Larry Norman and the never-ending culture wars over 'Christian' music and art (Part I)

Larry Norman and the never-ending culture wars over 'Christian' music and art (Part I)

When Larry Norman released "Upon This Rock" in 1969, its rock-star sizzle and blunt faith put the album in the soundtrack for millions of lives as the "Jesus Movement" revival surged onto the cover of Time magazine.

Music industry pros were used to hearing The Beatles on Capitol Records. Now there was a longhaired guy on the same label belting out: "Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation to every man and every nation. Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation and let the people know that Jesus cares."

Norman's work did more than shake up church youth meetings. His early success convinced some Gospel music executives to turn up the drums and guitar solos. Soon, "Contemporary Christian Music" grew into a billion-dollar industry with its own written and unwritten rules.

Now it was time for Norman to freak out Christians as much as he did secular-music people in the early years when he shared concert bills with Janis Joplin, The Doors, The Who and others. What were Christian radio stations supposed to do with "The Great American Novel," a song that addressed racism, war, poverty and other hot-button topics?

"You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter, then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water," sang Norman. "And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on, at every meal you say a prayer; you don't believe but still you keep on."

Norman "overloaded lots of people's circuits" and, eventually, even his own, according to philosopher Gregory Alan Thornbury, author of a new biography named after one of Norman's most famous tunes -- "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" The subtitle hints at future darkness: "Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock." Norman died in 2008 at the age of 60.

Thornbury calls Norman the "Forrest Gump," a true "holy fool," of American evangelicalism. The scholar, and guitar player, doesn't hide Norman's struggles in business and his private life, adding a painful backstory to a career that put the singer shoulder to shoulder with everyone from the Rev. Billy Graham to President Jimmy Carter, and lots of colorful people in between. As a young man, Vice President Mike Pence was born again at a Christian rock festival -- headlined by Norman.

30 years of 'On Religion' -- Billy Graham, Shirley MacLaine and better religion news

30 years of 'On Religion' -- Billy Graham, Shirley MacLaine and better religion news

Through the decades, the Rev. Billy Graham was known for saying three words over and over -- "The Bible says."

But the world's most famous evangelist quoted another authority during his 1994 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors -- Shirley MacLaine. A year earlier, Graham noted, the actress, and spiritual adventurer told the editors that religion plays a major role in news worldwide and that it's high time for journalists to accept that.

"What has happened to us?", asked MacLaine. "Why is the discussion of spirituality considered so publicly embarrassing, sentimental or, God forbid, New Age? Why does it make us squirm, when our own founding fathers recognized the spiritual aspect of man as his most fundamental?''

"Amen," said Graham. Journalists and preachers, he stressed, both communicate news about what's happening in life and culture. Both care about people and truth. Both care about injustice, racism and corruption.

"I believe that this is why the founding fathers included both freedom of religion and freedom of the press in the same First Amendment," he added. "In the long run, the loss of one freedom will bring about the loss of the other."

It isn't every day that a religion writer gets to quote Billy Graham and Shirley MacLaine making essential points about journalism.

Then again, this isn't just another column for me. This week marks my 30th anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column. The first piece ran on April 11, 1988 and focused -- wait for it -- on arguments about evangelicals and White House politics. Turn, turn, turn.

Three decades is a long time, so allow me to pause and make something clear. I still believe that if journalists want to cover real news in the real lives of real people in the real world then they need to get real serious about religion.

Yes, there are problems.

'On Religion' flashback -- Pat Robertson, evangelicals and the White House (column No. 1)

'On Religion' flashback -- Pat Robertson, evangelicals and the White House (column No. 1)

Some friends have asked to see "On Religion," column No. 1 -- which predates the Internet by about five or six years. So here it is, typed into the system, working from a copy printed at the time on a newsroom dot-matrix printer. Remember those?

There may have been a few edits in DC, because the column format was about 100 words shorter in the early days.

-- tmatt

 

WASHINGTON DESK: Terry Mattingly's religion column for 4/11/88.

On the morning before Easter, Pat Robertson stood in a pulpit under an American flag and a banner that read, "King of Kings, Lord of Lords."

The press was barred from the meeting in the Harvest Christian Center, in a Denver suburb.

One of the last stops on Robertson's first try to reach the White House was at a luncheon here with about 200 clergy and church activists. Days later, he stopped active campaigning, but pledged that he would try again.

Still this 1988 scene held pieces of the puzzle that is Robertson's future.

The faithful raised their hands high in praise to God and sang familiar hymns with a man that they knew well, a fellow "charismatic" Christian who believed in miracles, prophecy and "speaking in tongues." A nearby table held tapes on a subject close to Robertson's heart -- healing.

It was a scene from his past. And Robertson's aides were trying to keep it out of his public image in the present and future.

Pope Benedict XVI and Europe's future: New data about fading faith in Christendom's old heart

Pope Benedict XVI and Europe's future: New data about fading faith in Christendom's old heart

After years of worrying about Europe's future, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany put his hopes and fears on the record during a 2001 interview.

