Few outside the world of evangelicalism and contemporary Christian music have heard of Rich Mullins. But inside that world, he’s a legend — a singer-songwriter, poet, prophet and teacher whose legacy endures 25 years after his death in a car crash at age 41. Amy Grant described him as “the uneasy conscience of Christian music.”
Mullins’s life and art defy the dichotomies and assumptions that many of us bring to faith. In the conservative, buttoned up evangelical culture of the 1980s and ’90s, he was unflinchingly honest about struggles with temptation, loneliness, and discouragement. Yet these struggles did not lead him to abandon his faith. If anything, they seemed to make Jesus grow more luminous to him. Amid growing wealth and fame, he took up voluntary poverty and eschewed celebrity because of his convictions about the call of scripture. In front of white, conservative crowds, he sang songs about injustices done to Native Americans and criticized the materialism and insularity of evangelical leaders of his time.
Yet he never deconstructed his faith and, till his dying day, loved the church and Christian orthodoxy. (On one of his last tours, he even encouraged his tour mates to read G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy,” a defense of Christian faith that was one of his favorite books.) His life continues to offer a model for how one can acknowledge both the reality of darkness and also the goodness of God, how one can be both honest and faithful, and how one can admit and grieve the failings in the church yet remain committed to it.
Mullins’s music has a mix of folk, Americana, gospel, Appalachian and Celtic influences. What makes it stand out most is his lyrics. Christian music has been accused of being shallow — infused with a saccharine “Yay, Jesus!” corniness. Mullins, in contrast, was authentic and raw.
My favorite Mullins song, and in my opinion possibly the best contemporary Christian song of all time, was recorded nine days before his death. It’s called “Hard to Get,” and its lyrics address the sense of God’s absence and the profound arduousness of belief in Jesus. It ends: “I can’t see how you’re leading me unless you’ve led me here / Where I’m lost enough to let myself be led / And so you’ve been here all along, I guess / It’s just your ways and you are just plain hard to get.” ...
Andrew Peterson ... calls Mullins “a once-in-a-generation poet, thinker and artist. When I encountered Rich’s music, I was 18 and utterly directionless,” Peterson told me. “I believed in God only vaguely, and thought of him as a supreme being who was supremely disappointed in me.”
Then, he said, late one night he learned Mullins’s 1988 song “If I Stand,” whose chorus offers a prayer: “If I stand, let me stand on the promise that you will pull me through / And if I can’t, let me fall on the grace that first brought me to you / And if I sing, let me sing for the joy that has born in me these songs / And if I weep, let it be as a man who is longing for his home.”
What draws many, including me, to Mullins is not only his songwriting but his remarkable life and countercultural devotion to God. At the height of his career Mullins left Nashville, first to move to Wichita, Kan., where he earned a B.A. in music education. In Wichita, Mullins moved in with James Bryan Smith and his wife and child, who was around 1 at the time. Smith would say to his friend: “Rich, you could buy our house twice. You could live anywhere you want in the city.” But Mullins would respond: “This is real life. I want real life and real people.” ...
[H]onesty and vulnerability fueled Mullins’s passionate quest for God and drew people to him. Mullins was “a really broken guy and capable of bad behavior,” Smith said. “And yet I saw the power of God in his life like nobody I’ve ever seen.”
Mullins was not naïve about the dysfunction of the contemporary American church. He criticized evangelical leaders of his day for hypocrisy, materialism and self-righteousness. Yet despite Mullins’s increasing frustrations with evangelical culture, he never walked away from the Christian faith or the church.
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Other New York Times op-eds by Tish Harrison Warren: