Larry Norman is one of the most controversial Christian artists in the Church today. Why that is no one really knows. Some people wonder if he in fact is 'born again', others dismiss him saying he is arrogant, aloof, anti-church and never smiles. Church leaders warn their congregations about attending his concerts. Few people are ready to jump to his defence. One of the few is Francis Schaeffer who referred to Larry Norman as one of the most misunderstood Christian artists of our time.
This interview was done in two sessions over a period of about one week. Being fully aware of how quick, we as Christians are to point the finger at something we can't or don't want to understand. I pray that through the interview people will find 'the real Larry Norman'. The end result was a typed manuscript of over eighteen foolscap pages. Trying to decide what we would cut out and what we would print became a huge task and eventually we decided to print the entire interview to take place over a few issues of New Music.
Whether you are one of those people who have no time for Larry Norman or one who has followed his ministry from the beginning, I am sure that you will find the interview very informative and possibly one of the most frank, in depth articles you've ever read on Larry.
You've been reported as saying that you don't sing gospel songs. What do you mean by that?
Gospel songs to me are about the mansion in the sky, and washed in the blood of Christ's crimson blood, songs that are filled with biblical wording that's no longer understood by a lot of people. This is called traditional gospel in America; played by anyone and everyone from true Christians in quartet groups to Elvis Presley or Andy Williams.
Where do you see your songs fitting in?
I don't know if they fit in at all. Do they?
Probably not! On your last tour apparently you said that you don't sing gospel music, and everyone said, Wow, so now Larry Norman doesn't sing gospel music!
But I have never sung gospel music. I have never sung I'm Gonna Walk 'Dem Golden Stairs or There'll Be Peace In The Valley For Me.
Okay, so how do you feel about your music then? If it's not gospel, it's ...
Well, if I'm a Christian, it's Christian music. All music written by a Christian should be as integrated as everything else done by a Christian. Every moment a Christian act, a Christian statement, a Christian extension of his life or his beliefs. I'm a Christian, and every song I've written is a Christian song to me. Even if it's 'just' about a love relationship between a man and a woman, how can it be anything but a Christian perspective of a Christian relationship. I try to write about love or anything else in accordance with my beliefs and the fullness of my life as given to me by Christ. I don't happen to do any disco songs about Come Back To My Pad, Baby. I don't think that most love songs on the radio are about love as I understand love. Disco love is not part of God's love.
I read that you don't call yourself an evangelist. What do you call yourself?
Is not an evangelist one who stands on a stage, and after preaching a sermon directly from the Bible, asks for those who feel moved or convicted by the Spirit to stand up and then walk to the front? I haven't been given the gift of evangelism. The Bible says there are different gifts of the Spirit, but that the Spirit gives gifts to whom He will. So apparently you cannot tell the Spirit what gift you want. The Spirit gives gifts according to what God wants for your life. Before I realised that, I used to pray for God to make me an evangelist. I used to give altar calls, and very few people would stand up and come forward immediately as I spoke, but then I would find out later that a lot of people became Christians because of my concerts. So I got the message. I am content to be what God has made me instead of desiring to be Billy Graham or Arthur Blessitt.
What is your attitude towards church commitment?
What do you mean by the words 'church commitment'?
Attending a church regularly, Bible studies, being a deacon in a church, being a member of a local body of believers.
Are we including the apostate church in this? Commitment to any church for the sake of commitment to a religious structure? We must first be committed to God. If the church that we attend is a church that is Christ-centred, one of the true churches of God and not one of the social western world religious look-alike cults, then we should be part of that church. When we receive Christ, we become part of His universal church. To be committed to one another in Christ and be committed to fellowship, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, is not only required by the Bible but is necessary for sustaining your own ... not beliefs, because you can believe without being committed, but sustaining your own communion with the saints. I don't know how people can easily remain Christian if they get no fellowship. They may be able to do it intellectually, but part of the body of man is composed of spirit and parts of soul and of flesh. You need to feed more than just one part of that human trinity. We need worship for our spirit, fellowship for our soul and committed subservience for our body.
In the Belfast Telegraph, you are quoted as saying that you are not after converts. What, then, is the purpose of your concerts?
