Rich Mullins, Twenty-Five Years Later

I believe that what I believe is what makes me what I am. I did not make it; it is making me.

1.

This Monday, September 19, was the 25th anniversary of Rich Mullins’s death. He was 41, two years older than I am today, when he was killed in a car accident near Peoria, Illinois. I feel less devotion to Mullins today than I did as a teenager, but it’s still very difficult to articulate how great an impact he had on my life and my faith.

My journey to Orthodoxy arguably began when I purchased his 1996 compilation Songs. I was 13. I had never heard the Apostles’ Creed, or any Christian creed, before I listened to Mullins. I had never thought much about the vast span of Church history that preceded the Azusa Street Revival. The word “saint” was not a part of my religious lexicon. I was discouraged from thinking in terms of religion at all. Christianity was a relationship with God, a relationship you expressed in two ways: by winning as many souls as possible for Jesus and by preparing for the End Times, which were imminent. The Early Church mattered; the End Times mattered. Anyone who lived in the intervening centuries wasn’t really relevant.

Mullins changed all that, and more. Prior to purchasing The World as Best as I Remember It, I was accustomed to liner notes that cited Bible verses next to each song. These verses were smattered together from all over the Bible; they were supposed to provide Scriptural validation for whatever message the song was trying to convey. The connection between the citation and the song was usually too explicit, too on-the-nose, and too forced.

Mullins was no exception to this practice, but his verse citations were crazy. They came from all over the odd and obscure sections of the Bible, sections he sometimes sang verbatim in his songs. The connection between his citations and his lyrics was often unclear or tangential. For “I See You,” he simply cited “the books of Moses,” as if to suggest that a single song could convey not merely the letter of a few verses but the spirit of the whole Torah. Mullins’s songs did not merely extract easily digestible lessons from ancient writings. They luxuriated in those writings and their varied genres, audiences, and stories. He wrote an entire song about Jacob, Rachel, and Leah that didn’t have a moral. He told their story as if it were an actual story. He told their story not because it contained a simple precept, but because it was true. His story was character-driven and conflict-driven; it was full of texture, emotion, and ambiguity.

In other words: Mullins used Biblical language not didactically, but as a source of lyrical imagery. He showed that lyricism and poetry contained their own lessons. These lessons are conveyed indirectly, with ambiguity, and so they correspond more closely with our experience of reality.

This contrasted with the rest of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), whose songs tried desperately to offer “Biblical perspectives” on different issues, perspectives that listeners (mostly teens) could apply to their daily lives in high school or with their parents or whatever. Mullins did this too, occasionally, but less so as his career progressed. His least overtly religious songs—”Here in America” and “The Land of my Sojourn” spring immediately to mind—don’t teach you anything practical about being a Christian in the world, but they somehow teach you everything about being a Christian in the world.

Mullins’s use of Scripture was mind-blowing for me and led to another revelation: the Bible wasn’t a single unit but a library of books, curated and placed in conversation with each other by inspired editors. The Bible suddenly offered the depth and breadth of emotion and insight that had previously been, for me, the exclusive domain of novels and poetry. This did not demystify the Bible for me, as it did for many of my peers—it enhanced my relationship to Scripture.

Mullins also touched on far more “secular” themes, i.e., totally normal, everyday human experiences that other Christian singers never acknowledged. He wrote about suffering as if he had actually suffered (“Hold Me Jesus”). He wrote about relationships, disappointments, and breakups (“The River”). He wrote about the kind of religious doubt that arises not from learning about evolution in school, but from the experience of loss and pain and just being human (“Hard to Get”). Above all, he refused to offer easy answers to difficult questions. When he was angry with God he was just…angry with God. The contrast with the rest of CCM could not have been starker.

Mullins opened up new worlds to me. Sure, his first few albums strained to conform to the conventions and tropes of CCM, full of songs intended to be licensed to more successful artists. The results were embarrassing (“Awesome God” is…not good). But by the early 1990s, his approach to songwriting changed. His songs no longer appeared in a vacuum of sermon-ready bullet points. Now they took place in actual settings like New York City, Indiana, and Ireland. He wrote about personal experiences, which few CCM artists did. He engaged with church history. He quoted Kierkegaard. He read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and then wrote lyrics inveighing against the Trail of Tears. (I’m sure most CCM listeners didn’t catch that one.)

