Rich Mullins Died 20 Years Ago Today and I’m Still Not Over It

Rich Mullins Died 20 Years Ago Today and I’m Still Not Over It September 18, 2017

RMWhen I listen to Rich Mullins’ music (and I still listen), he makes me want to go camping. It’s weird, I know, but it always seems like I could more easily imagine the world he imagined if I were off in the woods somewhere … and I really want to imagine the world that he imagined.

During his concerts Rich used to joke that his fans really think he lived on the edge of rivers lighting campfires (the cover of one of Rich’s popular records showed him doing just this). It was an illusion, and Rich loved nothing more than destroying our illusions.

But after all these years I still love Rich Mullins, and not because I’m hooked on an illusion. Back when I was playing with Satellite Soul we toured with Mitch McVicker (and Cobra Joe, and Brad Lahyer) for several years. I spent many a night smoking cigarettes under the stars and buying them beers to try to get them to tell me one more story about Rich. I think I have a pretty decent picture of the man. I still love Rich because he was clear-eyed about the world in which we lived and he could talk about it so artfully.

Rich embraced the darkness as well as any poet. He knew real pain. Rich did not see the world in black and white. He saw the world in deep, rich, velvety colors and textures–the very colors and textures he wrote into his songs. That’s the world I want to live in. That’s the world I want to imagine. That world is why Rich was so profound.

I was a rail-thin pimple-faced high school kid prone to spending long lonely hours in my room playing piano and guitar. I lived with an intense longing for I didn’t know what. Rich helped me interpret that longing, and my experience of the world. He helped me to root the longing in an ancient story. He gave my own story dignity and depth.

Rich insisted, argued, and wrote amazing songs in order to prove that the world is enchanted. “I do not meet God in a vacuum,” Rich wrote. “I meet Him in the world He has provided for me to meet Him in – in a world of events and of places, of history (time and space), in a world of lives of people and their records of their encounters. I meet God in this world – in the world of these things…”

Rich lived at the intersection of his own personal brokenness, the brokenness of the world, and the hope that we were not left here alone to struggle in the darkness without any help. Night after night Rich would play his songs for an audience for which I believe he felt equal parts compassion and disgust. I sometimes think it was Rich’s deep love of the physical world, of nature and the wonder of this place that we live that kept him from being terminally cynical.

Rich had an uncanny ability to describe the world as an enchanted place of wonder and awe and mystery. “I do not work myself into some ecstatic frenzy to meet God.” he said. “God does not speak to me through opium dreams or out of hypnotic trances. He meets me in history and takes me beyond it to Himself. Any “mysticism” that is authentic does not abrogate time and space – it infuses those elements with meaning. Time and space – that is the world.”

Rich was disgusted by people who lived without compassion. He railed against the politics of greed and the Christian right. He did this not to be like James Dean. He did this because Rich could see what we couldn’t see. “Look at us all” he said, “we are all of us lost and in all of our different ways of pretending, we all fool ourselves into the very same hell. Look at the cross – we are all of us loved and one God meets us all at the point of our common need and brings to all of us – all who will let Him – salvation.”

When Rich died it did strange things to me. I had embarked on my own journey as a professional musician and songwriter, doing my best to follow in his footsteps as I went, and all the sudden he was gone. Irving describes the sensation this way in Owen Meany:

“When someone you love dies, and you’re not expecting it, you don’t lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time—the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes—when there’s a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she’s gone, forever—there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.”

He died in 1997. The next year The Jesus Record release, then a few songs and remakes would trickle out here and there. Old concert footage would show up on the web. I didn’t lose him all at once. But now, more than ever, I can feel that he is gone.

I’m almost forty-eight years old now, seven years older than Rich was when he died. But if I live a hundred years, I’ll never be as wise as he was. And if I live to be a hundred I will never stop missing him. I will never stop repeating the final line from A Prayer For Owen Meany, that Rich once told me I should read: “O God—please give him back! I shall keep asking you.”

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  • stevecuss

    Man, great post! Rich came from my “tribe” of churches, so I know a lot of people who knew Rich, although I didn’t know him at all. I saw him in concert several times and each time was a transcendent experience. He was of course, a craftsman level story teller, but I also love how he debunked so much, like “me and Jesus” evangelical theology verses solidarity with the poor and how he debunked his image so much. And what a natural, effortless musician and songwriter. Truly a unique, unmatched artist. I too miss him, having never even known him. His speaking and songs shaped so much of how I see the world today

    • HpO

      Rich Mullins was a pioneer of Christian Prog Rock – along with Phil Keaggy. Not in the same gospel class as Neal Morse, however, whose testimony matches with Keith Green, a contemporary of Mullins. Neal Morse is both Progressive Rocker and Gospel Witness. Not Mullins. He’s like you guys, all progressive liberal Christian in everything, including music. Not me. And am glad Morse takes over where Mullins and Green – both died young – left off.

