I once heard a song on the radio that moved me so much I called the station to find out who the artist was. The song, it turned out, was “Boy Like Me/Man Like You.” The heartbreakingly vulnerable voice that had moved me belonged to Rich Mullins.
“Boy Like Me/Man Like You” is the second track on The World as Best as I Can Remember It Vol. I. The entire album, from “Sometimes by Step” to “I See You” still stabs me with a painful longing for more of Christ. But then, so does The World as Best as I Can Remember It, Vol. 2. So does A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band. And Brother’s Keeper. And the entire Rich Mullins canon, which I subsequently acquired, played over and over, and today, 20 years after his death, is still never far from my heart.
I reach for Rich Mullins’ music when I’m out of sorts and out of step, drifting into distraction or self pity. When I’m wishing there was a little more of a Christian in me for God to work with. When I’m begging for God to break me open so I might receive a little more of the “reckless, raging fury that they call the love of God.”
What separated Mullins’ work from most contemporary Christian music was his brutal, broken honesty.
I grew up in the heart of the fundamentalist/Evangelical subculture and as a preacher’s kid, I really felt it was my responsibility to present a happy, perfect persona to the world, which would make others want to know what made me so happy, which would allow me to tell them about Jesus, which would ingratiate them to me forever and allow me to feel that I was a good witness.
And here was this guy with long hair and ripped jeans telling the truth about himself and about the rest of us Christians. We have unrealized desires. We hurt more than we admit. And at the same time, we don’t hurt enough for the stranger in our midst. We are not as strong as we think we are.
What I loved most about Rich Mullins is that he eschewed all the hero worship associated with success in the Christian world. That once the royalties for his songs began to mount, he asked his manager not to tell him how much he was making but instead to pay him “what the average working man in America makes” and give the rest to charity. That his hero was St. Francis of Assissi. That he smoked Camel cigarettes and drank Budweiser beer. That he loved the music of Shawn Colvin and one of his favorite books was John Updike’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.
Rich Mullins wasn’t perfect and (unlike me) he didn’t pretend to be. He helped me take a step toward self-knowledge and littleness. He made me yearn for Christ the way he clearly did.
“In a nutshell, he made me want to believe in the gospel more than I did,” singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson discloses in an interview that stuns me with how much it has in common with my own feelings about Rich Mullins.
“I was lost, basically,” Peterson says. “I was a 19-year-old kid who was in a rock band … wandering around in the world.
I felt like I believed there was some great beauty that was out there but I couldn’t have articulated what it was or why I was looking for it or what was going on and I think when I first encountered his music, it was this combination of scripture and poetry and humanity.
Scripture and poetry and humanity. Exactly. And sorrow. It was missing from the praise music of the time.
Rich Mullins brought his suffering (mixed with joy and hope, which is the heartbreaking beauty of Christian truth) into the conversation. He didn’t hide it. He didn’t pretend it wasn’t there. He helped me stop pretending that I didn’t hurt.
And there was more. There were those hints that the Evangelical Mullins was not only not anti-Catholic, but was at least open to the ancient Church. There was that fascination with St. Francis. There was that photo of St. Thérèse of Lisieux on the liner of Songs. And Mary. She was there too. There was the way Mullins’ critique of the Evangelicalism of the time hinted at a longing for something less entertaining and more substantial:
Christ said those who worship, worship in spirit and in truth. He didn’t say they worship with the hair on the back of their necks raised…and this is what liturgy offers that all the razzmatazz of our modern worship cannot touch.
There was also Mullins’ musical, Canticle of the Plains, which set the story of St. Francis in the southwest and was performed by both Evangelical and Catholic artists.
Stories that describe Mullins as about to become Catholic fascinate me. Protestant summaries of his life hint at but don’t touch the issue, and I have no inside slant to offer. I do know this: his openness helped me on my own journey to the Church, and for that I am eternally grateful. I hear the wisdom of the saints, particularly of St. John of the Cross in much of Brother’s Keeper, especially in “The Hatching of a Heart” and “The Breaks,” which declares that as the sea makes a sailor, it’s a cross that makes a saint.
Like Jesus, Rich Mullins had the courage to show us his wounds and to challenge us to allow our wounds to show. Mullins was vulnerable about his personal struggles. He told the truth about the failures of those of us who claim the name of Christ, and he told the truth about our political systems that ignore the most vulnerable treat human life with indifference. He said:
I’m very hurt at the apathy of the church. I’m very hurt over the determination of the government to destroy life.
I’d like to have a little more grace to hurt the way Rich Mullins hurt.
To take the gospel seriously because it’s true. To live in the hope “that this thirst will not last long, that it will soon drown in the song not sung in vain.”
To speak with childlike faith to Jesus, humbly asking that “I may really just grow up and be like You someday.”
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CCM Magazine is running an ongoing tribute to Rich Mullins in honor of the 20th anniversary of his passing: great interviews and links to video–a beautiful outpouring to the ragamuffin troubadour. The tribute includes this two hour concert, opening with more footage of Rich Mullins himself. It’s a stunner. I just ordered this book. Can’t wait.
Coming up: Fascinating Facts about Sigrid Undset, Part 3. Undset’s years in America (including a secret assignment from Eleanor Roosevelt and friendship with Dorothy Day) and finally her return to postwar devastation in Norway. Don’t miss it!