Religion

Larry Norman And The Creation Of Christian Rock

Playing at the White House in the late 1970s may have been the pinnacle of Larry Norman’s career.

When you’re raised in an Evangelical church and you want to be rebellious — without going wild — and it’s the late 1970s, you buy a LP of Only Visiting This Planet by Larry Norman, or any of his works. As a teen you know that any Norman album is hands down better than the Gospel quartets (or George Beverly Shea) the church is promoting.

My interest in Norman began as a teenager and over the years I would see him in concert nearly a dozen times. The first time I saw him, in 1984 at the Ichthus Festival in Wilmore, Kentucky I was honestly star-struck.

By the time Norman died in 2008, I had moved in a new direction and had lost touch with some of his later work. But, when I noticed a biography had been written about him, and released earlier this year, I bought a copy. The book, named after one of his most popular songs (from Planet), is titled Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock.

The book is an interesting read, even for someone not familiar with his music.

In The Beginning

Norman, as the book points out, is a complicated, and contradictory individual. His career began in pop music as one of the lead singers of People!. The band scored one Top 10 hit, I Love You, which was a remake. By 1969, Norman left the band and recorded what many call the first Christian Rock album, Upon This Rock. Although his first attempt was shaky, his songwriting talent — he worked as a songwriter for Capitol Records — convinced executives to take another chance.

In 1970, he recorded Only Visiting in England’s AIR Studios (where the Beetles recorded). The album, which always ranks in the Top 5 of Best CCM albums (usually one or two), was inducted into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2013. The registry preserves as “cultural, artistic and/or historical treasures, representing the richness and diversity of the American soundscape.” The album was the first Christian Rock album to receive the honor.

It is a fitting award because the album did usher in a movement and a genre. Today CCM is an estimated $500 million industry. (By contrast, Only Visiting sold about 10,000 copies)

Famous In His Heyday

Norman, mostly unknown today, rubbed shoulders with a lot of famous people. He started a church in his Hollywood home, and knew Dudley Moore and Bob Dylan, to name just two from his era. His personal manager Phil Mangano would go on to work as George W. Bush’s (and Obama’s) homelessness czar.

But, as the book points out Norman seems to implode in the early 1980s. After producing four of his best albums, Only Visiting, So Long Ago, In Another Land (Dudley Moore plays piano on this one) and Something New Under the Son, his personal life unravels. The book places much of the blame on his first wife, Pamela Ahlquist. She was an actress (small, non-reoccurring roles on TV), and model. Their marriage lasted about six or seven years, and in the book, she is portrayed as deceitful, engaging in ‘non-Christian’ photo shoots — posing in a porn magazine but, for some reason, turning down a Playboy centerfold. She is cast as a partier (who tried to smuggle pot on an overseas flight), a high spender, and someone who is jealous of Norman’s career.

This may be true, but other histories, like the film Fallen Angel, suggest Norman was not as saintly as this book makes him appear. This saintly martyr view leaves the reader feeling some of Norman’s darkness — from allegations of shady business deals to allegations he fathered (and abandoned) a son in Australia — has been minimized or erased.

Rating: 3.5/5

The book is rated 4.5 stars out of 5 on Amazon. I would give it a 3.5 — simply because a lot that’s in the book is common knowledge to people who followed his career, and the book relies too heavily on Norman’s private papers to tell the story.

His story is worth reading. Norman paved a unique road, and his music has been recorded by hundreds of CCM artists, and a few songs have even been covered by non-Christian artists like Cliff Richards and Petula Clark.


Afterthought

There is a potential Norman connection to the current White House. Vice President Mike Pence apparently drove to Ichthus in 1974 and credits that event with his conversion to Evangelical Christianity. Since this is in the heyday of Norman’s career, it is highly possible that Norman was one of the performers Pence heard.

Advertisements
Categories: Books I have read, Religion

‘Seductive Poison’ Shows Stages Of Indoctrination, Cult Acceptance

2008 Palladium-Item (Richmond, IN) newspaper clipping — remembering the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre.

It was about 15 years after the Jonestown Massacre when I learned Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones attended Richmond High School about 20 minutes from my hometown. I would later learn that he also spent part of his childhood in Lynn, IN — a very small town I was familiar with because some of my cousins lived there.

But I had never really wanted to delve into any books about him until I read an online review about another Jonestown book that piqued my interest.

Seductive Poison

Debbie Layton was a rising star and confidante of Jim Jones. About two months before the Jonestown Massacre, though, the mid-20s woman knew she needed to get out. This was accomplished with the help of a sister and some government officials in Guyana. She details this, and the slow indoctrination, that led her to put her faith in Jones in her memoir Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple.

