Rich Mullins and America as the Promised Land

I usually have very little to say about civic holidays and devotion to the motherland, but this July 4 Rich Mullins got me thinking about my country in entirely new ways. Though I have listened to his music for most of my life it was not until now I actually saw the particular and peculiar perspective he brought forth in his songs surrounding being a Christian in America. I offer that perspective now...

Part 1: Psalms for America
There is this moment right in the middle of Rich Mullins' song "Calling Out Your Name" where a choir breaks in with a wordless "Woh-oh-oh-ohhhhhh!!! Woh-woh-ohh!!! Woh-oh-oh-oh-ohhh..." Prior to that Mullins has just repeated the refrain "And I hear the prairies calling out your name." Recently, while listening to the song for perhaps the 200th plus time a realization came to me: the "Woh-oh-oh" section was the song of the prairies themselves, the earth bursting forth in worship of the Lord.
In the land of Israel the rocks cry out (Luke 19:40, which Mullins sings about on "The Color Green") but in America the prairies that cannot contain their praise of the Maker of heaven and earth. In America it is the plains that cannot keep themselves from singing.

When architect Frank Lloyd Wright rebelled against the stoic plagiarized neoclassicism of his day by creating the Usonian style he sought to create homes, buildings, and communities, that matched the land in which they resided, dwellings that almost seemed to rise out of the land itself, a fitting appendage. Wright wanted his buildings to feel like America and not ancient Greece and Rome, to make sense in our time and place and for our people. In his rebellion Wright created his own "classic" and functional style rather than anything avant garde. His Usonian style was classical architecture rendered for the New World.

Scattered across his discography Rich Mullins does the exact same thing with his songs as Wright did with architecture: take what was old and established and meant for another time and place and render it anew for the American people. 

Ancient Israel was both a people and a place. They were God's promise fulfilled and through them the whole earth would be blessed. They dwelled in the land God provided for them, and in that land they had their temple, where the LORD resided, they had their Law, through which the LORD gave them life, and they had their king, who ruled under the LORD's authority. Sure, the LORD was the god of all gods but he was God in Israel and it was in Israel that he was to be worshipped. We see this amalgamation of worship with place and government in what are known as the "Kingly Psalms," such as Psalms 2 and 72: 

1 Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” 4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. 5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” 7 I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.” 10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2 ESV

1 Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son! 2 May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice! 3 Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness! 4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor! 18 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things. 19 Blessed be his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory!
Psalm 72:1-4, 18-20 ESV

The LORD has established a covenant with his people and that covenant means dwelling in the land he has given them, worshipping him in the designated place (Zion, his holy hill where the temple resided), and being ruled by his anointed one, the king.

Rich Mullins, in song after song, takes the imagery of ancient Israel and places it the context of America set to music that sounds like the endless plains, sounds like the coasts of New England, sounds like our rolling mountains. These are psalms for America. It is here in this place that the LORD is our Lord. Nowhere does he do this more overtly than on "Calling Out Your Name":

Well the moon moved past Nebraska 
And spilled laughter on them cold Dakota Hills
And angels danced on Jacob's stairs
Yeah, they danced on Jacob's stairs
There is this silence in the Badlands 
And over Kansas the whole universe was stilled
By the whisper of a prayer
The whisper of a prayer

In Mullins' songs Israel and their God has taken up residence in America. We might even say "the holy king of Israel loves me [us] here in America," as taken from the song "Here in America". For Mullins, the Promised Land has come to our land. Here the God of Israel has come to dwell with us. For certain it is not the Promised Land but it is blessed nonetheless, for even here God's promises will be fulfilled.

