You’ve Been Left Behind: Remembering the Larry Norman Song

You’ve Been Left Behind: Remembering the Larry Norman Song March 24, 2018

Satan Rules! It is on a record if you play it backwards!

We used to laugh about these people while in Bible College, because they were fading fast. Now I discover that my present students have heard the stories of the censorious prigs, the Church ladies opposed to  Tolkien and Larry Norman, so often that they think most of my generation joined them.

No.

The ex-effect is in effect.

Nothing seems more certain than the stories of the used-to-be. “When I was an atheist . . .”or “Here is a goof-ball thing those Catholic nuns said when I was in school . . .”or “As an Evangelical, I could not even watch. . .” These may be anecdotal, but anecodotes are the new research for those who confuse a Tweet for an argument, an argument for a book, and a book with a corpus of thought. The happy soul who had better experiences rarely repeats them, because they have moved on.

Ex-somethings are an entire genre of contemporary writing, every group has them, and should pay less attention to them than they do. Ex-somethings often end up having almost no other serious credential for anything they say than past experience retold and retailed endlessly. (“And then my x, did y, so I still feel z and this explains nearly everything else happening now.”). Of course, testimony is a very Evangelical thing to do, giving personality and feeling to an ideology, so it has a place.

“This is how it was for me” is powerful and needed. After all, collect enough anecdotes and it becomes evidence! The difficulty arises when most media power is in retailing one type of story and ignoring the other. Growing up a happy “x” while remaining “x” is not news.

I started thinking about this based on reading reactions to an excellent biography and cultural analysis written about the work of rock musician Larry Norman by The King’s College chancellor Greg Thornbury.

This is a book by a man smart enough to become an Ex, but too wise to do so.

Thornbury proves that even so talented a musician as Larry Norman was told not to make his art if his art included religion. The media establishment was intent on secularization and Norman said “no.” He fought that battle all his life. He failed and many white Christians used his failure as an excuse to do badly, but millions did not.

We get two stereotypes of serious Christians: censorious and prudish (Rock is of Satan!) or utterly captive to Team America, world policeman. Sometimes these are combined in massive hypocrisy (“Rock is of Satan, but my GOP leader is Cyrus/David/Nebuchadnezzar!). These people exist. There is a reason for the stereotypes, but they are not the whole story.

They may not even have been the majority story until very recently. Recall: when a group is ridiculed and stereotyped in one way long enough, they often embrace the negative stereotype and damn the consequences. If you are going to be called an idiot or anti-intellectual no matter what you do, then you might (though you should not) simply embrace the criticism and use it as a weapon. (“Darn straight I am dumb, to heck with your college-kid ways, but dumb people like I am vote.”)

The life of Larry Norman should disabuse everyone that these stereotypes explain our history. Norman attracted critics: the Swaggerts who rebuked him as a tool of Satan, but millions of Christians suspected Swaggert from the get-go.

Here is an anecdote:  A relative of mine heard Swaggert ask something along the lines of: “Who could pastor Jimmy Swaggert?”and knew Big Trouble was coming. Millions more Christians were embarrassed by his act than ever sent Swaggert money. Meanwhile, Norman was followed by millions and his arguments about art and culture ultimately prevailed. The failure of the Jesus Movement  was in the execution, not the commitment to music!

All forms of music now have a place in most Christian communities, while the censorious Swaggerts are marginalized. Jack Chick is dead and millions of Christians go to Marvel films not because they are secularists, but because they are reasonable about art just as their parents were: open to new ideas and art forms where they do not have to agree with everything.

My parents heard the “new” music, thought about it, and came to embrace it.  My folks didn’t like features of some secular movies, but embraced other aspects that were good. When it came to music, folk like Larry Norman pointed to an even better way.

People like my parents did not compromise their morals in broadening their musical palates, because artists like Larry Norman were not compromising. Traditional Christians decided the message was the message and the medium was not the message: this may be wrong (though I think not), but it was not obviously wrong!