Like many readers, I presume, Jonestown always prompted an image of gullible people who, although they did not deserve to die, kind of brought it all on themselves. That is one reason I’m glad I read the book. It is easier now, for me, to understand that good people, seeking a sense of justice and community, can be pulled into a very bad situation. Many of us (myself included) forget that Jones was highly respected just a few years before the massacre. As the book notes in 1976,

“The Temple was becoming a reputable and widely recognized organization. San Francisco Mayor George Moscone welcomed Jim (who controlled a large voting bloc) and rewarded Pastor Jones’s good deeds with several prominent positions. In March 1976, Jim was honored with a mayoral appointment to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. Seven months later, he was appointed to the San Francisco Housing Authority.”

In a 1976 event honoring Jones, then-California State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown introduced Jones as a “combination of Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein, and Chairman Mao.”

Even president Jimmy Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, visits with Jones during this era.

True Believers

But, underneath the public persona that was capable of duping powerful enablers was a sinister, and unstable, side of Jones that Layton effectively reveals. From the first time he sexually assaults her — to the day he confiscates her mother’s pain medication (she would die of cancer just weeks before the mass suicide) — Layton paints the image of a very troubled man.

Another side of the story she tells extremely well is the paranoia and persecution complex that riddled the religious community as they became convinced the ‘outside world’ was intent on destroying them.

Jonestown, Guyana

Because of her high role in the church, Layton stays in San Francisco, and is a late arriver to Guyana. When she arrives, after months of hearing how great Jonestown was looking, she is shocked to see that the paradise she had been promised was little more than an ‘army camp.’ Once there, her days, like other members were long filled with hard, manual labor and deprivation. As she is working in the fields one day — a 12-hour task in a jungle environment — she daydreams of simpler things,

“When I didn’t dream of food, I fantasized about my shower… Planning ones shower was important because showers also had restrictions. Anyone reported to have allowed the water to run longer than two minutes was assigned to the Learning Crew for a day.”

The Learning Crew was a chain-gang type punishment with harder labor and no talking. The crew was also escorted by armed guards.

For Her Daughter

Even though Layton wrote the book for her daughter in a way to ‘set the record straight,’ it is just a heavy, unhappy story for her family. Layton’s family was deeply impacted by the tragedy. Besides losing her mother — buried in an unmarked grave — Layton’s brother was one of the gunmen involved in the attack on U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan.

He was the only individual imprisoned over Jonestown.

Rating: 5 out of 5. This is an important read and it’s written in a way that you understand how Layton was pulled in. Even though she is empathic to the victims, she does not sugarcoat anything — not even her own errors.


Afterthought

As I was researching for this post, I came across a Rolling Stones piece which, of course, sheds more light on the topic. And, it includes the story of a elderly survivor who slept through the ordeal and published her story in 1995. The book is currently out of print.

I also researched the Richmond, IN newspaper and found a piece they did on the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre. You can view it here: Page 1 | Page 2

Categories: American History, Books I have read, My America, Religion | Tags: ,

‘American Prophecies’ And The Vision Of A God-Ordained U.S.

We have lots of Stand With Israel signs in Preble County. One can only speculate what the signs would say if the Shepherd of Hermes, instead of The Revelation of John, had been included in the Bible as originally planned. This sign is attached to a Baptist Church in Camden, Ohio.

Two men walking up the hill, one disappears and one’s left standing stillI Wish We’d All Been Ready, Larry Norman, Upon This Rock, 1969. This song, which includes the phrase, ‘the Son has come and you’ve been left behind,’ was a conservative Christian anthem in the late 60s and early 70s. It may have been the inspiration for the Left Behind series penned by Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins. More than 65 million of the books have sold worldwide. The song has been recorded by Pat Boone, Cliff Richards and a slew of CCM artists.


Let me begin by saying, I don’t believe it.

I don’t believe in the Rapture. I don’t believe in Armageddon and I certainly don’t believe that Israel is part of God’s plan. It’s about politics and exploiting fear.

But I wanted to learn about the Israel movement because of the overwhelming number of ‘Stand with Israel’ signs in my county. When I first noticed them years ago, I mocked them, not grasping what they really meant — that a regressive, apocalyptic worldview was invading my community. It’s a worldview that believes the end of time will occur with Armageddon in Israel.

Growing up in an evangelical church whose brand had a muddy view of the end times, I was never overly interested in Armageddon — or its common partner — the rapture. The rapture is a worldview that asserts the righteous will be ‘taken away’ into paradise while the rest of us are left on earth to learn a hard lesson.

This worldview was told (and sold) in exhausting detail via the Left Behind book series.

The Fearful Faithful

Fundamentalism is the preferred form of Christianity in my part of America. Literal signs of this belief structure are everywhere — from the ‘If you die tonight, will you go to Heaven or Hell?’ billboards along I-70 to the ‘repent and be baptized’ sign as you enter Camden, Ohio. In the past several decades, despite a declining population, we have seen the number of our churches grow — with an increasing move toward stricter interpretations of what the ‘Bible really means.’

