On a September evening twenty years ago, I ended a phone call from a friend by dropping the receiver on its twisting cord and sinking down to my knees in tears. A few hundred miles away, my brother was also in tears. And we weren’t the only ones. We were learning that Rich Mullins, that icon of ’90s ragamuffin evangelical Christianity, had been tragically killed in a highway accident.
“Not Rich . . . Anybody but Rich,” was my initial response, more emotive than rational. There were so many of us who were drawn to his complex and honest expressions of faith, expressions that were so different from other messages that the culture of evangelicalism was giving us. In the face of a rising tide of prosperity Protestantism and sometimes brazen dogmatic certitude, he croaked his stumbling and inquisitive lyrics in a voice that strained in the upper registers. He told us that Jesus was sometimes hard to follow, that a life of faith might leave us tired and broken and disoriented. Two decades later, through all the changes—and fatigue and brokenness and disorientation—that have come to my life, I find it surprisingly easy to return to those moments when the landscape of Christianity was expanding for me in Rich’s lyrics and music.
The late 1980s and early to mid-1990s were the days of the Moral Majority, of a kind of triumphant Christianity that was showing up in politics, in popular literature, and in the booming Christian music industry. There were new FM stations in development, and there were racks on racks of tapes and CDs at Christian bookstores. Singers and bands were filling arenas with eager young people who were ready to shout for joy to the victorious Jesus. Smoke machines, unaccompanied guitar shredding, costume changes—those were good days for praise music.
And then there was Rich. The last time my brother and I saw him it was at a church in Indianapolis, just an hour’s drive west from his hometown. Once the crowd had packed the pews, he walked out in jeans and tennis shoes and a rumpled white V-neck undershirt, waved to us with a grin, and sat down at the piano. He told his stories, in word and song, about what made him sad and angry, about what left him confused. You got the feeling that faith was hard for him and that it was important to him that we understand that.
The songs we loved the most were the complicated ones. We weren’t moved by the triumphalism of early songs like “Awesome God,” which we considered to be a youthful indiscretion, or the sentimentalism of “Hold Me Jesus.” It was the songs that left things a bit muddy that drew us in. “Jacob and 2 Women” negotiates the confusion and deception of the Genesis story without clearing much up: “Well it’s right there in the Bible, so it must not be a sin, / But it sure does seem like an awful dirty trick.” We were kids anxious about making everything in the Bible seem all right, and Rich was telling us that “as best as he could remember” it was pretty messy. His voice and poetry and hammered dulcimer were all straining together to find grace and hope and transcendence in a dusty and smoke-filled world.
He sang radical stuff about how telling children the stories of faith was something like going on a long sweaty journey where you end up lost and broke, about how following one’s heart and dreams and nose was a sure recipe for disaster. In “The Howling,” he sings about how living faithfully involves acknowledging the inexplicable pain of “some traveler” who left a “little bit of blood in every step he made.” Just acknowledging—never rationalizing or theologizing in some easy slogan about all things working out for the better. If all the pain and bloodshed means something, it’s a meaning none of us can fathom today. “I can hear the wind howling,” that song continues, “and I know that the howling will take me home.” This was the faith he sang about. We are led Godward not by trumpets of triumph, but the howling of the wind.
Then when he turned to the movement of grace, it was a strange sort of grace. The song “The Color Green” starts each verse in midsentence—“And the wrens have returned and they’re nesting”—as its narrator notices bits of life on a walk through the country. He rather scandalously uses familiar religious language to give voice to these observations, like when he describes the oak tree who welcomes those birds as raising arms in “a blessing for being born again.” Was that what it was like to be born again? Listening to that song now, I suspect that those wrens and that oak have something to say about grace and the Easter faith that I could spend my entire life trying to understand.
There is a key to Rich’s theology here, one that he struggled to work out in his songs. The beauty and pain of life on earth is something like a performance of the infinitely greater beauty and greater capacity for pain within God. Our experiences of beauty and pain draw us into the life of God. “There’s more than rises in the morning than the sun” is the way Rich puts it “If I Stand,” as if the excess of the divine life were always there, prepared to break through the daily miracles of ordinary life. Though Rich sometimes named the analogy in terms of a competition, his was more the struggle of a pilgrim trying to find his way through the world than of a dualist attempting to reject it: “The stuff of earth competes for the allegiance / I owe only to the giver of all good things.” No matter what the subject he was singing about, America or a road trip or a convoluted bit of Scripture, he was always suspended somewhere between the stuff of earth and “the winds of heaven.” His was a faith that showed up not in self-assuredness or moral superiority but in an ache to be caught up in the “reckless raging fury” of God’s love. This happens, though, not so much through grandiose gestures as through attention to the everyday—like how his parents, as he sings in “First Family,” “worked to give faith hands and feet, and somehow gave it wings.”
