For my inaugural post at Patheos, I am proud to present a conversation I had with Dr. Gregory Thornbury, author of hot new Larry Norman biography Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Tracing the curious rise and fall of Christian rock’s most enigmatic and contradictory figure, it offers an intriguing look at the culture wars, the perils of the music business, and the fraught history of a still-divided nation.
This interview was first published in highly abridged form at The Stream. We now bring you the full and unabridged version, with all questions cut for time, nerdy digressions and obscure philosophical references restored! Since we had this conversation, other reviews of the book have appeared that I commend to readers who have yet to pick it up, including a take from Norman’s ex-brother-in-law and Chesterton Society founder Dale Ahlquist and a thoughtful take at The Gospel Coalition from Russell Moore.
My thanks to Dr. Thornbury for being a gracious and entertaining conversation partner!
Q: You’ve done biographical work with a musical emphasis before, but this is your first full biography. Why Norman? Why now?
A: I didn’t set out to write a biography on Larry Norman. But several years ago, I was invited to speak at a Jesus Movement exhibition focusing on the life of Larry Norman at Fuller Theological Seminary. Larry’s brother Charles was there, along with Dizzy Reed from Guns’n’Roses. Larry’s mother Margaret watched on Skype, from her home in Salem, Oregon. Everyone at Fuller who had worked on the Jesus Movement archive was pleased with the event and with my paper. Afterwards, Charles said, “You know, my brother kept everything.” I replied, “What do you mean by everything?” I was invited to come take a look, and I was blown away. Hundreds of boxes of multi-party correspondence, tapes of phone calls, handwritten diaries, journals, photos, studio record logs, films, passports, plane tickets, artifacts, and far more – all of the documentation behind his incredible life and copious detail on all of the controversies in his life. I felt transported back into the late 60’s and early 70’s – it was all here. I wouldn’t have to rely on memories that were forty or fifty years old to do this. It was a biographer’s both dream and nightmare. I cannot even describe what a gargantuan undertaking a brand new biography of discovery is – one without any formal precedent.
Several years ago, I was lucky enough to have dinner with Peter Guralnick, biographer of Elvis (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love), and I told him who Larry was, and what kind of treasure trove the archives were. He said, “This is what I discovered at Graceland.” Shockingly, no one had gone through a lot of Elvis’ personal things – trunks filled with stuff. He said, “Larry Norman sounds a lot like Elvis. You ought to do it.”
Why Larry Norman and why now? Well, it’s been ten years since he passed, and his story was just so colorful, and in a way, he is a catalyzing figure at the heart of modern evangelicalism. He was sui generis – standing in between both the secular rock world and the world of Christian culture – and both sides variously being puzzled, perplexed, or downright angry with what he was doing. He called into question cultural and theological orthodoxies of both camps. The result was the soundtrack for the Jesus movement (a genuine national phenomenon, a billion dollar music sub-genre industry, and a prelude to the culture wars between faith and politics. He was being advised by Billy Graham and Francis Schaeffer, and both visited and corresponded warmly with Malcolm Muggeridge. He was both left wing and right wing. He didn’t just use buzzwords like “cultural engagement.” He was in the culture, in Hollywood, and being a voice to both the Church and the world about the prophetic witness of Jesus of Nazareth.
It was a compelling, inspirational, and really twisty story. I couldn’t think of anyone close to being like him in recent Christian history. And he was an American original. Larry blazed a trail by walking a tight rope tied high between two worlds: a secular rock music business that had little interest in Jesus or religion and a Western church filled with pastors and leaders who thought that Rock and Roll really was Satanic. Young people today don’t remember a time when their parents and church officials told them their souls were in mortal peril if they didn’t bring their Beatles and Led Zeppelin albums to bonfires to be burned. Larry came crashing into all of that and stood athwart to worlds and said, “You’re all wrong. Rock and Roll came from the black church and it’s time to confront racism and steal it back.”