There had been hints. German journalist Peter Seewald noted an old quote in which Ratzinger said the church would be "reduced in its dimensions, it will be necessary to start again." Had the leader of Rome's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith changed his views?

"Statistical data shows irrefutable tendencies," replied Ratzinger. "The mass Church may be something lovely, but it is not necessarily the Church's only way of being.

"The Church of the first three centuries was small, without being, by this fact, a sectarian community. On the contrary, it was not closed in on itself, but felt a great responsibility in regard to the poor, the sick."

Four years later, this bookish cardinal became Pope Benedict XVI, serving until his stunning resignation in 2013 -- the first pope to resign in 600 years. Meanwhile, waves of change have continued to rock Eastern and Western Europe.

Now, the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion in Society, based at St. Mary's University in London, has released a study showing that Christianity is no longer Europe's default religion, especially among the 16- to 29-year-olds who are its future. "Europe's Young Adults and Religion," was produced with the Institut Catholique de Paris, analyzing data from 22 countries, drawn from the 2014-2016 European Social Survey.

In 18 of these countries "fewer than 10 percent of all 16-29 year-olds attend religious services at least weekly. And in 12 of them, over half say that they have 'no religion,' " noted Stephen Bullivant, the report's author and director of the Benedict XVI Centre, in email exchanges with Rod Dreher of The American Conservative.

"These are all countries in Europe, the very heart of Christendom, where Christianity (albeit in several forms) has been reliably passed on from generation-to-generation for the best part of 2000 years. And now, in the space of just a couple of generations, that's largely stopped in many places."

The key, he said is that "nominal" or "cultural" faith doesn't pass from one generation to another.

Holy Week parable: Yes, faith played role in life, sacrifice of Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame

Holy Week parable: Yes, faith played role in life, sacrifice of Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame

Three years ago, a French police officer traveled to the Basilica of Sainte-Anne d'Auray near the Brittany coast, seeking yet another change in his already eventful life.

Arnaud Beltrame made his pilgrimage to offer prayers that he would meet "the woman of his life." Soon afterwards he met Marielle Vandenbunder and they celebrated their engagement in 2016 -- at Easter. They were married a few months later.

That was a secular union. Arnaud and Marielle wanted more time to prepare for a truly Catholic marriage, according to Father Jean-Baptiste of the Abbey of St. Mary of Lagrasse in South France. The wedding was set for June 9, 2018.

Father Jean-Baptiste was at their side all through that process. He was also at their side performing last rites -- hours before Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week -- when Lt. Col. Beltrame died hours after a sacrificial act that caused mourning across France.

French President Emmanuel Macron was blunt, stating that by "giving his life to end the murderous escapade of a jihadist terrorist, he died a hero."

Pope Francis sent his condolences to the families of those killed and injured when a self-proclaimed ISIS supporter attacked a supermarket in Trebes. The pope singled out the "generous and heroic" act by Beltrame, who offered himself as a substitute for a female hostage the gunman was using as a human shield.

The 45-year-old officer entered the standoff alone and placed his cellphone -- the line open -- on a table, allowing police to listen in. After two hours officers heard gunfire and rushed inside, killing the gunman. The fatal blow to Beltrame was a knife stab to the neck.

In a lengthy interview with Famille Chretienne (Christian Family), Father Jean-Baptiste went much further than the pope, when linking Beltrame's heroism with his pilgrimage to faith.

The officer "knew the incredible risk he was taking. He also knew the promise of a religious marriage he had made to Marielle, who is already his wife and loves him tenderly, of which I am a witness," said the monk, in a transcript, translated online from French.

Life after Sexual Revolution: United Methodists still waiting for final shoe to drop

Life after Sexual Revolution: United Methodists still waiting for final shoe to drop

After decades of fighting about sex and marriage, the world's 12.5 million United Methodists are still waiting for a final shoe to drop.

Now, it's less than a year until a special General Conference that has been empowered to choose a model for United Methodist life after the Sexual Revolution -- some path to unity, rather than schism.

As the faithful watch and wait, Boston-area Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar composed a prayer for use among United Methodists in New England, on of the church's most liberal regions.

"God help us! Help us … to take the next faithful step forward not based on doctrine, tradition or theology; judgments, fears or convictions; notions of who are the righteous and unrighteous," wrote Devadhar. "God help us! Help us … to take the next small faithful step forward that is neither … right or wrong; good or bad; for or against; left or right; pro or con."

The problem is that ongoing battles among United Methodists have demonstrated that any realistic unity plan has to address this global church's doctrinal fractures, said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of the conservative Good News organization. He is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward that will make recommendations to the historic Feb. 23-26, 2019, General Conference in St. Louis.

If United Methodists had a "quick and easy way" forward that managed to ignore "doctrine, tradition and theology" they would have tried it already, he added. Meanwhile, many of the church's leaders still have "a dream that there are millions of evangelicals who are willing to live in a United Methodist Church that doesn't defend the authority of scripture and our church's own teachings."

