In 1977-1978, a small revival swept through the American School In Japan and a number of upperclassmen came to the Lord. There were rumors of a revival taking place among hippies in the United States, and how they were called “Jesus People.” And at Lake Nojiri where long-haired American teens hung out during the summer and listened to music, a record appeared. It was called In Another Land and was by this guy called Larry Norman. He had long hair and sang rock songs about Jesus, and his music had come all the way over to Japan.
Decades later, I attended a life celebration of a fellow who expected to die. And who should show up to honor him, but Larry Norman! So I got to hear Larry tell crazy stories and sing old tunes, including “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” which I remember so well from those rapture-crazy days of the mid-70’s to mid-80’s. We sang it often in those days. Though Larry was physically frail, and I had abandoned the rapture teachings I learned from reading The Late Great Planet Earth, there was something magical about hearing him sing it. It brought back memories of high school and college, and the young faith I carried.
Last year, Larry died.
And last week, I saw the world premiere of Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman.
I was moved, troubled, and inspired:
Moved because I got to see concert footage of Larry in his prime. This guy was a wild man on stage, with amazing energy and charisma. His all-black outfit accentuated his long light hair, and he sang with passion. Though there had been others singing Jesus rock, this guy took it opened doors (on a mainstream label), took it to a new level of raw honesty and talent, and inspired so many.
Troubled because I learned things that weren’t pretty. That raw honesty? It wasn’t as honest as I had thought. Now that I read the Wikipedia entry on Larry Norman, I see the movie didn’t reveal much that is not public knowledge …but I sure didn’t know! The revelations became progressively worse, and I sat in my seat. Shocked. Squirming.
Inspired because the people Larry most wronged forgave him, and still spoke of the power of his music. If Larry could not validate his message with his life, it’s as though his friends took up the slack and showed that what he sang is still real. The kingdom of God shone brightly—not through strength, but through brokenness. Which is kind of subversive in itself, isn’t it? How like God.
What struck me was the danger of power, even powerful Christian ministry.
Technically, I was surprised that the interviews were conducted with an auto-focusing camera. This was distracting, because if anyone moved around, the lens kind of moved in and out, trying to find the subject again. Even with our cheap camcorder, I know to set the focus manually if I can. It also didn’t look like the white point was set, resulting in jarring color changes when different interviews were stitched together. This could also have been corrected to some extent in post-production using AfterEffects. …But the content, narrative flow, and editing were good. In fairness, the director said his training was in theology, not film—but I wish he would undergird his storytelling ability with these basics.
Update: David DiSabitano informs me that they are going to do more post-production cleanup! They just didn’t have time to do it for the Cinequest film festival. This is good news.
So back to the story… We are left with many unanswered questions regarding Larry’s decisions and motivations. What struck me was the danger of power, even powerful Christian ministry. Some people are so gifted that they have great influence. When people look up to you, a common response is to craft an image for them to admire and for you continue your influence. We all do this; it doesn’t make it right. I’m sure you can think of examples of Christian leaders who have fallen and been publicly disgraced. But what about those who continue to have good reputations—what kind of spiritual danger do they live with as a consequence of being gifted and influential? And for us who aspire to lead others, how incredibly important it is to keep building humility and keep killing pride!
I also thought of the dangers of compartmentalized faith. Evangelical Christians like to proclaim that “God must always come first in my priorities, then my spouse.” Bull twinkies. This kind of thinking has done so much harm to marriages and families. Rather than a western hierarchy of priorities, I try to hold to a more eastern way of thinking: Jesus must be at the center of my relationships. God is not more important to me than my marriage; God is in my marriage. Separate them, and one can do all sorts of damage “in the name of God.” It made me ask myself (almost like a party game) which I would choose: an influential ministry and a family that felt neglected or abandoned, or no influence, but a family that knew they were loved. (Also try substituting the word “friends” for “family.”) Which would you choose?
It’s picture time!
Q & A with director David DiSabitano, Randy Stonehill (yes, the Randy Stonehill), and (I think I got this right) Denny Fridkin who was in the band People! with Larry. I asked the director why this movie was called “A Bible Story.” He said that Christians like to portray themselves as clean, nice people who have it all together, but that the Bible is filled with people like Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) who had clear faults — but God used them anyway. (I also got to chat with him afterwards.)
David said that he and Randy were hitting the road to show the movie in seminaries. I hope that it gets people thinking about the issues that struck me.
Larry’s first wife Pamela Newman. Can you tell she has a “large” personality?
Randy Stonehill and Larry’s unrecognized son, Daniel Robinson. As the crowd milled about afterwards, Daniel complained, “No one is talking to me.” I said, “That’s because we do don’t know what to say! Thank you for being part of this story.”
Randy was selling his albums, including the soundtrack to the movie, Paradise Sky. Daniel was selling DVDs of the movie, which you can get online at the movie website. He was also selling DiSabitano’s earlier documentary about Lonnie Frisbee, which I definitely want to see now.
I want to close with Larry’s farewell message which I read on his website when he died:
I feel like a prize in a box of cracker jacks with God’s hand reaching down to pick me up. I have been under medical care for months. My wounds are getting bigger. I have trouble breathing. I am ready to fly home. I won’t be here much longer. I can’t do anything about it. My heart is too weak. I want to say goodbye to everyone. In the past you have generously supported me with prayer and finance and we will probably still need financial help. My plan is to be buried in a simple pine box with some flowers inside. But still it will be costly… However money is not really what I need, I want to say I love you. I’d like to push back the darkness with my bravest effort. There will be funeral information posted on my website, in case some of you want to attend. We are not sure of the date when I will die. Goodbye, farewell, we will meet again.
Update: The movie site has posted Frequently Asked Questions.