Well, I am confident that because Christ Himself has called us, that He is after converts. If I were an evangelist, that would be my specific objective - to see people stand up and come forward to be converted through evangelism, but since I am not an evangelist, I can't be after converts. I have to be after something more complete. I have to fit into the body of believers in a kind of an unseen way. I know I stand visibly onstage, but my function is still unseen, because I rarely see the immediate results of what I am saying or doing or writing. I have sought a complete Christian lifestyle for myself. I want to encourage other people to try to discover who they are, not to try to fit into some superficial prototype of what they think a Christian should be, but to discover who they really are. That's what I try to encourage people to do, to become the complete person that Christ has made them. Not to attempt to be 'strong' Christians, but to be weak in Christ, so that He can be strong in us. In Christ, our strengths become weaknesses but our weaknesses become strengths. We should try to die daily unto self and live unto God, rather than try to be 'victorious' in every situation, claiming victory, prosperity and success for our endeavours. I think we should be busy dying and not so busy claiming.
In the past you seem to have caused quite a bit of controversy. Is this something you have deliberately set out to do? If not, why do you think this has happened?
What kind of controversy have I caused?
I think certain people have misconstrued, either by rumours or something more nebulous, that Larry Norman is anti-church. Like that time on television when you said you don't sing gospel songs. What we heard back is that Larry Norman doesn't sing gospel music; he's not a Christian. Something crazy happened down in Melbourne, and I don't know if we'll even print it. A minister told his youth group that Larry Norman had appeared nude in the centrefold of Cosmopolitan magazine.
Is that right? Why wouldn't you print it in this interview?
Because it's so ridiculous. He also mentioned that your latest record had been banned in the States.
Well, my latest record is the only one that hasn't been banned. In Another Land has never been banned, but my others were.
Why do you think that was?
Well, my music was different to what people were used to when I started out. They said, This music cannot be Christian music because we don't like it. We are not going to sell it in our Christian Bible Bookstores because we don't think it's the kind of music we want our children to listen to. So Upon This Rock was banned for several years. Only Visiting This Planet was banned, So Long Ago The Garden was banned. Each has gone off the banned list several years after first being released. People have decided I am a Christian after all. My old albums are very much accepted now, except they're not available because they're our of print. Well, a few of my eight albums are available in different countries.
So is the controversy something that just happened?
I don't know. If you could list the controversies one by one, element by element, then maybe we could look at it a little closer.
Probably the first and main one would be the rumour that you are anti-church.
I never have said such a thing that I know of. I don't know why people would say that I am anti-church. I'm not anti-church. I don't even know how to answer something like that.
Fair enough. I think you just answered that.
I faced rumours in America that ... first of all, I didn't know how to respond to such rumours. How do you stop a lie from being spread? If I would find the people who initially started the rumours, would they be able to remember every single person they'd told? And would those people be able to remember all the people they'd told? No, they wouldn't. There were many strange rumours about me. I was accused of having left my wife, and become a homosexual. Some rumours said I had become a heroin addict. I was accused of having left Jesus and become a satanist. Different rumours said I was living in a cave in Greece, and studying the Koran. An alternate one had me living in the hills of Hollywood like a hermit, studying the Koran. I had supposedly run away to live in New York, run away to live in Africa. The most recent rumour I have heard up till this Cosmopolitan centrefold rumour, was when a woman in a restaurant said, Are you Larry Norman? When I said I was, she said, Sit down for a minute, I would like to ask you a question. Is it true that you have moved to Hollywood and now you're a porno star in sex movies? I said, Where did you hear that? and she said, Well, I heard it from some people who said that they knew it was true. They had inside information. So what am I supposed to say? I felt that turning the other cheek was my best protection: silence. If somebody came up to me personally, I would tell them that the rumours weren't true. But I've never attempted to make a large media statement that the rumours were lies. I felt that my protection was in just holding true to what I believe, and staying close to God. The bullets can bounce off Him easier than they can bounce off me. Instead of running around trying to defend myself, I just stood still.
