Nothing about the small non-denominational church service made sense to the young boy. At his old Quaker church, they didn’t have this strange ritual where you passed around a crust of bread and a jigger of wine, like a cruel tease for refreshments. And they would never have done what the preacher was doing to that poor guy up in front, dunking him in water, embarrassing him to death in front of the whole congregation. In time, of course, he would realize that the man wasn’t being embarrassed to death. He was being embarrassed to life.
That young boy would grow up to be singer/songwriter Rich Mullins, whose name rings fewer bells with each passing year but who lives on in loving memory among those of us who were fortunate enough to encounter his music as young Christians. Today marks the 25th anniversary of his untimely death in a car accident. It was a shocking loss for the world of contemporary Christian music, a world with which the eccentric artist always had a love/hate relationship. Inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, he chose to spend most of his substantial royalties on the poor. By the end of his short life, he was shunning the limelight on a Navajo Indian reservation with a few fellow “Kid Brothers of St. Frank.” To this day, his friends mourn the abrupt closing of a book that should have held many more creative chapters.
At the time, however, some quietly wondered if it was a mercy that God took him so soon, and so quickly—going out “like Elijah,” as he’d once written. Concert footage shot shortly before the accident shows Mullins looking exhausted and weathered, much older than his forty-one years. As he plays with his kid brothers, tells stories in his hoarse chain-smoker’s voice, and gently teases the audience with his signature blend of wisdom and off-beat snark, the whole night feels like a weary pilgrim’s last benediction. Particularly uncanny are those moments of foreshadowing where he looks ahead to his own death, declaring the great mystery that though his body will “rot,” yet shall he live.
As a folk theologian in the space between Protestantism and Catholicism, Mullins found it tedious to give his testimony to typical evangelical interviewers. One woman was dissatisfied with every choice he gave her for the moment when he became a Christian. When he suggested the day his three-year-old self sang “Come into my heart, Lord Jesus,” she said he couldn’t have known what he was praying. “Lady,” he retorted, “We never know what we are praying. And God in his mercy does not answer our prayers according to our knowledge, but according to his wisdom.” When she finally said, “What I really want to know is when you were born again,” he asked, “Lady, which time?” By his age, he figured it should be normal to get “born again again” about every other day.
There was wisdom in this, though Mullins arguably drew too heavily from the “ragamuffin gospel” of defrocked priest Brennan Manning, a charismatic alcoholic whose addiction would ultimately kill him. Manning was a father figure to many, including Mullins, but his theology was shaky and his cult of personality unsustainable. Still, it’s understandable that Mullins, who often felt cut off from the love of his earthly and heavenly fathers, was attracted to his message. Though Mullins sometimes lost the battle with his own demons, he intentionally sought the sort of consistent accountability that might have kept Manning from self-destructing.
In death, Mullins has been claimed as at least an “asymptotic Catholic,” though nobody can be sure if he would have made the leap across the Tiber. One of his Catholic friends once told me he was always peppering her with questions, because if he was going to convert, he wouldn’t do it by halves. He had professional hesitations as well, working as he did in a space saturated with evangelicalism. And his own Protestant roots still ran deep. “We’re gonna start with a hymn,” he liked to kick off his concerts, “on account of people don’t sing ’em no more.”
The older I get, the better I understand his sense of denominational homelessness, having grown up “secretly Baptist” in a tiny Anglo-Catholic parish. I was raised on the liturgy that so inspired and compelled Mullins in his mature years. At the same time, I learned every cherished hymn that called him back to the place he started from. Like him, I feel strongly that the people of God should be who they are, where they are—that, as he once put it, “Baptists should be more Baptist, Anglicans should be more Anglican.” But what am I? Where is my home? Mullins could never quite answer that question for himself either.
I’ve been revisiting his music and old interviews this past week. I’m still moved by the power of these songs, songs that have grown with me—the yearning “If I Stand,” the windswept “Calling Out Your Name,” the Chestertonian “Growing Young,” the anthemic “While the Nations Rage.” His voice still cuts through the decades, still feels fresh, in all its quirkiness, quick wit, raw candor, and boyish innocence. It makes you feel as if you could have taken a long rambling walk with him, and almost no topic would have been too dangerous. And every time he said, in his puckish Norm Macdonald-like way, “And I kinda go . . .” you would know he was about to say something rather profound, or rather odd—or both.
Christ came that we might have life, he reminded a live seminar audience in 1994. But what does this mean? Does it mean we will party better? Yes. Does it mean we will suffer more? Also yes. Because sin is tragic. Because life is tragic. Because we are the ones who can see this clearly. And still, God calls it good.
For all who need a reason to live, Rich Mullins says, let this be reason enough. Let us declare with him, “Christ has said that he came that I might have life. Therefore, let me live.”
Bethel McGrew is an essayist and social critic.
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