Also, Larry Norman was really good. His records hold up today. Isaac Brock (the lead singer / songwriter from Modest Mouse) was blown over when he heard his first Larry Norman record. I was listening in on the phone call when he told Larry’s brother Charles: “I’m not into the religious thing, but man, your brother was a **expletive** hot songwriter.” He had the talent to be recognized by the entertainment industry and the Hollywood set. People don’t just get offered multiple serial contracts from major record labels like Capitol, Elektra, MGM/Verve, Polydor, ABC, etc. He was working with Herb Hendler at Capitol – one of the great talent developers and producers of the twentieth century. He played on bills with the biggest acts of his time: The Who, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and the doors. He jammed all night at the Ark Club in Sausilito, California with Skip Spence from Moby Grape, Neil Young and Stephen Stills from Buffalo Springfield. What other Christians were even close to being on and inside this scene during the nation’s convulsive cultural and secular revolution? Larry Norman stood alone in that respect.
Larry inspired other artists and his fans. His life was so weird and wonderful, it caused tremendous jealousy, intrigue, and curiosity from anyone who met him. Black Francis (Pixies) started writing music partly because he wanted to be Larry Norman when he grew up. Bono and U2 loved Larry and bands that he helped to introduce to the world like Daniel Amos. In sum, I felt like all of the messy beauty of Larry’s life is needed in the world right now – especially among Christians – because there’s a lot of self-righteousness in the world and Norman’s life just forces a certain amount of introspection about what we’re really doing with our lives. This biography is psychological in nature. I hope it forces people not just to scrutinize Larry’s life, but ideally their own.
Q: “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” was a question disguised as a game-changing statement: All music was God’s music. Decades later, we sing along loudly and cringe at old fundamentalist screeds about houseplants, back-masking, and the rest. Yet, in its day, rock and roll was more than a beat. It was a lifestyle. Can music ever be wholly untangled from its cultural connotations?
A: Nothing can be separated from its cultural connotations. The dictum “engage culture” is really a misunderstanding. Culture isn’t something “over there” in the next county that Christians are somehow really piously separated from – unless we are actually and formally ascetics or in a radical Mennonite or Amish community. We are all swimming in culture – politically, musically, artistically, and otherwise. As my friend David Dark says, everything is an extension of religious affections. As he beautifully inverted Senator Diane Feinstein’s put-down of Amy Barrett – the Roman Catholic nominee for the Federal courts: “The dogma lives loudly in all of us.” So let’s stop kidding ourselves and the pretenses we keep in the Christian world – that somehow any of us aren’t constantly caught in a “Viper’s Tangle” of culture as Francois Mauriac once put it.
What I find compelling about the Larry is that he is what Heidegger called “Geworfenheit” – he is thrown into a very chaotic, cultural revolution with only his wits and his Bible – doing his best to follow Jesus. “Geworfenheit” also means the experiencing of fallenness. I think Larry’s story takes us there in a very unique way.
Q: You’ve called Norman “the forerunner of the current generation’s attitude toward religion.” Is this good or bad, or just a fact?
A: Just a fact, and also both good and bad. Larry questioned and challenged church authorities – for good cause. Back when he was on the streets walking his beat on Hollywood witnessing to people about Jesus, he didn’t spot too many clerics interested in what polite Christians at the time thought were “untouchables”: kids tripping on drugs, prostitutes, dealers, and all manner of lost souls. He saw the institutional Church at the time as falling behind reaching a generation who was being swept up in the counterculture of the Sixties and Seventies. And so he was definitely “a wild boar in Christ’s Vineyard,” as Pope Leo X said of Luther.
When John Lennon said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, he meant it as a lament. Church leaders condemned Lennon, but in just a couple of years, thanks to the work of pioneers like Chuck Smith, Arthur Blessitt, and other Jesus Movement leaders, Larry could sing in Reader’s Digest, “Dear John: Who’s more popular now?” And many of those Jesus Movement young people went on to be leaders in local churches and national ministries. That’s the irony of it. So you have to take the long view on these things.
I work with young people, and I see the cynicism. They’re wise to all of the money that pours into the ministries of professional God talkers, of all theological stripes. They’re saddened by the lack of “skin in the game” by Church leaders, as Nassim Taleb calls it, with the coming generation. They wonder why the leading theologians aren’t talking more about police violence, gun violence, the income gap and other issues they care about. I’m not saying these things are straightforward matters. They’re not. But when Larry recited that line in “First Time in Church,” about parishioners passing by a homeless man as they left their downtown congregation after a worship service, I think it hits home with Gen Z kids today:
“I get the message. Loud and clear. Church is middle class.”
How will we respond to them. If we don’t like the way Larry did it, what would we do differently?
