Remembering Rich Mullins, the Barefoot Bard


Christian singer, songwriter, and children’s author Andrew Peterson, doesn’t like it when people call him “the next Rich Mullins.” The influence is undeniable in songs like “The Silence of God” and “The Good Confession,” but Peterson sees the man behind “Awesome God” and “Creed” as larger-than-life, a “barefoot, quirky, grace-filled” artist who “left behind a pair of shoes that no one will ever fill.”

Rich died twenty years ago today in a car accident, but he shows up in Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga, a young adult fantasy series. There, he’s known as “Armulyn the Bard,” a ragamuffin minstrel who travels the land, stirring the hearts of oppressed people to remember a better country—a “Shining Isle” far across the sea. Armulyn (pronounced “R. Mullin”) makes music that points those living in darkness to a marvelous light—songs that remind them of a half-remembered home.

Los Angeles poet Lynn Prescott thinks this is an apt image. “In our day [Rich] would be best compared to a medieval troubadour/poet. . . . Even dead and in his grave, Rich has helped me rediscover a lot of the pieces that I had lost; he helped me reclaim myself in a way that no human being ever has.”

Rich wouldn’t have wanted the attention—not on the 20th anniversary of his homecoming, not ever. He was acutely aware of his failings. James Bryan Smith, in his book “Rich Mullins: An Arrow Pointing to Heaven,” tells the story of a quarrel Rich had with his travel manager, Gay Quisenberry: “Rich stormed out the door, uncontrite. Early the following morning, Gay was awakened from a sound sleep by the loud buzz of a motor outside her house. Groggily, she looked out the window and saw Rich mowing her lawn!”

The son of an Indiana tree farmer who grew up on cornbread and beans, Rich was never interested in making a name for himself. He saw his music as a signpost—as Smith calls it, “an arrow pointing to Heaven.” One could describe his entire 41 years on earth that way. He donated much of his substantial income from record sales, lived a semi-monastic life along with the other members of a group he called “The Kid Brothers of Saint Frank,” and spent most of his final months on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico teaching music to schoolchildren.

“If my life is motivated by ambition to leave a legacy,” he said, “what I’ll probably leave as a legacy is ambition. But if my life is motivated by the power of the Spirit in me—if I live with the awareness of the indwelling Christ, if I allow his presence to guide my actions, to guide my motives, those sorts of things. . . . That’s the only time I think we really leave a great legacy.”

From two decades down the road, Rich’s countercultural lifestyle and tendency to shrug off middle-class sensibilities seem to pair well with progressive ideas about the church. With his lyrics celebrating the majesty of creation, his perpetually torn blue jeans, and his notoriously short attention span, he seems the perfect fit for today’s “spiritual, but not religious” stereotype. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rich thought Christian isolation was deadly, and he had stern words for those who view the assembling of the saints as optional:

“I hear people say, ‘Why do you want to go to church? They are all just hypocrites.’ I never understood why going to church made you a hypocrite because nobody goes to church because they’re perfect. If you’ve got it all together, you don’t need to go. You can go jogging with all the other perfect people on Sunday morning. Every time you go to church, you’re confessing again to yourself, to your family, to the people you pass on the way there, to the people who will greet you there, that you don’t have it all together, and that you need their support. You need their direction. You need some accountability. You need some help.”

In regards to people who looked to his songs instead of the Bible and Christian tradition for their theology, Rich remarked, “I’m in contemporary Christian music, and I don’t know nothing. If you want spiritual nourishment, go to church.”

More than a mere gathering of believers, he saw the Church as an unstoppable cosmic force, making war on demonic powers: “The Church of God/She will not bend her knees/To the gods of this world/Though they promise her peace/She stands her ground/Stands firm on the Rock/Watch their walls tumble down/When she lives out His love.”

Rich wanted people to encounter Christ, and he knew that the Lamb of God is nowhere more present than with the people of God. Frumpy, unshod, confessedly “homeless,” and with this message on his lips and in his lyrics, Rich was also a John the Baptist figure. He became (quite literally during his last days) “a voice crying in the wilderness,” testifying to the Light, reminding people that He was just a messenger.

Peterson describes how Rich’s music rattled his bones with the Gospel. I could say the same. Each of his songs—from the longing and sorrowful to the exultant and mysterious—is a vivid reminder that our God is better than any of us have dared to hope. This is the real reason why, 20 years later, so many people are still singing those songs and thanking Heaven for a tree farmer’s son-turned-bard. And this is why, like Elisha on the banks of the Jordan clutching the cloak of the man he loved and admired, we wonder why God took Rich from us so soon.

