Tuesday, 24 September 2013

More Lives of Jesus 8.5: Larry Norman

As I've been reading Reza Aslan over the last couple of weeks, Larry Norman's 'The Outlaw' has been going round and round in my head. 

Larry Norman is definitely not a Jesus scholar, nor a scholar of any kind.  He is a singer and songwriter, a pioneer of gospel rock and one of the more interesting characters to grace the Christian music scene.  'The Outlaw' is one of the pithiest summaries of the debate about Jesus I've ever heard, five short stanzas which say more, and are much easier to understand, than many of the thousand learned tomes written on the subject.  The song first appeared on Norman's 1972 album Only Visiting this Planet.  Here's a suitably antique recording.

Some say he was an outlaw, that he roamed across the land,
With a band of unschooled ruffians and few young fishermen,
No one knew just where he came from, or exactly what he'd done,
But they said it must be something bad that kept him on the run.

Some say he was a poet, that he'd stand upon the hill
That his voice could calm an angry crowd and make the waves stand still,
That he spoke in many parables that few could understand,
But the people sat for hours just to listen to this man.

Some say he was a sorcerer, a man of mystery,
He could walk upon the water, he could make a blind man see,
That he conjured wine at weddings and did tricks with fish and bread,
That he talked of being born again and raised people from the dead.

Some say a politician who spoke of being free,
He was followed by the masses on the shores of Galilee,
He spoke out against corruption and he bowed to no decree,
And they feared his strength and power so they nailed him to a tree.

Some say he was the Son of God, a man above all men,
That he came to be a servant and to set us free from sin,
And that's who I believe he is cause that's what I believe,
And I think we should get ready cause it's time for us to leave.

For me, as for many people my age, Larry Norman was my introduction to Christian counter-culture.  He is often credited as the founder of gospel rock, although that begs the question about the place of African-American music in history.  Still, he was certainly the person who brought the aesthetic of early 70's rock music into gospel, and he inspired a generation of wannabe gospel musicians with a vision for Christian music that went beyond hymns and Evie Tornquist.

Norman didn't have an easy ride.  He was denounced from pulpits around the US.  He played the music of Satan.  He was a bad influence, the first step on a slippery slope that would lead young people to drugs, orgies and bad haircuts.  His long blonde hair, his strange clothing, his outspoken views and scorn for the traditional church all made him a big target.  He was clever enough to reply in kind with a song called 'Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?'.

Of course you didn't have to be too radical to draw the ire of some parts of the American church, in the 1970s or now.  Norman's music sounds pretty tame to 21st century ears.  Even Noel Paul Stookey of Peter Paul and Mary fame, noted nice guy and creator of laid-back folk gospel, had his 1979 record Band and Bodyworks banned from Christian bookstores because the cover showed him dancing. 

Still it has to be said that Norman contributed to his own problems.  His decidedly difficult personality, refusal to compromise, odd eschatological ideas and occasional lifestyle lapses tested the patience of his friends, never mind his enemies.  These days former friends seem to be lining up to spill the beans.

Then again, "let he who is without sin" and all that.  Norman was the cleverest, most creative and most daring Christian songwriter of his generation and we loved him.  He brought life to a scene where so much of the music was simply boring.  He could be hilariously funny, he encouraged his guitarists to turn up their Strats on the rocky numbers, and the slow acoustic pieces were clever, vivid and thought-provoking.  Every church youth group featured some modestly talented singer and guitarist like me who had memorised 'The Outlaw' - all three chords of it - and would play it at the drop of a hat.

Norman is laying out a series of options and asking his listeners to make a choice.  However, even as a young crooner plonking away on my acoustic guitar I remember thinking to myself that perhaps these were not alternatives at all.   It seems to me that if the gospels are to be taken at all seriously (as even Reza Aslan thinks they should) each stanza of his song contains an aspect of the truth.  Jesus certainly was an outlaw and his message was clearly political.  His parables, sermons and aphorisms may not be poetry in the strictest sense, but they are certainly brilliantly crafted spoken word pieces.  As Aslan points out, his reputation as a wonder-worker is the best attested historical fact about him. 

If when we get to the last verse we find we can accept its proposition too, then we have to go back to the other four and wrestle with the meaning of each in order to make ourselves ready for whatever kind of departure is in store for us.  If not, the other four continue to hold endless fascination and no shortage of challenges for the world to absorb, and no matter what we will all have to leave sooner or later.

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