Where do you think Christian music is going?
As a way of communicating the gospel, I can only hope that it goes more secular. The non-Christians aren't being reached through Bible bookstore sales, unless one believes that unsaved men spend their time haunting stores filled with pastel bookmarks, and religious literature. I'm not saying that I doubt God's ability to guide someone into a Bible bookshop, but I just don't see Gospel music having enough reality for the needs of most people who are searching desperately for God. I should say that this is merely my opinion... I'm sure that there are many people who feel that Christian music is exactly where it should be and that it sounds as it ought to sound. There are places where my music is not welcome and I suppose my opinion is not welcome either but I would suggest that probably 99% of all Christian artists have a "body ministry" and that perhaps it's not too adventurous to hope that some artists would deny themselves the comfort and acceptance of the Christian community and take their music into pubs, night clubs and other places where one would expect the unsaved to be.
Do you think Christian music is too commercial? It's certainly become big business in the last ten years.
Christian albums comprise about 25% of the sales in Bible bookshops but Gospel record companies have also been able to sell directly to people through concert and record club sales. I don't see anything wrong with this but I think there's an attitude revealed by the fact that some speak of gospel albums as "units" and "product" and refer to the "consumers" who buy the albums as "target groups" and "markets". I find it very sad that some artists write their songs on the basis of "formats" and try to ensure widespread radio airplay by writing two or three songs for the gospel rock format, two or three songs for the middle-of-the-road format, two or three traditional songs for conservative radio stations formats and so on. I know an artist who writes two comedy songs for each album, then one about death, (like the death of a sister or grandfather or the fact that we all are going to die and that every breath is a gift) because he believes that even Christians are afraid of dying and he's exploiting that fear. He throws in one song about social concern, a song about friendship, a song about the devil and a song about love. He believes he's found a formula which touches every listener. He has even hired a graphics artists to design the album cover which resembles Amy Grant's "Age to Age" because Amy sold 500,000 copies of that album and he believes the cover had some special appeal on a subliminal level. He is trying to manipulate his success by touching people where he thinks they are vulnerable. Now he's trying to figure out Amy's musical formula for the next album. Unfortunately he is just one of many artists today who plan their albums on the basis of what will sell instead of what God might be wanting to say to the world through music.
What kind of music do you think artists should be making?
Well, people should always only say what they believe God wants them to say and if he isn't telling them to say anything perhaps they should remain silent. It's not necessary to have a new album out every year just in time for Christmas or the other two peak sales seasons. All of us who call ourselves Christians are supposed to be servants of the Lord, and not opportunists pouncing upon financial strategies. The Bible says that where your treasure is, there your heart is also.
Who are your favourite Christian singers?
Malcolm Muggeridge and G. K. Chesterton! Just kidding! I'm sorry to say that I'm not a big fan of most gospel albums. I would rather read books by Chesterton and Muggeridge and C.S. Lewis and others. Their books are the equivalent of the music of my soul. Their ideas dance around in my head just like melodies do with other people. For music, I would say that Bob Dylan's "Slow Train Coming" is the best Christian album ever recorded. I've certainly never written anything that says as much and I'd be most impressed if he ever surpasses it himself. I wish every Christian who likes modern Gospel music would buy a copy of "Slow Train". Then they'd have an idea of what Christian music is capable of communicating.
Do you think the Christian arts are important?
Certainly not more important than being a good mother! When people have an ability to paint or act or sing, society attributes special qualities to them. The world accommodates them with tolerant provisions for eccentric behaviour (or selfishness) and calls it artistic temperament when sin is really never less than sin no matter how talented the sinner. I think even Christians make a similar error in the direction of righteousness by thinking that a Christian artist is somehow more sensitive spiritually, or closer to God or more blessed than they are. Some might even feel that for some reason God loves that person a little better and blesses them with talent as a reward. But a musician is not more special because he might be able to write songs and you can't. I would think that a good mother affects society more positively in the long run than do people in the arts. Mothers bear children who have eternal spirits and those children might not only believe in Christ but encourage others to come to a committed belief. Speaking realistically and as an artist, what is the long range effect of most of the arts? They provide a patch of blue here and a tint of red there and perhaps effect you on the night you see the dance or the afternoon you view the painting or watch the actor or hear the singer. But unless the artist himself has been given a gift through the Spirit which translates into his particular art it may be difficult for the artform to bear a ministry which has any effect longer than a pleasant experience. Take music as an example of popular artform which also has the facility for a non-abstract message because of lyrics. Music is not usually an interpretive art from the perspective of the audience. Well, unless the singer has had a deep effect on your psyche or been an instrument for conversion, I would imagine that twenty years from now you're going to catch yourself saying, "Oh, yeah, I remember him. I used to have a couple of his albums". The creative timespan for most artists is around five years and then they kind of fade away. They go on living, and hopefully continue to have effect upon others as Christians, but their art no longer has much of an effect upon their contemporaries. The effects of a good mother's children might have continuing repercussions among other humans. I'm afraid that the arts can make us pause to applaud, but seldom takes us beyond. I certainly don't include books in this judgement. I think that writers like Chesterton significantly rearranged my appreciations in a way that music or film or dance never will. I wish we were a more literate world and that reading held more appeal than stereos and radios.
