Every insight the late Rich Mullins ever gave seemed to be based on his own real-life experience. I never met Rich Mullins in person. Once, when he was at the radio station KLTY in Dallas, and I was in Nashville, we spoke over the phone for almost an hour. I can't remember a single answer that wasn't soaked with the reality of Jesus.
Maybe more than ever before twentieth-century people live without any identity. They live without any sense of being anything other than something with needs and wants. We define ourselves in terms of our sexual preference. We define ourselves in terms of recreational preferences. We talk about ourselves in those kinds of terms. I think it's because we largely live on sensation. We rarely get beyond sensation into anything that's essential. I think it's because we're afraid that if we ever get past this little shallow thing that we're playing out that we're going to find out there's nothing under it. I find that what parades itself as piety often is nothing but pure doubt. That it's really agnosticism dressed up in a lot of religious jargon.
So for me, I think it would be really easy to say, "I think what would really please God is if I don't dance, I don't chew, and I don't go with girls who do." It would be easy to say, "Oh, gee, I think what will really please God is if I became an evangelist and convert a thousand people." It's much more difficult I think for me to become who I am and who He created me to be because no one else can tell me when I've accomplished that. But that's one of the things I find beautiful the book of Revelation is when Jesus says, "To him who overcomes I will give a white stone and on that stone is a name known only to the person who receives it and to me." The white stone signifies victory and could very well hint at purity. Jesus said only the pure heart will see God. I would love to hear that in a sermon sometime instead of being asked to come forward. I would love to hear a pastor say, "If you want to see God then make your heart pure."
The significant thing to me is there is a name on that stone that is the name Jesus knows me by. My mother dies not know me by that name. My friends don't know me by that name. No one in this world, including myself, knows who I really am. I think that when we see ourselves in light of Jesus, which will only happen when we give up ourselves and begin to seek Him wholeheartedly, then we will eventually grow into the person that He meant for us to be. When we see our name on that stone we'll say, "Wow, that's me! How did You know me when I couldn't even know myself?" For me, that's part of the goal of spiritual maturity.
Rich Mullins died in September 1997. The following interview took place with Rich a year earlier. Mostly we talked about what Rich believed. He had moved to the Southwest to teach music to Navajo children on a reservation. He spoke candidly about his own spiritual life.
Part of my motivation for moving out to the reservation, quite honestly, was that I had become very weary of twentieth-century American evangelical Christianity. I think it's ok. I don't have anything against it. I just don't think it's the whole picture. I think that putting yourself in the midst of a culture unlike the one you grew up in helps you to keep some sort of sense of balance in the way you view your faith, your life, and things going on around you.
I'm learning much more about being receptive to the work of God. I suppose I'm an evangelical. I think I'm sort of a lapsed evangelical or I used to flirt with it. I'm not sure what I've ever been if you really want to know the whole truth. There's this real unconscious sort of spiritual grooming going on all the time - not growing, just grooming. There's all that lingo, that &345 "anointed" business. "Saved." "Anointed." "Blessed." It's cool to be around people who for no good reason have chosen a different lingo. So instead of saying, "That song was really anointed," they say, "That song really touched me." Which I think is the same thing that white middle-class Christians mean when they say "anointed." I'm not sure what they mean. My understanding of "anointed" in the Bible is they did it to people. The idea of a song being "anointed" is just really bizarre to me.
I think the one thing in my own spiritual life that's the most crippling to me is to become overly comfortable, to become overly familiar. To treat things that were holy as if they were not special. When you hear a person who has grown up being a shepherd talk about the Good Shepherd it brings this whole new side of the picture to me. It challenges the images that I contrived when I heard stories about the Good Shepherd. I think that most of the middle-class Christians are very sincere in their faith. I just think that for all of us, it's very easy to become very narrow.
I know that a lot of people think I'm this kind of liberal or something. I don't like the terms 'liberal' and 'conservative.' I think I'm more conservative than most conservatives and more liberal than most liberals. I think if you ever met a good conservative or a good liberal, you'd probably like them very much. But it's hard to find a good one of either of those.
