Chancellor Thornbury To Publish New Book on Larry Norman

The King’s College Chancellor Gregory Alan Thornbury will publish a book on March 20 about rock and roll icon—and devout Christian—Larry Norman.

Part of the cover of Gregory Alan Thornbury's new book
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The King’s College Chancellor Gregory Alan Thornbury, working with publishing house Convergent Books, will publish a book on March 20 about rock and roll icon—and devout Christian—Larry Norman. The book, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock, is the first serious biography of Norman, providing a well-researched backstage look at the beginnings of the Christian music industry. But more than that, it is an exploration of the relationship between faith and art, and a challenge to Christians not to limit themselves to a subculture, but to aspire to excellence and influence in the broader culture.

The cover of Gregory Alan Thornbury's new book

Thornbury says that Norman captured his attention because he was “basically the Forrest Gump of American evangelical Christianity,” over and over again ending up in the middle of major social and culture events. He was a central popular figure of the Jesus Movement, which presented an alternative to the free love/hippie lifestyle but capitalized on many of the same forces at work in American society: a sense of discontentment with American materialism among young people, a desire to live simpler lives, and willingness to act counter-culturally, to “rock the boat,” as it were. Norman, and the Jesus Movement he was a part of, was so ubiquitously in American culture that he was featured on the covers of Time magazine and Life magazine. His work helped spark the billion-dollar industry of contemporary Christian music. Yet, Thornbury says, just fifty years after his first solo album, Upon This Rock, was released, he is largely unknown by young people.

Norman started his music career as a secular artist, forming a band called People!, which during the mid-sixties opened for big-name musicians like The Doors and Janis Joplin. People! had their own hit in 1967, but soon after, Norman found himself being kicked out of the band he had started. The reason was indicative of his future path; Norman was a dedicated Christian, but his bandmates had become Scientologists, pressure began to increase for him to keep his faith to himself. Even in the face of conflict with his fellow musicians, Norman chose to continue sharing about his relationship with Christ. Soon, he found himself performing solo.

Norman signed on with Capitol Records (a secular label), and in 1969 released Upon This Rock, an album explicitly about Jesus. “The secular music industry didn’t know what to do with him,” says Thornbury. Other musicians recognized Norman’s talent, but were mystified by his unwavering dedication to Christianity. Paul McCartney of The Beatles allegedly told Norman once, “You’d be a huge star if you’d shut up about religion.” But Norman was not welcomed with open arms in the organized American evangelical church, either, which did not consider rock and roll a wholesome thing. Some evangelical leaders went further; David Nobel famously decried rock and roll as a “stratagem of Mephistopheles.”

Norman found himself walking a tightrope, Thornbury says, and this balancing act is what inspired Thornbury to write a book about him. Norman persisted in making rock music about Jesus, even though this was a wildly controversial decision, and more than this, he did so with such excellence that the secular world could not ignore him. He was signed onto four record contracts back-to-back with secular labels, an impressive feat. But at the same time, he was hard at work starting The Vineyard, a Christian church in California that quickly spread around the world. He also stepped into the middle of a heated culture issue by bringing up the subject of institutional racism within the white evangelical church, which only made him more difficult for some Christians to accept.

Thornbury summarizes Larry Norman’s career this way: “He truly was a holy fool, in the sense that he insisted on doing something that nobody wanted him to do.” Norman crossed many boundaries, in both church and secular society, but he never renounced—or even censored—his faith in Christ and the deep relationship he had with his Lord and Savior. Thornbury believes that Norman’s example of faithfulness and his simultaneous commitment to excellence is highly relevant for Christians today. “The sad truth is that ‘Christian’ is the greatest of all nouns and the lamest of all adjectives. So much of what Christians do today is a pale imitation of what the world does. So we end up with Christian film, Christian art, and Christian rock.” Thornbury says that even though Norman was the father of Christian rock, “he would have hated the idea that he was making rock ‘safe’ for Christians.” Instead, he set out to glorify Jesus to the best of his ability, and ended up making award-winning rock songs that became the anthems of an entire generation of American Christians.

Norman’s story, Thornbury says, is closely tied to the mission of The King’s College. “Our mission here is to influence strategic institutions through the power of the Gospel,” he says. Christians have historically been “pioneers and pathbreakers in different fields,” not imitators and diluters of secular culture. The King’s College is committed to shaping young Christians who refuse to be limited to a subculture, and who are so excellent in their fields that they will be able to reflect the truth of the Gospel in secular industries and institutions, not simply within Christian ones.

Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? will be available from Convergent Books on March 20. The book is available for pre-order through Amazon.

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