If you asked me who my favorite musical artist is, I would say Rich Mullins. And if you asked what the genre of his music is, I would probably say folk/acoustic. Truth be told, most people would categorize his music as “Christian”. However, despite the fact that his music is centered on God-manifested-in-life, I would never call it “Christian music”, because it is so much more.
Rich’s music defies boundaries that most Christian music avoids: the doubts, questions, and fears about life and God; the ones that are ever-so-human. His music is some of the most real, down-to-earth, beautiful music that I have ever heard. It’s the kind that reaches straight into my soul and presses its fingers against the deepest and most vulnerable places in my heart. When re-listening to his songs, I’ll notice words or thoughts that I had never previously understood, and they will suddenly strike and fill my heart in new ways.
I grew up listening to his music, which was released primarily during the late 80s and early 90s, and recently re-discovered it. I believe that I happened upon it at just the right time, as its message of utter brokenness, hope, everyday adventure, and courage has become amazingly relevant and surprisingly effective in my life. It has spoken to my heart, doubts, fears, questions, and confusion, and has convicted and inspired me in many ways.
One of the most unique qualities of Rich’s music is that it speaks about God, quotes the bible, and references biblical stories in a completely fitting and natural way. Unlike some Christian music, which seems to give forced or overly-overt messages about God , Rich’s music stands out as art that is full of life and beauty, made only more life-like, real, and beautiful by the way in which he talks about God.
This is executed particularly well in songs like “Everyman,” which uses one-line descriptions of many of biblical characters to give the sense of them as fellow humans, as well as “Jacob and 2 Women,” which gives the story of Jacob a poetic storyteller’s twist, humanizing Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. There are beautiful descriptions of the places we humans have been given to live in: “Land of My Sojourn,” “Here in America,” “The Color Green,” and “Calling Out Your Name”.
The below-embedded Spotify playlist includes all of these songs, and more; songs which have left inky fingerprints upon my heart. I’ve found that the best times to listen to this music are driving with the windows down (especially on a grey, drizzly day), or when sitting alone, late at night, when the house is quiet. Just sit and listen to it, and allow yourself to think.
Recently, I discovered the newly released movie “Ragamuffin,” which relates Rich’s story, following his path from boyhood on an Indiana farm to fame in Nashville, and eventually to a Navajo reserve in Arizona. Below is my review of the film. I hope that you find it insightful, and that it inspires you to watch this very thought-provoking film.
Movie Review: Ragamuffin
“We were looking for heroes, he came looking for the lost” (Rich Mullins, “You Did Not Have a Home”)
We love our movie heroes too much.
You know the heroes I’m talking about. They begin in a steady and sometimes safe situation. They are called to adventure, into a difficult place. After a long struggle in that difficult place, they fight one supreme battle, defeat the ultimate foe, and re-ascend into a good place of resolution, peace, and happiness. (FYI, you could fit the main character of almost any epic, adventure, fantasy, or action movie into this pattern).
Sure, they’re human. They have their fatal flaw. But they eventually overcome it, and that moment of resolution is what gives us viewers a sense of heroic satisfaction.
But Rich Mullins is no such hero. He is a ragamuffin.
Ragamuffins, as defined by preacher Brennan Manning, (played by Charles Lawlor) are “the unsung assembly of saved sinners. They’re little in their own sight, and aware of their brokenness and powerlessness before God” (Ragamuffin).
The movie Ragamuffin, based on the life of singer Rich Mullins, follows Rich’s path from boyhood on an Indiana farm to fame in Nashville, and eventually to a Navajo reserve in Arizona. It portrays many bits and pieces of his life— family, alcoholism, life as an on-the-road musician, radio hits, recording studios, and friendships— and through them develops a thread of the utter loneliness that Rich feels, which often is the inspiration for his music; music that is essentially a lonely cry and prayer to God.
The film did an excellent job of portraying how his incessant loneliness interacted with his music. It would develop a particular struggle in a relationship, bit and bit, and would then finally lead him to strike a chord of inspiration, sit down with his piano, guitar, or hammer dulcimer, and pour his heart into a song. Such songs that the movie centered on were “We are Not as Strong as We Think We Are,” “Awesome God,” “Elijah,” “Sing Your Praise to the Lord,” and “Verge of a Miracle”.
But at this point, those of us who love triumphant-hero-characters will heave a sigh of disappointment.
That one song isn’t enough.
That first album finally being finished and released is insufficient.
The song that he writes about/for his dad doesn’t improve their relationship.
His first enormous radio hit leaves him restless.
His struggles don’t go away.There is no Explosions-and-Lightning-Bolts climax, where heroic RIch finally overcomes the thing that has so long haunted him. Instead, Rich’s life is portrayed as following a vacillating path: small waves of victory, then defeat, hope, then despair and improvement, then further backsliding.
To be honest, this pattern made the movie difficult for me to watch, because it is an all-too-human pattern. As much as we don’t like to admit it, the struggles that we call our enemies are never as quick to disappear as movies portray. We can’t just face our enemies with a sword, dash them into dust, and leave them behind forever. We just can’t seem to become heroes, because, while we do learn and move forward, change rarely comes in clear-cut light-bulb moments and epiphanies.
Thus, in the end, the movie isn’t about Rich. He’s not a hero. He’s a human. He’s the musician who is not even satisfied by the fact that so many people have been impacted by his music. He always sits on concert stages wearing his typical ripped jeans, a white T-shirt, and bare feet. Once his concerts end, he doesn’t even wait around for applause, but plunges off the stage and tears out the door, running to the solitude of late-night-drives in his Jeep. Late in the movie, he even tells preacher Brennan Manning “I’m not free. I feel like a failure. I’m on stage all the time, expected to be this voice of hope. People want me to be perfect, but I’m not” (Ragamuffin).
So why watch 2.5 hours of a fellow human using music to deal with alcoholism, family struggles, relationships, and fame? I would say watch it because Ragamuffin connects us to the almost uncomfortably raw character of Rich, permitting us to be human. If those who have been heralded as role-models of the faith are such broken ragamuffins, then there is much grace, reassurance, and hope for us. It gives confidence that God is not a god of the perfect, but that he is the God of Ragamuffins, who sometimes leads those he loves on long, restless journeys, in order to change them bit-by-painful-bit. Moreover, Ragamuffin is a reassurance that it is alright to ask questions, going beyond cookie-cutter-Christianity, the commercialized music industry, and the standard, easy answers that are often used as excuses not to search with all of our hearts for truth.
In the end, all that Rich ever really does is allow us to see a different side of God than commercialized Christianity presents: the God of Ragamuffins. We see God through Rich: through his late, dark nights, his face, his eyes, his words, his conclusions, his decisions, his hesitancy, his loneliness, and his fear. We see that perhaps late nights, unanswered phone calls, failed art, hard work without results, and strained relationships are only painful steps along the path to understanding and victory, and that perhaps God takes us this way because the result is worth every hard step along the way.
Or, as Rich better puts it himself “I would rather live on the verge of falling, and let my security be found in the all sufficiency of the grace of God, than to live in some pietistic illusion of moral excellence… Well, I guess I would say go out, live real good, I promise you will get beat up real bad but in a little while after you’re dead you’ll be rotted away anyway. It’s not going to matter if you have a few scars, but it will matter if you didn’t live” (Ragamuffin).