Why the Music of Rich Mullins Endures

Why the Music of Rich Mullins Endures, 25 Years After His Death

by Tish Harrsion Warren

New York Times October 2, 2022

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."

The Nashville songwriter Jeremy Casella told me that Mullins's "lyrics reflected the reality of the Christian life instead of the more glossed-over and plastic representation of Christian faith that was so prevalent in the American Christian subculture of the '80s and '90s."

Mullins, he said, was an "Appalachian poet who wrote songs that were saturated in the Scriptures themselves," and he was "a singer-songwriter in the truest sense."

James Bryan Smith, who wrote a book in 2000 called "Rich Mullins: A Devotional Biography: An Arrow Pointing to Heaven," which will be rereleased in February, told me that Mullins is "kind of like the Bob Dylan of Christian music. I mean, where else do you find this kind of devotion to someone and love for his lyrics?"

Friends University in Wichita, where Mullins was a student, is hosting a celebration of his life on his birthday, Oct. 21, when it will open a new Rich Mullins archive room containing his hammer dulcimer, notes and other personal items. Last month, tribute concerts were also held in Nashville and Chicago to honor Mullins. In November, "Bellsburg: The Songs of Rich Mullins," a tribute album, will be released, featuring Amy Grant, Kevin Max, Audrey Assad, Sarah Groves and other artists.

Andrew Peterson, a musician and writer who participated in the tribute album and the Nashville concert, 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."

Peterson said: "In some ways, my life is cleanly divided into two halves at that moment. Rich's honest, beautiful and true songwriting was like a portal for me, on the other side of which was the person of Jesus."

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."

Then, in 1995, Mullins moved with his friend and fellow musician Mitch McVicker to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, where he lived in a small hogan and taught music to children.

The songwriter Rebecca Sparks, whose band toured with Mullins in 1991, said: "I learned through Rich that living simply was OK. We didn't have to follow the Nashville system to be musicians."

Mullins had all his royalties and wages go directly to his accountant, whom he asked to issue him an allowance equal to the average working-class salary at the time. The rest of his earnings were given away, mostly to charity. Smith tells me that Mullins "was scared for his own soul." It wasn't that he wasn't tempted by money and fame. It's that he knew he was tempted, so he ran from it.

Later, Mullins also befriended Shane Claiborne, who is now a well-known activist, author and leader in the New Monasticism movement. Mullins, Claiborne said, "had an authenticity about him that is regrettably rare in the church." Mullins, he recalls, "was honest about his doubts, his struggles, his loneliness."

Every person I've ever spoken with about Mullins mentioned his honesty and vulnerability. Carolyn Arends, a songwriter and author who toured with Mullins, said: "I was raised in a church culture bubble, and when I first met Rich I was more than a little taken aback by his rough edges — he could curse with the best of them. He smoked."

She continued: "I started to see that he gave very little energy to image management, and was after something deeper and more profoundly good than a clean-cut image. Famously, he always signed his autograph 'Be God's,' rather than 'Be good,' and I think that's because he thought that sorting out where your allegiances lie is a much bigger deal than perfunctorily good behavior."

Smith tells a story about how soon after they became friends, Mullins said he was going to tell him "everything": "I want to be friends and you need to know the worst," Mullins said. Smith said that conversation, the details of which he will never share, was immensely difficult. Smith told me that Mullins "tried to numb the pain" of childhood trauma, loneliness and a distant father through "dark seasons of sin."

This same honesty 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.

When I asked Smith what we can learn from Mullins's legacy today, he paused for a long time. Then said, "How much he loved the church." Arends told me that when she met Mullins, she was "kind of jaded about the Bible and about church." But, she said, "This guy who didn't fit any of my preconceptions about what a Christian was supposed to act like was actually deeply passionate about both the Bible and Church." She continued: "He genuinely loved church. He said it was the only place you could go and hear grown men singing out of tune."

"Rich Mullins is one of the most interesting people I've ever known," Claiborne told me, "Interesting because he was honest — not perfect. He is one of the most important people in the history of modern evangelicalism, a ragamuffin that our children and our grandchildren need to know about."