Image courtesy of SBME Special Mkts, “The Best of Rich Mullins” album.

G. Shane Morris is a senior writer for BreakPoint. 

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  • Joel Stucki

    Oh, for the days when Christian music wasn’t all about “my feelings.” Mullins, Keith Green, Mark Heard….I wish all those guys were still around writing songs.

    • Just One Voice

      As do I!

      Steve Green is another one–for me at least–in that category of not being all about one’s feelings. The theology of his songs always get to me!

    • HpO

      Rich Mullins & Keith Green on the same gospelizing plane or footing? I don’t think so. Sure, Mullins is more musically talented; I mean he’s a proto-Christian Prog or what, right? Whereas Green can get too pop music for my taste. Still, the point is these two were supposed to be Christ’s servants – gospel-wise – and both were taken while young – though not spiritually young in Green’s case. Mullins is esoteric – might even be a proto-Progressive Evangelical in the making. At the end of the day, J-Day, that is, all that matters to God is these 2 guys’ service to Him. My heavenly treasures on Green any eternal day!

      • Joel Stucki

        Huh. Not sure why you consider Mullins to be more musically talented, unless you think a proto-prog musician is automatically better than anyone who isn’t. Keith was no slouch. He was a much better singer than Mullins (who was never a good vocalist, although a very good songwriter and outstanding on dulcimer). And I would stack Keith’s piano playing up with anyone’s (with the possible exception of Bruce Hornsby).

        If anything, I would argue that Keith was the more skilled musician, while certainly more stylistically focused. Mullins thought outside the box a little more and is harder to pigeonhole. But he never executed as well. More of a musical explorer, but less polished. Perhaps they’re a little like Lennon and McCartney that way.

        At any rate, I love them both.

  • HpO

    I can appreciate, brother G. Shane Morris, that you’d like to think brother Rich Mullins would have this advice for his curious & critical fans like me: “People [shouldn’t have] looked to his songs instead of the Bible and Christian tradition for their theology”. I hear you, but since you brought it up on his behalf, how, then, would you sum up this very notion of “‘The Bible and Christian Tradition’ According to Brother Rich Mullins”? No can do, right? – seeing as there’s no follow-up to that comment right up to the end of your article. Which meant I had to look it up for myself. And I did, and this at Wikipedia, of all places. You know what I discovered?

    (1) That Rich Mullins had this explanation for moving with Mitch McVicker to a Navajo reservation in Tse Bonito, New Mexico, where they’d be music teachers to children: “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.” (Source: Interview at Ichthus Festival 1996.)

    (2) That all the while, according to Catholic World News, “Christian Singer Rich Mullins … Planned To Become Catholic”. (Source: Catholic World News, September 22, 1997.) Which Rich Mullins himself confirmed: After “going through an RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults] course … I’m not sure which side of the issues I come down on. My openness to Catholicism was very scary to me”. (Source: His interview with Artie Terry, “The Exchange”, WETN, Wheaton, Illinois, April 1997.)

    I don’t know about you, but that’s definitively it for me about this guy. Go figure, but “finding Christ among the Pagan Navajos” and an “openness to Catholicism” were his priority and mission in life before a truck struck him dead.

    • Gregory Shane Morris

      HpO, (Are you a droid? A relative of 3pO, perhaps?)

      I would encourage you to do some deeper reading about Rich and his Christian journey, rather than heresy-hunting. He’s a little more complicated than anyone can justly summarize with a drive-by quote shootout, as you have tried to do. Rich loved the church and its people, though he had little patience for certain modern tendencies. He was no spiritual isolationist. For example, you will find that the reason he attended a Catholic church (this is the Colson Center, by the way. What’s the problem with attending a Catholic church?) is that it was the only place of worship near the Navajo reservation where he and McVicker lived, working with the children. Rich certainly did have a fascination with Catholicism, sparked primarily by St. Francis of Assisi and the film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” However, as Smith shows pretty clearly, he didn’t pursue confirmation after his RCIA classes. He was edified, but said he found many important differences between Catholicism and Protestantism he hadn’t known about before. The interest was evidently cooled. Rich was and remained more ecumenical than most, urging members of each tradition to find the best their own churches had to offer, before venturing elsewhere. In that respect, he was much like C. S. Lewis, who receives similarly unfair treatment from quote-miners.

      In any case, Rich deserves a more careful and nuanced reading than what you’re offering in your comments.