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The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ’n’ Roll

Randall J. Stephens
Published by Harvard University Press in 2018

Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock

Gregory Alan Thornbury
Published by Convergent Books in 2018

As a child of the 80s born to evangelical parents with a tall stack of Christian music on vinyl, I grew up with an odd mix of music. Music from an earlier era of secular styles was called “oldies.” Oldies were music that was once the devil’s music that had grown into AM-airwave fodder. Then there was country music, an old-time tradition often accompanied by gospel style and lyrics that developed into a saccharine substitute, with sad songs about lost love in perfect Nashville-produced harmonies. But in the mix there was the Christian music: Larry Norman, Andre Crouch, Amy Grant… they was all there and their music was ripe for the picking for my coming-of-age self. So I was intrigued to learn of two recent books on Christians and music in the 1960s.

The rebellious nature of rock was part of the fun, and the music took on a new life as the voice of a generation.

Randall Stephens writes in his book The Devil’s Music about the Christian response to rock music with a focus on the mid-20th century. The book begins in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll with the varied responses to the genre. Clergy immediately condemned the music as being sinful, causing the nation’s youth to stumble on sins of alcohol abuse and immoral sexual behavior. For the kids finding the music, though, that was precisely the appeal. The rebellious nature of rock was part of the fun, and the music took on a new life as the voice of a generation.

As Stephens’ argument evolves through the book, there is an inviting notion that the people of each era confronted the music in different ways. He shows the Pentecostal roots of some gospel music that morphed into more mainstream styles. The familiarity with “spiritual” form helped to give rock music its appeal. What initially sounded like the “devil’s music” only a generation later became passe. The move-your-hips music of Elvis Presley, which was once boycotted in force, eventually became the music of suburban mothers. The fact that he threw in a few gospel covers on many albums showed that he was palatable option. He was also a handsome, white, Christian man, again easing over some of the taboos of his dance moves or the content of some of his songs.

Interestingly, the white boys from Liverpool – the Fab Four, the Beatles themselves – could not win the good graces of the church. Despite their innocuous “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and earlier hits, the Beatles’ later experimental attitude and support of psychedelic drugs and eastern religion caused them to fall out of the good graces of many Christians. Stephens details the John Lennon gaffe of saying the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, an oft-quoted (and often misunderstood) chapter in their career. The backlash to Lennon’s comment caused the band to avoid shows in the Bible belt for years. Stephens contextualizes the episode with a chapter later in the book on the Christian-fundamentalist response to rock music, which was staunch rejection. Gatherings to burn records and turn back to God were part of a midcentury effort to restore the American church.

Chronicling the reaction

Stephens smartly mixed sources in the book with a blend of reactions on both the accepting and rejecting side of rock ‘n’ roll. There are sermons and formal writing from pastors and church officials balanced nicely with comments from mainstream news outlets. The only voice that could have been highlighted a bit more is that of the “accepting Christian” who was purchasing (and not burning) rock music. Who were those people? Perhaps they were a demographic that avoided the historian’s keen eye, but they seem like an important group to address. While there were certainly some Christians who turned away from the devil’s music, surely there were many who embraced it and danced with the devil.

But as the rock era rolled on, Stephens shows, even Christians came to embrace rock music and do a bit of co-opting, bringing rock into the church and putting guitars and drums at center stage. Stephens addresses the growth of the Christian music scene, even including a bit on the iconic singer songwriter and rock savant Larry Norman. Norman’s music career, which began with secular success in the band People!, morphed into a fascinating and troubled solo career. Norman “wore his secular musical influences on his sleeve,” Stephens writes, and that was part of the appeal. Mirroring sounds from artists such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan allowed Norman to include his voice in unique places. His artistry was at a high enough level that he didn’t seem like the Christian version of another artist and was able stand on his own merits. Stephens does a nice job of showing how the church had a complex relationship with Norman’s music. His gadfly lyricism often prevented the music from moving into the Christian mainstream even while thousands of Christians provided the backbone of his support.

Moving on from Norman’s life and career, Stephens addresses the contemporary Christian music world and its relationship with rock music. Bands emerged that took the rock of the mainstream and sought to adapt it to the Christian message. In a sense, it was a way of making Christian versions of a lot of popular sounds. There was pop, sure, but even country and hip hop found artists who would mimic the sound of the mainstream. It completes an evolutionary arc laid out in Stephens’ book that Christians initially rejected the spirit and movement of rock music, but eventually took it in and developed it as an acceptable form.

Larry Norman: a representative

These were imperfect people trying to accomplish extravagant goals.

Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock, Gregory Alan Thornbury’s biography of Norman, shows a different side of the era’s music. Through Norman’s illustrious music career, readers learn about connections with all sorts of celebrities that were part of the mainstream. Thornbury does a great job of breaking down the era and Norman’s involvement in it with a precise critique. These were imperfect people trying to accomplish extravagant goals. Norman’s music, starting in his time with People!, worked to share the gospel with people who were not followers of Jesus. But in the process of that project, there were two broken marriages, a complex relationship with Norman’s protege and collaborator Randy Stonehill and numerous music-industry businesses that never quite took off.

What makes Thornbury’s book so rewarding is the way that it starts and ends with a visceral appreciation for Norman’s life and work. There’s an unstated assumption that anyone reading the book will accept that Norman had some failings but that they ought not discount the good work he did. Once the reader agrees to that premise, the rest of the book is a journey of getting to know a fascinating artist. Norman’s life had early roots in music, but the growth and development of his artistry came later when his faith took hold. Thornbury explains, “To put it mildly and crudely, Larry Norman wanted it both ways; he wanted to rock and he wanted to talk about Jesus, he wanted to follow Jesus and to offend other followers of Jesus, for people to enjoy his music but also be discomfited by it.” This gadfly attitude ingratiated Norman to other detractors of the conventional church. His musical chops brought him fans ranging from Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan to thousands of regular, church-going kids. But his desire to have it both ways distanced him from either crowd. Despite his amazing ministry in Hollywood to the lost and seeking entertainment industry, the varying success of his music career sometimes left him wanting =more success. The combination of a Billy Graham-like obsession with evangelism and the skills of a rock star rather than a preacher vaulted Norman to a different stage. Interestingly, as Thornbury points out, Norman sought career advice from Graham, who told him to keep making music to reach the lost. It was a far cry from the original institutional-church reaction to the hip-swaying style of rock music.

The ending of Thornbury’s book, paralleling the end of Norman’s life, makes for difficult reading. This man who in the imagination of many fans remains at the top of his musical career in the late 70s, was brought back to a humbling later life. His health struggles with heart conditions made him physically unable to perform in his captivating style. Rumors of his sexual immorality outside of marriage resulted in a film immediately following his death that discussed two children out of wedlock. It was a stain on a career that seemed edgy and confrontational but appeared not to cross into that kind of personal-sin territory. For fans reading the book, it’s hard to confront.

Thornbury brings the book home with a thoughtful and provocative epilogue, highlighting the conflicted legacy of Norman, not for his personal conduct but for the acceptance of his music. Christian music’s contemporary embrace Norman is both a blessing and a disgrace, in Thornbury’s view. Yet after his death, the keepers of his estate found that he had been supporting many people for years with generosity and financial blessing. That was the Larry Norman that his family and fans knew; it was a great place for Thornbury to leave the biography of such an important figure.

A fraught relationship

When taken together, these two books teach us a great deal about the era as well as the evolving relationship between Christians and music. Stephens’ book recounts arresting reactions to the rock: Everything from violent rejection to ardent embrace show the evolution of an attitude shift. One of the criticisms of Christians in rock wasn’t so much about the music as it was the worldly vibe that artists such as Norman gave off. Stephens recounts an episode regarding Norman’s long, flowing locks of blond hair. He writes, “One minister charged that Larry Norman’s ‘long, blond locks would allow him to fit unobtrusively into the Peter, Paul and Mary group (as Mary).” It was a double strike, both at the hippie image and at Norman’s masculinity. But these types of reactions were key to the narrative. Even in the 1970s, some Christians were not yet able to accept a rock star with long hair.

Where Stephens covers an overarching narrative, Thornbury focuses on the life of one man. But these books cover similar ground in that they address the popular acceptance of rock music as a viable cultural form both for Christians and non-Christians. One of the key themes of Norman’s life – his legacy, some might say – is that he’s now known as the father or even grandfather or contemporary Christian music, a title that he would readily denounce. His life was dedicated to the exact opposite of a separate Christian-music category. He worked, wrote, sang, performed and lived to reach people who needed to find Jesus. His music had an approachable quality to it, stylistically echoing popular styles and even including lyrics that were engaging hard questions about drugs, sex and the afterlife. Addressing the question of musical style, Norman wrote the lyric, “I ain’t knockin’ the hymns, just gimme a song that has a beat. I ain’t knockin’ the hymns. just gimme a song that moves my feet. I don’t like none of those funeral marches. I ain’t dead yet!”

That lyric from “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” is a great summary of Norman’s life and what he was really trying to do with his music. He wasn’t writing to give Christians an alternative to bad music. He made honest art that was an expression of his own Jesus-inspired broken heart for the world. He intended that art to be an olive branch to the rest of the world – come follow Jesus, with me, fellow broken spirit, because it’s the One Way home.

Gregory Jones

Gregory Jones is a cultural historian and online instructor. He writes about the Civil War, sports history and music history. He is the author of How to Read a Civil War Letter (2015).