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Rich Mullins’ music, three decades later

The legacy of a complex, gifted, and fearless character


Rich Mullins laughs with members of his first band, Zion. Wikimedia Commons

Rich Mullins’ music, three decades later
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The other week, I was taking a long country drive to church, listening to music by Rich Mullins on my old iPod Nano. Shuffle brought up the song “The Color Green,” a joyous Irish folk celebration of God’s creation. By chance, just then I happened to cross a little road named “Ireland.” I couldn’t stop smiling. It was just the sort of “coincidence” Mullins himself would have loved.

Like many children of the late ’90s, I grew up on classic hits like “Awesome God” and “Step by Step,” and I was vaguely aware that the guy who sang them had died in a car accident. It was only much later that I realized his catalogue was much deeper than these simple tunes, and his legacy extended beyond his music. I was a fan of contemporary Christian music in general, but there was something different about Mullins. As I wrote last year at Plough for the 25th anniversary of his death, he was a complex, singular character, hard for anyone to “claim” in our contemporary sociopolitical milieu.

One respect in which he eluded easy labels was his openness to different worship traditions. Though he had deep Protestant roots, he was drawn to the rhythms of liturgical worship, at one time alternating between Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. He wanted his music to appeal as widely as possible, focusing more on what united Christians than what divided them. So in the early ’90s, with his “ragamuffin band,” he began working on a record that could draw these threads together. Thus, A Liturgy, a Legacy, & a Ragamuffin Band was born—by chance, in the same year I was, 30 years ago this month.

The band’s name was a nod to ex-priest Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel, a popular work that has drawn much criticism for its shaky theology of sin and salvation. Mullins was heavily influenced by Manning and name-checks him in between-song reflections on the project’s companion video. As theology, these reflections may be less than completely sound. Still, they movingly capture how Mullins used his music to work out his own salvation with fear and trembling. 

Sadly, Mullins wouldn’t live to see the fruit of his own legacy.

The record’s “liturgy” half maps onto specific moments in the organization of a liturgical church service. “52:10” is a solemn “Introit” that simply repeats the text of Isaiah 52:10. Then “The Color Green” reflects the Gloria, in the lyrical voice of a farmer who glorifies God for all the works of His hands. “Hold Me, Jesus” reflects the General Confession, written as a cry for God’s help through Mullins’ own intense struggle with besetting sexual sin. “Creed” is a simple setting of the Apostles’ Creed, with a soaring arrangement built around a dazzling hammered dulcimer hook. (Drawing on his Appalachian roots, Mullins made the dulcimer his signature instrument.) Finally, “Peace” is a communion blessing, calling for the peace of God to “rain down from heaven/Like little pieces of the sky/Little keepers of the promise/On these souls the drought has dried.”

In the project’s “legacy” half, Mullins turns inward to contemplate his identity as an American Christian. The Paul Simon-like opener “Here in America,” written when he was still a college student, reflects the wistfulness of a wandering pilgrim soul who simultaneously loves his homeland and feels homeless. (The music video was shot partly in America, partly in Ireland.) “I’ll Carry On” honors the courage of his immigrant forefathers, while the closer “Land of My Sojourn” soberly reflects on how the immigrant’s children “see their brightest dreams shattered” in the “greed and glitter” of ruthless consumerism. As he found himself between church denominations, so Mullins found himself between political tribes, unable to fully align with the left or the right. In the end, he sings the song of the “mendicants,” the ones who “wander off into a cathedral” to bow their heads and whisper a silent prayer.

Looking back, producer Reed Arvin remembers the album as “a marker in time.” It was the sort of creatively rich, risky project that couldn’t get made on a major record label today, in a market where recorded music has radically depreciated in value. It’s a relic of an era when “we thought about a record as a complete thing unto itself, as opposed to ‘a bunch of a songs.’ We dreamt big.”

Today, younger musicians like Andrew Peterson carry the torch in their own distinctive ways. But there was only one Rich Mullins. In Arvin’s words, he possessed “that particular combination of gift and fearlessness that equals genius.” Sadly, Mullins wouldn’t live to see the fruit of his own legacy. Indeed, in the record’s companion video, he questions his very ambition to leave a legacy, which risked leaving “a legacy of ambition.” In the end, he hoped the music would speak for itself.

Three decades later, it still does.


Bethel McGrew

Bethel McGrew is a math Ph.D. and widely published freelance writer. Her work has appeared in First Things, National Review, The Spectator, and many other national and international outlets. Her Substack, Further Up, is one of the top paid newsletters in “Faith & Spirituality” on the platform. She has also contributed to two essay anthologies on Jordan Peterson. When not writing social criticism, she enjoys writing about literature, film, music, and history.

@BMcGrewvy


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