could be spiritual, but not religious. What would he make of the sacraments?
I think that Larry’s crusade against “religion” was directed mostly at the fundamentalist pastors with whom he grew up, and who so assiduously opposed him. And with that, I think, came a subtle critique of the pastor’s interpretation of the Bible as the exclusive focus in a Protestant evangelical church.
Given the non-sacramental quality of baptism and the Eucharist in most Baptist and Pentecostal churches with which Larry was familiar, what he saw that really mattered is the authority of preacher to interpret the Bible for you. That extended from everything from doctrine to whether or not your preacher thought that the flatted third in the pentatonic blues scale was “the Devil’s interval” to the length of people’s hair and their choice of clothing.
Larry, of course, wanted to break up that particular monopoly. He radicalized Luther’s view on the priesthood of the believer to the point of erasure of tradition altogether. All that remains is the believer with his/her Bible.
I don’t think anyone ever really challenged Larry’s beliefs with a sacramental view of reality. In my research, I never found anyone who directly presented the notion that the sacraments change you or conform you to the image of Christ, not the clever interpretations or charismatic personality of a pastor that appeal to “the Bible alone.”
He also would have likely never thought of the universal Church as a pilgrim family making its way through history, which is, of course, a very different way of thinking about Church hierarchy. I think he would have been interested in that approach, especially based upon his appreciation of Chesterton.
You could say that Norman was one of the earliest critics of evangelicalism, being wary of its close conservative political affiliations. What do you think he would make of our present era when many prominent evangelical leaders are distancing themselves from the label?
He would have welcomed the development if he thought that it led these leaders to refocus their priorities on things that Jesus actually cared about: reaching people that the Church has traditionally shunned with the good news, feeding the poor, and speaking truth to power.
Larry didn’t care about labels very much, nor did he spare his criticism for earthly Kingdoms that make money off of the name of Jesus. He was puzzled by the extravagant church buildings that were built that went empty after a charismatic preacher either died or fell from grace.
Still, Larry would have saluted any declaration of independence of Christian leadership from “close . . . political affiliations” of any kind, since the message of Jesus is both timeless and critical of any political order that falls short of the ideals of the Kingdom of God. After all, Larry wrote a song which gave Jesus the moniker: “The Outlaw.”
That is where he thought Christianity was at its best – being well beyond the safely guarded borders of cozy relationships with the zeitgeist. Proximity to political power has a way of muting the prophetic voice of Jesus of Nazareth.
As Chuck Colson once said of evangelical leaders cueing up to have the ear of POTUS: “The lions of the waiting room become the lambs of the Oval Office.”
Given his wariness of institutional Church efforts, what do you think he would have made of efforts to bring Evangelicals and Catholics together?
Well, the Jesus Movement was an interdenominational effort, so I think he would have been sanguine about the effort(s) of unity in general. Nonetheless, I think Larry in general was rather wary of written statements if it was perceived as a substitute for concrete acts of justice and service to the poor. I think he would have looked at groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor and Sisters of Life, and pointed out that this is the sort of work that best brings followers of Jesus together.
Even though he was one of the perceived leaders of the Jesus Movement in the 1970s, Larry distanced himself from the whole enterprise once he perceived that it had become commercialized – that people were making money off of the “brand” of Jesus. So your question is apt: once something got institutionalized, Larry cast a suspicious eye toward it.
Still, he did support certain leaders and would endorse their projects. I know that Larry was fond of the biographical background and writings of Father Richard John Neuhaus, although I never knew him to comment specifically on Evangelicals and Catholics Together as an endeavor for Christian public witness.