One of the positive results of the two or three years of rumours was that hundreds of kids were coming up to me on the street, or after a concert, or writing letters to me, saying how ashamed they were that they had gossiped continually about me. They thought the stories were true. Their best friends told them it was all true and they knew their friends wouldn't lie to them. They said they learned a great lesson. They learned never to talk about somebody they don't know, and more important than that, they learned if a rumour is true, their Christian response should be to pray hard for that person, and not contaminate that person's problems further by telling everyone else in the world. It was a good lesson for a lot of people. I learned a lesson from it, too; just be patient with people. People are simple, and they tend to believe that whatever they are told is the truth. I guess the only direct response I have made to all this would be the song Shot Down. In fact Andrae Crouch suggested I write it. He said, Man, I always hear rumours about you. For a white boy, you sure get in a lot of trouble. Why don't you write a song about it. I said, No, I don't think I should answer the rumours. He said, I think you should write a song; a lot of people would listen in a song. I thought that maybe I should write about rumours. I really didn't write the song specifically about myself. It's about rumours, with lines like Spreading rumours and gossip is a real bad game, the only name to spread is Jesus' name. Just trying to put in ... I thought I'd make it into a humorous song so it wouldn't be a 'you've wronged me but I love you' song. So I wrote it as a funny song. A lot of kids came up again to say, Your song really convicted me. It made me laugh but it also convicted me.
Why do you think that Larry Norman is the butt of so many rumours?
It is harder to walk on a tightrope than it is to walk in the middle of the street. In the middle of the street there are many people walking, and they all understand their common ground, but if somebody is walking more on the side of the road, near the edge, right where the road drops off ... if I am walking on that space because I feel that God has called me to stand a little bit away from the flow of humanity and observe it, and make sure that I don't follow the direction of humanity but follow Him, I might be accused by some of walking too perilously close to the cliff. It might look to some people as though I am about to fall off the cliff into the world. Or they might think that perhaps I have already fallen off, and have secretly climbed back up. Or perhaps they think that I'm walking by the side of the road so I can have a good look at the world, and smell all the sins from the garden the world tends. If people sense that you are not like they are, they worry if you're on safe ground, because they're only familiar with their own ground. Apparently God makes us all different. Some of us are happy to respond to His individual touch on our lives by remaining individuals, and others of us are intimidated or frightened into trying to become like each other so that we have company, so that we don't feel so lonely. Instead of making me an individual, had God made me exactly like all my school mates, no doubt I would have been a much happier child. I would have enthusiastically played baseball and football, sneaked cigarettes behind the school, gone off to the drive-in movies and done whatever else the crowd did. But my life was so different from everyone else in my neighbourhood, that I grew up feeling different, thinking differently. So I have arrived at this stage of my life feeling different and thinking differently than some of the people around me. None of us are completely comfortable with the unknown, in the same way that children aren't comfortable with the dark, because who knows what lurks in the shadow and in the undefined areas. In our lives, who knows what the differences between us may mean. They may mean that one is less spiritual than we are, or that someone is not as submitted as we are, but these are distinctions of which only God can be certain. I try to respond to God and accept the differences that He's put into my life; I try to be happy with who He has made me. I try to die daily unto myself so that Jesus can remend my vessel and restructure it so that it holds more, that it pours more out when He tips me.
If people gossip about me, it may be that their gossip is anxious conversation because they don't 'understand' me. I have no idea where rumours like the Cosmopolitan centrefold or the drug addiction to heroin could possibly come from, but some people make up lies, and other just pass them on in ignorance. It would seem that if you're doing something that is not understood, the more different your actions are, the more different your lifestyle is, then the greater the rumours will be. So I have to accept the rumours as being part of my cross to bear. I not only have to suffer rejection from non-Christians who don't want me to tell them about Jesus, but I have to tolerate the rumours and outright attacks by my Christian brothers and sisters, who simply don't understand that I am fighting on another part of the battlefield but I am fighting with them. I may be fighting an enemy who looks different than the one they're fighting, and I may be using a different sort of weapon than the one they fight best with, but I'm fighting the same war and I'm taking orders from the same leader that they're in submission to. I'm with them, standing side by side with them fighting our common enemy. Sometimes it's frightening to discover that our common enemy is often each other.