It doesn’t make sense how much I love Rich Mullins.
I am, probably—for the preponderance of our population in the way that they use the word—a fundamentalist. No, the folks over in the Independent, Fundamental Baptist world certainly wouldn’t call me a fundamentalist, and I admit that the word is used probably with too much variance in meaning for it to be helpful. I don’t introduce myself to people by saying, “Hi. I’m Bart Barber. I’m a fundamentalist.” Dave Miller introduces me to people that way, but I don’t introduce myself that way.
But what’s important for this post is simply this: When Rich Mullins talked about fundamentalists, I’m pretty sure he was talking precisely about people like me. Rich Mullins would not have liked me. Much of what he used to say in his concerts was carefully calculated to make me, if I were in the audience, angry.
And I imagine that the feeling would be reciprocal. My taste for Rich Mullins was developed at a distance. I’ve recently watched “Ragamuffin” (things are new to you when they come out in the theater; they’re new to me when they come out on Netflix, because I’m cheap), and that movie makes it clear that Rich Mullins was not an easy man to know personally—was not easy to love at close range. The points of our conflict would be so numerous:
- I’m a teetotaler, and Mullins had an alcohol problem.
- Mullins apparently felt comfortable lashing out with language that I don’t use and don’t like to hear.
- I’m a preacher, and Mullins had only a few of those whom he tolerated.
- I’m a convinced Southern Baptist, and Mullins was a lot less denominational than I am.
- I’m married, settled, and living in a relatively affluent patch of almost-suburbia; Mullins preferred living on a Navajo reservation.
- I’m pretty happy, and Mullins apparently rarely was and got along better with misery than with joy.
At least, those are the impressions of him that I have after having read about him, owning most of his music, having taken in some of his concerts, and having seen the film.
And yet, I love Rich Mullins. My iPhone is full to the brim with Rich Mullins songs. Some of them, though I’ve heard them a thousand times, still move me to tears. My walk with the Lord is richer because of Rich. I quote his lyrics in sermons. I sing his songs in the shower. I’m comfortable with long drives across the plains playing nothing but his albums for hours on end. Of all of the Christian music that I have consumed in all my years of consuming Christian music, few artists’ contributions have worn so well for so long in my soul as have the works of Rich Mullins.
Why is this?
It’s because when I encounter the works of Rich Mullins, I encounter something far different from the kind of “Progressive Christianity” that we find on blogs these days. My Twitter feed is full of preening, self-styled savants whose “discoveries” are only thinly veiled rationalizations for sin. They dethrone God and dethrone His Word in order to replace them with the zeitgeist. The tell-tale tipoff is that they carp about inconsistencies in the way that fundamentalists like me interpret the Bible NEVER TO ENCOURAGE US TO HOLD TIGHTER TO THE THINGS WE’VE LET GO, but always to provoke us to let go of the biblical truth that we’re still holding: “You don’t follow the Bible regarding divorce, so you should cave in on same-sex marriage, too.” As if Christians should, if they would find difficult a year of consistently living biblically, pledge instead to consistency in living unbiblically.
Parenthetical: I think discipleship is impossible without indulging in at least some measure in something that could be called hypocrisy. Thinking, “If I can’t grow immediately in everything, I’m not going to grow gradually in anything,” is a recipe for perpetual immaturity. God seems to me to be far more concerned with your holiness and your progress in sanctification than in your consistency at every point along the way.
Anyway, I never find that kind of kowtow-to-the-culture carping in Rich Mullins. He didn’t fit in with the culture any more than he fit in with the Evangelical world. Mullins’s complaints about fundamentalism are often right on-target. We indeed ought to care more about the poor if Jesus really is our Lord. We do have a problem with materialism. There are parts of the Bible that are more confusing or more difficult or more troubling to our established patterns of living than we are often willing to let on. We do indeed struggle with a tendency toward elevating our own invented rules over the plain teaching of what God has revealed in scripture. But Mullins had a way of enjoining us to consider those failures that always prompted me to want to be MORE faithful, not to give up on the whole enterprise and sell out to the culture.
When you listen to Rich Mullins’s music, you walk away with the idea that God is enormous and we are minuscule, but that God loves minuscule little me with an enormous love. That, more than anything else, is what I love about Rich Mullins. He wrote Big God music. The enormity of God in the work of Rich Mullins is not merely the enormity of His love; it is also the enormity of His holiness and even His wrath. The great paradox: Rich Mullins, the anti-fundamentalist, is one of the most profound and influential songwriters of our day in the treatment of God’s wrath (a category with so few entrants that it is not difficult to achieve top billing, admittedly). Rich Mullins was willing to sing about “judgment and wrath He poured out on Sodom” (lyrics unlikely to appear in the next Ray Boltz album).
Mullins wrote Big Theology music. He was no atheologue. About the ancient creeds Mullins sang, “I believe what I believe is what makes me what I am. I did not make it; no, it is making me. It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man.” And yet Mullins said, “I think you can profess the Apostles’ Creed until Jesus returns, but if you don’t love somebody you never were a Christian.” That’s a pretty healthy view of confessionalism, I think.
Mullins wrote Big Sin music. “When my body lies in the ruins of the lies that nearly ruined me…” is not a statement arising out of a liberal anthropology.
Mullins wrote Big Bible music. Mullins had a lot of questions about the Bible, but his questions always seemed more along the lines of mystery and confusion about whether we were putting it all together correctly than questions about whether it really all belonged. I never sang a Mullins song or heard a Mullins quote that rang forth with the kind of superiority over the Bible that is pretty much the sine qua non of “Progressive Christianity.” Rather, Mullins seemed to be intimidated and overwhelmed by the Bible and distrustful of people who thought they had the Bible domesticated, whether the purported lion-tamers be liberals or fundamentalists.
He wrote Little Human music. Even about worship, the enterprise of his life, he was not entirely a humanist. He was able to pen songs like “The Color Green” and “Calling Out Your Name” that made us mere partners in the vocation of worshipping God alongside the other elements of the Cosmos.
I need that in regular doses. Rich Mullins’s music is good food for my soul. His songs make me trust in God, question myself, care about the things that matter, and rest in peace that God will make it all OK in the end. The fact that he could hardly have imagined such a thing as a Ragamuffin Fundamentalist matters to me not at all.