Q: Among Christians, names like Keith Green and Rich Mullins are better recognized than Larry Norman. Yet these artists also built reputations for provocative messages, raw lyrics, and fearless evangelism. How was Norman similar to these legends? How was he different?
A: The key phrase here is: “among Christians.” Larry really didn’t intend for his target audience as being Christians. I mean, it happened. Christians loved his records and he got swept up in that world eventually, but as he said in his 1974 Royal Albert Hall concert, “This is the last concert like this I’ll be giving (i.e. a Jesus Movement rally in essence) . . . because I don’t want to be seen as making money off of Jesus.”
So Larry released So Long Ago The Garden and it created a huge backlash. The record cover scandalized Jesus Movement leaders. His songs were dark, twisty, and awash in metaphorical and surrealist imagery that would only yield their meanings in subtle ways to the listener. He was trying to make art. He actively antagonized Christians through a series of awkward gestures that were more difficult for Christians to process.
Keith Green was more straight-forward about it. Yes, he antagonized Christians, but he cajoled. It was more like: “Jesus rose from the dead, and you can’t even get out of bed!” Keith Green didn’t get into the sexual revolution in the same way Larry did in a song like “Pardon Me” or “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus?” He didn’t record songs that confessed loneliness or lost love or having doubts like Larry did. Keith Green was provocative, sure, but his approach was more: “Hey! I’m way more radical than you are, you comfortable Christian slacker!”
Rich Mullins was a different story. I met him a couple of times. His music did reach kids in church that were drifting away from God, like Larry. I remember appreciating the fact that he was reading and quoting Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth in concert. And he was practicing the spiritual disciplines (e.g. secret vows of poverty). But Rich got his celebrity originally by writing “Awesome God” that had lines like, “When He rolls up his sleeves, he ain’t just putting on the ritz.” His story was not a true rock and roll coming of age career like Larry’s was, in my opinion. But in a sense, he wound up being the perfect blend of both of Keith and Larry.
Still, both Rich Mullins and Keith Green were operating from within the world of the Christian music industry – which Larry opened doors to make commercially successful and viable by being credible in the secular marketplace. They weren’t pioneers in the same sense.
Q: At his zenith, Norman commanded wealth, fame, and respect from some of rock and roll’s brightest stars. But as readers will find, his own power was one of the “perils” your subtitle indicates, despite his desire to use it for good. Is it possible that it would have been better for Larry Norman’s soul had he never achieved the success he did?
A: Of course, power is incredibly seductive. And the abuse of it is one thing to which Christian organizations and ministries have sort of turned a willingly blind eye. Evangelicalism thrives on its leaders being mavens and Merlins. Without a truly sacramental system, when people are coming for “the Word,” rather than the Mass – things become much more dependent on the personality of the charismatic leader. But as Max Weber pointed out in Economy and Society, it will only be a matter of time before the inspirational leader gets commodified and trivialized within the bureaucratic system of the organizational culture which he has worked to create. And then there is anger from the members of the corporation that the feeling of hope and inspiration is gone. And there’s a backlash.
That happened to Larry Norman. He was an artist that felt on a mission directly from God. And that can be very combustible. Because at what point does the art end, and the institution begin? And vice versa. Artists probably shouldn’t be seen as “leaders” or have too much power – because they’re supposed to be a mirror about what’s going on in the world. If you’re a leader, you have to care about both the people and the dream. It’s so demanding to hold those in tension.
And when people are coming because you’re “special” – well, that works in the art world, but in the Church it’s just unacceptable. They expect radical egalitarianism, perhaps for good reason. That’s what people said over and over again – that Larry seemed at times arrogant because of his talent. He maybe was that way in his professional world too much – as a writer, performer, producer, and talent scout. That’s just the world he knew from the music industry. He thought believers had to be just as good as their competitors in the world or better. That meant high expectations and demanding standards of excellence from the people whom you are seeking to cultivate. But I’ve found that Christians don’t like to be held to the same professional standards as the world. They want it both ways.
