Wednesday, April 29, 2020

At the last: Trump. Larry Norman, Moody and Sankey, Mike Pence and the Rapture

At the last: Trump. 

Larry Norman, Moody and Sankey, Mike Pence and the Rapture.

Originally published by CABLE Magazine in 2018

Pre-millennialist evangelical theology underpins some policy making at the Trump White House. Tom Morton takes a very personal rock’n’roll journey through some of its roots and public eruptions in Scottish and American life.

The Tent Hall, Steel Street, Glasgow, 1972. A cavernous space, smelling of mothballs, polish and antiseptic, bone-meltingly heated against the vicious winter night outside. It is packed, rammed with mostly young Scottish evangelicals from across the denominations curious to see the latest fundamentalist phenomenon from the USA.

A figure shambles on stage, very late; we’ve been sitting for hours, singing choruses. God’s Not Dead, He Is Alive. Feel Him All Over Me. Ungodly weather has delayed the tour bus. There’s a guitar case, battered, and a pantomime over opening it, extracting a cheap guitar, tuning it. Its player looks like a space alien. Long, absurdly long, girlishly long white-blond hair; he’s rail-thin, plastered into tight jeans, a mad jacket with embroidered stars. We gaze in astonishment, we youth fellowship and Bible class members, we singers of Kumbayah and Oh Sinner Man.

Larry Norman, the first Christian rock star, originator of the ‘one way to heaven’ sign (first finger, please, not middle) pioneer of the Jesus Movement, is among us. He has been thrust on stage while the support band Parchment prepare. The only PA is the Tent Hall’s venerable system, and as we watch, paralysed with holy mirth, Larry acts out Chaplinesque puzzlement as to how it can be used. Eventually he clambers onto the oak pulpit, teetering dangerously on the lectern in order to get his guitar close to the microphone. An ear-shattering, distorted chord. Then a voice whose ragged, torn glory comes just the right side of squeaky:

I want the people to know that He saved my soul
But I still like to listen to the radio
They say rock’n’roll is wrong, they’ll give me one more chance
I say I feel so good I gotta get up and dance...

A Brylcreemed, suited-and-tied pastor lumbers on stage and in a quiet fury demands that the singer gets down off the lectern, apparently a precious gift from a now deceased Tent Hall supporter. For the first time in the building’s 100-year history, possibly, audience boos echo to a crescendo of fury.
It was the moment everything changed for me. A year later, I would stagger out of the newly-named Apollo Centre, formerly Green’s Playhouse, deaf and delirious from my first ‘proper’ rock concert. The Rolling Stones, Goats Head Soup, the Starfucker tour. For the next decade I’d try to reconcile born-again Christianity and rock’n’roll, until rock’n’roll decidedly won the battle. But it was all Larry Norman’s fault, really. America’s fault.

***   ***   ***

Americans. They came here to Scotland looking for souls. Seduced them. Stole them away. They came, drawling, gleaming of tooth, from glamorous places  like New York, Carolina,Chicago, from cowboy territory; Roy Rogers rode his horse Trigger for Billy Graham, accompanied by his stetsoned wife Dale. Roy’s wife, not Trigger’s. Stars for Jesus, they brought a new vision of a groovy God. Divine new clothes, new songs, new hairstyles, new life. New Life.

That’s just how it worked, how it has always worked in the world of conversionism. Writing online, one former Tent Hall adherent remembers the youthful Billy Graham and his Crusade musical director Cliff Barrows, stepping out of a taxi in the sooty,  tenemental gloom of Steel Street in 1955, and literally “seeming to glow” due to “the bright and colourful suits” the pair were wearing. Cliff Barrows was clutching  a trombone, that instrument of sin.

But the late Dr Graham’s crusade was not the first time God had sent Americans to transform Scotland’s religious experience; nor was it to be the last. And the cavernous Tent Hall, now converted into flats, its surroundings sandblasted into something less dark and satanic, was crucial to all of it.
The Tent Hall’s roots were, unsurprisingly in a tent, a canvas church and homeless shelter on nearby Glasgow Green and formed as a direct result of the 19th Century evangelical crusade which dwarfed Graham’s subsequent visit in both immediate impact and long term effect. Glasgow and Scotland in turn influenced enormously  the man whose preaching arguably resonates today into the theology and right wing politics of the Trumpian forces now running the USA.

