Missing Rich Mullins

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Jason Bruner - September 19th marks the twentieth anniversary of Rich Mullins’ death. Though I only discovered his music a couple years after he’d “gone out like Elijah,” I’ve since found that many of his songs have seeped into my life in a way that no others have. Still, I miss Rich Mullins.

It was through his music that I first got a taste of the Christian faith that wasn’t of an overtly southern evangelical sort. From listening to his music, I felt that he had found a richness in the whole of the Christian tradition that I hadn’t seen, and he seemed to want all of it. Instead of drawing dogmatic lines, it was like he wished he could be half-Quaker and half-Catholic and half-Protestant and half-poet and half-mystic and half of a thousand other things. He could look upon all of it, confessing: “I did not make it, no it is making me.” I miss Rich Mullins’ soulful ecumenism.

He showed me a Bible that was alive with stories to live in and think with, as opposed to filled with facts to memorize. Like these lines from “Jacob and 2 Women”:

Now Rachel's weeping for the children
That she thought she could not bear
And she bears a sorrow that she cannot hide
And she wishes she was with them
But she just looks and they're not there
Seems that love comes for just a moment
And then it passes on by

His songs, perhaps like the biblical stories they illuminated, were meant to be shared rather than set in stone. He took that seriously, often refusing to write down the lyrics to the songs he’d “written,” saying that if a lyric wasn’t good enough to be remembered, then he didn’t want to sing it. Perhaps that’s why those songs seep in and linger.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, when so much American Christian music was moving towards creating palatable Christian versions of “secular” hits, Rich wrote songs on his beloved hammered dulcimer. He took no interest in a softly filtered image. He seemed to bathe infrequently, wore oversized hand-made sweaters, and liked McDonalds. The proceeds from a couple of his better known songs alone could have gotten him a mansion, and yet he lived near the poverty line and gave away most of the rest. And in an age in which faith was celebrated by American Christianity’s public spokesmen as certainty, as correctness, as fact, one of his last songs was a series of questions to an uncommunicative God:

    Did You ever know loneliness?

Did You ever know need?

Do You remember just how long a night can get

when you are barely holding on and Your friends fall asleep

and don’t see the blood that’s running in Your sweat?

Will those who mourn be left uncomforted
while You're up there just playing hard to get?

I’ve found Rich’s humble honesty to be a good spiritual companion, and I miss his unglamorous, unglitzy faith.

I think he was at his best as a songwriter when he wrote about the beauty of the American mid-west, where he lived much of his life. He was, without a doubt, an American, and he often wove a natural American romanticism into his songs, like the beautifully meandering opening lines of “Land of My Sojourn”:

And the coal trucks come a-runnin'
With their bellies full of coal
And their big wheels a-hummin'
Down this road that lies open like the soul of a woman
Who hid the spies who were lookin'
For the land of the milk and the honey
And this road she is a woman
She was made from a rib
Cut from the sides of these mountains
Oh these great sleeping Adams
Who are lonely even here in paradise
Lonely for somebody to kiss them

But his wasn’t an uncritical American romanticism. The song’s bridge warns:

Nobody tells you when you get born here
How much you'll come to love it
And how you'll never belong here   

Rich Mullins was an uncomfortable American. As Christian leaders were cozying up to national politicians, he pleaded with God in another lyric: “Lord, save me from Washington.”

In the end, I’m grateful to Rich Mullins for showing me that to be a Christian in America can be quite a different thing than being an American Christian. But I miss the songs that were never written.

Jason Bruner is an Assistant Professor at Arizona University. You can check him out on twitter @jason_bruner