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Larry Norman was nothing if not provocative, as he shows in this interview from the December 2005 issue of Gilbert magazine, the magazine of the American Chesterton Society, here reprinted by permission of the society and Gilbert magazine. Dale Ahlquist is president of the society (the magazine name derives from Gilbert Keith Chesterton). For more information, click the Gilbert link below.
Right: Gilbert Magazine, December 2005.
An Interview with Larry Norman by Dale Ahlquist
A PERSONAL NOTE BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION: People often ask me how I discovered Chesterton. I have not always told the whole story because it is somewhat complicated. It was an unlikely person who first suggested to me that I read Chesterton. He was a popular recording artist who was known the Father of Jesus Rock music. Time magazine called him the best lyricist since Paul Simon. He was probably the most influential person in my life during my teenage years. He was also married to my sister. His name is Larry Norman. Sadly, they were divorced in 1980, just a few months before I actually read my first Chesterton book. I recently had the privilege of re-connecting with Larry after many years and expressing my debt to him for introducing me to the writer who not only changed my life, but took over my life. He kindly consented to this interview. If you are interested in finding out more about Larry’s music, visit www.larrynorman.com.
GM: Back in Nineteen Seventy Something or Other, when I was in college, I spent a summer working for you in your studio in Hollywood. One day you caught me reading a C.S. Lewis book, and you told me I should read Chesterton because “Chesterton is better than C.S. Lewis.” In fact, you said that if I read Chesterton, I wouldn’t even need to read Lewis “because all of C.S. Lewis is in Chesterton.”
LN: Did I really say that?
GM: Yup. A stunning comment, not to mention a rather strong endorsement. It was about three years later when I finally picked up my first Chesterton book, but your comment stuck with me. And here’s the thing: you were right! My question is, How did you know that? In what ways did you find Chesterton better than C.S. Lewis?
LN: I felt that C.S. Lewis was a bright, creative writer and that he pondered quite deeply over matters of the heart and dispensed rigid insights in books like The Four Loves and The Screwtape Letters. And he was very fanciful in Until We Have Faces and imaginative in The Chronicles of Narnia. But none of his work ever made an emotional connection with me, except for The Four Loves which I read over and over again. So I finally stopped reading him after I read ten or twelve of his books. By “stopped reading” I mean that I never again would consider him as a resource for my own life. I would never fondly browse over his work or re–read any of his books again. I felt that I had come to the end of his intellect and saw the breadth of it and that I was satisfied that I had learned things from him but did not expect that I would learn much more. But also, I had stumbled onto Chesterton and I would never be the same for it. Chesterton basically ruined Lewis and Tolkien and MacDonald for me. After I read Orthodoxy, I didn’t much care for Os Guiness or Francis Schaeffer again. I’m not saying that any of these writers are bad, or second rate. But Chesterton appeared to be so far beyond them that he became my new standard and everyone else seemed paled within the perimeter of his brilliance.
GM: How did you discover Chesterton? Which books did you read?
LN: I was recording an album in England with George Martin, who was The Beatles’ producer. I was haunting London bookstores in my spare time. I came across a Father Brown collection. “A Christian detective, eh? I think I’ll read this one tonight.” The novelty and the absurdity of it was simply in my anticipation. I had always thought of crime work as being a secular pursuit. Dead bodies piling up, beautiful women with low morals. But when I began reading the Father Brown volume, I realized that nothing is more natural than a Christian doing detective work.
GM: How’s that?
LN: Because that’s what each of us is called to do; to search the scriptures, and test the spirit, and follow the light. In essence, to become a converted believer is a miracle beyond our intention. But to carry on from the cross and find out what it means to be a Christian requires that we sleuth our way through the misdirection of modern religious culture and uncover the crimes of our own heart and amass the evidence against ourselves so that we can throw ourselves upon the mercy of the court, which is God’s own unconditional love. So in the end, there is no penance required for our conversion itself, though we may continue to pay the price for our previous choices.
