Last week, in anticipation of today’s 25th anniversary of his death, I listened to every Rich Mullins album from his 1986 self-titled debut to The Jesus Record, a collection of 10 demo tracks about Jesus he sang on a cassette recorder in an abandoned barn just a week before he died, and the posthumous recordings of those songs by friends of his in the Christian music industry. One thing I was reminded of while listening is something that only his most devoted fans are brave enough to verbalize: He wrote and recorded some terrible songs. Chief among these is the truly awful “Higher Education and the Book of Love“ from his 1989 Never Picture Perfect album. The song isn’t believable from a biographical standpoint. There’s no way he was taught biological evolution at Cincinnati Bible College. Nor did it jive with his stated convictions and beliefs, even early in his career, that the Christian culture wars birthed in the late 70’s and early 80’s were a farce. Also, what’s the deal with that opening monologue?
But only slightly less cringeworthy is the song he is most known for, the camp classic “Awesome God” from his otherwise stellar 1988 album Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth. I turned 14 in 1988, an age when, developmentally, my capacity for understanding abstract concepts like a deity that inspires awe was deepening. Awesome God provided a canvas for me to imagine such a being. Set in the context of Sunday School and Southern Baptist youth camps, the song was a vehicle inspiring greater devotion to God. But that didn’t make it a good song.
I have read somewhere that Mullins actually wrote Awesome God in the car on the way to leading worship at a youth camp, and the part of the song that I believe makes it so terrible– the opening line “When he rolls up his sleeve he aint just puttin’ on the ritz”– was inspired by his imagining of a fire-and-brimstone Southern Baptist preacher riffing in a sermon about the grandeur of God. This helps me extend grace to an otherwise subpar piece of music because it speaks to Rich Mullins’ incredible penchant for giving a wink and a nod to the absolute ridiculousness of much of evangelical culture, while still, at the same time, taking God very seriously.
This also speaks to Rich’s ability to give Christian music executives the nuggets of banality that will resound with the masses, which allowed him to sneak less commercially viable, but infinitely better songs into albums. On the same album as “Higher Education…” is the poignantly prophetic “While the Nations Rage” and “Awesome God” shares space with “Ready for the Storm,” one of his most under appreciated songs. (“Ready for the Storm” is also one of the few of his recordings that he didn’t write.)
A small handful of clunkers aside, the work of Rich Mullins transformed my faith and, I believe, set me on journey of belief and practice that I am still on.
What is generally considered to be his magnum opus, 1993’s A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin band was released during the first semester of my freshman year of college. I was mesmerized. I wasn’t capable at the time of understanding all the nuances of what I was listening to, but the songs drew me in and became conversation partners in my attempts to understand how faith played out in real life. Most notable was “Land of My Sojourn“, which he once announced in a concert as being not very good. He was wrong, because few other songs have ever spoken to the tension we feel about having our loyalties divided between this world and the next, and to the complexities of being a believer of Jesus here in America. (Which, incidentally, is the title of the first song of the album.)
I have a conviction that one should never attempt to speak for the dead. “What they would have wanted” or “What they would have thought about_______” is always a fruitless endeavor. But mostly, it is selfish, because “What they would have wanted” and “What they would have thought about_______” ends up sounding a lot like what the person speaking the words wants and thinks about a given subject. Even so, the past 25 years have been replete with events and moments that I really wish Rich were around to bear witness to.
So many Christians groups and movements have claimed him as “their own.” In that sense, he’s very much like the Jesus that he was mesmerized by, and which his final songs were about.
His last couple of years were spent living in the Navajo Nation, increasingly distancing himself from the public eye. But he had no real missionary impulse. In an interview with a newspaper about the move, he said “I just happen to like this region, and so my neighbors are going to be Navajo.” At a music festival, when asked if his goal was to proselytize the indigenous people he was living among, he replied, “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.”
Of all the things I learned, and continue to learn from Rich Mullins, it is that I have always found Christ in the places I’m not supposed to. Even, sometimes, in really bad Christian songs.