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Larry Norman and Songs of Lament

Larry Norman and Songs of Lament

I got a call a few weeks ago from the author of a new biography of the late singer/songwriter Larry Norman, who heard that Larry and I befriended in 2001. Larry’s band in the 1960’s was People!, and toured with Van Morrison,  The Animals, The Doors, The Who, Janis Joplin and even Jimi Hendrix.  Although a committed  Christian, he defied easy categorization. Over his career of more than 100 albums he was often prophetic, and like Aslan, he was good but not safe.
“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
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”
- The Great American Novel
In my life, the role of art (including its popular forms) has been unconsciously but unmistakably an agent in the shaping my social conscience. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us, as we know that God made us more than rationale beings.  Our emotions are meant to motivate, and our emotions are moved by art.

I thought of Larry a few days later when I heard UVA professor, author and gardener Vigen Gueran exegete Hans Christian Anderson’s short story “The Nightingale.”  This avian singer serves as the conscience to the King, in the same way that Larry did and other artists today serve as one to us:

“I cannot live in the palace, and build my nest; but let me come when
I like. I will sit on a bough outside your window, in the evening, and
sing to you, so that you may be happy, and have thoughts full of joy.
I will sing to you of those who are happy, and those who suffer; of
the good and the evil, who are hidden around you. The little singing
bird flies far from you and your court to the home of the fisherman
and the peasant’s cot. I love your heart better than your crown; and
yet something holy lingers round that also.”

-The Nightingale

When the Israelites in exile are asked by their captors to “sing songs of joy” they refused, and instead crafted Psalm 137, itself a song but one of lament.   Our staff watched the video for Linkin Park’s “What Have I Done” recently, and I was reminded that in a broken world, which ours certainly is, our songwriters will write “songs of lament.”

There is something uniquely powerful in the artist’s “song,” whether in the form of a story, a lyric or visual image.   But what sets apart redemptive art from much of the art that rails against injustice is hope.   Our little group is committed to bringing songs of lament and songs of hope to the culture.  This is what our society ultimately needs, and this is what artists like Larry Norman have to offer us:

“And your money says in God we trust
but it’s against the law to pray in school
you say we beat the Russians to the moon
and I say you starved your children to do it
you say all men are equal all men are brothers
then why are the rich more equal than others
don’t ask me for the answer I’ve only got one
that a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son”
The Great American Novel
Mark Rodgers

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