Above all, his music became increasingly oriented around his experiences in nature. Few CCM artists—few pop artists, period—captured natural vistas the way Mullins did. In his most thrilling song, “Calling Out Your Name,” he describes an encounter with God against the backdrop of the Great Plains. Geography didn’t factor much in CCM unless it was a reference to, I don’t know, Kentucky bluegrass.

In “Calling Out Your Name,” Mullins refashions an especially harsh line from the book of Job: “Have you commanded the morning since your days began and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the ends of the earth and the wicked be shaken out of it?” Mullins takes the sublime terror of this verse and repurposes it as a gesture of hope. I remember thinking there was something almost sacrilegious about this, as if he was rewriting the Bible. But, following the path he led me down, I soon discovered Talmudic commentary and the “four senses of Scripture” taught by the Church Fathers (literal, typological, moral, and anagogical). The Bible was complex and multifaceted. Of course a single verse could convey both fear and hope.

By 1995, the year he released Brother’s Keeper (his most consistent album), Mullins had fully matured as a musician and songwriter. His 1996 rerecording of his earliest hit, “Sing Your Praise to the Lord,” illustrated the transformation he had undergone over the previous two decades. The new version begins with a surprising riff on Bach’s Fugue No. 2 in C Minor before exploding into Mullins’s dreadfully cheerful rendition of the upbeat chorus (made famous by Amy Grant):

Sing your praise to the Lord/ Come on everybody stand up and sing one more hallelujah/
Sing your praise to the Lord/ I could never tell you just how much good that it’s gonna do you/ Just to sing anew/ The song your heart learned to sing when He first gave His life to you/ Well life goes on and so must the song…

Pretty dreadful. The song continues like that for several minutes, no doubt evoking all sorts of bad memories from Bible camp. But then the melody turns, the instruments quiet, and a sort of hush falls over the record. Amid this sudden change of tone, Mullins intones:

From the rising of the sun
To the place where it sets,
The name of the Lord is to be praised.
The Lord is exalted over all the nations,
His glory above the heavens.
Who is like the Lord our God?
The One who sits enthroned on high.
He who stoops to look down
Upon this earth and its sky
.

This is Mullins at his fullest. He bookends a terrible tune that earned him all kinds of money with Bach and Psalm 113, sung almost verbatim. For my readers who didn’t grow up listening to CCM, I cannot emphasize enough that this was not typical.

I always thought Mullins’s pairing of Bach and the Psalm was making a dual argument. First, Christian faith requires us to engage with and participate in our larger culture, rather than isolate ourselves from the culture, which is what homeschooled Evangelicals in the ’90s were often encouraged to do. Someone like Bach does not fit easily into our notions of “religious” versus “secular,” a fact that I never really considered until I heard Mullins incorporate the Fugue into his song.

Second, Christianity and the Scriptures can be absorbed entirely on their own, and their relevance is self-evident. You don’t need to mediate Christian teachings through the spectacle of megachurch preaching or through flashy Christian music that does little more than imitate secular music, poorly. You don’t need a rock concert or a laser show to make Psalm 113 “relevant” to your life. You only need to, y’know, read it.

One of the last recordings of Rich Mullins’s voice is the backing vocals of “New Mexico,” a song he co-wrote with his friend Mitch McVicker. I love “New Mexico” because it so perfectly captures Mullins’s driftlessness, his ambivalence about romantic love, and his bottomless affection for his friends.

The year after his death, Mullins’s friends released Canticle of the Plains, the soundtrack of a musical he wrote based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi. The musical, produced by “the Kid Brothers of Saint Frank” (a collective of musicians connected to Mullins), reimagines St. Francis as a veteran of the American Civil War whose divine epiphany occurs while he is traveling through the Great Plains. In an interview, Mullins described his protagonist, called “Frank”:

In the Civil War, [Frank] became very disillusioned with all the talk about justice and goodness and everything, because he’s looking at war, and he’s going, “This doesn’t represent goodness to me.” And so he’s kinda coming back, he’s somewhat disillusioned with the values that he’s been raised with, somewhat disillusioned with all of the hoopla of political. You know how political people use great causes to promote themselves. And he’s coming back to Wichita, and he’s crossing the plains. And it’s there in the plains, just because of the vastness of them, that he has an encounter with God, that he realizes, he recognizes the frailty of humankind and the vastness of God, and the emptiness of life without God being involved… In that experience is where he first heard God, or more truly, where he first overheard God. And so he sort of recognizes in the prairie winds and in the flora and fauna around him, how creation is constantly pointing to God, and how God is involved in creation…

Canticle of the Plains comprised the most beautiful music and lyrics Mullins composed. The album is difficult to find on streaming services but most of the songs are available on YouTube.