I think that Chesterton understood all of this. He doesn’t strike me as being a “Catholic” or a “Protestant” or a conservative or a liberal. He seems to be all men, in the same way which Christ’s gospel crosses over all the political distinctions. He wrote Orthodoxy thirteen years before he entered the Catholic church. So it’s not a work of Catholic doctrine. It is an attempt to encircle the doctrine of Christ and remove everything which is not Christ, so that only Christ himself remains.
GM: Tell me some more about your first impressions of Chesterton as you read the Father Brown stories.
LN: I first thought the stories were written simply to be charming amusements. But what first endeared me to Chesterton was the story where Father Brown is trying to piece together what happened based on the things which lay on the ground before him. His friend gives an extremely plausible diagnosis of the evidence, which I happened to agree with. But Father Brown suggested that perhaps it was an entirely different set of occurrences. “Oh, of course, I thought. How clever. This is exactly what happened.”
So now I, the reader, am quite impressed with the little detective. But then Father Brown shocks his friend by looking at the same evidence and suggesting a third way of analyzing the evidence.
This was a disturbing moment for me. This Chesterton fellow was not only facile and clever, but brilliant and frighteningly so. His staggering intellect came through on even this simple tale created for an entertainment.
I read the entire book in one sitting. The next day I went back to the store and bought every single book of his which was available. And I ordered the ones which weren’t on the shelves. I was very disappointed when the shopkeeper told me the following week that many of the books I ordered had been out of print for years.
What? How is that possible? This incredibly brilliant writer was so far beyond a typical Christian author that there could be little prejudice against him in the literary world, even by atheists and iconoclasts, simply because he happened to believe in Jesus. Writers could have envied him and critics denounce him, but every book he had written should have remained in publication.
I vowed to start tracking his works down in every country that I went to when I was on tour. Here and there I found jewels and great treasure. My collection grew. The book jackets were scratched and torn a little, the bindings were dog eared at the corners.
I talked about Chesterton to almost everyone I knew. None of them recognized his name. I bought many copies of Orthodoxy and passed them out, saying that I expected a report on what each person thought about the book. Finally a ray of light shone through the clouds of public befuddlement and international disregard. There was soon to be a centenary celebration of the hundredth year since Chesterton’s birth, in 1974, and I had begun to hear murmurings from shop owners that publishers would be putting out new volumes of his work. Within a few years, I was pleased about all of this because Chesterton was suddenly quite well known outside of Britain and young Christians were referring to his works in the same sentence with other world class theologians and writers, all of whom I felt were subordinate to Chesterton’s gift.
GM: As a gifted creative artist yourself, do you have any insights, or at least speculations, into Chesterton as a creative artist?
LN: I think Chesterton was also a performer. He very often is showing off his intellect, not so that others would bow down to his wit, but for the same reason that a man from Kenya might run and win in a marathon – because he’s got two legs and rejoices in the strength God has given him. It’s not egotistical to try to be the world’s fastest runner, and it’s not egotistical to try and be the world’s most succinct communicator. Narcissism is not connected to ability. Sometimes a modest genius walks the earth. It’s far more common to find thousands and millions of mediocre thinkers who are infatuated with themselves. Sometimes even a wino on skid row feels superior to everyone who passes him by. So I get the feeling that Chesterton often muttered to himself, “Who’s a clever boy, then?” But I don’t think he took himself seriously, only his faith seriously.
GM: Would you say that any of your songs are “Chesterton-inspired”? For instance, does "The Outlaw" come from The Everlasting Man?
LN: I hadn’t read The Everlasting Man at the time I wrote “The Outlaw.” But actually, it follows a method that Chesterton often used; the reduction of evidence until all that is left is the obvious. I wrote “The Outlaw” because of all the conversations I had with people when I was witnessing on the street. The hippies would tell me that of course they believed in Jesus. He was the first hippie. He was a radical. He was an outlaw. He was a poet. He was a charismatic visionary. He was a sorcerer who could raise people from the dead.
