Humble Poet, Reluctant Artist
by Michael Nolan
Calendar Magazine Summer 1992
"I'm a quirky guy and so my audience is probably quirky people," offers Rich Mullins with a mischievous wrinkle of his brow.
A humble poet and reluctant artist, he finds it baffling that he has become successful while others he believes are more talented haven't fared as well. While his name may top the popularity polls, Rich has carved his niche as an eclectic musician appealing to listeners who like to think as they sing along.
Yes, he is the "Awesome God" guy but his forthcoming album on Reunion, The World as Best as I Remember It, Vol. II, proves once again that Rich's music defies pigeon-holing. His sixth album, it is yet another pilgrimage into the quirky and profound.
A conversation with Rich roams freely, exposing both the untainted wonder of a child and the wisdom of a man willing to wrestle with the complexities of this world. Rich hopes that, in his songs, you hear his life as well as something of your own.
"I kinda believe that if something hits me, there's a chance that it will hit everyone else," he says. "When I read a book, it's not good because I learn something new, it's good because it articulates something I've always known, I've always suspected but was never able to speak."
"C. S. Lewis talks about how we don't really want to see beauty," continues Rich. "We want to participate in it. He says joy hurts kind of like an ache, that there's a sense of longing in every kind of joy. The closer I get to something, the more I realize how far I am. It's like falling in love - I am more miserable and lonely for it."
"Robert Frost said, 'A great poem is an immortal wound.' You don't have to understand it. You may not have any idea what it's really about but you read it and you never get over it. You may even hate it. A great poem is something that you don't recover from so that's why it's really hard for me to say, 'That's a great song' because I've recovered from most songs I've heard."
His forte is presenting a new slant on basic truths, infusing everyday observations on life with compelling insights. "I have a reputation for being more honest because there's probably no sin I've ever struggled with that everyone else hasn't struggled with," he says, "And, according to the Holy Scriptures, there's no sin I've struggled with that Christ wasn't faced with. So why should I be embarrassed if Jesus had to deal with this and he was the Son of God?"
In his search for the common threads of life, he often turns to familiar Bible stories. "A lot of times we look at people in the Bible and we think they're so different than us. But when we look at the things that we all share in common, we find it's very profound."
If The World as Best as I Remember It, Vol. I is the historical world as Rich remembers it, Vol. II is an expansive view of the contemporary world, exploring the human predicament and the need for timeless truth in a trend-driven culture.
Not surprisingly, music is important to Rich but message is paramount. As he surveys the music industry, he says, "It's shocking to me the kind of energy and talent and money that goes into making a song and how insignificant the song is. It's all about getting product out but I think there's considerable less thought about 'what are we really going to say with this once we get people to listen?'"
Because his music is uncompromisingly message-driven, producer Reed Arvin finds working with Rich a phenomenal opportunity. "He is completely released from any commercial considerations in the making of the record," Reed observes. "That gives us the opportunity to roll all the dice on every song. Like he'll say, 'I want people to be real nervous when they hear this.' That's a totally uncommercial attitude. The only thing that matters is that we try to make them feel what he wanted them to feel in the lyric.
"We could make it so that no one was bugged by anything we did musically, lyrically, or any other way," Reed adds, "but that's not worth trading off the possibility of making a person cry or see themselves in relation to God in a new light."
Without question, Rich is willing to "bug" people. He says, "A lot of people come to Christian concerts because they think they're going to hear the same old boring droll about 'If you tithe, you'll get rich' and 'if you do everything right, your wife will always love you and your kids will always do good and you'll never get multiple sclerosis' which I find to be purely heretical. (But there are) a lot of people who really want to hear something else, who really want to hear what the Gospel really teaches. I think that there is a real hunger.
"The first time I heard Brennan Manning speak I wept because I realized that I'd been going to church since I was a week old and it had been years since I'd heard the Gospel spoken. When we dig down beneath the issues, this is what we find - that God loves us. To me, there is nothing more riveting.
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom and we were created to fear God," Rich observes. "It's not a fear like a fear of the dark. It's more like a fear of the Grand Canyon or the way you're afraid of standing on the top of Mount Washington when the wind is blowing.
"I think about our relationship to God is like a child's to his father. I didn't live in perpetual fear of my dad. There are times that the child is playful around his father. I think it's good that Christians can be playful around God. I like what C. S. Lewis said, 'We must play but our play must be with people who at the outset take each other seriously.' That is, in fact, the best kind of play."
Reed thinks Rich's playful nature is perhaps his most understated quality. As evidence, he offers a song on the new album with the unlikely title of "Maker of Noses" and another in which Rich describes his relationship with co-writer/comrade Beaker as 'Wally and the Beav, David and Jonathan.' Not a lot of people would write about themselves that way," observes Reed.
Although he's had six #1 songs and 'Awesome God' was #3 song of the '80's in Christian Research Report, Rich pays little attention to such notoriety. "G. K. Chesterton says if you want your world to be big, you must make yourself small in it." Not only does that keep humility intact, it allows the freedom to be amazed at the world.
By listening to Rich's songs you might not realize that, as a teenager, he was a self-confessed cynic who "hardly had any fun." The kid who found something wrong with everything has clearly changed his tune.
"There's a line out of G. K. Chesterton where he says how we hate monotony because we're not strong enough to exult in it. He says children kick their legs rythmically out of an excess, not a lack of life. How do we know that all daisies are alike not because they have to be but because God never gets tired of making them? How do we know the sun doesn't rise every morning because God says, 'Do it again'? It might be due to the abundance of God's life that the universe continues without variance. Then he says, we have sinned and grown old and our Father is younger than we."
For Rich, the wisdom of years remain as he pursues Christ's command to become like a child, reveling in wonder and taking the time to consider what is so often taken for granted. It is there where both the quirky and profound reside and a poet finds a place to participate in beauty.