The thing that I generally do [to deal with the different understanding of God in the Navajo nation] is I listen respectfully - even though as a Christian I am a monotheist and have a system of theology that I've worked out for myself that is very different from the traditional Navajo religion. I still believe what marks us as Christians is not our doctrine in terms of a doctrinal statement. What marks us as Christians is our love for people. And if you love people you respect them. When someone who comes from a different religion, who comes from even a false religion, speaks, you listen respectfully to them. You know, I have a great mom. Once we were talking about a friend of ours who - it's just wild that she and my mom are friends. I asked, "Do you ever feel weird around her?" and my mom said, "Yeah, sure I do!" But here's the deal: No one was ever won into the kingdom of God through snobbery. We come to know Christ through love. I really believe that. I'll tell you the truth, I think that all these doctrinal statements that all the congregations come up with over the years are basically just not very worthwhile. I don't mean to sound mean toward the people who came up with them. I understand in the past there have been many heretical movements, and we still need to maintain sound doctrine in terms of a good understanding of how God works and operates. But I think our real doctrine is that doctrine that is born out in our character. I think you can profess the Apostles' Creed until Jesus returns, but if you don't love somebody you never were a Christian.
Rich Mullins always had an answer for every question he was asked. On the topic of songwriting, he qualified as an expert. The song Awesome God is undeniably a classic.
I think that listening is the better part of music. People will ask me how to become a good writer, and my general answer, not that I would know, but if I can be presumptuous enough to answer, is to be a good reader. The best way to become a good singer is to become a good listener. One of the wonderful things about teaching music is, I think, the things that are important in music are just important in life.
I was trying to stay awake. I was driving a little four-cylinder Ford Ranger and I had more weight than I could pull uphill. There's something really musical and kind of mystifying about the way that the more hallelujah kind of oriented preachers go at it. It's very rhythmic. It's very cool. So I was just kind of yelling Bible verses at cars as they would go by me, and that's how I wrote that.
It's a very boring story, and see, that's what nobody gets. Everybody thinks that writers sit around in this perpetual fog of inspiration, and it's really just a fog of confusion. Sometimes it's a caffeine buzz, you never know exactly what it is. I think that most people that write, if they were honest, wouldn't say, "Yes, God appeared to me and gave me this song." For me, my understanding of the way things work is that after God made man, He told him to reproduce and be fruitful. It's a wonderful command that I'm not allowed to follow because I'm not married. He also told us to subdue the universe. I don't think He meant to exploit it, but that we were to try to create order out of chaos and organize things. The first job He gave Adam was the job of naming the animals. The word there for "naming" really means to sort of categorize. He kind of says, "Call out what they are. Tell Me what these are." I think work is a very, very holy thing, and I take work very seriously. Most of us think that spiritual exercises are something you do once you get home from work, but I think what you do at your work is just as spiritual as the twenty minutes you have set aside to read Oswald Chambers. So for me, my songs are not a matter of something God has given me. I am grateful to God that He gave me ears, that He gave me parents who allowed me to take piano lessons, that He gave me some natural talent in the area of music. I'm very thankful to God that He gave me an environment to grow in where I was taught to listen and appreciate things. Then what I give Him back when I write a song like "When He rolls up His sleeves He ain't just puttin' on the ritz," that is my worship to Him, and I think He accepts it, not because it's 'great' music.
If you want to talk about 'great music,' there was enough great music written by the time Bach died that none of us ever needed to pick up a pen and write a note. You don't write because the world has need of your music; you write because you have a need to make order, to organize things. If you're a musician you express that very human, very common need by making music. If you're a baker, you do it by making bread. It's all the same goodness, it just expresses itself in different areas.
I asked the late Rich Mullins to think back to when he first started recording, and if he ever thought one day they would release an album of his greatest hits.
Well, some days I did and some days I didn't. There were times when I would say, "Wow, this is a great song" and other times I'd say, "Wow, nobody is going to get this."
I got a great lesson in humility. It was after my first album came out - an album that nobody bought and that no one would play on the radio. I've always been a little arrogant about my own work. I'm kind of a fan of my own. I really do like my own music. I know that upsets people because they think I should be more humble. But it would be ridiculous for me to go to all the bother to write a song that I didn't like. So I'm not going to pretend, saying, "Oh gee, I don't know..." I really like my songs. I don't know if they're great songs, but I know I really like them.
But I was saying, "Wow, no one bought this album? What's wrong?" I thought, "Gee, I'm going to start writing really cool stuff instead of trying to say what is really important." About the time that my album had totally bombed and we were starting to work on the second album, and I was getting really serious at picking out songs, a friend of mine shot himself in the stomach. I finally figured out what this song was about - I'd been playing this song for a long time. Generally, I write the accompaniment first and then you just drop a melody over the accompaniment so that it hangs nice. My thing with lyrics is that lyrics are sort of like subtitles. You tell people who might not figure out what the song is about without the help of lyrics. Suddenly I realized this song is not for any record, this song is for this friend of mine. Fortunately, he wasn't very accurate about the way he shot himself, and he lived. But I thought, "I've got to say something to him," and that's when I wrote, You're on the Verge of a Miracle.
