The Legacy of Rich Mullins | Bethel McGrew
NOTNothing about the small, non-denominational church service made sense to the young boy. In his old Quaker church, they didn’t have that weird ritual of passing around a crust of bread and a jigger of wine, like a cruel tease for refreshments. And they would never have done what the preacher was doing to that poor fellow in front, soaking him in water, embarrassing him to death in front of the whole congregation. In time, of course, he would realize that the man wasn’t embarrassed to death. He was embarrassed for life.
That young boy would become singer-songwriter Rich Mullins, whose name resonates less and less with each passing year, but who remains in the memory of those of us who were lucky enough to encounter his music as youngsters. Christians. Today marks the 25th anniversary of his untimely death in a car crash. It was a shocking loss to the world of contemporary Christian music, a world with which the eccentric artist has always had a love/hate relationship. Inspired by Saint Francis of Assisi, he chose to dedicate most of his substantial royalties to the poor. At the end of his short life, he shunned the limelight on a Navajo Indian reservation with a few fellow “Kid Brothers of St. Frank”. To this day, his friends mourn the abrupt closure of a book that should have contained many more creative chapters.
At the time, however, some quietly wondered if it was mercy that God took him so soon and so quickly – coming out “like Elijah,” as he once wrote. Concert footage shot shortly before the accident shows Mullins looking exhausted and weathered, much older than his forty-one-year-old. As he plays with his little brothers, tells stories in his raspy, chain-smoking voice, and gently teases the audience with his signature blend of wisdom and quirky snark, the whole night feels like a pilgrim’s last blessing. tiredness. Particularly eerie are those foreshadowing moments where he contemplates his own death, declaring the great mystery that while his body will “rot” he will live.
As a popular theologian in the space between Protestantism and Catholicism, Mullins found it tedious to give his testimony to typical evangelical investigators. A woman was unhappy with every choice he gave her when he became a Christian. When he suggested the day her three-year-old sang “Come into my heart, Lord Jesus,” she said he couldn’t know what he was praying for. “Madam,” he replied, “we never know what we are praying for. And God, in his mercy, does not answer our prayers according to our knowledge, but according to his wisdom. When she finally said, “What I really want to know is when you were born againhe asked, “Madam, who timeAt his age, he thought it should be normal to be ‘reborn’ about every other day.
There was wisdom in that, though Mullins arguably drew too much from the “hoodlum gospel” of defrocked priest Brennan Manning, a charismatic alcoholic whose addiction would eventually kill him. Manning was a father figure to many, including Mullins, but his theology was fragile and his cult of personality unsustainable. Still, it’s understandable that Mullins, who often felt cut off from the love of his earthly and heavenly fathers, was drawn to his message. Although Mullins sometimes lost the battle with his own demons, he intentionally sought the kind of consistent accountability that could have kept Manning from self-destructing.
In death, Mullins was claimed as at least an “asymptotic Catholic”, although no one can be sure he would have made the leap across the Tiber. One of his Catholic friends once told me that he always bombarded him with questions, because if he had to convert, he would not do it halfway. He also had professional hesitations, working as he did in a space saturated with evangelicalism. And his own Protestant roots were still deep. “We’re going to start with an anthem,” he liked to kick off his concerts, “because people don’t sing them anymore.”
The older I get, the better I understand his sense of denominational homelessness, having grown up “secretly Baptist” in a tiny Anglo-Catholic parish. I was brought up in the liturgy that so inspired and compelled Mullins in his mature years. At the same time, I learned every cherished hymn that reminded him of where he left off. Like him, I am convinced that the people of God should be what they are, where they are – that, as he once said, “Baptists should be more Baptist, Anglicans should be more Anglicans” . But what am I? Where is my house? Mullins could never answer that question for himself either.
I revisited his music and his old interviews last week. I’m still moved by the power of these songs, songs that grew with me – the yearning ‘If I Stand’, the windswept ‘Calling Out Your Name’, the Chestertonian ‘Growing Young’, the anthem ‘ While the Nations Rage.” His voice still cuts through the decades, still feels fresh, in all its quirkiness, quick wit, raw candor, and childlike innocence. It makes you feel like you could have taken a long walk with him, and almost no topic would have been too dangerous. And every time he said, in his playful Norm Macdonald way, “And I go a little . . .you would know he was about to say something quite profound, or rather strange – or both.
Christ came that we might have life, he reminded a live seminar audience in 1994. But what does that mean? Does that mean we’ll party better? Yes. Does this mean that we will suffer more? Yes too. Because sin is tragic. Because life is tragic. Because it is we who can see it clearly. And yet, God calls it good.
For anyone who needs a reason to live, says Rich Mullins, let that be reason enough. Let us declare with him: “Christ said he came that I might have life. Therefore, let me live.
Bethel McGrew is an essayist and social critic.
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