It was the non-Christian community and the fans that accepted Larry, and to whom Larry was the most kind. Larry was hard on his fellow believers in the Christian music industry and professional ministries, and they were in turn hard on him. But I never cease to be amazed but the accounts of tenderness and kindness that he had to hurting and ordinary people – both believers and unbelievers. He was also the guy that would give fellow Christian musicians like Eddie de Garmo all the money in his pocket when he didn’t have money for gas to get the band home. There are countless stories like that. He was the sort of person that would stand and pray outside a concert venue for hours praying with fans. He invited homeless people off the street and took them into nice restaurants until the management started feeling uncomfortable. He gave money in secret until he died to artists, and musicians, and Compassion International.
I tend to be of the opinion that Larry would have done much better in his life had he not kept pursuing this dream of creating some sort of Christian artist’s colony. The high ideals and mission of someone trying to create a movement can be intoxicating and make life difficult for people whose ambitions are more pedestrian: like having a career, paying the bills, and so forth. Larry’s success stoked the sort of Girardian mimetic desire in both his colleagues and fans that was just bound to cause resentment over time. He should have been reading Girard and seen it coming!Q: You have argued that “Christian” is the lamest possible adjective, especially for music or any art. Are you perhaps really saying that “Christian™” is the lamest possible adjective? Can we not retain “Christian” as a natural modifier for sacred work the Church can be proud of?
Precisely! That’s it. What I’m really trying to say is that indirect communication of truth is more powerful than we could ever imagine. When truth comes across as too blunt, it creates the argumentum ad baculum effect: “I’ve got an offer you can’t refuse.” Christians appeal to arguments from authority, which is understandable. But my experience teaching students tells me that people like to discover the truth as the result of a lot of what feels like a quest: a lot of dark, dank Hobbit-y passageways with cobwebs being pushed aside – trying to find the light. That’s art. And typically religious leaders aren’t so deft with being a guide through the shadows, like the illegal guide into “The Zone” in Andrei Tartovsky’s classic science fiction film: Stalker.
C.S. Lewis describes the need about which I’m talking in his essay on Apologetics in God in the Dock:
“I believe that any Christian who is qualified to write a good popular book on any science may do much more by that than by any direct apologetic work…. We can make people often attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted…. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent. You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way around. Our faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defense of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.”
Q: Speaking of work Christians can be proud of, the book discusses how Norman struck solid gold in signing singer/songwriter Mark Heard. Sadly, Heard died young, unknown and penniless. Would an artistic genius of his caliber still be ignored today, or could he find a niche in the Church?
A: I don’t think much has changed. Christians want happy, encouraging, and uplifting music when it comes to reflecting on their faith. That’s why Christian Rock of the sort Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Mark Heard, and Rich Mullins made doesn’t really have a market anymore. The Cornerstone Festival has gone the way of the dinosaurs. It’s pretty much all Praise and Worship music now.
Mark Heard had an acerbic wit, and many of his songwriting themes were dark. Tragedy and farce are not things believers want to dwell upon in my experience. And that’s why people in the arts feel like such outsiders in evangelical Protestant churches.
Losing Mark Heard was a real blow to Larry because they were fellow travelers. They saw the absurdities of the Christian subculture in which they found themselves. Mark Heard was able to escape it to a remarkable extent. He was critically acclaimed, a sought-after record producer, and his songwriting deeply affected some of the best indie songwriters of the past generation: everybody from Bruce Cockburn to Buddy Miller.
I love that line from “Tip of my Tongue,” where he talks about having the prayers and the penance of a profane saint. There’s just not a category for those people in the evangelical church, where you have to have totally consistent messaging and performance. The Catholic Church seems to have much more tolerance for artists living in the “muddy middle.” Richard Pryor had a great stand-up routine on that once.
So people like Mark Heard will likely stay on the boundaries on the evangelical movement. People will respect them – quietly – but keep them at arm’s length because, as Thomas Merton says, “they don’t fit in with the books,” as I say in my epigram to Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music.
Q: He may be the “Father of Contemporary Christian Music,” but Norman would cringe to hear that music now. Yet some indie artists have found an audience and success beyond the worship and radio formula. Is there hope for the future of Christian music, both in terms of artistic excellence and authentic evangelistic reach?
A: The collapse of the traditional record industry may have helped with this – one of the few salutary benefits of being in this “brave new world.” Larry pioneered this in a way: going directly to his fans, developing relationships with them, and appealing to them for support. The key is making a living. It’s hard to do art part time. You need patronage. I think people need to think about giving a few dollars a month to an artist that they personally know. It would be a wonderful development. To be able to hand a friend a record that you really like, from an artist whom you personally know, is a wonderful thing.