GM: Let’s back up a bit. There was a time when you was the only person singing modern Christian songs.
LN: I started in 1956. I was asked to go on the national television show called “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour” when I was eleven. Fifteen years later a group called Love Song wrote some beautiful Hawaiian surf songs. Then other people began writing contemporary songs. I would say that it stayed “pure” until about 1973. And then kids were imitating other artists, making garage music, only doing it in their youth groups. By then a few of my songs were in hymnals, something I never wanted. And “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” was being used in propagandistic gospel films like Thief In The Night; typical scare–tactics, fire and brimstone stuff.
Then a magazine called Contemporary Christian Music started up and decided they needed to have “national music charts” just like Billboard and Cash Box and Record World. Suddenly, Jesus Junk like glow–in–the–dark crosses and “Jesus Loves Me” baseball hats moved upscale to CDs and full page ads.
GM: I remember a long time ago you warned that the Christian music industry was in danger of completely aping the secular music industry. And that’s what happened. There is a problem with any art form becoming an industry, but it is especially subject to abuse if an overtly Christian art form becomes an industry. But in this, some would say the problem was in Christian Rock music itself. Worship services have become performances. The stage has replaced the altar. How do you respond?
LN: I’m disgusted by it. In 1971 I went to a Bible Book Sellers Convention. I saw things I couldn’t even imagine. A dog sweater with a Bible verse on the side. A Frisbee with John 3:16 printed on it. The instructions which came with it said to take it to the beach, casually throw it into a crowd of young people, sitting together. Go over to retrieve it and take the opportunity to tell them what John 3:16 means. So in other words, lie to them. Pretend it was an accident. Pretend it’s just an afterthought that you are explaining Christianity to them and assuming the Holy Spirit will honor this deception.
So this Jesus Junk was like the wreckage from a gospel galleon. It washed up into our culture. I had broken my index finger on stage one night. The Bible has a verse which says, “Lift up your body as a living sacrifice.” So I would hold up my fist and extend my finger after each song. Inside I was thinking, “Take the rest of me, Lord. Take whatever you want.” And I was telling people, “Rock and roll is not the way.Drugs is not the way. Free love is not the way. There’s only one way to find the truth of life. You must die to self and be born again in Christ.” The next thing I know Lance Bowen paints a big “one way” sign on butcher paper and it’s the backdrop for my concert appearance in Hollywood. And soon it was an auto parts distributor making “One Way” bumpers stickers, belt buckles, tie-tacs, lapel pins, t–shirts and lamp shades down in Mexico and spewing it all over America.
Today you’ve got “praise and worship” music that is not much different. You’ve got writers who do nothing but write praise music, distributed by companies who do nothing but sell praise music. Worship or praise is supposed to be a private moment, which perhaps overflows and becomes visible or audible to our neighbors, friends and family members. How much “inspiration” can you attribute to music that is created, rather cynically if you think about it, to induce people to turn “inward” and invoke the Holy Spirit to enter the proceedings.
The music is so repetitive that it is the equivalent of “trance music” which is very common to the process other religions use to get the congregants into a receptive mood. In voodoo ceremonies, primitive tribal celebrations and Hare Krishna gatherings.
I’m not saying that praise and worship music cannot be sincere, or authentic. But write your own. Explore your own gratitude. How glad are you that God has taken you from what you were previously? Express it.
But don’t allow somebody else to frame your thoughts for you. I don’t want somebody else telling me what I should thank God for. And I certainly don’t think an inspirational writer of praise and worship, which should be a spontaneous expression of your personal faith . . . this music should not be cranked out and then demo’d and passed around to determine which of the in-house bands will be allowed to release it first. I think Jesus would want to run through these booksellers conventions and praise and worship conventions, overturn all the tables and drive all the inspirational writers out into the sunshine.
GM: The late Rich Mullins was another Christian Rock singer who loved Chesterton, but who seemed quite unsullied by the Christian music industry. Did you know him?