Mullins has done in his songs what European painters did throughout the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque eras, which is to take the regionally specific details of the Biblical narrative and transpose it onto their own culture and time. This is why so many versions of Jesus looked like a Northern European wearing the clothing of the time. It was not so much a matter of racial or ethnic whitewashing but instead a way of making the remoteness of Christ's time and place tangible to their time and place. Much like the Renaissance masters wove Pagan imagery into their work (see the Sistine Chapel ceiling for the most well known example) Mullins has woven the images, sounds, and customs of America into his songs. We have hitchhikers beatified in "Here in America", we have rundown, forgotten about small town America re-imagined as the equally unworthy dirty stable in which Christ was born in in "Land of My Sojourn", and we have a new locale for Eden "where the sacred rivers meet beneath the shadow of the Keeper of the Plains" in Wichita, Kansas from "Calling Out Your Name".

Mullins did the same thing through the sounds of his songs as well, with much of his music sounding like different regions of the United States. With its Celtic tinges and Americana folk A Liturgy A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band resides squarely in New England, Appalachia, and the Midwest, as do parts of Never Picture Perfect and Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth (e.g., "With the Wonder" does for Middle America what "Calling Out Your Name" does for the Great Plains). The two The World as Best as I Can Remember It volumes contain the same Americana folk but manage to feel more expansive, thus recalling the Great Plains states. Finally, Brothers Keeper sounds dustier and has more country twang than any of his records, managing to sound like the Southwest (Canticle of the Plains his St. Francis musical, is more of a hybrid, fitting somewhere in between the west and plains in terms of sound).

Mullins gave equal focus to the New Testament in his songs as well, weaving his own narrative and the narratives of all modern day Christians into the parables, teachings, and lives of Christ and the Apostles. He did this with expertise in "Boy Like Me/Man Like You", a song at once about the Incarnation of Christ and growing up as a middle class Midwestern kid. In an odd turn that no one seems to ever talk about, Mullins frames the boyhood of Christ not so much in the context of first century Galilee and Judea, but in bucolic small town American life. He gets us to think about Christ in flesh and blood, a Christ who grows from boy to man by reminding us of our own childhoods. From wearing baby blues, the Indiana hospital Mullins was born in, the Quaker meeting house where he worshipped, being embarrassed by girls, wrestling with dogs, skipping rocks, making snow angels, playing in the water, to playing hide and seek, the birth and youth of Christ is placed in the perspective of Mullins' very American apple pie upbringing. 

He does much the same in "Hard" his song on the struggles of following after Jesus, quipping:

Well I am a good midwestern boy
I give an honest days work if I can get it
I don't cheat on my taxes, I don't cheat on my girl
I got values that would make the White House jealous
Well I do get a little much over impressed
'til I think of Peter and Paul and the apostles
I don't stack up too well against them I guess
But by the standards round here I ain't doin' that awful.

In Mullins' mind the Holy King of Israel truly does love us here in America. All the grace and goodness, the joy and simple pleasures, the worship of our King, and the messed up and muddled lives of the people found in Scripture has made its way to our place as well. God is here and America is blessed. As Mullins and his producer Reed Arvin write in the liner notes to A Liturgy A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band:

The angels worship God in heaven, but we cast up our prayers from the gravity and stone of earth. This is the land of our Sojourn. We are Americans, and our Legacy is the stone and weight of this place, this collection of ideas and dreams, of strip malls and civil war. From here we form our Liturgy, our service of worship to the living Christ. Hear this Liturgy, this Common Prayer through the eyes of America. Worship and Place. Liturgy and Legacy.

Part 2: Seeing the other side of the world from the land of my sojourn

But Rich Mullins is not some Manifest Destiny propagandist. His image of America is one of deep love and devotion, but also one of confliction, as he laments in "Land of My Sojourn":

Nobody tells you when you get born here
How much you'll come to love it 
and how you'll never belong here
So I call you my country, but I'm lonely for my home
And I wish that I could take you there with me

America may be the Promised Land because God finds us and blesses us here and Jesus is still Lord here, but it is not the promised land and it is certainly not the new heavens and the new earth. Washington D.C. is not the New Jerusalem. Mullins knows this and acknowledges this tension. He knows that in the here and now God is with him everywhere, for "I'm home anywhere, if you are where I am" (from "Here in America") He also knows his true home lies elsewhere, not even in the land of the Israelites across the sea, but in another home altogether, one that Christ is preparing for us, a home we long for but cannot yet see (taken from John 14, which he sings about on "That Where I Am There You May Also Be" and "Home").

