It must be difficult to be a celebrity within Evangelical Christianity. The expectations are high, the critiques are harsh, and the fall is great. Such was the case in the life of Larry Norman, the father of Christian rock. Gregory Alan Thornbury has done a masterful job in writing Norman’s biography, but in many ways it is a story about us, the modern church. In Why Should the Devil have all the Good Music? readers are given an inside look at the perils of the Christian celebrity culture we created.
The book’s eleven chapters are shaped by more than just the flow Larry Norman’s life. Each chapter develops around the man’s religious mindset that Jesus was a close personal friend. As Thornbury writes:
…at its heart, [this] is a story of someone who believed so purely that he was following Jesus, that in his mind he frequently saw very little difference between what he was seeing and what the Good Lord himself was seeing. (7)
The chapters, then, explore his development in time, but they do so in the form of Larry’s various “battles” with Scientology, organized religion, the Jesus Movement, his own wife, and even himself. Battles which, from Norman’s perspective, were not merely his but the Lord’s battles. So, Thornbury has titled the various chapters things like: Jesus Versus L. Ron Hubbard; Jesus Versus Playboy; Jesus Versus the Soviets. Framing the story this way helps us to see more than just one man’s story, but it gives us insight into a whole culture of the Christian church. After all, Larry did not create such a religious mind-set; nor did he come to fame within a vacuum. He was himself part of the American church culture – even if he spoke back to it with strong critique.
Norman’s life is, to be sure, one of amazing highs and devastating lows. He was a remarkable figure, who lived a fascinating life. As a leading figure in the early days of the Jesus Movement he saw many come to faith and helped to shape the movement’s priorities. As a part of a band he performed with some of the greatest artists and bands of all time (The Who, Janis Joplin, Van Morrison, and Buffalo Springfield). He had a job writing music for rock operas. In his heyday he toured both the United States and Europe (where he was much more popular). He launched the Vineyard church movement, and befriended famous celebrities (especially Dudley Moore). He had a great letter writing friendship with Francis Schaeffer. He also launched his own record company, which helped to launch the careers of several Christian artists (including Daniel Amos, Randy Stonehill, and Mark Heard). He also had his share of controversy and consternation. His wife posed for Playboy, unbeknownst to Larry, and their marriage was a tumultuous and public event. He was attacked relentlessly by Fundamentalists, and his narcissistic personality destroyed many friendships. Larry Norman’s story is a fascinating read, to be sure. But there is more to his story than just interesting biography.
Larry Norman’s life is a picture of the perils of Christian celebrity culture. The man himself was a bit of a complex blending of beliefs. On the one hand he had hypocritical tendencies. He loved himself, sometimes (often) too much. His life and relationships reflect a man who clearly tended towards narcism. Yet at the same time he was a tireless critic of American greed, racism, and oppression. He sponsored many poor children, gave money to many starving artist’s careers, and cared deeply for those in his family. He believed the Scripture’s teachings about moral ethics and living for God, yet his life has some dark corners that raise question about his own practices. In all of this Larry Norman really was just one of us. He was a celebrity, to be sure (he performed for Jimmy Carter at the White House, after all), but he was still a person. American Christianity, however, does not allow for celebrities to be people. They cannot be like us, with our flaws and inconsistencies. In fact, in our critiques of celebrities we insist that they must be better than us, and at the same time we act as though they are often worse than us. Perhaps, however, what makes Larry Norman’s story worth reading is that while he was often just like us, he truly did aspire to be better than us.
Failures and all, Larry Norman believed that he was following Jesus and he wanted to do it as best he could. Gregory Alan Thornbury has written a beautiful book in this biography. It is a story that invites us to love Larry Norman, not as an idol or a celebrity, but as a man who was friends with Jesus. It is incredibly well-written. Thornbury has an amazing talent for clever and insightful writing. Whether you have any interest in Norman or Christian rock at all this book is worthy of your time. I found Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music? to be both insightful and rebuking. It informed me of Norman, even as it put its finger in my own chest. I highly recommend Why Should the Devil have all the Good Music?