      • Esther O’Reilly

        I wouldn’t be so hasty to peg Rich as a progressive liberal Christian. He was actually pretty un-PC back in the day (even made a joke about Bill Clinton’s plane crashing after his haircut on Air Force One fouled everything up). He also said he believed the liberal left had abandoned the idea of truth. So don’t let 21st century progressives put Rich in a box for you. Encounter the guy as he was, in his own time and place. You could call him a progressive, for his day, but we had much more interesting progressives in the 90s than we do now.

        • HpO

          I hear you, Esther O’Reilly, and I appreciate what I’m hearing. True, looking at the crumbling of the once-conservative Bible Christianity into multiple pieces – e.g. Emergent Church, Blue Ocean-Whatever, individual conversions to Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Nones, etc. – I’ve got to wonder how that must’ve started. Timing of it all would bring out Rich Mullins, when Jim Wallis and Sojourners too started to break away from conservative evangelicalism to what we now call Progressive Liberal Left Christianity.

          Speaking of music earlier, it’s like the Beatles. Progarchives (dot come) label them Proto-Progressive – not bona-fide Prog Rockers. They experimented with lots of things that couldn’t be categorized, but many traces from which could now be identified in all the Prog Rock musicians and bands today. Not pioneers either, mind.

          I’m thinking of Rich Mullins and Jim Wallis as proto-Progressive Evangelicals, is all. Thanks for your point all the same.

          • Esther O’Reilly

            I take your point. We are naturally just speculating. I think the truth is Rich was nobody’s yes man. He would have come out swinging against Trump but would have despised Hillary too. He would have excoriated Trump’s blind evangelical supporters, but he would also have said that a Christianity gutted of its credal and moral precepts was no Christianity at all. He was very stern about “adaptive” churches who watered things down to be seeker-friendly. (Replacing hymn verses and the like.) When Anglicans split over women’s ordination, he said he supported their desire to maintain orthodoxy. He was a firm believer that things should be what they are, not bend and shift according to cultural whims. So I would like to believe he would have taken a whiff of what folks like Rob Bell have served up and said “No thanks.”

  • randybuist

    Thanks for the tribute Tim. Even as I write a few brief reflections, I feel the tingles and shivers throughout my bones. My wife, Kathy, and I were huge fans/listeners – not in some crazy teenage way but as a couple trying to find a better and more authentic way to follow Jesus… we were driving back to Michigan, in the middle of the night from a wedding, when his death was announced on some local radio station in Wisconsin. We cried and sat in silence for the next five hours of driving… he still remains on my playlist and a voice calling us into the wilderness. #letmercylead

  • A. Worker

    I miss him as well. I could hardly put it better than you did, and you came up with some great “Rich quotes” as well, for which I thank you. So much that he wrote just lifts a fellow right out of this world, but yet not… still here, just more ecstatic about having another day to live out His love… I get lost for words, but we sure don’t get’em like Rich very often.

  • HpO

    Brother “Rich Mullins … railed against … the Christian right”, brother Tim Suttle? To be sure, what he said was (and this in reference to his job-related relocation as a music teacher to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico): “I just got tired of a White, Evangelical, middle class perspective on God, and I thought I would have more luck finding Christ among the Pagan Navajos.” (Wikipedia source: Interview at Ichthus Festival 1996.)

    In the meantime, according to Catholic World News, “Christian Singer Rich Mullins … Planned To Become Catholic”. (Source: Catholic World News, September 22, 1997.) Which Rich Mullins himself confirmed: After “going through an RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults] course … I’m not sure which side of the issues I come down on. My openness to Catholicism was very scary to me”. (Source: His interview with Artie Terry, “The Exchange”, WETN, Wheaton, Illinois, April 1997.)

    So yeah, “Rich Mullins … railed against … the Christian right” alright – good on him! But that’s not what’s definitively it for me about this guy. This is. Go figure, but “finding Christ among the Pagan Navajos” and an “openness to Catholicism” were his priority and mission in life before a truck struck him dead.