What is more, Mullins often stands in as a holy prophet to his homeland, aiming to correct our errors and bring us to repentance, as he does on "Save Me", from his first album, offering a rebuke in the form of personal prayer:

Save me from Soviet Propagandists
Lord save me from Washington
Please save me
Oh Lord, save me
Save me from trendy religion that makes
Cheap cliches out of timeless truths
Lord save me, please save me

Mullins also knows his homeland is wrought with tragedy, containing its own people in exile, those nations still residing here having experienced their own diaspora and near genocide. Mullins acknowledged the struggles of America's native peoples in songs like "The Howling":

Cause I can see people dispossessed 
Broken and brave in the face of so much fear
Driven from their homes by the greed of a nation
Whose treaties were as good as litter along the trail of their tears...
...And I know if we live we will live by His promise
And I know He who made it and I'm sure that He would not lie

Mullins lived out his desire to see justice brought to the First Nations when he lived among the Navajo in Window Rock, Arizona. In his idealism it was his way of bringing the Promised Land to a land and people that had been desecrated by centuries of violence "false promises", hoping that by shining Christ's light there, he could put right a small portion of all that had gone wrong. Perhaps this is why "Calling Out Your Name" is permeated through with Native images and places; perhaps he wanted to write a worship song the first peoples of our land could sing to the LORD as well and not just songs for us comfortable white folks driving to our suburban community churches every Sunday.

Finally, as much as America was embedded into Mullins' DNA and as much as he could accurately be described as an American Christian, he also had a broad view of God's place the wider world, saying

Well the other side of the world 
Is not so far away as I thought that it was...
...the distance just dissolves into the love
But I see a people
Who've learned to walk in faith
With mercy in their hearts
And glory on their faces
And I can see the people
And I hope it won't be long
Until your kingdom comes...on the other side of the world

As an artist with a heart for ministry Mullins was incredibly restless, spending a lot of his time on trips to other countries, most notably for Compassion International and TeenMania to Columbia and Guatemala. He was focused so much on America only because that was where he was from, where the seed of his faith was planted, grew, and blossomed. However, he knew the Kingdom of Heaven can be found anywhere in the world, wherever people call on Christ's name.

Ultimately, Mullins' longing was the same as everyone's who is in Christ, those of us looking for that "somewhere" beyond all this, that "home" to which he is calling us to (from the songs "Somewhere" and "Home"). Through his songs he painted us an America that stood in as the Promised Land of the Hebrews, but he also pointed us to "a whole 'nother world" where we "will see the justice done by the Lord's almighty hand" (from the songs "Waiting" and "The Just Shall Live"). And so, when we listen to Rich Mullins' songs and think of America and the Promised Land we cannot help but think of that other country, that true land of promise, that city "whose designer and builder is God", our eventual and final heavenly homeland (from Hebrews 11). It is great to live in America and it is a place where God's Kingdom can come, if we allow it to. But still we wait for something more:

Now I don't know when
But I know that You're coming
You're coming back again
And the earth will burn away
And the sky fill with thundering
As it announces the day
That has finally arrived...

Other Articles on Rich Mullins
1. So...They Made a Movie About Rich Mullins...

2. Interview--Reed Arvin: Recording Rich Mullins' 

A Liturgy, A Legacy, and A Ragamuffin Band 
My interview with Reed Arvin was originally published in a shorter form on 
Christianity Today's website and can be found here: The Legacy of Rich Mullins's Ragamuffin Band

3. Celebrating 20 Years of Rich Mullins' 

A Liturgy, A Legacy, & A Ragamuffin Band

4. The Theology of Rich Mullins

5. Movie Review: Ragamuffin: The True Story of Rich Mullins

6. Interview: David Leo Schultz on 

Directing the Rich Mullins Movie (text version)

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