Then, ironically, that became the first song the radio people started playing in heavy rotation. A lot of people will still talk about, "Wow, that was your first radio success" or "That was your first song that went to number one." For me, that song is always a song that I wrote for this friend of mine who was in such a state of darkness, and all I wanted to say to him was hang on because the light can break through.
After the success of that particular song, I felt somewhat ashamed for having thought about how I could write something very popular. What I began to suspect was that there were a lot of people who needed to know that they were on the verge of a miracle, a lot of people who needed to hear about the other side of the world. I can just about go down the list of titles [on Songs] and say, "Oh, I remember why I wrote that song. It was for this person in response to this situation."
One thing we all think is that our lives are so unique and so bizarre that no one else could possibly enter into them. Sometimes artists like to be a little off the wall, because as an artist you want people's attention, and shock is one way of getting that attention. But C. S. Lewis said, and I've come to expect that it's very true, that the thing that is common is the thing that is most like art. When a writer, when a painter, when a musician is able to take the thing that you've always suspected and give it words, then you respond to it. This is very Tolstoyan, too, so C. S. Lewis wasn't all by himself in this kind of thinking. I've been pretty much all around the world, and no matter where you're at they respond pretty much the same.
At the deepest level all we need to know is that there really is a God and that He really is good and that He does love us and that we are accepted by Him, that we can be forgiven. Those things are very important to people everywhere. People sometimes make a big deal that I've never done the crossover thing, which, the truth is, I haven't been in love in so many years that I don't think I could write a very good love song.
But then once again, I think there's nowhere my selfishness is more visible than in the way I write. This album [Songs] represents ten years of work in the music industry. Someday we'll be called to give an account and I don't think our crown will be the music we wrote; I think it will be how we have built up the body of Christ, how we have torn down walls of suspicion and walls of fear, how we have shed light on false doctrines, how we've been encouraging truth and how that affects lives, and how we made Jesus visible.
I've never been tempted to write about stuff that I didn't think would help us, because I do believe someday I will die and there will be a judgment. I'm not afraid necessarily of going to hell. I don't think God would have gone to the lengths that He went to forgive me if He were just going to condemn me in the end. Jesus talked of judgment as a matter of what we do with our lives: Did we visit those in prison, did we give to the poor? You know, I used to think it was for the advantage of the people in jail and for those people who were naked and hungry. Now I think that He asks us to do that not so that they can be saved, but so we can be. If we want to meet Jesus it won't likely be at church, although I'm a big believer in going to church. I think that when we meet Christ it will be somewhere outside the camp. It will be where people have been marginalized, people who have been literally imprisoned. We will meet Him where we least expect to.
I was talking to a friend of mine and he said, "You know, I just don't like Christians. I believe in Jesus and all that stuff, but I just hate hanging out with Christians." I said, "Yeah? You and me are friends, and I'm a Christian." He said, "Yeah, you're different." I said, "Well, I'll take that as a compliment, but I'm not sure what else you mean."
I began to name several people that he knew who were Christians and eventually what we came around to in the conversation was - what he didn't like was - he didn't really know most Christians. A lot of the people that he went to church with alienated him. All he knew about them was what they believed, what picket lines they were going to stand on, whether or not they were literalists in their interpretation of Scripture. They all had a lot of doctrinal positions: I am a nonsmoker. I am a teetotaler. I am a 'whatever.' They all knew their place on a number of moral issues, but none of them were able to communicate who they were to him, so they seemed very boring and I can understand that. They seemed like non-people, like chess pieces.
I think one thing that is threatening to a good many of us is that we think, "If people really knew me they'd never believe in Jesus." And I want to say, "No, that's exactly wrong." People will never know Jesus as long as we choose to hide ourselves. I don't think that necessarily means I need to go out and get on the radio to announce my private sins. I think that I can be very honest without being hurtful to people. What I think will please God is if I have progressed to being that person whose name is written on that white stone that He will give me.
Rich Mullins' words challenge us to live honestly in front of others. Or are we simply "chess pieces" standing at attention, never showing weakness?
Copyright 1998 by Word Publishing of Thomas Nelson, Inc.
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