LN: Yes, Rich was a beautiful cat, dude. He was righteous. He lived on a Navajo reservation. He believed that we are to be submissive, not aggressive. Rich was an extremely decent person. Many, many Christian artists are like ravenous wolves. They are hunting down an audience for their work. Fill those seats. Sell those “product units” – which is what some of them call their CDs. And try to get as much “real estate” as possible, which means shelf space.
Rich was trying to find God, not make sure that people would find him. He wanted others to establish their security in Christ, but he also demanded it of himself that he get close to God and grow.
GM: Was there anyone else you’ve known with a distinct Chesterton connection?
LN: It was the year before I had chanced upon my first copy of Father Brown that I became friends with another Englishman; the BBC correspondent and philosopher despised by Bertrand Russell for this faith: Malcolm Muggeridge. He was in America to speak and we fell in together and had a lively conversation, even though I knew nothing about him. But his inner-workings reminded me of Chesterton and I found myself embracing Malcolm, and his wife Kitty, and hoping I would again see them in the future.
Ineluctably, I found myself the next year sitting next to him on a platform waiting to speak to 15,000 people at Trafalgar Square in London. We were representing a Christian perspective on morality, always a dangerous proposition. But Malcolm and I spoke about other issues which were more specific to the gospel than to the manifest detritus of observable behavior. After all, sin surrounds us. But it is the light of truth that is more penetrating.
In fact, Malcolm Muggeridge is the only person I ever met who I felt would have been a close match to Chesterton. Muggeridge’s writing style was not that compelling. But I saw him debate other philosophers in a round robin affair put on by the Butts Institute and he was far better at spontaneous formulation than he was at linear composition.
He didn’t consider himself a theologian or a great writer. He wrote with gravid economy, laced with flourishes of passion. He considered himself an investigator and a reporter. And what he was investigating and reporting was who he had discovered Jesus to be. He was hated by Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre. He seemed to feel that this was a medallion of honor. A sign, a fleece, a kind of proof that he was on the right path.
He made a public announcement that after considering a protestant position, he had decided to convert to Catholicism. But when I asked him what church he was now attending, he said he didn’t go to church anymore. When I asked him if he went to confession he said no, he never did. And he said he could not accept the Catholic Creed or the Eucharist. So I asked him “Then why do you say you’re a Catholic?” And he laughed and said, “Because I know how much it upsets the Church of England.”
GM: Did he ever talk to you about Chesterton?
LN: He had actually met Chesterton once. He said that he felt the greatest affinity with him as a writer and that there was no significant number of Anglican or Protestant writers whose literary works could ever stand alongside Chesterton. Or Hilaire Belloc. He appreciated the provisional devotion of St. Francis and the high moral density of Aquinas. But also he identified with the darker observations of Evelyn Waugh and Mauriac and the tangential devotion of Gustave Flaubert. He accepted spiritual ecstasy as a logical arrival. And identified with the righteous fixation of Fyodor Dostoevsky, within the Russian Orthodox church. Muggeridge saw any Christian believer who was not expressly Anglican to be “catholic” and thereby Catholic. I think Muggeridge respected the self-inquisition of a man’s own soul, and the struggle toward a holy light. And he felt that Protestant literary works were anemic in this aspect. For there is very little coarse texture in the thoughts of a modern proselyte; more often smooth, bland curiosity – when tortuous passion would better serve in seeking spiritual enlightenment.
I think Chesterton admired this instinct, too. Although it is hardly an instinct, or else many more would be experiencing God more fully. It’s really a commitment. To die daily to self and live unto God. G.K. was an instigator. An accuser of the indifferent. A prodder of the lazy. He wanted people to wake up and be alive. He knew that God must excavate the center of a person. And that Protestantism seemed content to add on, from the outside, good deeds and polite manners. Chesterton didn’t mind being a contradictory man of faith. As absent minded as he might have appeared and as aleatory as his interests seemed to be, he was always heading home. Always trying to find the cross in every situation.