Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Larry Norman

Power of a lyric – The Great American Novel

This is the second in my ‘Power of a lyric’ series of posts, where I take a line of a song that has influenced me in my life and expand on its meaning and relevance for today. This lyric is from the late Larry Norman’s The Great American Novel.

‘Do you really think the only way to bring about the peace is to sacrifice your children and kill all your enemies?’ – Larry Norman, The Great American Novel

Many people say that those who stand for peace are naïve; that the idea of not retaliating is to have your head in the sand and not in the real world. It is seen as hopelessly idealistic. These people need to get their head out of the clouds. As Brian McLaren says, “It is not a matter of naïve ignorance about the power of evil or of deluded romanticism about the good heart  of the enemy; it is rather a loss of naivete about the power of violence to cure violence. It is a dose of realism about the futility of seeking security through ‘living by the sword’ (Matt 26:52)” (Everything Must Change, p. 189).

As Barack Obama this week discusses the reduction of the world’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, we are reminded that the ones who are really naïve are those who believe that war will bring about peace. History is littered with the carnage of what war has brought. Conflicts sometimes rage for hundreds of years. Just take the Middle East or Bosnia as a couple of examples. And in the last 100 years we have seen the Troubles in Northern Ireland. You could probably name other wars and conflicts that seemingly have no end.

Martin Luther King reminded the world that violence only begets violence and hate begets hate. Just this week, on 21 September, the world was reminded again of the United Nations International Day of Peace. As part of the commemoration of the day, my wife and I saw a movie called The Day After Peace. This movie is the story of Jeremy Gilley’s attempts at launching an international day where the guns of the world would be laid down for just a day, a day for which there would be a global ceasefire. It is an inspirational story, one with many setbacks as well as much inspiration. Check out the trailer below:

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What struck me perhaps the most about Gilley’s attempts to get this movement off the ground was evidence of the enormity of what those who work for the kingdom are up against. You see, the day that the UN Secretary General was going to officially launch the International Day of Peace in New York was September 11, 2001. As the bell was about to be rung that morning signaling the launch of the Day of Peace, the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. The thought that occurs to me about this is that it seems that there was something else going on, that there is indeed a spiritual battle occurring among the principalities and powers. The day that the International Day of Peace was to be launched turned into the day that unleashed the so-called war on terror.

A revolution is indeed needed in this world, but it is a revolution of love, of a bringing in of a kingdom where its soldiers march on their knees in sacrificial care and service to the most marginalised and needy, following their master Jesus on the road to Calvary. The irony of the Gospel is that the way to life often seems like the way to death. The way of Jesus is indeed the way to death. For many that includes physical death, but for all it involves a death to self as we work out our faith with deeds of compassion, building for a kingdom in which we can imagine, as N.T. Wright has said, what it would be like if God were running the show.

Larry Norman – a great American prophet

I haven’t listened to Larry Norman’s music for about 20 years, but the other morning his most famous song, ‘The Great American Novel’, suddenly came into my mind. As I went over the words, I was reminded how relevant this song that was written in 1972 is in today’s world. As he cries out at the paradox of a nation that has produced so many great leaders but which has also caused so much suffering, you cannot help but feel enraged at the hypocrisy of some of our leaders. Just today The Age had an article about the desperate need for America to have a leader like Bobby Kennedy. 35 years later not a lot seems to have changed. As the echoes of the disaster of Vietnam ring throughout this song, you can also hear the less distant echoes of Iraq (though not in the line ‘and while you’re winning theirs’!).

However, unlike much of today’s protest which is happy to sit back and make judgments while not providing credible alternatives, Larry points to a better way, a higher way. As the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock was inched closer to midnight in the last couple of weeks, the Prince of Peace is just as relevant today as ever. Fifteen years ago, another singer with a social conscience, John Mellencamp, sang ‘now more than ever, the world needs love’. I reckon he would be singing that song even louder now.

Have a read of the words of this prophetic song and ask the Holy Spirit to fill you with a passion for setting things right in this broken world.

The Great American Novel – Larry Norman

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

And when I was ten you murdered law
With courtroom politics
And you learned to make a lie sound just like truth
But I know you better now
And I don’t fall for all your tricks
And you’ve lost the one advantage of my youth

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

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 are far across the ocean
But the war is 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 your enemies

The politicians all make speeches
While the news men all take note
And they exaggerate the issues
As they shove them down our throats
Is it really up to them
Whether this country sinks or flIats
Well I wonder who would lead us
If none of us would vote

Well my phone is tapped and my lips are chapped
From whispering through the fence
You know every move I make
Or is that just coincidence
Will you try to make my way of life
A little less like jail
If I promise to make tapes and slides
And send them through the mail

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

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