Dwight Lyman Moody was a Massachussets farm boy and former shoe salesman who had become the pre-eminent preacher of his generation. He had a musical sidekick, Ira David Sankey, singer, hymn writer, and song collector;  the two of them compiled a hymn book called Sacred Songs and Solos which is still in use today, which became ubiquitous in the evangelical world, and whose tunes and lyrics influenced huge swathes of popular music, notably reggae. The pair arrived in Glasgow in 1874, and between February and April - without amplification - held huge rallies in the City Hall, on Glasgow Green and in the Kibble Palace. Over 3000 people ‘came to Christ’.

As a result, a group of local businessmen set up the Glasgow United Evangelistic Association, with its primary aim not so much winning more souls as feeding the poor and hungry. Regular breakfasts for the homeless began, and it was in this social action that the initial canvas kirk on Glasgow Green began, finally being transformed into stones and mortar on Steel Street. The GUEA, funded by Rutherglen chemical billionaire James White, ended up presiding over the gigantic Christian Institute in Bothwell Street, a gothic monstrosity which spawned the YMCA and the Bible Training Institute, and took up an entire city block.

Much later in my life, I would live as part of a Christian commune in the grand, but decaying mansion called  Overtoun House, Dumbarton. It was once James White’s home.

Moody and Sankey’s influence was colossal and not just in Glasgow. In Edinburgh, their crusades led to the building of a city centre home for  the Carubbers Close Mission (now the Carubbers christian Centre). Rural Scotland’s churches were also influenced, and Moody himself was deeply affected by his stay with Andrew Bonar, Free Church minister at Finnieston. In the book ‘Mr Moody and the Evangelical Revival’, Timothy George says that “Bonar’s union of scholarship zeal and devotion made a profound impact on Moody - and so did his success in Glasgow, his first major urban crusade. It showed that the evangelist was capable of stirring a large population. His first breakthrough to fame came not in the United States but in Glasgow. He returned to the city for a six months mission in 1882 and treated it as the British equivalent of Chiacgo, a place where modern evangelistic methods could be moulded for imitation elsewhere. Moody was moulded by Britain as well as by America.”

Andrew Bonar, younger brother of the hymn writer Horatius ( ‘I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say’, and many others), was an unusual man within the Free Church - a Calvinist but a committed pre-millennialist, a believer that Christ was going to pluck all believers from the earth to ‘a meeting in the air’, magically removing them to heaven before his own ‘second coming’ to earth. The rapture, as it’s known. Moody had already been influenced by John Nelson Darby, one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren, in this direction, though his theology remained curiously simplistic, and if not entirely ecumenical, able to cross denominational barriers. But that pre-millennial eschatology would influence tens of thousands of others preachers across America, and is at the root of the right-wing extreme fundamentalism which provides much of the core Trump religious vote, and indeed underpins some of the policymaking.

The development of premillennialism in the context of post-civil War USA is socially understandable, if pernicious. As Michael Gerson, former speechwriter to George W Bush has written in The Atlantic:
“This general pessimism about the direction of society was reflected in a shift away from postmillennialism and toward premillennialism. In this view, the current age is tending not toward progress, but rather toward decadence and chaos under the influence of Satan. A new and better age will not be inaugurated until the Second Coming of Christ, who is the only one capable of cleaning up the mess. No amount of human effort can hasten that day, or ultimately save a doomed world. For this reason, social activism was deemed irrelevant to the most essential task: the work of preparing oneself, and helping others prepare, for final judgment.”

The tribulation. One strand of premillennialism identifies a seven-year period of chaos and calamity, warfare and crisis, after which Christ will pluck believers out of the morass to heaven. Everyone else will be left to suppurate in the knowledge that it’s too late. Only hell awaits. It’s this Larry Norman sang about, and which has spawned a mini-industry of books and films  like Hal Lindsay’s The late Great Planet Earth.

This magical beam-me-up-God scenario is taken very seriously in some quarters. You can buy rapture insurance in the USA so that if, say, you’re flying an airliner or driving a bus when God takes you home, the repercussions of your departure are covered, at least fiscally.

