Larry Norman: Trapped in Contemporary Christian Music walls he helped create? (Part 2)

Larry Norman: Trapped in Contemporary Christian Music walls he helped create? (Part 2)

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.

Heart of the problem: Why so many men think church is for women (Part II)

Heart of the problem: Why so many men think church is for women (Part II)

Sunday after Sunday, believers stand and sing at the start of worship. Here is the question author Leon Podles wants church leaders to ponder: Which of these two entrance hymns would inspire the most fervor in men?

First, consider these modern lyrics: "I am God of the Earth like a Mother in labor I bring all to birth. With all the Earth we sing your praise! We come to give you thanks, o lover of us all, and giver of our loving. … We are your work of art, the glory of your hand, the children of your loving."

Now for something completely different: "The Son of God goes forth to war, a kingly crown to gain; his blood red banner streams afar: who follows in his train? Who best can drink His cup of woe, triumphant over pain, who patient bears his cross below -- he follows in His train."

Yes, times have changed and the second hymn is rarely heard today. However, Catholic and Protestant churches -- especially in the Western world -- have been struggling with masculinity issues for centuries, noted Podles, in recent lectures at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in Baltimore. In most pews, women now outnumber men by ratios of two or three to one.

"The attitude toward church among the majority of men in Western cultures varies from, 'It's OK for women and children' to general indifference to a hostility that has on occasion led to mass murder," he said, referring to the slaughter of priests and monks during the Spanish Civil War.

"Why are men more distant from Christianity? Men and women are equally fallen, are equally in need of healing grace. Why are men more resistant to the ministrations of the church?"

Speaking to Latin American bishops in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI openly worried that "this kind of distance of indifference by men, which strongly calls into question the style of our conventional ministry, is partly why the separation between faith and culture keeps growing."

A problem with deep roots: Why so many men think church is for women (Part I)

A problem with deep roots: Why so many men think church is for women (Part I)

It was conventional wisdom, in the Middle Ages, that women were more pious than men and that women went to Confession and took Communion during great church feasts "while few men do," as a Dominican priest observed.

Austrian theologian Johann B. Hafen saw this trend in 1843: "During the year who surrounds most frequently and willingly the confessional? The wives and maidens! Who kneels most devoutly before our altars? Again, the female sex!"

Early YMCA leaders found that one out of 20 young men claimed church membership and that 75 percent of men "never attend church" at all. A Church News study in 1902 found that, in Manhattan, the ratio of Catholic women to men was 3 to 1.

What about today? To see what is happening in Catholic sanctuaries worshippers just have look around.

"You may have noticed that in many Catholic churches everyone in the sanctuary except the priest is female and sometimes the masculinity of the priest is doubtful. I remember a 50-year-old priest with a page-boy haircut," observed author Leon J. Podles, speaking at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in downtown Baltimore.

"Most Catholic pastoral ministers in this country and elsewhere are female, so often there is not a male in sight during Communion services. ... There have been recent changes in some countries in the ratio of women to men in the church, but it has not been a result of more men, but fewer women attending."

What is a 'carol' anyway?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Second of two columns on traditional carols.

The story begins with the Empress Helena, who commanded that the relics of the Wise Men of the East be brought to Byzantium.

These three skulls were eventually taken to Milan and, in 1162, to Cologne. According to folk tradition, the relics made their journey from Bethlehem to Cologne in three ships. As minstrels kept singing the songs, the destination changed and so did the identity of the travelers.

The result was a carol: "I saw three ships come sailing in, on Christmas Day on Christmas day. I saw three ships come sailing in, on Christmas Day in the morning." It asked, "And what was in those ships all three?" The answer was the Holy Family, or "Our Savior Christ and his lady." The carol asked, "And where they sailed those ships all three?" The obvious answer: "All they sailed in to Bethlehem."

The logic may escape singers today. But it worked for centuries of carolers in the pageants, processions and parties during Christmas and the 12-day season that followed.

"The true Christmas carol is anonymous, both the text and the tune. A true carol is something like 'I Saw Three Ships' or 'The First Noel.' Many of them are very, very old," said scholar Hugh T. McElrath, author of "The History of Our Christian Faith In Hymns."

"Hymns tend to be more formal and church-centered and from a particular composer in a particular place and time. Carols just spring up among the people and it's common to find many different versions handed down from generation to generation."

The question now is whether centuries of carols can survive modern trends, from the secularization of public holiday music to the contemporary church's hunger for music that constantly changes to mirror pop sales charts.

Christmas carols can be traced to St. Francis of Assisi and his Nativity dramas in 1223. Carols were sung as "intermezzi" between scenes of the "mystery plays" for centuries. The carols became so popular that theater players and members of the audience began processing into the streets, singing and dancing.

After all, noted Erik Routley in his classic book "The English Carol," early definitions of "carol," "carole" or "karolle" define this music as a round dance. "Even if we say that to all general purposes today a carol is a cheerful seasonal song ... we shall never understand its extraordinary history if we forget that it began not as a pious religious gesture but as a dance," he wrote.

When it came time for Christmas festivals, few drew a stark line between sacred and secular. Thus, the home of the true Christmas carol was not in the safety of a church sanctuary, surrounded by marble and pure candlelight. Carols were sung on sidewalks and in the marketplace, in homes and in taverns.

"The dance could be trivial, but the church would spiritualize it," noted Routley. "Feasting could be orgiastic, but the church would balance it with fasting. Joy could be selfish and frantic, but the church would make it sane."

This happened in many cultures, from the festive Christmas carols of Latin America to the rousing Russian "kolyadki," which were shared by carolers who gladly accepted food, drink and coins as they moved from house to house. North American folk music has already yielded classic carols such as "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and "Away in a Manger."

And what about today?

As long as people gather to celebrate Christmas together, they will produce new carols and pass along classics to future generations, said Kenneth W. Osbeck, author of "101 Hymn Stories" and many similar books. There have been hard times for carolers in the past, such as the Puritan era when such public revelry was banned.

If the Christmas season is celebrated with joy, then the carols will survive.

"I can't think of a single carol that has a note of sadness and tragedy to it," said Osbeck. "Maybe there are a few, I don't know. But what unites these simple songs -- from culture to culture and in all settings and times -- is that simple sense of joy in celebrating Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ.

"If people want to share that joy with others, then that's what the carols are for."