Saturday, June 06, 2009

Losing my religion; LN Pt III

A few final thoughts on Larry Norman

Along the way, I lost track of Larry Norman. Several moves disconnected me from his mailing list (which I signed up for that night in Palatine), and the newsletters from Solid Rock stopped coming. His tapes disappeared as the world moved from tape decks, to CD players, and beyond.

In 2001, I made one last attempt to reconcile with the Church. The world, post-9-11 made many of us stop and consider what we were doing, and reflect on what was important. Later, some of us would forget, or disavow the decisions we made out of fear, or confusion.

Mary and I started attending a local church, with a contemporary focus, particularly in its music. The Vineyard fellowships, which ironically got their start back in the mid-1970s from the merge two small Bible studies, one of them meeting in Larry Norman’s home, in Los Angeles, had a congregation nearby. Drawn by the casual style of worship, and the praise music centered around a worship band, we started attending semi-regularly. It wasn’t long before we were encouraged (coerced?) into a small group Bible study.

During this time, I reconnected with Norman’s music via his website. Twenty years is a long time to try to catch up with, but I found out that during much of this period, particularly the past 10 years, Norman had dealt with an array of medical problems that had beset the Christian rock legend, particularly issues with his heart. This prolific songwriter’s output had dropped to a trickle, and he rarely performed live, any longer.

It was sad reading about how this pioneer and spiritual giant was now struggling with his health, and had experienced a couple of life-threatening episodes during this period of time. Compounding the problem, Norman lacked health insurance, which prevented him from receiving adequate healthcare. It was ironic that the man who had penned songs like “The Great American Novel,” lambasting America’s leaders for “starving their children” to go to the moon, was now a victim of that very same systemic abuse, ground down by our failed system of healthcare. Worse, charlatans like Joel Osteen, with his prosperity gospel focused on riches, and James Dobson, who found a way to make Jesus into a pro-war Republican, with his gospel promoting American exceptionalism, lived like kings.

Both Mary and I weren’t long, even for a contemporary style congregation, like the Vineyard. For all its talk about openness, and a new approach to Jesus, it was similar to the fundamentalism I had run from, nearly 20 years prior.

One Sunday morning, the Vineyard pastor, Ralph Grover, stood up and tried to twist scripture, using pretzel logic, advocating for George Bush, Republicanism, and making a case for the war in Iraq being a “just war.”

We both looked at each other as if to say, “we tried,” and we knew that this would be our last Sunday at the Vineyard, and probably at any church.

As I work through this essay on Larry Norman, I realize that his music is one of the last vestiges remaining from my failed spiritual journey, a journey that often brought pain, frustration, and plenty of disappointment. Interestingly, over the past two weeks, as I listened to Norman’s music again, I didn’t find his spirituality grating, like much of what I witness from the church, and particularly, the dark nooks and crannies of right-wing religion.

All of us are flawed human beings. Xians might attribute this to the problem of sin. The psychology community uses dysfunction to characterize human shortcomings. Whatever our lack of perfection, or self actualization might be attributed to, it is evident that none of us measure up, much of the time. While humans can be compassionate, moved to deeds of heroic proportion, they also are capable of depravity, and savage cruelty.

Yet, much of conservative Xianity tries to maintain the veneer of perfection, and leaders that are righteous and holy in ways that commoners are incapable of. That wasn’t the message I heard coming from Larry Norman.

A documentary, Fallen Angel has surfaced that portrays Norman in a less than favorable light. I’ve followed some of the back and forth that’s taken place, including comments made by Norman’s brother, Charles.

None of this changes my thoughts on Norman, his music, and what he stood for during his lifetime. What is does, however, is demonstrate the danger of putting anyone on a pedestal, hoping that their music, their writing, or their advice can usurp individual responsibiliy for our own lives.

The Orange County News ran an article on the film and the ensuing controversy, last October.

It is too bad that Norman wasn't alive to answer the charges that at this point come down to he said, she said, with Larry forever silent, now that he's left this planet.


When Norman passed away in early 2008, the mainstream press lined up to lionize him as "the father of Christian rock." The Christian press did much of the same, even though it virtually ignored everything he ever sang and wrote while he was alive.

Now that Larry's passed on to some other place (he always said his next stop would be Heaven), we'll never know the truth behind the stories that filmmaker David Di Sabitino dredged up about Norman. As I wrote earlier, none of this matters personally to me at this point.

Here's the skinny on Norman for me, in 2009.

He was a prophetic individual, and an immensely talented singer, songwriter, and before his health issues--a powerful preacher, with a personal compassion for fellow human beings.

Norman's outspoken nature, and particularly his willingness to point out the serious flaws endemic in much of American evangelicalism in the 1970s, calling the church back from its embrace of the Nixonian Republicanism of the time, in my opinion, was the major reason why so much abuse got heaped upon the man and his music (as well as his appearance) by the church, and so-called believers in Jesus.

When Norman penned a song like "The Great American Novel," he was condemning America's neglect of its poor, while simultaneously waging war in Vietnam, and racing the Soviets to the moon.

A recent listen to Norman found that song (and surprisingly, most of Norman's catalog I have on hand) sounding as relevant to 2009, as it was, when released back in 1974. Thirty-five years have done little to chance the corruption of politicians, or changed their focus on things that do little to help the day-to-day lives of most Americans.

The church, on the other hand, still hasn't heeded Jesus' call to "feed the poor," nor has it moved away from embracing right-wing values, at least in significant portions of its evangelical quadrant.

The focus of our military has changed, however. We no longer find our enemies living in Vietnam, and the surrounding jungles of that region. Now, our enemies are Islamic, and living in caves in the Middle East (at least according to men named Beck and Limbaugh, who have the approval of many Xian leaders, continuing to beat the drums of war in 2009, just like they did in 1974).

Space, the final frontier, doesn't warrant the attention that it did 30 years ago, although Reagan and some of his acolytes still think a space shield would be a groovy thing.

No, today's politicians regard perpetual tax cuts to the wealthiest among us as more important than universal healthcare. In fact, for most conservative Xians, the policies of conservative politicians trump the teaching of Jesus, every time.

Our current president, flawed in his own unique way, claims to be a follower of Jesus. Like Norman before him, he faces attacks from the very same church, mainly because his values don't meet the purview of the zealots on the right end of the political (and religious) spectrum. Some go so far as advocating murder, in the name of preserving human life.

As a musician from San Francisco once sang, "What a long strange trip its been," and I'd echo, continues to be.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your pieces on Larry Norman, especially the one in which you met Mr. Norman, are thoughtful and well-written. I don't follow a lot of contempo-Xian music (as the devil does seem to have most of the best music, to somewhat paraphrase LN), but appreciated reading of your personal experience with this giant of the mileau.

It's rather sad that your Pearl Jam piece, with it's provocative title, brings more commentary than your work on LN. Ah well, to quote one of your fans "It's all good. Don't be bitter."

I'm sorry to read of your dog, too. In my daily travels, sometimes the only smile I get is from a dog.