This is fundamentalism run riot, a reading of Biblical text in literal, if not utterly banal terms. You will find people in on the extreme fundamentalist wings of both Judaism and Evangelical Christianity who are pursuing the breeding of pure red cattle Israel, so that  - to fulfil a prophecy found in the book of Numbers - a red heifer ‘without spot’ and born in Israel can be sacrificed and thus pave the way for the building of a Third Temple in Jerusaelm. Speeding the arrival (or return) of the Messiah. You’ll find a comedic treatment of this in Michael chabon’s novel the Yiddish Policemen’s Union. But make no mistake, there are people in Donald Trump’s circle who think that breeding red cows to speed up the End Times is  a valid component of USA foreign policy. Some see Trump’s announcement that he would recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as a result of this.
***   ***   ***

That night in 1972, I listened, paralysed, as Larry Norman sang his chilling songs about the Rapture, I Wish We’d all Been Ready

A man and wife asleep in bed
She hears a noise and turns her head
He’s gone
I wish we’d all been ready

There’s no time to change your mind
The son has come
And you’ve been left behind...

Fear. A visceral, elemental fear of separation from loved ones. But we were ready. We were saved. We were OK. All that mattered was that other people were saved too. Politics, the environment, the future of our planet. None of that mattered, because soon, we’d all be with the Lord.
And yet, and yet: Dwight Moody was a campaigner for social justice who supported many projects aimed at helping the poor. Both Carubbers Close and the Tent Hall ran essential services for the homeless. Christ would be taking believers away and abandoning the world to its woes, but maybe….not quite yet. No man knoweth the hour, after all…

...except an Irish evangelist called Hedley Murphy, whom I once heard address a packed Christian Institute, asserting that the Lord would come back in the year 2000. Because in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the innkeeper was given two ‘pence’ to look after the injured man. A penny was a day’s wage in those days. “And a day is a thousand years in the sight of the Lord.” My Uncle John’s gospel rock band was playing at that rally.

***   ***   ***

Larry Norman did not invent Christian, or to be precise, evangelical rock music. My Uncle John did that in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, Scotland, in about 1966, with his friends in the band The Gospelfolk. What was once a clean-cut fundamentalist pop outfit metamorphosed on the album Prodigal into a fuzz-drenched bunch of God-bothering, satin-wearing  psychedelic screamers. No, seriously. Their album Prodigal is now one of the most valuable of all Scottish rock releases, fetching up to £350 in perfect condition. It was recorded in a tiny studio, Emblem in Strathaven, later to host sessions for Orange Juice and James King’s pre-Lone Wolves outfit, The Fun 4.

At about the same time as John was lugging Marshall stacks in and out of church halls across Lanarkshire, outfits like The LIving Stones (fronted by a young lad who would eventually become the Very Rev Albert Bogle, moderators of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly) were also experimenting with feedback and faith. At the age of 10, I saw The Stones (Living variety), rehearsing in an impressively loud fashion, at Dundonald Village Hall, before being packed off home to bed as I was too young to deal with the full ferocity of their (neatly-attired, if I remember rightly) sonic assault. But I saw The Gospelfolk (later National Debt) many times, notably at the Gospel Rhythm International concert at the Usher Hall (supporting Andrae Crouch and the Disciples) and with Edinburgh hard rock three piece Deep Concern - see what they did there - plus ‘dance interpreter’ George Duffin (with liquid lens slides as a backdrop) at an ear-splitting Hamilton Town Hall gig. And of course, providing the sonic backdrop for Hedley Murphy that night in Bothwell Street.

***   ***   ***
 Larry Norman became a worldwide star, and he was, if not better than all the other Christian guitar pluckers and bellowers, at least genuinely American. He was strange, he was from Over There. He possessed a kind of implacable charisma, and he was  a combination in vocal terms of Neil Young and Bob Dylan. In retrospect, his album Only Visiting this Planet was the first properly recorded (at Abbey Road in London) Christian rock record, and stands up now as derivative, banal, occasionally ridiculous but still confident, forceful, and sonically convincing. He meant it, man.

