My induction into Rock & Roll was Larry Norman’s Only Visiting This Planet. I still have the vinyl LP that pops and crackles from years of love and devotion.
My generation were listening to their older siblings records of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon and Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Our first record purchases were Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Springstein’s Born to Run. And we came of age to the Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bolocks and the Clash’s London’s Burning.
The seventies, what a decade!
But I missed out on the start of all this as a PK (preachers kid) kept safe in a devout Christian home away from the Devil’s music where only hymns, choruses and white gospel were allowed and the only music we heard on the radio was the Majestic Fanfare opening to the ABC news and brass band competitions.
In the outside world the Beatles were writing the soundtrack of a whole generation.
I was warned about this evil phenomenon, the Beatles, before I’d ever heard a note! But my parents couldn’t say no to me buying a Christian rock album. And it was so much cooler than Pat Boone’s The Jesus People. Larry Norman’s Why Should The Devil Have All the Good Music became my anthem along with a whole generation of church youth rebels.
It was 1973 and Larry was musing…
I wonder who we’re going to see whose in power now I think I’ll turn on the t.v. the man on the news said “china’s gonna beat us we shot all our dreamers and there’s no one left to lead us we need a solution we need salvation let’s send some people to the moon and gather information”
Then the interlude with Larry’s trademark caustic sarcasm…
they brought back a big bag of rocks only cost thirteen billion must be nice rocks
Larry concludes the song with…
what a mess the world is in I wonder who began it don’t ask me I’m only visiting this planet this world is not my home I’m just passing through
And there you have it. The whole album in fact.
This iconic vinyl disc of 33 1/3 revolutions per minute is a hymn to Christian gnosticism. From the get-me-out-of here of I Wish We’d All been Ready to the lines of “watch me go, watch me walk away alone” of Pardon Me.
Don’t get me wrong. I ain’t knocking the Christian rock of Larry Norman. I’m still a fan. I still play his songs on my guitar and support the cause – although maybe not some of the implied theology.
The irony of this album is that here we have the church rebel, the Father of Christian Rock rejected by the church of his day, subscribing to the same creed of the church he was singing to in prophetic protest.1 Larry Norman was prophetic in what he saw and sang. But reflected in this album’s concept is the “this world is not my home” gnosticism that thrived in the 1970s church and is still with us today. Even rebels, it seems, are not immune from main stream infections.
Larry Norman’s ‘Why Should The Devil Have All the Good Music’ became my anthem along with a whole generation of church youth rebels.Tweet
The gnosis from which we get gnosticism means knowledge, especially of one’s origins.2 But it is secret spiritual knowledge gained through religious rites of initiation. This secret knowledge helps the initiates navigate between the cosmological dualism of a true spiritual reality beyond this world versus the evil world we live in.
There are two expression of gnosticism. The ‘lets embrace this world because I’m not saved by how I live but by what I believe’ type. This is the cheap grace variety of Christianity that Dietrich Bonhoeffer rails against in The Cost of Discipleship.
And then there’s the escapist variety of gnostic salvation that avoids the world through a radical ascetic discipline of resisting all that is sensual. I was brought up on this second gnostic approach of a Christianity that pitched a devout holy lifestyle against the worldliness of rock and roll, booze, makeup and short skirts.
Most gnostic expressions are one or the other – either embrace this world or escape this world. But it is possible to be schizophrenic and choose elements of both. In this sense, gnosticism is not dogmatic. You can flirt and pick what fits for you. All three gnostic expressions – either/or/both – have been in the church from its inception up to our own times.
“Gnosticism is a virus in the bloodstream of religion and keeps resurfacing every generation or so advertised as brand new, replete with a new brand name. On examination, though, it turns out to be the same old thing but with a new public relations agency.”3Eugene Peterson
Gnosticism is deceptive because it’s so close to the real thing of true religion. Such imitation is a demonic hallmark. The Devil can’t create, only imitate. It is true that this world is not our home. But we are not called to run away from it but to be salt and light.
It is true that the Devil has too much of the good music. But that’s because too many Christian artists run to the saccharin sweet ghettos of Christian art. The false dichotomies of sacred and secular, Sunday at church and Monday at work are at root gnostic expressions.