What does it mean to say that my interest in Mullins was the beginning of my journey to Orthodoxy? Until I encountered Mullins, I was unexposed to the broad currents of Christian practice. It never occurred to me that my religious faith existed in continuity with people from different Christian traditions in different parts of the world and with people who lived centuries after Christ but centuries before me. Consequently, my Christian faith before Mullins was very thin: it was primarily focused on me. As the logical endpoint of liberal Protestantism, Evangelicalism isolates the individual as the primary unit of Christian faith. Consequently, I understood myself in relationship to God alone, rather than to the Church. My faith was grounded in my personal relationship with Jesus.

I also defined my religious life in contradistinction to the larger culture, even though my ideas about Christianity were shaped by that culture’s consumerist values. I expressed my faith through consumption: I consumed certain things because I was a Christian (CCM, Christian-branded T-shirts, study Bibles, etc.) and didn’t consume other things because I was a Christian (secular music, movies, Halloween, etc.). Either way, I was firmly embedded in consumer culture.

My experience with Mullins’s music marked the beginning of a gradual but seismic shift in my faith. It would take decades for that shift to lead me to Orthodoxy, but that’s ultimately where it led me. And in truth, I’m still shifting, even if I have settled for good into the Orthodox Church. During my first Orthodox retreat, a priest taught me that, contrary to my Evangelical understanding, conversion is an ongoing process. A Christian is always converting, is always waking up and moving anew toward God. Faith develops. The shift continues.

Mullins left an incredible legacy, one that persists despite CCM’s descent into worship-music schmaltz. His career inspired both Matt Maher and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. A young fan once told him that their favorite artists were “you and Carman.” (If you don’t know Carman, just watch a few minutes of this.) “Wow,” replied Mullins (I paraphrase), “Carman and I are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum.” He could have been referring to either their music or their entire approach to Christianity. The two, it seemed, went hand-in-hand.

2.

Bethel McGrew wrote a lovely essay in remembrance of Mullins, published Monday by First Things. McGrew’s tone grows skeptical, even a bit punitory, where Mullins’s personal lack of orthodoxy is concerned. She calls Mullins “an eccentric” who “always had a love/hate relationship” with the larger CCM industry. She reminds her readers that Mullins’s mentor, Brennan Manning, was a defrocked priest, ” a charismatic alcoholic whose addiction would ultimately kill him.” “Still,” she concedes, “it’s understandable that Mullins, who often felt cut off from the love of his earthly and heavenly fathers, was attracted to his message. Though Mullins sometimes lost the battle with his own demons, he intentionally sought the sort of consistent accountability that might have kept Manning from self-destructing.” Mullins’s demons, much discussed among fans, are why some have jokingly anointed him CCM’s answer to Kurt Cobain.

McGrew goes so far as to suggest that Mullins’s early death was “a mercy.” McGrew seems to be implying, in part, that Mullins was saved from spiritual destruction by leaving this world so early. Mullins always seemed to teeter on the edge of apostasy, if your definition of apostasy is traveling around the world and openly speculating about the truth and feasibility of basic Christian doctrines. There was something of Kierkegaard in his pessimism about the Church and many of his spiritual elders seemed, like Kierkegaard’s, worried about the state of his soul. At the same time, Mullins showed signs of immense spiritual maturity at the time of his death, as if the fruit of his tree had fully ripened and was ready for harvest. McGrew splits the difference between these interpretations of Mullins’s final days, writing:

Concert footage shot shortly before the accident shows Mullins looking exhausted and weathered, much older than his forty-one years. As he plays with his kid brothers, tells stories in his hoarse chain-smoker’s voice, and gently teases the audience with his signature blend of wisdom and off-beat snark, the whole night feels like a weary pilgrim’s last benediction. Particularly uncanny are those moments of foreshadowing where he looks ahead to his own death, declaring the great mystery that though his body will “rot,” yet shall he live. 

I have never been bothered by Mullins’s apparent lack of orthodoxy or doctrinal knowledge. He was raised an Evangelical Quaker and then, as a Bible college student in Cincinnati, entered the hyper-Evangelical milieu of the Christian music scene. This placed him at a considerable remove from any contact with Christian orthodoxy. Spend any amount of time in Nashville and you’ll find the doctrinal mish-mash of its megachurches and celebrity pastors nauseating.

