I’m guessing many of you, including my Christian followers, have never heard of Larry Norman. He was a Christian musician from the sixties and seventies, the father of Jesus rock, and an influence on both Christian and non-Christian musicians alike.
Throughout his career, Norman struggled with balancing evangelizing and creating true art. He felt like most of Christian music was propaganda, only enjoyable by Christians. Unsurprisingly, he had a rocky relationship with the Christian community- at times they called him a backslider or a Satan-worshiper, and viewed him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, luring the Christian youth away from the Christ.
The biography Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock by Gregory Alan Thornbury captures this struggle extremely well. I would go so far as to say that it’s a must-read for any Christian artist, whether a musician or a writer or any other kind.
Larry Norman was divisive from the start. He was a rock’n’roll artist, and everyone knew that rock was the devil’s music. Even though he sang about Jesus, the Christian community didn’t believe he was legitimate (this inspired the song “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?”).
Even if they got past the genre Norman played, they were shocked at his lyrics. One song, “Be Careful What You Sign,” “begins with the protagonist murdering an innocent victim, and concludes with him committing suicide,” says Thornbury. Another song, “Nightmare #71,” is about how Hollywood controls everything. Many of his songs, like “The Great American Novel,” were political and accused the Church of being unconcerned about the world’s problems. This wasn’t as positive and uplifting as the Christian community would like.
Ironically, a senior music writer from Entertainment Weekly said, “[Norman] really could’ve been a star if he were singing about something other than Jesus.”
The Message of Christianity
Norman was caught between the Christian industry and the secular one. He faced the same questions that every Christian artist has to face. You want to spread the gospel message, right? But if you state it explicitly, who’s going to listen?
As Norman pointed out, non-Christians don’t shop for Christian music. If your music explicitly calls people to Jesus, the only people who’ll listen will be those already in the Christian community. It’ll be preaching to the choir, literally. And if you’re trying to get a message across, is that art, or is it just propaganda?
But if you aren’t clear about your faith, will people hear it at all?
This all brings up another question: should we even be trying to reach a large audience? How much should we bury our message to appeal to more people? Although it may (or may not) seem like a straightforward answer at first, as you start working it becomes less clear, at least for me.
Christianity and Artistry
And just how important is artistry in all this? I wrote about what I think here. But then, Larry Norman tried to prioritize artistry and the Christian industry shunned him for it, embracing mass-produced fluff instead, because it’s ‘encouraging.’
And can you try to get a message across and still have your work be art? Or does it become something else, like a sermon or propaganda?
Most of the bloggers who I follow and who follow me have some sort of answer about how to sort through these issues, which is good. We’re thinking about our message and evaluating our place in bringing it to the world.
But in practice it’s often not as clear-cut as we’d like: is what you’re portraying real life that includes Jesus and the joys of Christianity, or is it veiled propaganda? Are you showing the world as it is and how some questions don’t have clear answers, or are you removing the truth from your work?
Larry Norman never struck a balance that pleased either the secular or the Christian world as a whole. His struggles are shown throughout his biography by Thornbury, which makes it an excellent read for any Christian artist. Even if you don’t know Norman’s music, there’s a lot to get out of his biography.
What do you think about the balance between evangelizing and actually reaching your audience?