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.