The Theology of Rich Mullins

This month, October 2013 Rich Mullins' album A Liturgy, A Legacy, & A Ragamuffin Band turns 20 years old.  For the next few weeks I will be reflecting on Mullins' work and its impact on my life, culminating in an interview with someone who worked closely with him for years.  This week I am focusing on the first album that ever grabbed my attention as a child, Mullins' 1988 work Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. 

My interview with Mullins' producer Reed Arvin can be found on Christianity Today's website here. An extended version of that interview can be found on this blog here.

My reflections on A Liturgy, a Legacy, & a Ragamuffin Band can be found here

My article on the upcoming film about Mullins' life can be found here.


Looking back I can say God used Rich Mullins to change my life irrevocably.

I was having a conversation with my wife a little while ago where I was expressing my concern that future generations, specifically our own children, will not have somebody like Rich Mullins to lay out the Christian faith for them, inspire the wonder of God in them, or provoke them to see and act in the world differently in light of the work of Christ.  Sure, I said, they could go back and listen to his music, but a lot of it sounds pretty dated which will turn kids off from it.  I had listened obsessively to all of Mullins' records as a teenager, and in doing so he became my mentor and discipler, he had taught me and had in fact become the "nuts and bolts of Christianity" for me (as he put it in this article), even if from afar.

My wife then said something that completely sobered me out of my Rich Mullins reverie. Chris, she said, kids didn't even listen to Rich Mullins as teenagers when he was alive, let alone now.  I think you're pretty unique in that.

And thus I realized that not every young Christian had used Mullins' work and writings as their catechism class growing up. For me Mullins was required coursework, like taking a drivers' ed. class at 15 years old for angsty young Americans, but for most everyone else (except for knowing the songs "Awesome God" or "Sometimes By Step") he was just some boring adult contemporary Christian singer and certainly not required listening.

In some senses I hardly had a choice in the matter.  I grew up in a household where Mullins' music (along with Amy Grant, Petra, DeGarmo & Key, Stryper, Don Francisco, Michael Card, and Michael W. Smith) was the only music within my proximity.  I also have a dim memory of attending one of his concerts somewhere in central Illinois, where I am certain he and his bandmates played a rendition of the crowd pleasing percussive cup favorite "Screendoor" (i.e. "the cup song").  It was at said concert, I believe, where my older brother purchased his 1988 album Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth, which features the now classic "Awesome God". This was the first album I ever really listened to.  I was only seven years old at the time, but something about it gripped me.  I remember dancing and parading in circles around my house to it, probably to the song "Such a Thing as Glory".  I loved the kids singing in a different language at the beginning of "The Other Side of the World" and the purity of the piano sound on "If I Stand" (which was played by Michael W. Smith, by the way).  As a kid, the depth of the lyrics were pretty much lost on me, but they found their way into my heart and mind and can easily be recalled to this day. This has caused me to realize how important the first bits of music are that we listen to in our lives, which in turn motivates me to put the very best music in front of my own kids (thus causing me to rethink my son's current obsession with Queen's "Bicycle").

Listening back to Winds of Heaven Stuff of Earth, I am amazed at how much theology Mullins packed into his lyrics, even if the music is a bit too 80's synth heavy and does not always reach that "timeless" sound he achieved on later albums.  But what is even more amazing to me is how a great amount of what Mullins covers in the lyrics are still core principles in my life today.  Whether is was that Mullins was simply expounding orthodox Christian belief (which has been the bedrock of my life), or that the specific themes on the album initially shaped me in a profound way at that young age, I do not know. Either way, here is a brief song by song analysis of the album, which will serve to both illuminate what have become the core principles of my life as a follower of Christ and to give what could be called an "Introduction to the Theology of Rich Mullins".

Track 1: The Other Side of the World: "But I see a people who've learned to walk in faith with mercy in their hearts and glory on their faces..."

This song manages to express an innocent, joyful, and sincere faith while also acknowledging the difficulties and disappointments faced in trying to see God's Kingdom come here on earth.  In its longing for a future time where God reigns in fullness it is both hopeful and melancholy, like an exiled Israelite in Babylon who knows God will be faithful to deliver him and yet is still enslaved in a foreign land.  Along with that, the song is about how the Body of Christ (The Church) is united in spirit and in mission globally and that we are all seeing God's Kingdom come together no matter where we live on earth.

Track 2: With the Wonder: "...and you filled this world with wonder and I'm filled with the wonder of your world"

There is a theme that links all the songs on this album, a theme that is basically omnipresent in all of Mullins' work, a theme that is also the bedrock of Christian belief. Without ever using the term, Mullins was obviously a big adherent to "incarnational theology," the understanding that in Christ's coming to earth as God and man and in redeeming man through his death, resurrection, and ascension, we are a redeemed people in both spirit and flesh; that flesh, though limited, is good as part of God's creation; that as Christ was God and man simultaneously, so our natural God-ordered state as humans is to be these enmeshed spirit and flesh creatures, that we are not souls trapped in a body and that physical matter is not inherently evil, but that God created us to be both spirit and flesh at once and that both are good. 

