I am not the fanboy type. But the closest I ever came to it was upon discovering Rich Mullins in the early 90s. I’m not generally an emotional kind of guy — especially the kind of person who really feels it when a stranger passes away — but I remember exactly where I was when I heard that Rich died. I was at a computer (a PowerMac/Performa 6400), laying out a newsletter using an early version of QuarkXPress. My wife called. Her mom had heard on the local Christian radio station that, overnight, Rich Mullins had flipped his Jeep, been thrown out, and gotten hit by a truck somewhere in rural Illinois. His friend and traveling buddy Mitch McVicker survived the wreck, barely.
“I’m really sorry,” my wife said, as if she had just informed me of the death of a good friend.
It was ten years ago today…September 19, 1997.
I realize, of course, that a lot of you readers were, like, 12 years old back in 1997. And so maybe the only thing you know about Rich Mullins is that he was the guy who wrote “Awesome God.” And “Awesome God” is one of those worshippy songs that got sung way too much back in the day, and the chorus is trite and the verses are pretty dumb and you’re wondering why all these people in their 30s liked the guy who wrote “Awesome God” so much.
The first thing you should know is that Rich Mullins agreed with you. He didn’t think “Awesome God” was a very good song either, but somehow it got popular. Youth groups sang it around campfires. T-shirts were made. Inspirational posters appeared. Toward the end of his career, he mentioned on a couple of different occasions that he got really tired of playing that song at concerts. It was, he admitted, one of his worst songs. So don’t hold “Awesome God” against him, because Rich Mullins was one of the good ones. Here’s why.
1) Rich hated the limelight. His typical concert uniform was jeans (with holes in the knees) and a t-shirt. No shoes. No socks. In fact, he was known for sneaking onto the stage before being introduced, because the glowing introductions always made him uncomfortable. It was not uncommon for the audience to think the guy walking out onto the dark stage and sitting at the piano was some sort of pre-concert piano tuner. Then he’d start playing, and the lights would come on, and everyone would go “Oh, that’s him!” and the concert would start.
2) Rich was a genius musician. I had never heard of the hammered dulcimer until I bought the cassette tape of The World As Best As I Remember It (Vol. 1) when it came out in 1991. There was this brilliant sound on some of the songs — a droning, dancing, rhythmic theme that sounded like a cross between an acoustic guitar and a piano — and it mesmerized me. I figured out that this must be the “hammered dulcimer” mentioned in the liner notes. Within a few years, I had my own hammered dulcimer and had learned to play it. Never anywhere as good as Rich, but still entranced by the beauty of it. Rich introduced a lot of Christians like me to the depth and simplicity of Appalachian music…and the Irish folk music that inspired it.
3) Rich was a 36-year-old college student when his career really began to take off. From 1991 to 1995, one of the bestselling Christian musicians was enrolled at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, pursuing a B.A. in Music Education. He played French Horn in the band, for Pete’s sake. And he remained there until he graduated and received his teaching degree. Now, imagine Chris Tomlin deciding suddenly to enroll at your local community college so he can study physical therapy — because he truly wanted to help people by becoming a licensed, practicing physical therapist — and then actually graduating with a degree…while still writing and recording music. It was kind of like that.
4) Rich was a “new monastic” before we knew what that meant. Before guys like Shane Claiborne came along, Rich was pursuing an uncloistered, semi-Protestant monastic existence. Upon graduating from college, he moved to a Native American reservation in New Mexico, near the Arizona border, where he taught music to kids in the local school. He made hundreds of thousands of dollars through album sales and royalties, but Rich only ever saw a fraction of that money. Early in his career, he set up a team of advisers to handle his finances. They paid him a yearly salary — as I remember it, it was something in the mid $20,000 range, equivalent to that of a common laborer — and the rest went to various charities. He didn’t know what his music and career were worth, and didn’t want to know.
5) Rich was theologically curious, and religiously ecumenical. True story: I grew up in a pretty tight bubble of very conservative Southern Baptist theology and practice. I owe a lot of who I am to that upbringing, but I also recognize that much of who I am comes from the steps I’ve made outside of that bubble. And I was given the freedom to take those first steps by Rich Mullins. The stuff he wrote and sang about from 1991 to 1995 — the end of my high school years and beginning of my college years — set me on a path toward re-understanding a lot of theology. It wasn’t until he started talking about this book by a guy named Brennan Manning, a Catholic writer none of my friends had ever heard of, that a little book called The Ragamuffin Gospel became the Blue Like Jazz of the mid 90s. I devoured The Ragamuffin Gospel. I started reading all of Manning’s other books. Then I started reading all the authors — Henri Nouwen and Frederick Buechner and Thomas Merton and Flannery O’Connor and G.K. Chesterton and Bonhoeffer and Moltmann — that Manning listed in his footnotes. And when a sheltered Southern Baptist boy starts reading Catholics and Anglicans and other suspicious thinkers, the Gospel gets a whole lot bigger. When Rich Mullins described listening to a cassette of Brennan Manning speaking about grace, he told of having to stop his pickup truck, pull to the side of the road, and weep. That hooked me, and it set my feet on a path I’m still on today. (Always rebellious and controversial, Rich ended up converting to Catholicism before his death, by the way. EDIT BY JASON: Actually, no, he didn’t. He was ready to convert — and had even been attending catechism — but died before he could actually join the Roman Catholic Church. Terry Mattingly gives some background in this article.)
6) Rich was messy. It was generally suppressed (for our safety, I suppose) while he was alive, but after Rich’s death we began to learn that he had a fondness for cigarettes, light beer, and the occasional dirty word. This sort of behavior is, perhaps, more readily accepted among CCM artists in 2007, but back in the mid-90s, we needed to be protected from the less wholesome activities of the guy who wrote “Awesome God.” So no one ever talked about it. But there were always rumors, and Rich Mullins was as human as people get. That’s always good to know.
Rich Mullins asked hard questions and didn’t always offer answers. He rebelled against the establishment. He was a quiet, humble prophet in a culture of screaming TV preachers and Christian musicians wearing glittery jumpsuits. He refused to clean up his act — or his wardrobe — for record labels. He wrote songs about the color green, preferring to record offbeat music with densely metaphorical lyrics played by a Ragamuffin Band of unkempt, scruffy, outcast musicians rather than release a polished, radio-friendly pop song. He made lots of money but never saw it. He loved Saint Francis of Assisi and “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber. He grew up Quaker. He drove an old pickup truck and taught himself to play the cello. He talked of grace as often as possible. We were strangers, but I feel like we were companions during a very formative time in my life. I never met him, but he influenced me more than just about any other non-relative I can think of.
Thank you, Rich. You left us too soon. We’ve missed you. You suck, by the way, for not wearing a seatbelt.
Say “hi” to Francis for us.