Meanwhile, on the left, many United Methodists fear the growing flocks of evangelicals in their denomination -- especially overseas.

Madeleine L'Engle: Yes, there are essential faith elements in 'A Wrinkle In Time'

Madeleine L'Engle: Yes, there are essential faith elements in 'A Wrinkle In Time'

When her children were young, author Madeleine L'Engle used to take them on nighttime visits to the top of Mohawk Mountain, not far from the family's 200-year-old Connecticut farmhouse.

The goal was to glimpse the mystery of God.

"If you need one image of God, then go outside on a clear night and look straight up at the stars. That's about as good as I can do," L'Engle told me, in 1989 during a two-hour interview before some Denver lectures.

The wonders of science and heavenly light are at the heart of her classic novel "A Wrinkle In Time." However, she said she knew that she needed to include some specifics to clarify her central message -- without clubbing young readers over the head.

"It's a work of fiction, not theology. I didn't write it expecting to get challenged on every last detail," she said.

However, she was willing to state one fact for the record, offering a variation on a quote she repeated through the years. Yes, she loved stargazing, she said, but ultimately, "I can understand God only as he is revealed in the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth.”

L'Engle died in 2007 at the age of 88, after publishing 60 works of fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry and prayers. Her work is back in the news because of debates about Disney's $103-million version of "A Wrinkle In Time," which removed the book's religious images and biblical quotes.

At the time of the 1989 interview, L'Engle was already involved in talks about bringing "A Wrinkle In Time" to movie theaters -- a process that led to a low-budget, made-for-TV flop in 2004. That film downplayed her Christian imagery, as well.

It would be hard, explained L'Engle, to grasp this book's cosmic war between life and death, good and evil, darkness and light without two crucial passages.

The family takes the pulpit: Billy Graham's children say their good-byes

The family takes the pulpit: Billy Graham's children say their good-byes

A few years before World War II, a 13-year-old girl in China wrote a prayer for her future husband.

The girl was Ruth Bell, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, and her five children have often shared that poem with others. So that's what Virginia "Gigi" Graham did, once again, at the March 2 funeral of the man her mother married in 1943 -- the Rev. Billy Graham.

"Dear God, I pray all unafraid/ as we're inclined to do.

"I do not want a handsome man/ But, oh God, let him be like you.

"I do not need one big and strong/ nor yet so very tall.

"Nor need he be a genius/ or wealthy, Lord, at all.

"But let his head be high, dear God/ and let his eye be clear,

"His shoulders straight, whate'er his fate/ whate'er his earthly sphere.

"And, oh God, let his face have character/ and a ruggedness of soul,

"And let his whole life show, dear God/ a singleness of goal.

"And when he comes/ as he will come,

"With those quiet eyes aglow/ I'll understand that he's the man,

"I prayed for long ago."

One by one, Billy and Ruth Graham's children -- Gigi, Anne, Ruth, Franklin and Ned -- took the pulpit in a 28,000-square-foot tent erected at the Billy Graham Library, in Charlotte, N.C. They praised their famous father, of course, but also their mother who died in 2007. The family's patriarch died with 19 grandchildren, 44 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren.

Jeffrey Bell -- A Catholic politico caught between two political worlds

Jeffrey Bell -- A Catholic politico caught between two political worlds

Unity was the theme during the 1992 Democratic Convention, with nominee Bill Clinton, and his wife Hillary, joining hands with delegates as they sang an anthem called "Circle of Friends."

But there was a problem in the Pennsylvania delegation, where two-term Gov. Robert Casey was feeling excluded. An old-school Catholic Democrat, Casey had been denied a speaking slot during platform debates. On the convention floor, delegates were selling buttons showing him dressed as the pope -- since he opposed abortion.

Months later, a coalition formed to explore whether Casey should challenge President Clinton in 1996, running on progressive economics and cultural conservatism. Pro-life Democrats like Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver were involved, but Republican Jeffrey Bell -- Ronald Reagan's first full-time campaign staffer in 1976 -- emerged as a team leader.

Why would a Catholic Republican back a Democrat? In a 1995 interview, Bell told me that he was worried many religious voters -- especially evangelicals and Catholics -- had already decided they had no choice but to support GOP nominees.

"Republicans, unfortunately, have good reason to feel complacent," said Bell, after Casey's failing health prevented a White House run. As for evangelicals and traditional Catholics, Republican leaders "pat them on the head," and "buy them off easy," because cultural conservatives have few political alternatives.

"Why do Republicans have to address the concerns of moral conservatives? They have Bill Clinton. They have Hillary Clinton," he said. "They're right here in Washington, working full-time to make sure they have someone to vote against. …

"Someday, this is going to cause BIG problems for evangelicals and conservative Catholics."

Casey died in 2000, after major heart problems closed his career.

Bell died in February, after a career in which he ran for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey -- in 1978 and 2014 -- but was better known for work behind the scenes helping others, following beliefs that escaped easy political labels.