This "incarnational theology" is in practically every song that Mullins sings.  "With the Wonder" is primarily about the beauty of nature and how God is present in it; how in reflecting on the beauty of creation we are inevitably led to praise our maker and to long for "the world that is to come", that is, the new heavens and the new earth.  Mullins seemed to truly believe that no matter how much we are bound up in "the stuff of earth" that "the winds of heaven" are always liable to blow in and shake us up; that God will break into our everyday ordinary lives and fill us with awe and wonder, causing us to worship him as finite fleshly people. (side note: the end of the song features an extended keyboard solo by producer Reed Arvin, that if you told me it was played by Bruce Hornsby, I would have believed you 100%)

Track 3: Awesome God: "When he rolls up his sleeves he ain't just putting on the ritz...Our God is an awesome God."

A slightly quirky worship song in a minor key that no one really ever sings the verses of (that is, they only sing the chorus) which has become a modern classic that not many people sing in churches anymore (myself included).  Even so, this song stands as an example of how a worship song can be musically excellent and deeply Biblical.  It was one of the first songs I learned on guitar, and is one of the catalysts for me being a worship leader.  I am sure I am not the only one.

Track 4: If I Stand: "There's more that dances on the prairies than the wind and more that pulses in the oceans than the tides..."

The greatness of this song, one of Mullins' most beautiful works of poetry, lies how in every line he points to how there is something greater than the images he is referring to and yet he does not diminish or negate those images.  Yes, he claims, there is something more beautiful than the sunrise or the moon, a love that is greater than the love between friends or the love of a mother and her child, the love of God is greater than all these things, and yet none of these things are not rendered not great.  Instead, they are just less great, and still remain wonderful in and of themselves.  His meditation on the beauties and joys of the natural world and in human relationships culminate in the understanding that they are only truly experienced when illuminated in the love and wonder of God.   Pointing back to track 2, this is the greatness of incarnational theology.

On top of this focus, the chorus of the song has essentially become my own cry of faith, that my salvation in God's faithfulness and not my own ability to believe.  And then there is that cry at the end for a longing for home...

Tracks 5, 6, & 7: Home/Such a Thing as Glory/...And I Love You: "There is such a thing as glory, there are hints of it everywhere, and the hints are overwhelming, and its scent is in the air..."

God permeates Mullins' world.  He is living the fullness of the life to be found in Christ.  And yet there is a tension in his world in that even though God's Kingdom has come among us, we have not yet seen that Kingdom in its fullness.  This creates a longing in us, a longing for our true "home".  As he puts it in another lyric from "Such a Thing as Glory" that most succinctly expounds his incarnation theology, "There was a man named Jesus, he was God and he was flesh.  And he came down here to lead us out of this burning wilderness."  The world God created is good but it is a sick and scarred world, a world that needs redemption.

Tracks 8 & 9: Ready for the Storm/One True Love: "And the lightning strikes and the wind cuts cold, through the sailor's bones, through the sailor's soul, till there's nothing left that he can hold except a rolling ocean..."

The lyrics of "Ready for the Storm" (though not Mullins' own song) and "One True Love" here reflect one of Mullins' core acknowledgements that life will be fraught with difficulties and the only way to get through it to to hold on to God through it all.

Track 10: How Can I Keep From Singing: "I know this life is fleeting so Lord I pray thy kingdom come...how can I keep myself from singing 'Hallelujah!'"

I never liked this song as a kid, but within it now as an adult, I see Mullins as the desperate worshiper who is fully aware of his own sinfulness and mortality and must cry out in worship of the God who saved him.  And so may it be for us all.

Other Rich Mullins related blog posts:
Rich Mullins and America As The Promised Land
Reed Arvin Interview (blog)  Reed Arvin Interview (Christianity Today)
A celebration of the 20 year anniversary of A Liturgy, A Legacy, & A Ragamuffin Band
So...They Made a Movie About Rich Mullins
PostConsumer Reports Podcast Episode 04: David Leo Schultz--Director of Ragamuffin The Rich Mullins Movie
Movie Review: Ragamuffin: The True Story of Rich Mullins
Please enjoy the awesome 80s-ness of the video for "How Can I Keep Myself From Singing" filmed in Guatemala while on mission with TeenMania.


Chip said...

Chris, thanks for this tribute to CCM's should-have-been poet laureate. I'd just add that any discussion of "And I Love You" is incomplete without a mention of its baptismal imagery, pointing to the liturgical worldview that would become much more obvious in Mullns's work as the years went by.

Anonymous said...

Chris, reading your post gave me chance to listen to Rich's music again, esp. If I Stand. You're so right, pure poetry.

Thanks and loved your interview with Reed A. in CT. Keep up the good work brother.

Unknown said...

can you tell me what you thought of the new movie?

PostConsumer Reports said...

Russ, here's the review I wrote: http://www.postconsumerreports.com/2014/03/movie-review-ragamuffin-true-story-of.html

Anonymous said...

We had If I Stand be one of the songs in our wedding. It's not a traditional wedding song, but it fit perfectly. We received many compliments on it, and more than one person became a Rich Mullins fan after our wedding. :)

Amy Ann said...

Great article! OK, so here we are in 2020, and what has been done about this? Has any more progress been made toward preserving Rich Mullins’ musical legacy? The 25th anniversary of Rich’s death will be coming up in two years. Is there a time for an anthology of his early recordings to be put together by that time? There isn’t a lot of time to waste. We’ve already lost Rick Elias. We need to act now, while memories of Rich are still reasonably fresh in the minds of his friends and fans and the interest in preserving all of his music is still strong!