It’s to Mullins’s credit—and a testament to his latent orthodoxy—that he couldn’t tolerate more than a few years among Nashville’s Christian musicians before traveling to Asia (he worked as a missionary and medical caregiver in Thailand). Now a Methodist, Mullins moved to Wichita and finished his education at a Quaker university.

What interests McGrew is Mullins’s longstanding fascination with Catholicism. After earning his degree in Wichita, Mullins moved to Tse Bonito, New Mexico, the capital of the Navajo nation. The only church available to Mullins was the local Catholic parish, so he began attending. Many Catholics have tried to claim Mullins as one of their own, but he expressed reservations about a potential conversion. He was inquiring at the time of his death, asking Catholic friends and clergy about the specifics of Catholic doctrine, particularly those parts that Protestants find most difficult to accept. McGrew captures his ambivalence well:

In death, Mullins has been claimed as at least an “asymptotic Catholic,” though nobody can be sure if he would have made the leap across the Tiber. One of his Catholic friends once told me he was always peppering her with questions, because if he was going to convert, he wouldn’t do it by halves. He had professional hesitations as well, working as he did in a space saturated with evangelicalism. And his own Protestant roots still ran deep. “We’re gonna start with a hymn,” he liked to kick off his concerts, “on account of people don’t sing ’em no more.”

McGrew calls Mullins “a folk theologian in the space between Protestantism and Catholicism.” “Mullins,” she continues, “found it tedious to give his testimony to typical evangelical interviewers”:

One woman was dissatisfied with every choice he gave her for the moment when he became a Christian. When he suggested the day his three-year-old self sang “Come into my heart, Lord Jesus,” she said he couldn’t have known what he was praying. “Lady,” he retorted, “We never know what we are praying. 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 again,” he asked, “Lady, which time?” By his age, he figured it should be normal to get “born again again” about every other day.

So Mullins was perpetually dissatisfied with Evangelical Protestantism but skeptical of Catholicism. About the latter, he said:

A lot of the stuff which I thought was so different between Protestants and Catholics [was] not, but at the end of going through an RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults] course, I also realized that there are some real and significant differences. I’m not sure which side of the issues I come down on. My openness to Catholicism was very scary to me because, when you grow up in a church where they don’t even put up a cross, many things were foreign to me. I went to an older Protestant gentleman that I’ve respected for years and years, and I asked him, “When does faithfulness to Jesus call us to lay aside our biases and when does it call us to stand beside them?” His answer to me was that it is not about being Catholic or Protestant. It is about being faithful to Jesus. The issue is not about which church you go to, it is about following Jesus where He leads you.

This, for a writer at First Things, is not acceptable. A Christian, in this view, must be in good standing with, if not the Church of Rome, then a doctrinally sound, dogmatically rigorous, preferably apostolic, traditional church (McGrew is Anglican).

I don’t have much patience for Christians who discount the eighteen centuries between the Early Church and modern Evangelicalism. But I find this perspective on Mullins—that he never quite made it “all the way” to orthodox Christianity—obnoxious. This is a man who ended his life serving as a music teacher on an Indian reservation because, he concluded, indigenous people were, in the American context, “the least of these.” He gave to charity all but a fraction of his considerable income, which he earned through sales of his records, song royalties, and his never-ending tours. By the end of his life, his income was being transferred directly to his church elders, who paid Mullins the average U.S. salary for that year ($53,490 in 2022) and then donated the rest.

Mullins refused to endear himself to his Evangelical brothers by cloaking his work with the Navajo Nation in the garment of evangelization. When asked whether his work on the reservation included proselytizing to “the Natives,” he replied firmly: “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.” Such an answer is perhaps alarming to McGrew; it is positively blasphemous among Evangelicals.

Despite my qualms with her tone, McGrew ends her essay on a beautiful note:

Christ came that we might have life, he reminded a live seminar audience in 1994. But what does this mean? Does it mean we will party better? Yes. Does it mean we will suffer more? Also yes. Because sin is tragic. Because life is tragic. Because we are the ones who can see this clearly. And still, God calls it good.

Whatever you want to say about Rich Mullins’s denominational predilections or the details of his spiritual journey, few can question the fruits of his faith. I believe that God would call them good.


I’ve created a Spotify playlist of my favorite Rich Mullins songs to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his passing. It includes all the songs I’ve referenced in this article and a few others.

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