Were you ever interested in any of the other arts as a performer?
Well, photography is something I enjoy. I used to dance but the kids at school kept calling me a sissy so I made it a private exercise. I've never been a very good painter but I try. I've done a lot of acting but I don't really care about it because there aren't many scripts that says anything to me. Films today are created mostly for money. I enjoyed "Star Wars" and "E.T.", just as much as the rest of the kids but I don't think I could take part in those movies because I believed in spending my time to communicate Christ to others. Movies takes too much time to make. I was in a film once with Larry Hagman and Burgess Meredith. The first day I was on the set the filming took sixteen hours and most of the day was spent moving the lights. We ended up with maybe three minutes of film. That's O.K. because many things take a lot of time and careful planning to execute properly, but I just think I have a responsibility as a Christian to spend my years on earth as wisely as I can and not get sidetracked into areas which might be enjoyable or interesting to me but not expedient. If a project has no Christian message, I'm just not interested in being involved.
In the sixties you wrote musicals like "Alison", "Birthday for Shakespeare", "Love on Hight Street", and "Lion's Breath". Were they ever performed or recorded?
Yes. That's after I left Capitol. I threw myself into the theater arts thinking it might be a way of communicating my beliefs. "Alison" was picked up for Broadway by Edward Padula who had produced "Bye Bye Birdie". "Birthday for Shakespeare" was optioned by Hal and Bo James who had produced "Man of La Mancha". My career as an actor and a playwright seemed to be taking off but I became aware of the battle you have with producers who want you to make the script as broad as possible. I also came to realize what a limited audience you reach. They pay a lot for the tickets to see your shows so you make a lot of money and you're popular and you get to be friends with a lot of other famous people but what kind of life is that? The truth is that most people are friendly to you because in some way they might benefit from you in the future, politically or financially. The theater was a real revelation regarding people's motives, and I'm afraid Christians aren't exempt from ulterior motives if they think you can advance their careers in music or the business side of the gospel music industry. You know, people are people. There are good people who aren't Christians and bad people who are and perhaps it's precisely because sinners realize they have severe problems that you can find so many troubled people in the body of believers. That's wonderful, but at some point Christians have to start dying deeper spiritual deaths to self so that they can be healed more thoroughly. Otherwise, we'll continue to have a microcosm within Christianity where certain Christians manipulate and exploit other Christians just like in the secular world and we'll have to go on saying "the main difference between the Christians and the world is that the Christians happen to be saved". I know this sounds like a dim view but I've seen such incredible and continuing deceptions and excesses just in the Christian music and publishing world. I'm not a minute forgetting that the Bible warns about those who shall say, "Lord, Lord; I preached and prophesied in your name", and that God will say to them, "Depart from me. I never knew you.". All who call themselves believers is not necessarily true believers. Sheep and goats look similar until the shepherd separates them. I'm tired of being a victim of wolves who wear sheeplike garb. I feel I have no recourse but to turn the other cheek. They don't fear that I'll take them to court to stop them stealing from me and other artists. I've tried to ask myself out of harm's way by retreating further and further from the gospel industry but it seems there's very little which isn't governed by the mega-dollars and political friendships that tie up the entire distribution systems. When I left the theater it was because there was too much censorship from the producers and the audience consisted of out-of-towners and convention delegates who weren't really prepared to listen. I felt that it was an unnatural platform for a message. So after "Alison" and "Birthday for Shakespeare" were staged I took over the production control for "Love at Haight Street" and "Lion's Breath" and went back to performing as a singer because it's a more intimate way of communicating the Christian message. It doesn't require a stage full of actors who might not share my beliefs and a producer who's only interested in the box office receipts. Unfortunately, the Gospel industry has evolved away from the purity of the message to a place where the major record companies are very aware of maximizing their profits, and the gospel charts are closely followed by record stores and bookstore retailers. I've had both "In Another Land" and "Something New Under the Son" censored and that was back in 1976 and 1977. Today there's no real problem with censoring, because now they just refuse to release you at all if you don't fit there projected ideals for record sales. This problem might be most obvious in America, England, and Canada, but it's certainly beginning to happen in Australia too. It's only a problem with the major companies, really ... there are always small companies willing to take chances with albums. I've always thought Sparrow a very decent company, so I'm not trying to say that this commercial attitude is universal. I'm just saying that gospel music has become as commercial a marketplace as secular music and that ministry is not as much of a priority as it once was. I still think that preaching is the most successful and thorough way of communicating the Gospel but as artforms go, music is probably the most immediate and accessible platform. You can reach more people with your message and you can say something different to each audience and let God's spirit guide you in communicating to that specific audience at the particular moment. With a play, the words are the same every night and instead of travelling all around the world you have to wait for people to come to the theatre. Christian music is portable art and can be more personal and direct, provided of course you have the courage to deliver your message instead of trying to entertain and be popular, and that you are actually called in the first place to deliver the Gospel through music.