Gnosticism offers an escape from having to deal with the mess of fallen creation and running away from our call to partner with God’s redemption of “Your kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)
There are two Gnostics. The ‘lets embrace this world as I’m not saved by how I live but by what I believe’ type. This is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace Christianity. And the ‘escapist Gnostic’ avoiding the world through a radical ascetic of resisting all that is sensual.Tweet
Gnosticism turns Christians into tourists just visiting this planet. But it also turns us into tourists just visiting our church.
Eugene Peterson talks about tourist religion. “Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure. For some it is a weekly jaunt to church; for others, occasional visits to special services.”
“Some… plan their lives around special events like retreats, rallies and conferences. We go to see a new personality, to hear a new truth, to get a new experience and so somehow expand our otherwise humdrum lives. The religious life is defined as the latest and newest: Zen, faith healing, human potential, parapsychology, successful living…. We’ll try anything – until something else comes along.”4
Tourist religion lends itself to consumer church which is shaped by money and the market. Consumer church encourages church shopping by putting on a show to compete in the market for souls.
Consumer church costs money. Lots and lots of money. Money to build five and six star church buildings and TV sound stages that consume all our time and energy. The return on mission from this high investment in church property is questionable.
COVID-19 has thrown a curve ball into this religious consumerism, skewing church growth strategy even more to compete for clicks and likes. The jury for now is out on how all this will play out.
But we are not called to be tourists. We are called to be pilgrims on God’s road of redemption. Like the Good Samaritan we are called to stop and attend to the wounded traveller. We are not called to bypass or ignore the stranger, the inconvenient interruptions of others misfortunes to our own lives.
The road of redemption is not a gnostic rejection or embrace of this world. The road of redemption calls us to mend and restore what is broken in the world. This calling is one of grace – enabled by God’s grace and gifts. Not our own gnostic bag of tricks full of spiritual formulas, life hacks and self reliance. Such gnostic practice is the raw material of idolatry. Our twenty first century sacred cash cows.
Tourist religion lends itself to consumer church which is shaped by money and the market. Consumer church encourages church shopping by putting on a show to compete in the market for souls.Tweet
So we find ourselves in a broken world – broken economies, broken sexualities, broken families, broken bones. Do we throw all this brokenness out on the garbage heap and start again? Do we wring our hands in despair and walk away from the mess? Do we blame the Devil, the world, God… even ourselves which leads to even more despair. Do we put up with this brokenness and make the best of the mess we can? Or do we sell our true religion, our spiritual inheritance, for 30 pieces of silver to buy the world’s logic, bless it and declare it holy?
The only way forward for the church is to roll our sleeves up and go through the mess – deal with it. But deal with it in God’s grace not in our own gnostic knowledge of church growth formulas, prosperity doctrines of abundance, or escape from social justice into personal piety moralities.
What a mess this world is in, sings Larry. It certainly is but the church has been called to go out into the world to bring healing, forgiveness and God’s redemption to broken humanity. We are not called to retreat into gnostic shelters of indifference or exclusion.
What if we don’t? What if we wait for the world to come to us in our religious spectacles of brick and mortar, light and sound? We risk becoming a faulty light flickering between gnostic ascetic fundamentalism and gnostic ‘worldly’ liberalism. The church becomes a lunatic asylum, schizophrenic, oscillating between extremes and contradictions until our faulty light blows out and leaves the world in the dark.
Larry Norman got this part right in his song The Great American Novel
i was born and raised an orphan in a land that once was free in a land that poured its love out on the moon and i grew up in the shadows of your silos filled with grain but you never helped to fill my empty spoon 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 you are far across the ocean in a war that’s not your own and while you’re winning theirs you’re gonna lose the one at home do you really think the only way to bring about the peace is to sacrifice your children and kill all you enemies 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 answers i’ve only got one that a man leaves his darkness when he follows the son
- Gregory Alan Thornbury, Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music? Covergent Books, New York, 2018
- “Gnosticism” in New Dictionary of Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, Illinois, 1988, 272.
- Eugene Peterson, Christ In Ten Thousand Places, 62
- Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience In The One Direction, 10.
Next blog – Church Economics 101: The myth that tithes and offerings can continue to sustain church stability and growth – posting 16 July 2021
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