Despite our growing number of churches, fear is pervasive, with many local churches compelled to remind citizens that we are a ‘Christian nation’ under siege by the forces of evil. In a recent letter to the editor the minister of the Eaton Church of Christ explains the presence of small white crosses starting to pop up throughout Preble County.

“We have decided that if our local, state, and federal governments are going to bow to the demands of those who would see all the symbols of the Christian foundation of this nation removed, then we will do our best to remind them…They (the white crosses) are a way to remind those around us that this nation became the greatest nation in the world because of its Christian foundations: true morality, Christian principles and the providence of the one true God and creator.”

This approach to interpreting America’s history is common among fundamentalist who have decided that, just like with the Bible, they are the only ones to be trusted with understanding our country’s nuanced beginnings.

God Knows Best

Fundamentalism exploits the simple faith of many, and few do it better than bestselling author Michael D. Evans. In American Prophecies: Ancient Scriptures Reveal Our Nation’s Future, Evans details how America is in the path of prophecy as he analyzes current and past U.S. events surrounding the Nation of Israel. According to Evans, the U.S. and Israel were chosen by god as part of a divine plan to save (most of) the world.

The book is worth reading to better understand the reasoning behind the Stand with Israel movement. This peculiar, fundamentalist movement has believers sadistically waiting for a nuclear war to prove their interpretation of the Bible is correct.

Evans builds his case for Israel’s holy role in America (and vice versa) by relying on Old Testament verses that, he says, prove America is part of the ‘prophecy stream.’ He details the various times in American history when presidents succeeded, or failed, to follow God’s will concerning the Jews. Overall, it appears that the GOP has been better at understanding God’s will than the Democrats, as one would expect based on the author’s political affiliations. But, politics aside, Evans does appear to truly believe that we have divine protection as a country.

God’s Protection

One example Evans gives is General George Washington.

According to Evans, on the battlefield bullets tore through Washington’s coat, but did not pierce his flesh. This, and other events like it, are proof to Evans that that God’s hand was working as a shield for Washington as God guided the country’s inception. But, as anyone who has read war accounts know, these type of ‘miracles’ are fairly common throughout history.

By Evans’ logic Dick Winters (Band of Brothers) or a Preble County WWII vet I met years ago were protected by God. This local soldier’s story of survival includes many ‘intuitions’ that saved his life (‘move away from that tree’) and in one incident, as an 18-year-old soldier, he was one of only two to survive a SS ambush. This man, who detailed other unexplainable events, said he struggled with understanding how he was saved in battle when the guy next to him was killed.

This phenomenon is commonly referred to as survivor’s guilt, but for Evans, in the case of Washington, it was part of a master plan.

What Were They Thinking?

The book employs a retelling — or a ‘getting inside the head’ — of past president’s action and in Evans’ defense his life has intertwined with a lot of high-ranking political figures so he would be privy to some of their thought processes. The book was published in 2004 so 9/11 and the president all conservatives love to hate — Bill Clinton — was still fresh on Evans’ mind.

So, as expected, throughout the book Evans political leanings often influence his spiritual insights. But, at times, his reasoning feel insane.

For example, Evans quotes an unnamed ‘brilliant and respected scholar whom I have known for decades,’ who gives yet another verification that God is protecting Israel. The scholar says,

“If you look at a satellite image of the city of Jerusalem, you will see the tetragrammaton YHWH. It is clearly visible in the photos.”

YHWH is the Hebrew word for Yahweh — the ‘unspoken name of God,’ Evans says.

Moving The Embassy

As spiritual advisor to 45* Evans was elated when the U.S. Embassy was recently moved to Jerusalem, saying at a December ceremony honoring Trump,

No president in history has ever built such an alliance for the State of Israel and the Jewish people, and no president has courageously stood up for the State of Israel on the global stage as you had Mr. President.

The embassy move is a mixed bag of blessings. If you believe in biblical prophecies, we’re one step closer to the end, and if you don’t believe, well a hard lesson is awaiting.

No Rating on Book. If one wishes to understand the ‘end times’ mindset, but does not want to read the 16-part Left Behind series, this succinct work should do the trick. The book I read is a signed edition –and since I bought it at Goodwill it was discarded by the original owner. I’m not sure what that says about the destination of his/her soul.


Afterthought

As Evans explains in the book, 65 million Americans profess to be Christian and he pontificates what would happen if the Rapture occurred today emptying the country of their souls. It was this argument that almost made me a believer since I could not see a downside.

“Realize, also, if that (the Rapture) happened today it would take our president. Who else would it take? How many members of the Senate? The House? How many judges? How many governors? How many mayors and city council members?”

Although I find the belief system superstitious, one part of the book I did find intriguing — and somewhat entertaining — was the list of Bible verses each U.S. president used when sworn in. Some, like Reagan understood the marketing power of a verse while others, like Lincoln, just let the Bible fall open. At least one president, Pierce, chose not to use a Bible at the inauguration.

Categories: American History, Books I have read, My America, Politics, Religion | Tags: , ,