The downside is that it’s so difficult to make first rate records on an indie budget. That’s why so many albums from decent artists get lost. You either come up with $40,000 to really make something remarkable, or you’re going to have to make compromises. That’s why Larry Norman stood out. He hired the best musicians and invested in having someone like Andy Johns – the engineer for Led Zeppelin – behind the controls on his records. There were gorgeous string arrangements and choirs. But how can you do this on a tight budget? It breaks my heart for the artists working today. I know so many of them who are in debt.
Q: CCM’s “legacy artists” don’t get the vinyl re-release, deluxe special edition treatment of mainstream legends. But as Christian singer/songwriter Andrew Osenga once gently pointed out, “There has to be something worth remembering.” Is Larry Norman’s music worth remembering?
A: Well, the Library of Congress thought so when it added Only Visiting This Planet into the National Recording Registry as a culturally, historically, and aesthetically compelling original work of American art. So the answer is an unqualified “yes.” Add to this the various artists today that look back upon Larry’s albums as a light shining through their childhoods – some of whom were more isolated in a Christian subculture that wouldn’t let you listen to secular rock music. I’ve heard from countless people about how the quality, gravitas, and songwriting excellence of Larry Norman was an absolute Godsend. All of those records up through “Something New Under the Son” are just splendid in their own ways.
As a writer, Larry just had incredible range. Listen to “Moses in the Wilderness,” “Pardon Me,” “Be Careful What You Sign,” “Shot Down,” and “The Son Began to Reign” back to back. There are classical, rhythm and blues, and Broadway references in his songwriting. He’s a throwback to an older era in which the sonic palette was deeper, more historical, and culturally wider in American music. And then there are the lyrics: “I Don’t Believe in Miracles,” “The Great American Novel,” and “Baroquen Spirits,” compete with anything from Dylan or Leonard Cohen in my opinion.
I’ve heard interviews with everyone from Damien Jurado to Daniel Smith talking about how Larry’s records inspired them to make their own. Doug Martsch from “Built to Spill” ranks Larry’s 1976 triumph “In Another Land” as one of his all-time favorite records. Now that the book is out, I’m hearing from people all around the world talking about how Larry’s music touched them in a deeply personal way, and helped them through times of great suffering and trial in their life. I certainly know this is true based upon the thousands upon thousands of letters of correspondence that Larry kept from fans. Maybe because Larry’s own life was such a tremendous personal struggle, people felt like they could relate to him in a way that Christian artists who seemed to really have their act together couldn’t.
In the end, though, what I hear most about are Larry’s performances live. There was something mystical and unique about them. Larry mesmerized people and quieted people’s souls in concert. He referred to this ability as “The Green Hand” that would blanket a crowd of people and get them to be subdued, open, and introspective. It was an astonishing gift. I can’t think of too many performers who have that ability. I think artists today should study Larry in that respect. That’s most definitely worth remembering.
Q: Evangelicals often pin their hopes on charismatic celebrities, artists, pastors, and politicians, only to be crushed by their fall. As we consider such cautionary tales, how do we discourage obsessive hero-worship and cultivate independent, tough-minded Christianity?
A: I think we can only do this by recapturing the spiritual disciplines, letting entertainment be entertainment and letting the Church be the Church. Christianity does not dovetail with either modernity or modernism. Read Jacques Ellul on Billy Graham and you will understand what I mean. Most evangelical leaders are happy to critique modernism, but don’t call modernity much into question as a platform to disseminate the truth of Christianity. But maybe we should. Wendell Berry would certainly lean in that direction, but who is up to the task of actually living a mostly lead pencil, agrarian lifestyle in Port Royal, Kentucky? I don’t know. I don’t think I am.
Andy Crouch wrote powerfully on this front last week. Both high church and low church structures seem to struggle with sin and corruption in their hierarchies. I think we’re going to have to go through a less triumphalistic phase, with less tub thumping and chest puffing from leaders. I think that leaders should stay for a few years and cycle out of leadership for a while and be forced to go through quiet phases of their lives. And then there’s the money. It takes so much money to keep our institutions running, and it’s really hard to know when the love of money is the thing which is really driving you in your ministry or nonprofit. Perhaps vows of poverty might help for people running institutions?