If you were more popular or successful do you think you could reach more people?
I'm not convinced that just because more people know who you are that is guarantees they'd listen to you. Your visibility or familiarity might make it even more difficult to get through to them. You'd become a commodity. They'd say "Oh yeah, he's that guy who sings about Jesus", as through it's your official job instead of something you might be doing because you're sincerely concerned about people's salvation and redemption. If I were really famous, and had a high recognizability factor, people might not be personally touched because of the remoteness of being a household face. They're so familiar that you stop thinking of them as people and they become prototypes or incarnations of their personalities like puppets and cartoon characters. There is no spirit because they're not human but their personality components become synthesized to the point of abstraction. A perfect example is the Muppets, who became almost more real than people because human beings are filled with contradiction and tension but a puppet is an anthropomorphological icon with a face and body perfectly matched to its created personality. Human not only have many personality facets bonded together by motives but have many faces instead of the one expression a puppet has. The more an actor like John Wayne or a Marilyn Monroe fit a prototype and play the same role over and over again, the more they inhabit their symbolic role. You stop "believing" them on a word by word basis and start accepting their portrayal in advance. It would be impossible to accept John Wayne acting out a part of a coward or Marilyn Monroe portraying a cashier in a grocery store. I don't want to become so familiar or famous that people stop listening to me and think of me as a caricature of a human being. I want to keep my communication with people as personal as I can. I can talk with people backstage and pray with them. I think if I became too famous I couldn't do that kind of thing any more. I spend three or four hours after most concerts, talking with people. Let's say I became just twice as popular. Or that out of audiences which were twice as large, twice as many people came backstage to talk with me and pray. How could I spend six to eight hours a night talking to people? If I had hit records and performed in stadiums, how in the whole world could I respond personally to people? So if I become more recognizable or more successful on a popular level I can only foresee having my personal ministry become limited. You know, if it becomes smaller I think that would be fine. And if I weren't popular at all I'd have a totally personal ministry because no one would ever think they were "talking to Larry Norman". They'd just be talking to someone they met on the street corner. I don't believe a ministry can ever become too small. One to one is not too small, is it? But I believe a ministry can definitely get too large. If God increases a ministry then He has a reason for it, but I think it's sad when man tries to increase his own popularity or extend his own success. If the Bible says "Beware when all men speak well of you", then why should anyone attempt to court the approval of the masses? Instead of trying to manipulate the perceptions and adoration of the public a man should speak the message God is giving him to speak and let people respond in the various ways they choose to.
How has your ministry changed over the years?