A new biography by Greg Thornbury has just been published called ‘Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?  Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock’ It’s short, and seemingly based almost entirely on what the Norman family ( Larry Norman died in 2008) allowed Thornbury - that odd entity, an American Evangelical academic - to see of Norman’s voluminous, micro-detailed and often peculiar correspondence. Thornbury does his best to avoid prurience, though that’s impossible, given what is now publicly known about Norman’s complex and disturbing personal and business life. And the existence of a previous no-holds-barred, very controversial  biopic called 'Fallen Angel: the Outlaw Larry Norman'.

There’s Pamela, Norman’s ex-model wife, accused in the book of what to the puzzled observer looks like completely unthinking, endearingly innocent drug abuse, sexual amorality and theft. There are the interminable battles with Norman’s former protege and friend Randy Stonehill, still a major figure on the multi-million dollar CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) scene whose reputation is coldly shredded by this book. Thornbury it seems, either couldn’t bring himself or wasn’t permitted by his deal with the Norman family  to talk to either of them.

Nor did he speak on the record to Steve Turner, eminent and acclaimed British rock journalist and author, Norman’s friend and critical commentator, though large chunks of his unpublished writings about Norman are used.  Or speak, indeed, to anyone who may have been willing or able to give a first-person insight into the curious phenomenon that was Larry Norman. It’s essentially cut and paste, though with archive access.

Larry Norman was a singer songwriter. A star. A Christian prophet, priest, king. But with proverbial feet of clay. He was evidently a very difficult, self-obsessed  and vain, egocentric man, from a strange religious and then briefly successful 60s pop showbusiness background. He was funny and brilliant and narcissistic and selfish, charming and vindictive, brutal and self-serving. His theology remained at nursery-rhyme level despite his much-vaunted intellectualism and continual referencing of  GK Chesterton, that brilliantly funny writer and virulent anti-semite. He was a pioneer of the ‘Jesus Movement’, the post hippy phenomenon which took acid comedown into the world of protestantism (or arguably, saw evangelical protestantism harness the fallout from the summer of love for its own long-term objectives). He had long white hair. He was a founder member of the Vine Fellowship in LA which would eventually, God help us all, give us Mumford and Sons. Of course he was.

And he’s dead, courtesy of congestive heart failure that in the end saw him fragile and failing among family in Salem, Oregon, and - in one of those curious rock’n’roll collisions which delight obsessive compulsive music fans such as myself - ended up in the same therapeutic bowling team as that perhaps even stranger and even more disturbed genius of ‘American Primitive’ guitar, John Fahey, who was also dying of heart failure. Did they talk about Blind Joe Death, Skip James and Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil? I’d like to think so.

Thornbury’s biography is deeply flawed, mired in the Norman family’s carefully calculated and defensive provision of access to the singer’s archives, and a failure to talk to eyewitnesses, friends, enemies and observers. Norman too, was flawed. He was, like Moody, contradictory - involved in charitable and political campaigning while his apocalyptic pronouncements  denied the vallidity of any such activity.  But as we’ve seen, that daft premillennialism can, did and does walk hand in hand with a kind of shamed, human awareness that Jesus really did care for the poor, and wanted his followers to do the same.

In the end, Larry Norman was all too human, with sad stories of an unacknowledged child in Australia. Yet the last gigs continued, the songs remained the same. He kept singing them. He was big in Belfast.

He leaves behind a multi-billion dollar Christian music industry, and he has played his part in establishing the popularity of a lurid, horror-film theology, a Christian melodrama which has infected political discourse in the USA, which squirms horribly among the nuttier of The Donald’s advisors. An eschatology which permits the prospect of global warfare as a precursor to eternal life for the born again.

So shall we sing, as Larry told us that night in the Tent Hall 46 years ago, That Sweet Sweet Song of Salvation?

When you know a pretty story, you don't let it go unsaid,
You tell it to your children as you tuck them in the bed.

Shall we scare the living daylights out of them with fearsome stories of the tribulations and the rapture, and being left behind? Especially when quoting First Corinthians chapter 15, verse 52, in the King James Version:

“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

At the last: Trump.
No. I don’t think so. Not me, anyway. Not now. Not ever.

Copyright Tom Morton 2018. All rights reserved.

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