Q: We should address what might be Larry’s most disturbing fall: an Australian woman and her son who claim Norman was the father, and he abandoned them. (Anyone can read here and here, watch here and here, and judge for himself.) In your book, you leave this to the very end and say its truth would require “a different lens” to interpret Norman’s story, so contrary does it seem to his righteous image. I’ll just ask this: If it’s true, how much does it matter?
A: Of course it matters, both in a narrow and much broader sense. And while we’re making links to “judge,” I implore people to go here and read my book on all of this because the whole business is so very twisty, and I really tried to get to the bottom of the truth of the matter, as best as any historian could. But I certainly am not going to attempt to sugarcoat any of Larry’s sins. Clearly something happened with Jennifer Robinson after the breakdown of Larry’s second marriage that made the whole scenario even possible to begin with. The whole matter is a dark chapter marring an amazing artistic career, and it needs to be taken with the gravity the story deserves. There was a fatherless boy in Australia who was told Larry Norman was his father. Does that matter? You bet.
So much of the Larry Norman story is about Christian self-confidence, posturing, and finger pointing, with not enough humility and forgiveness – on all sides. Everyone gets implicated. It continues even though he’s been dead for a decade. The cycle of conflict still spins. It’s a broader theme that plagues the Christian world – that anger and bitterness left unchecked poisons everything. Here is what I know about self-righteousness from the Larry Norman story: it will come back to haunt you, and it might even kill you. That’s what matters. And I think that matters a lot. Do I think it utterly vitiates Larry’s earlier work as an artist and as a voice in the Jesus Movement? Not any more than other Christian heroes or forerunners whose legacies are a mixed bag of triumphs and troubled outcomes.
There’s so much in the Bible about judging other people’s sins and ignoring your own. So I would say, “Learn a lesson from Larry Norman.” Larry could really subject people to exacting standards of both holiness and righteousness. People expected the same from him, and he failed to live up to his own standards. Larry was an artist, who accepted the mantle of a prophet. He could not hold the two worlds together forever, it seems to me.
What’s amazing to me is the desire for the scapegoat for the things that go wrong in our lives. Everyone wants to either be a saint or a victim. And I think the rest of the world looks at the Church and doesn’t much care for the way we handle our own internal matters of repentance, kindness, and forgiveness. So they really do wonder why they should really trust us.
I wrote this book to open up a conversation about these matters in the Christian community. I hope that these issues, and not the only specific details of Larry’s own biography, are what people come away thinking and talking about after they’ve read this book.
Q: You echo Larry’s own song lyrics intriguingly when you end the book by saying that Larry “believed Jesus loved him…but he also loved himself.” Is the latter really “the hardest thing for us to do,” as you suggest?
A: I think it’s incredibly hard to love yourself the way you actually are, and not some version that you or someone else has created for you in the place of the person who really lives and breathes in the world. So yes, I think that’s really the hardest thing for people to do. I understand that there was a legitimate backlash against the therapeutic culture in Christian theology, especially back during the 1990’s. But by sweeping away mental health concerns and replacing them with theological propositions was an over-correction.
Putting it biblically, I think it’s very hard to love the “Romans 7 wretched man,” with the result that we wind up having pity on ourselves and others. Despite the suffering Larry endured in his life, the emotional and physical pain, despite his own shortcomings, sins, and failures, this one thing I know: He died feeling known by God – that he was somehow the object of God’s special care, and that his life meant something to others. Would it have been better if he was more honest about his sins? Yes. But on the other hand, he did treat so many people whom the church de facto treated as outcasts with incredible compassion. I think it’s because he really believed that he was the object of God’s love, and everybody should feel that way too.
Sometimes we assume people are understanding our theological vocabulary as though religious language was completely transparent to the average person. But it’s not. When we say, “Your righteousness is as filthy rags,” we don’t realize just how many people take that as meaning “You’re a filthy rag.” A theologian will say, “Oh no! That’s not what I meant at all!” We assume far too much about what people do and don’t understand. But I’m telling you, working with college and university students all these years has opened my eyes about how much we don’t realize the message is getting through. You have to really sit down with a person as an individual to ascertain what is really going on. So their needs to be maybe less preaching and blogging, and theologizing, and more time pouring out ourselves in acts of service to the people close to us, so that they know they are loved even when our words and theologies fail.