Keith Green, was an early contemporary Christian artist of the 1970's and early 80's. A fallen teen heart throb and proficient pre-teen song writer, Green had searched through such things as Buddhism, drugs, and agnosticism before His love broke through. Green influenced, some would say paved, a whole genre of contemporary Christian music. While he and his "Last Days Ministry" was strongly influenced by the Vineyard Christian Movement in Southern California, and his theology was not always "spot on", he wrote and sang from his personal experience, and the change he experienced when he met the living Christ.
Keith Green died with three of his children in a 1983 private airplane crash while circling his Last Days Ministry property.
In 1978, singer / song writer / poet / philosopher and guru of all things hip, Bob Dylan experienced a personal and musical transformation which he attributed to coming to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. There is no doubt that Dylan was the voice of the 60s and 70s for a world of musicians and people, and the firestorm surrounding his conversation was both huge and expected. And there is no doubt that God gifted Bob Dylan to be one of the greatest and most talented men to ever write and perform music.
As a result of this transformation, Dylan recorded and released two exclusive gospel albums, Slow Train Coming and Saved. His song, You Gotta Serve Somebody made it into the rock and pop charts in 1981 in both the United States and the United Kingdom. "Slow Train Coming" was classic Dylan with a Christian twist, but his best song, in my estimation, was "I Believe in You."
But when both Green and Dylan moved toward Christian music, they each turned to one man who had long traveled the worlds of Christian rock music and rejection from both the church and the world - Larry Norman. Known for such Christian hit songs as "I Wish We Had All Been Ready" and "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" (If you watch no other video but this last one, watch it.), Norman was never fully accepted by anyone, sacred or secular, outside of the musical world. But inside that world, some of the greatest names in music recognized his talent and genius and sought it out. Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Glen Frye, and yes, Bob Dylan.
For his part, Norman kept a certain amount of distance between himself and his Christian followers. In speaking of being Christian before it was popular, Norman told Contemporary Magazine, "I did not particularly feel comfortable with the Jesus Movement. I was not one of the kids who had recently become a Christian. I did not have any scintillating 'testimony' of getting high on Jesus and then giving up drugs, girls and the pursuit of material possessions.... In fact, I felt that I was neither part of the 'establishment' [n]or part of the alternative lifestyle enclave which felt itself so superior to their parents and our civic leaders."
Norman was just an ordinary guy who loved rock music and loved Jesus. He sought to be known as an entertainer and artist who was a Christian, and not a "Christian entertainer" or a "Christian artist". He didn't really care if people liked his music or not. Preferring not to sell the truth, he often gave his music away for free. He didn't pay much attention to trying to be somebody. He never proclaimed himself a "super-Christian", a superior theologian, nor the voice for God. And he would be the first to tell you he was none of those things. He only sought to help other's see his spiritual journey through his music. His life was spent wanting to make music to the God of creation, in the genre of his generation. Norman's God given musical talents used for God's glory, through Norman's personality. And in the process, he incidentally shaped an entire musical generation, including a kid from a small farming town known as 4theluv.
burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the LORD with the harp,
with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets and the blast of the ram's horn—
shout for joy before the LORD, the King.
Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
Let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity. (Psalm 98: 4-9)
Because of my love of great (and perhaps not so great) music, I frequently talk with people in their 20's and 30's who never listen to or know they GREAT music of the 60's and 70's. Late Generation "X"ers don't really know the great music I had growing up. The secular philosophical lyrics of the music of the 60's and 70's is rivaled in Western culture only by the sacred hymnology born from the Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. And of these "kids" I talk to, I dare say none of them heard of Larry Norman.
For me, a kid growing up in the 70's and 80s, hooked on English bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles, Bob Dylan was one of the few true American talents I owned. When I first heard Slow Train Coming, the Christian wheels began to turn. Dylan led to Green, whose musical style was very much in the early 70's vein but message was decidedly different. Green led to Petra, an 80's Christian rock band. But all of them pointed back to Norman, the pioneer in Christian Rock.
Paul said it well. "Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit." (Eph. 2: 19-22).
Larry Norman passed away recently after a lengthy illness, but his legacy will remain for quite some time. Norman lived his life with personal integrity and incredible musical talent. Norman properly viewed his life as an alien. While here, we are only visitors to this dying planet, witnesses to its greatness, and it baseness. We are in it, but not of it. And that greatness (and baseness) can be seen in the sacred, and the secular. Norman could see the brilliance of great secular musicians, and combine it with the truths he found in Christ.
It amazes me how some Christians discount brilliance and talent because the one possessing those gifts is not "Christian", or even not Christian enough. As Christians, we are too quick to discount the sparks of truth that radiate from believers and non believers alike like a July 4th sparkler. While our theology should never be based on music, we can see the majesty of God in musical expression. We can express our own journey in music like in no other medium. We can learn something of the God who gave mankind eyes to see the world around him, and express what he sees through song, as we experience that world through the eyes of believers and unbelievers alike in song.
And people like Norman are a unique reminder of God's providence in so many ways around us. Larry Norman's last word, written the day before he died, say it so well:
Somewhere beyond the sky.
I pray that you will stay with God
Goodbye, my friends, goodbye.
Goodbye, Larry. You impacted people you never even knew, in ways you never dreamed you would.
And perhaps, that is the point.