And this made sense to us, and it still makes sense to me today. I remember his frustration, bordering on cynicism, as he talked about his annoyance with religious dishonesty. I think he would have been baffled and red-faced at the contemporary rhetoric melding Christianity and American exceptionalism. He loved America, “the land of his sojourn,” but with a love more Springsteen than Greenwood. He sang with passion about the coal trucks and casinos and the forgotten Americans. “So I call you my country / and I’ll be lonely for my home,” he sings—again nodding to the excess of the heavenly shining through the beloved earthly—and then concludes with an address to all the unloveliness that he’d learned to love: “And I wish that I could take you there with me.”
Rich was drawn to a simple Jesus who loved sinners, celebrated children, and hated injustice. His final musical project, a set of songs about the life of Christ posthumously released as The Jesus Record, is one he only ever recorded in demos on cassette so that the music has a gritty quality to match the earthy lyrics about the scandalous Messiah:
The whores all seem to love him
and the drunks all propose a toast
And they say surely God is with us . . . today (“Surely God is with Us”).
The refrain of “Jesus” from that final project asks Jesus to “write me into your story,” a line that captures perfectly the yearning that so characterized his life and his witness.
Rich spent the last years of his life exploring Catholicism, even going so far as to complete the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. He was drawn to the liturgy, and he was not afraid to show his Protestant fans this in his album A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band. He was fascinated by the tradition of saints, and he wrote a musical about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. His vision of life with God expanded under the pressures of ancient worship, and it showed up in his songs:
And if I were a painter I do not know what I’d paint:
The calling of the ancient stars
Or the assembling of the saints (“Here in America”)
Here he hesitates again between the heavenly and earthly—or in this case between the visible and invisible heavens.
It always felt to me that Rich’s honesty about the difficulty of believing gave us permission to take faith journeys of our own, scary as that might be. He did not instruct us to turn our backs on the churches that brought us up, but he asked whether there might be a roomier place in which to follow the best impulses of late-twentieth-century evangelicalism. In the decade after his death, cultural analysts would begin noticing the movement of young evangelicals toward liturgy and iconography. Some, like me, left for Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, or Orthodox churches, whereas others brought the prayers and liturgies of those churches back into an evangelical setting. For me, and I suspect for many others, Rich Mullins lies in the background of all this, as a key pathfinder of this generational movement toward what Robert Webber called “ancient-future” Christianity.
A year before his death I took an important step on my own faith journey, signing up for a college study program in Russia. Under the guidance of a beautifully souled Mennonite man, I explored monasteries, interviewed priests, and dug as far as I could into the life and theology of the Russian Orthodox Church. I wrote a research paper comparing the understandings of salvation in Orthodox theology and in the theologies of evangelical missionaries flocking to post-Communist Russia. I came home feeling that the roof had blown off my native faith, taking me with it, and it took me several years to discover the home in which I would land.
And yet during those years I didn’t quite feel faithless, or abandoned by God, in part because I knew that Rich was walking that route with me and ahead of me. I could live day-to-day, with a murky faith in a God I couldn’t name, until the next stages of revelation and beauty and grace caught hold of me. And that sense of things would follow me through my flirtation with Orthodoxy and eventually into my confirmation in the Episcopal Church. That’s why I sat on the floor of my apartment that evening, feeling like I’d lost a companion and guide. Indeed, I had. And yet, as Rich reminds us in “Sometimes by Step,” we have other companions who walk the path of this reckless faith with us: “Sometimes I think of Abraham,” he says. “He was a stranger in this land, / And I am that, no less than he.”
If Abraham (and Jacob and Rachel and Leah and the pilgrim Jesus) could follow a mysterious God into a landscape that was as frightening as it was promising, perhaps I could too. Perhaps I can still. So I remember Rich these days with more gratitude than grief. His songs are a part of who I’ve become, and I expect they always will be.