They Said He Was An Outlaw

Larry Norman's album Only Visiting This Planet, recorded in 1972, is considered to be one of the seminal recordings in the contemporary Christian recording industry. Only Visiting this Planet is #1 or #2 on many lists of the All Time Greatest Albums in contemporary Christian music.

One of the most famous and covered songs from Only Visiting This Planet is a song about Jesus entitled "The Outlaw." The lyrics:
Some say he was an outlaw, that he roamed across the land,
With a band of unschooled ruffians and few old fishermen,
No one knew just where he came from, or exactly what he'd done,
But they said it must be something bad that kept him on the run.

Some say he was a poet, that he'd stand upon the hill
That his voice could calm an angry crowd and make the waves stand still,
That he spoke in many parables that few could understand,
But the people sat for hours just to listen to this man.

Some say a politician who spoke of being free,
He was followed by the masses on the shores of Galilee,
He spoke out against corruption and he bowed to no decree,
And they feared his strength and power so they nailed him to a tree.

Some say he was a sorcerer, a man of mystery,
He could walk upon the water, he could make a blind man see,
That he conjured wine at weddings and did tricks with fish and bread,
That he talked of being born again and raised people from the dead.

Some say he was the Son of God, a man above all men,
That he came to be a servant and to set us free from sin,
And that's who I believe he is cause that's what I believe,
And I think we should get ready cause it's time for us to leave.
Though at the time a perfect fit for the Jesus People movement, I expect quite a few readers today cringe at the Christology of "The Outlaw." Still, this song was an important moment for me when I first heard it in college.

The first and third verses, not surprisingly for a male adolescent, were what captured my imagination. Along with the title of the song and what it theologically suggested. 

Basically, the song "The Outlaw" was the first time I'd considered that there might be something, well, illegal and criminal about being a Christian. That there was something politically radical and subversive about Jesus and his movement. The lyric "he spoke out against corruption" was one of the first times I'd really pondered how social justice was integral to Jesus's Kingdom proclamation.

No other music I was singing at the time at church was posing these sorts of questions, suggesting that Christianity is engaged in a struggle with "the principalities and powers." So "The Outlaw" stood out and altered how I looked at things. 

To be sure, a lot of what attracted me to "The Outlaw" was the youthful desire to fuse adolescent rebellion with Christianity. It made me feel cool that Jesus was a rebel. That Jesus might have worn a black leather jacket with lots of zippers along with torn t-shirts. Like the way I dressed in the '80s.

Looking back I can see how "The Outlaw" fit into my adolescent spirituality. And yet, and this is what I want to say, I do look back on the song with great theological fondness.

"The Outlaw" was my first glimpse into a radical Christianity. The song was my first imagining of a Christianity that had political implications, and subversive implications at that.

Here was a song that suggested that Christianity created outlaws. And looking back I can see that I've never forgotten that message.

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6 thoughts on “They Said He Was An Outlaw”

  1. I'd like your opinion on it once you see it.

    It was difficult for me to watch. I went through some disillusionment issues watching it.

  2. Lines like "and he bowed to no decree." What does that mean in relation to the gospel narratives?

    And by "cringe" I don't mean I don't get the poetry or am unsympathetic toward it. The cringe is more nerdy and scholarly, how Jesus is extracted from his Second Temple Jewish context and "translated" into the anti-establishment tropes of the 60s-70s.

  3. I remember his entrance into the music scene, but to be honest, at that time, for me, Rock was Rock, Country was Country and hymns were hymns. I was just as happy to listen to Lennon, Dylan, and Cash, depending on my mood, while getting ready for church; then spend the worship hour with Nearer My God to Thee, Jesus Lover of My Soul, and others of that caliber of beauty. As good as the reviews were that he received, I felt no push to get into contemporary Christian. And I am still a traditional hymn kind of guy.

    However, your post made me jump over and do a little reading of his life and I noticed his criticism of Gospel music at the time, of how the lyrics and poetry were just bad. I am not sure if he meant the "traditional stage Gospel" or the music that was trying to pass off as "Contemporary Christian". Regardless of which, I agree, and am of the opinion that neither has progressed or matured much over the years. However, Friday night while my wife is watching "Say yes to the Dress", I may just jump on line, put my earphones on and take in some of his music.

  4. There were a lot of really powerful protest songs that came out about that time, mostly anti-establishment, anti-war, etc. Some had religious overtones as they responded to the power elite and how they used civil religion to justify whatever the powers wanted to do in the world. The church was the government's closest ally in preserving the status quo and could always be relied on for support (at least in the heart of the Bible Belt). My favorite protest movie was the cult classic "Billy Jack." The theme song "One Tin Soldier" referred to how religion would justify the injustice in the end. Here is a link:

  5. Wow! Thanks a ton for writing about this fella. I had never heard of him before, and now I'm wearing this album out on Spotify.

    As a youngster growing up in the 80's - in an extremely traditional (read: conservative), Non Institutional church of Christ - us kids were taught that Christian rock was sinful. In fact playing a hymn on my guitar alone and in the privacy of my own bedroom was sinful. That didn't affect me too much (other than seeming downright silly) because as a rule I don't enjoy Christian rock, or Jesus Music (If it sounded like Sun Records era Jerry Lee Lewis it would be a different story). But the quality and strength of the Only Visiting This Planet album has caused me to repent of this mindset. This is great!

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