Rich Mullins Brings Canticle of the Plains to Wheaton
by Amanda Stier
The Wheaton Record April 1997
"Paul Simon is my hero" he said, settling back into the couch. Rich explained that although most artists fail to integrate style with substance, Simon "has got it all together." Simon understands himself and his audience, and his vulnerable music reveals a lot about him.
"I think it's the same thing with mine," said Rich. Sometimes as he looks at what he has written, Rich thinks, "I didn't really mean for everyone to know that."
Sitting cross legged and comfortable, Rich admitted his eagerness to open his new musical, Canticle of the Plains. Although Rich may eventually take Canticle of the Plains on a world tour, Wheaton's production on April 18 will be the premiere of the musical.
"I'm using Wheaton for its reputation," he said, only half in jest. Canticle is a new experiment for Rich, a jump to another type of art.
The usually confident Rich had little to say on the musical. He protectively changed the topic of conversation from specifics to the incomplete nature of musical performance. Rich contrasted his music with the hogan, or Indian house, which he just finished building. Physically completing the house and having a finished product were satisfying, but that experience can never be found in music. "Music isn't really music unless it's performed, said Rich. Thus, he is hesitant to give any prognosis on Canticle; he would rather let the performance speak for itself.
Rich grew up playing the piano, which he calls his "best" instrument, and picked up the guitar in college. Recently, he began playing the lap dulcimer, or mountain dulcimer, which Rich described as sounding like Scottish bagpipes in order to understand his father's Appalachian culture better.
Rich described his endeavor to honor his father. "I was embarrassed about my dad being a hillbilly, admitted Rich, who grew up rather poor in the Appalachian mountains. "His life was very different than the life he provided for me."
Being the outdoorsman that he is, Rich enjoys the dulcimer's many advantages of lightness and portability. For anyone who knows the delicate physics of canoeing, a favorite pastime of Rich's it's easy to understand another good quality of the dulcimer. "It floats."
Rich finds an incredible connection between nature and music – not only through his trips down the river with his dulcimer, but also through growing up in the Appalachians and at his present home on the Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico. Nashville and the "industry" frustrated Rich, so he left.
To truly appreciate art, he said, we need to escape from the "neurotically uptight cultured class" and be more "primitive". Why? Because in Rich's words, "people who have a lot of money are incapable of liking anything."
Computers fascinate Rich and the internet brings skepticism. Telephones throw him off guard; his Reservation just got touch tone. Living as he does, immersed in the American Indian culture and in touch with the beauty and simplicity of God's creation, it is easy to see why he finds materialistic evangelical America hard to take.
He has mixed reactions to his success. Eager Wheaton audiences tend to heap glowing praise upon him. He is never allowed to enter the stage without a lengthy introduction; never allowed to be himself and face the audience with just his music. He is always treated differently because he is successful. Being taken "seriously" at Wheaton was strange for him. Although grateful for the attention, "there are times when I resent interview and stuff like that" he said.
Rich talked readily about the difference between success and learning. "A lot of people don't enjoy school –[they're] so afraid they'll fail at it. Preoccupation with success and failure is a life-killing thing," he said. "There are a certain number of mistakes floating around in the universe, and they are going to happen to us." He said this casually, seemingly fearless, himself.
Although he's had a "blast" getting to know the down-to-earth students here, Rich mentioned the prevalent success ethic driving a lot of them. He recited the chief aim of man from the Westminster Confession of Faith- "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever."
Aware of what he describes as "an incredible heaviness in people" Rich failed to see how Christians - students or otherwise - are enjoying God and His world. Rich himself is almost childlike, whether talking animatedly with students, finishing up the last licks of his ice cream cone or pausing to snap a few pictures with student fans.
Speaking on culture, Rich felt that "family values have replaced Christian values in the Evangelical community". Today, Americans feel the need to have the perfect life, perfect life, perfect kids – a sort of white picket fence mentality. Rich believes more people marry than actually should. Although he's been engaged twice to the same woman, he's never married. "I think marriage is"- he floundered, seeking to be impartial - "a weird thing." Rather than impress upon the Christian community the values of family and marriage, which exclude singles and put too much emphasis on one group of people, the church should teach more about loving your enemies or taking up the cross of Christ, according to Rich.
In Rich's mind the goal of Christianity is not strong families; it's knowing Christ. Strong families can be a side benefit by drawing us to Christ and helping us love him better, but they are not the ultimate goal.
Rich also talked about legalism. Righteousness is about hygiene." Rich said, "how to remain clean." Righteousness extends beyond moral law to common sense, he said. He described, for instance, the numerous pitfalls of the sexually active: STDs, unwanted pregnancy, emotional trauma. It seems simple to him that we should do what is right because it is in our best interest.
Voluntarily, not from fear or compulsion, we should demonstrate our love to God. "If I had a wife, would she dictate ways for me to love her?" he asked, such as a certain kind of roses wrapped a certain way presented at a certain time? No." said Rich. "She would want me to bring her whatever I bring her. If you have to ask, it doesn't count."
As Rich put it, God doesn't care as much about right and wrong as much as He wants us to know Him. Rich described Adam and Eve's sin as choosing to know good and evil over knowing God. They ended up not knowing either. As Rich sees it, the real walk of faith goes beyond morals to real obedience to Jesus Christ.
Rich's new musical focusing on a Catholic saint has drawn questions. Concerning his denominational affiliation, Rich was forceful. "I'm not Catholic." He pauses, thoughtfully, "Yet." Growing up with a Quaker mother and a father devoted to the Christian Church, Rich still admires the consistency with which Catholics have provided a clear witness and more definable "rules" than evangelicals.
All said, Rich Mullins is neither a philosopher nor a theologian; he is a musician. "If you want me to be honest, it will be confusing," he said. "I say enough things [when] taken out of context, I could get crucified." To fully understand Rich Mullins, his music must speak for him. As he played his closing song in chapel, that truth rang clear. He's a normal human being, like anyone else. He doesn't have all the answers, nor does he claim to. As his fingers caressed the keys and his raspy voice echoed through the auditorium, he sang to the people of himself and his journey: If I weep, let it be as a man who is longing for his home."