Provoking radical fidelity

Why Should the Devil have all the Good Music?
Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock
Author: Gregory Alan Thornbury
Publisher: Convergent Books
Pages: 292

Imagine being given unlimited access to the papers and archives of an artist that you have listened to for many years. One of the fascinations of Why should the Devil Have All the Good Music? is what Gregory Alan Thornbury chooses to include. So much could be said! Then there is the challenge of what to make of it. The peaks! The valleys!

After watching the documentary Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman, where Norman gets “shot down,” I was crestfallen. Even here, the reminders of indiscretions resurrected those dark feelings that like ghosts haunt me once again. Nevertheless, I am thankful to get an alternative view to Norman’s life, one that feels more balanced.

If that is not reason enough to read this, the writing is superb; the thought incisive. The Norman estate made the right choice in opening the vault to this author. So much of the history of Jesus Music is here, which makes this essential reading for any interested in the intersection of faith and rock. It’s utterly fascinating.

Even though some of Norman’s dreams and visions were never fully realized, it’s a pleasure to behold his more noble ambitions. If as some say, God gives credit for right aspirations, Norman must have gained commendation. Despite the ways that he fell short, as we all do, his goals pointed him toward praiseworthy ends. It’s something that I needed to see in light of Fallen Angel.

In Another Land was my introduction to Norman’s recordings. By the time that I made my way to So Long Ago the Garden, I was still new to the Christian faith, having more zeal than knowledge. After the straightforwardness of Another Land, I was perplexed by Garden. Why so few overt Christian references? Reading about the background and aftermath of this release enables me to see that Norman was badly misunderstood and judged. It make me think of the quotation on the back of the dust jacket, “I was both happy and unhappy to have Larry Norman’s earthly arc fully explained. How the hell did he survive all that?” (Black Francis, songwriter and lead singer of Pixies). I am grateful for the explanations, but sorry that I was among those who questioned Norman’s judgment on this controversial release.

An insight from Norman sheds light on what is a long time coming among Christians:

Music is a powerful language, but most Christian music is not art. . . . It never relies on—in fact it seems to be ignorant of—allegory, symbolism, metaphor, inner-rhyme, play-on-word, surrealism, and many of the other poetry born elements of music that have made it the highly celebrated art form it has become (98-99).

As a new Christian, uneducated about the world of art, I had no concept of the elements described by Norman. Fortunately, over the years there has been more instruction on theology and the arts. Otherwise, like the proclamation of the gospel, how can we know unless someone tells us?

This book does not try to reconcile the contradictions—something only God can do. It’s aim, like Norman’s ministry, is to provoke an encounter leading to radical obedience. Curiosity, superficial engagement and maintaining the status quo are insufficient. Norman was aiming at an authentic following of Jesus.

Perhaps Norman’s life is a reminder that we dare not miss this pursuit. What we get right or wrong is of little consequence in comparison. The world needs to see more of Jesus in the life of his followers.

I think Norman will be pleased if the totality of his life inspires toward this end. So if you read this book and/or listen to Norman’s recordings, think about what it means for Jesus to be the way, the truth and the life.

Michael Dalton