I think a career, even as a public preacher, can come through speaking techniques or knowing how to get a point of logic across to an audience. But a ministry comes only through a heart that submits itself to the devices of the Holy Spirit and listens to God's directives. I was so emotionally damaged for so many years because of a chaotic marriage that I couldn't even smile on stage. I could preach and I could sing, but I couldn't emotionally open myself to the audience because I was so numb. I was cold because I was dead. But in 1978 my marriage ended and then became legally over by 1980 and I began to come back to life because I didn't have such a destructive home life any more. Drugs and men created a lot of problems I couldn't seem to help her overcome and she sought out spirits to guide her and I couldn't convince her that these spirits were not of God. She felt that she had never sinned so it was difficult to get her to turn away from any of her practices. Unless you think something is wrong you can't move in another direction to make it right; and she just didn't believe that she had ever sinned. I tell young people not to get married too quickly because I realize that I did before I really got to know her well enough. She felt that marrying me she would be able to move to Hollywood and become an actress, but I didn't know about her goals until later. When you are married to someone you are bonded to them and you become affected of them. After a few years having men friends I told her that I thought our marriage was dead but that I didn't want to get a divorce. I told her that I was going to start wearing black because I was in mourning and that I wouldn't start to wearing colors until there was a change. You can not force an alcoholic to remain sober and you can not inspire someone to repent. In any relationship both people make mistakes but it's naive to say that both people are equally responsible for the sins of one person. If a person has drug problems before you even meet them you can't hold yourself responsible for that same problem six years later. It clearly is an independent choice, separate from your influence. That is something I didn't understand. I kept thinking that just by the force of my commitment I could make things change. But ask anyone who does social work and they'll tell you that you cannot care about the person than they care about themselves and create a change in them simply because you love them. They've got to want to change. They've got to see a need for change. You can't change for them, and this is something I refused to believe.Anyway, now I'm not consumed by depression any more. I've enjoyed doing concerts for the first time in years and I've been able to smile instead of going home and crying all the time.
Do you feel that your music has changed since your divorce?
It's changed a lot. I realize that polite Christian society finds divorce practically unforgivable. I myself am one of those people who believes marriage is a permanent commitment. A marriage is much more than a legal arrangement or two people living under one name under one roof. Marriage is a spiritual bond through the flesh. And adultery is a breaking of that bond. But adultery is no reason to end your marriage. Adultery is merely a sin and that sin, like others, should be forgiven again and again if necessary. The problem is that if adultery continues then you have to wonder if the bond is intact. Adultery is a sexual divorce in the spirit and because God doesn't believe in the continual divorcement of a relationship, Jesus said that adultery is the only acceptable grounds for divorce. Continual adultery is a pretty good sign that the bond is severed and that there is no commitment to fidelity. That's when your marriage is over, not when you receive legal papers in the mail. My music has changed in the same way that my emotions have been resurrected. I'm using a lot more scripture in my songs because I've survived so much sorrow and I find that there is a gracious mix of wisdom and sorrow in the scriptures that somehow blossoms into worship. That's what I want to capture in my song, but I can't improve on how the Bible expresses itself, so I don't even try.
Do you having any new albums coming out soon?
Yes. I'm releasing Young Lions albums I've been recording with my brother. And I'm recording a lot of new songs because I've been so inspired lately. In April I married a wonderful Christian woman. And I must say I'm happy to be alive. Love does that to you. I feel great. I've even lost twenty five pounds because I stopped trying to feed a broken heart. She's had an interesting life, and she's experienced a lot of heartbreak so we understand what each other has been through. She was raised in a wealthy family and privately educated. She's a really creative musician from a family of artists. Her sister is an actress and her brother is Stephen Cannell who created "The A-Team" and earlier series like "Baretta" and "The Rockford Files". When she became a Christian she turned her back on that world and began working with troubled children at a Montessori school. She was married to a man who liked his liquor and other women more than her. He squandered her life's savings and then left her for another woman. He got remarried two months after his divorce. She's been mending a broken heart for years. She refused to date anyone because she wasn't interested in ever getting married again, and I felt the same way. I just couldn't imagine starting a relationship with anyone ever again. Just the thought of going out on a date and having someone ask me what I studied in school or something like that, you know, "what was your major in college" or "so, tell me about your childhood". I just couldn't face the proposition of entering a new relationship with a stranger. But God has a way of renewing your hope. I mailed her a copy of "Orthodoxy" by Chesterton when I was over in England and her response to it was so profound. I didn't dream she was a deep thinker. We started corresponding and I thought I'd made a good friend but when I got back to America it turned out that I'd made much more than a friend. I know it sounds sappy but I'm experiencing flowers and valentines and chirping birds. I feel young again. I've had so much energy that I've been able to finish a lot of work lately. I've written twice as many songs as I usually do and they're better songs than I've written in years. I think "Behind the Curtain" will be a pleasant surprise for some people. But the thing I'm happiest about is that I can smile again and emotionally commit myself to my ministry. The number of people coming backstage to pray is an encouragement to me that I'm speaking more clearly than in years past. Now that we're travelling to different countries together, my wife and I are both talking with people together. We have a ministry that supports one another's efforts to preach the gospel. This summer we're going to England together to visit Malcolm and Kitty Muggeridge and to record some songs together for an album called "War and Peace". What can I say? I've never been happier in my entire life.