Let’s take what my kids call “woofing” or the Rapture as an example of an idea prominent at the time. My kids called it “woofing,” because we all enjoyed watching “rapture” films where the sound  “woof” was the sound effect used for the air rushing into the space that once contained bodies. We had a laugh at cheesy movies together as I did when they were made. Sometimes we discussed them and how disturbing they were. Other times we found some good in them and learned a thing or two and moved on.

I have heard endless stories of people frightened out of their wits by the notion that “they had been left behind.” If you read or watch pop renditions about the period, we were all huddled over a Hal Lindsey book fearing the End of Days. Nonsense. The author of The Late Great Planet Earth certainly sold many, many books, but plenty of his readers decided he was wrong. My Dad, for example, heard all that stuff and like his West Virginia circuit riding grandfather never thought the rapture was the right way of understanding the Bible. He never believed in woofing and neither did millions more.

We did know that Jesus could come again at any time. I still try to live in light of that fact. One thing is certain: fifty years from now, Jesus will have returned for me. I will be not so much woofed as dead. There will be no time to change my mind, the Son will have come, and God help me, I hope not to be left behind!

When we left a meeting to find 88 Reasons Jesus Will Come in 1988 on our windshield, we sighed. “Date setting? Not this crap again. . .” Mom might tell us not to say “crap,” but she agreed with the sentiment. I got so tired of going to lectures about how we should appreciate art that I began to beg speakers (see Schaeffer, Franky) to just go make some art.

In short, some people thought records played backwards gave you Satanic stuff, but most of us looked into it and said: “Wow. That’s dumb.” A few people thought a guy named “Alberto” was a former Jesuit spilling the secrets of the Order, but more of us talked to a priest or a Catholic friend and thought: “Sigh.”

That’s not to minimize the problems, but to point to a better explanation for them than the Ex’s have given us. As Thornbury demonstrates, things did end less promisingly than they should have. The Norman set, the Jesus People, the Charismatic Movement project went awry, but not all of it did and only slowly.

Why? The secular establishment hated the emphasis on personal holiness, hard to practice, but the ideal. Secularism mocked our hesitation over Woody Allen and our opposition to Hefner.  The American white church hated all the talk of social justice and attacks on racism. This had to stop! Secularists kept trying to send us to the religious slums to peddle our product to ourselves. American racists, hiding their KKK sheets under polyester suits with American flag lapel pins, attacked the Jesus People for challenges to institutional racism.

Millions kept trying to keep the Norman program in one piece: social justice, personal holiness, and a relationship with Jesus. To take the most superficial measure, not every white Evangelical voted for Trump in 2016 and many a Schaeffer trained thinker did not just because of what they learned from the movement. Others may have been wrong in their reasoning that allowed them to vote Trump (Secretary Clinton was a bigger threat to the Republic), but that was not as obvious at the time as her partisans claimed.

Larry Norman demonstrated a deep truth of Christianity: any beauty is God’s beauty. The devil cannot have any of the good music. Norman won that argument in his community not because Christians secularized, but because in a revival the truth prevailed. Creator God is not afraid and we left fear behind.

When we heard him sing You’ve Been Left Behind,  we considered “woofing” and many of us agreed that if the Woof was coming, we wanted goodness, truth, and beauty with Jesus. Many of us, however, we’re not sure woofing was Biblical just like most Christians who have ever lived, but we loved the song. Why? It is a symbolic of the way of cultures; corruption that ends with the decadent being “left behind.”

Truth . . . And nobody wishes to be left behind in that way.

Greg Thornbury raises all these issues and much more in his fine book. Read it or get left behind in the discussion that boils around this fine book!

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I have done three posts on this book. The first is a more general review, the second is a brief reflection on race and racism and the Larry Norman moment, and the third is one on the demons of rock and roll, the rapture, and other weird stuff.


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