Editor's Note: Second of two columns about Larry Norman and "Christian" rock.
When Larry Norman died in 2008 there was one thing the critics -- secular and religious -- agreed on: The controversial singer and music maven helped create the "Contemporary Christian Music" industry.
For Norman, that was not good news.
"In China, if you become a Christian, you may be imprisoned," said Norman, offering a cynical aside during his last concert, in New York City. Seven months later, his fragile heart failed one last time.
"In India, your parents may disown you. In the Middle East, they might execute you. But in America, if you become a Christian, you just have a broader selection of Christian CDs to choose from."
Norman lived to see the fiery folk-rock style he pioneered in the early 1970s -- part "Jesus Movement" evangelism, part social-justice sermons -- evolve into a suburb-friendly genre in which "Christian" was attached to safe versions of old fads in mainstream music.
The album Norman considered his bravest -- "So Long Ago the Garden" -- infuriated many "CCM" consumers because of its symbolic, mysterious language. Then there was the semi-nude, Edenic cover image of the singer.
While writing his Norman biography, "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music," philosopher Gregory Alan Thornbury dug into the singer's papers and found an impassioned defense of that album, in a letter to angry fans.
"All of the songs I write are Christian songs, because I am a Christian," wrote Norman. "Is a man any less a Christian because he is a car mechanic instead of an evangelist? … Some people are so conditioned that if a song doesn't have some religious clues like 'blood of the lamb' or 'the cross,' they are unsure of its spiritual qualification."
Part of the problem, said Thornbury, is that Norman had "a glorious way of speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He never wavered from his desire to write Jesus songs. …Yet at the same time, he was constantly blasting Christian music people about making music that was propaganda -- with no art, or poetry, or mystery at all. …
"Larry thought you could be very, very clear on Jesus and the Gospel and, at the same time, go way out there on the edge in terms of art."
Alas, it was hard to be a commercial, secular success while doing both those things. The same thing was true in CCM circles.
This is a topic -- battles to define "Christian" art, film and literature -- that I have been writing about since the late 1970s. In my own book, "Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture," I concluded that gatekeepers and consumers in the marketplace use six definitions. Thus, "Christian" music is:
(1) Hymns -- period.
(2) Any style of music considered appropriate for use in worship services.
(3) Openly Christian music in all genres -- except rock 'n' roll.
(4) Any music -- even hip-hop or heavy metal -- built on evangelistic lyrics.
(5) Music with sufficient "God-talk" (CCM's "Jesus-per-minute rule").
(6) Music made by Christians that expresses their Christian worldview.
Norman fit in several camps. He wrote folk music that people sang in church, as well as raging guitar-rock that bashed trends in modern church life, said Thornbury. He attacked some of the niches his own art helped create.
Early in his career, Norman sang in a mainstream band called "People!" that shared concert bills with major rock acts, including Janis Joplin. Watching the haunted blues singer from off-stage, Norman wrote a song that was openly evangelistic, yet too blunt to perform in any church -- unless the pews contained doomed rockers.
Some key lines: "Sipping whiskey from a paper cup, you drown your sorrows 'til you can't stand up. Take a look at what you've done to yourself, why don't you put the bottle back on the shelf. … Shooting junk 'til you're half insane, broken needle in your purple vein. … Why don't you look into Jesus? He's got the answer."
This was not a sing-along song for youth-group campfires.
"There's no way around Jesus in that song and that's how Larry Norman wanted it," said Thornbury. "But that's a song he wrote to Janis Joplin. He's the only person who could have said that to her, because he was the only Christian there. That shaped his music."