This week marks the 20th anniversary of the passing of one of my personal ‘giants’ of the faith and great influences, Christian music artist Rich Mullins, who died in a car accident on his way to a benefit concert. If you don’t know who he was, give his music, lyrics and writing a try, I promise you’ll be challenged. I say “challenged” here instead of the usual “you’ll be blessed” for a reason: this guy was different, downright weird at times. His work and life were indeed a blessing to many, but in a way you just don’t see much of anymore.
Raised in a semi-Quaker family in Indiana, Rich attended Bible college and began working in church choirs as a piano player. Seeing the effect music had on teens, he chose to pursue it full-time as a career. His huge break came when Amy Grant recorded his song “Sing Your Praise To The Lord” which, if you ever went to church youth group in the 80’s, you know by heart. By the late 80’s he found himself moving to a Navajo reservation to teach music to kids. When asked if he went there to convert them to Christianity, he said “No. I think I just got tired of a white, evangelical, middle class perspective on God, and I thought I would have more luck finding Christ among the Pagan Navajos. I’m teaching music.”
I had the chance to see him play at a little Presbyterian church in my city when I was in sixth grade. He arrived barefoot and unkept. He looked homeless, and he often was indeed, living out of a car. He set up only a keyboard on a stand, sang a handful of songs, and I was undone. His lyrics were complicated, they were deep, some weird, and the songs were like nothing we had ever heard in our Presbyterian hymnbooks. I bought his cassette for five bucks (that’s how we ancients got the lyrics to songs in those days) and memorized everything. I began journaling all the stirred-up feelings those songs invoked in me. The Christian bookstore at the mall started really marketing his “Awesome God” album. I remember it well because I had the t-shirt, poster AND the keychain attached to my DENIM Bible cover (very important in the early 90’s). Nowhere did you every hear or even see Rich Mullins’ name on any of it.
Other artists came and went, but Rich Mullins’ work was the soundtrack to my coming of age all the way up though college. When I went to live in France for a summer, I had recorded his song “Step By Step” off the radio and had it on my Walkman. I literally wore the thing out listening to it every night before bed. I vividly remember crying every time I listened to it, I was homesick for Colorado and God was showing me I was really homesick for bigger things.
What hits me hard this twenty years on is just how much I miss examples of artists like him. The guy had problems, like everyone, and he never tried to sugar coat them with deflection or false feel-good substitutes for Jesus. He questioned and he cried out. He yelled at people. He struggled. There was something in him, however, that never stopped pushing into Jesus, and the more he did that, the smaller he became in his own eyes. God was God and he was man. He had a compassion for the poor and suffering that transcended church walls and a passion for the truth of God’s word that wouldn’t allow him to wander off into his own interpretation of it. What a combination.
It’s that mix of compassion for people and passion for truth that I miss. A lot of our examples today (the loudest ones anyway) are out to promote a mix of Jesus and themselves. They aren’t pointing to Jesus as much as they’re pointing to their version of Him, which is always a weird mix of do-it-yourself, live your own truth humanism. I can’t help but wonder what he would be like in 2017. In a day when we are all huddled in our theological corners, I’d like to think he’d be the guy standing with Jesus AND the hurting. In truth AND love. He said our lives as believers should make nonbelievers question their disbelief and make them thirsty for the truth.
You know how drinking soda makes you more thirsty? That’s how I see a big chunk of American Christianity now, a giant fast-food buffet that’s making everyone more sick and more thirsty, because we’re being pointed to the wrong things. Platforms over people. A domesticated Jesus. People working backwards from their arguments to the Bible instead of beginning with God. And for what? The masses aren’t being driven to Jesus, they’re being directed to selfish idol worship. The day you are focused more on a personality than on Jesus is the day you need to reconsider who you are following.
I feel blessed that I had an influence that set the bar high. Rich was no saint, and it’s for that reason I’m forever grateful for his faithfulness and his voice. He was never concerned with relevance, but with reverence. He accepted the mystery of it all, the beauty of not having everything figured out, and quite frankly, he just didn’t care what people thought. Imagine a collection of Jesus-loving truth tellers like that today. I know they exist, and I’m grateful. I just wish the other voices weren’t as loud. His work and writing brings me back to the feet of Jesus and there are few these days who do that. His words make me long to get deep into God’s word. He was not ashamed, and it reminds me to we must not be either. It’s amazing how things have changed in just 20 years. My ‘Awesome God’ t-shirt wouldn’t be as cool in the hallways, it would probably be protested. Rich’s laissez-faire attitude towards marketing and selling music would put him solidly at the bottom of the influencers list. The world says we are narrow. I say we need to get even more narrow. Keep zoning in our sights onto Jesus until the rest is a blur. Jesus + a bunch of other stuff = nothing. He helped teach me that. He showed me we are our most genuine when we are most surrendered. Maybe you have someone whose work has influenced you in this way? I hope we all do. Someone who points you to Jesus is someone worth keeping around.
“The hardest part of being a Christian is surrendering and that is where the real struggle happens. Once we have overcome our own desire to be elevated, our own desire to be recognized, our own desire to be independent and all those things that we value very much because we are Americans and we are part of this American culture. Once we have overcome that struggle then God can use us as a part of His body to accomplish what the body of Christ was left here to accomplish.
If my life is motivated by my ambition to leave a legacy, what I’ll probably leave as a legacy is ambition. But if my life is motivated by the power of the Spirit in me, if I live with the awareness of the indwelling Christ, if I allow His presence to guide my actions, to guide my motives, those sort of things. That’s the only time I think we really leave a great legacy.” Richard Wayne Mullins
What a beautiful tribute to Rich and the power of his honest lyrical questioning. I wish we had more artists like him. I wish our Christian radio stations would play more artists like this, too.
P.S. The very first short story (really, the first writing at all!) that I had published was inspired by Rich Mullins, his quirky and honest questions, and his death. The story used to be available online, but the journal closed and the story is apparently lost in the wildlands of the internet.
Thanks Laura, I wish we had more like him too… I’d love to read your piece it if it pops back up sometime, lol the internet is weird 😦
I did some searching and after many, many attempts at finding the story, I found it through the wayback machine. Here’s the link. I hope it works okay! https://web.archive.org/web/20131011061454/http://www.roseandthornjournal.com/Winter2010_Prose2.html
As a person who is a tad 🙂 older than you Shara, I too loved the music of Rich Mullins—But for me it was Amy Grant, who is a year younger then me, along with Keith Greene and John Michael Talbot–my go to’s in college—Talk about a mix of Christian music artists—contemporary along with a third order Franciscan monk singing the Psalms—
I think that was what helped me fall in love with Third Day—their tribute to the “late great Rich Mullins…”
Music is a powerful tool when used correctly—very few have understood the enormity found in the gift—Rich Mullins, as you say in all his oddity, got it…..
A great post!
Thank you Julie! In all honesty, it was all I could do to not start down a whole Amy Grant path and how much she was a part of my life! “Lead Me On” and “1974”… don’t even get me started. Haha. I appreciate the tributes to him that artists did, gives me hope. 😉
I too loved Rich Mullins’ music. I also agree with a previous comment about Keith Green and John Michael Talbott. Keith Green influenced my walk in my early 20’s as Rich did yours.