Rich Mullins epitomizes much of what is best in Christian contemporary music. His signature folk/pop is inventive, evocative, thought-provoking and, at times ambitious. As his concert Friday night at Wheaton College demonstrated, creative ambition has its risks as well as its rewards.
Mullins can craft a song. He can place a work of art in the hands of his audience, framed with sparse instrumentation - grand piano, acoustic guitar and hammer dulcimer played by Mullins and Mitch McVicker on acoustic guitar.
Friday night's stage was bare, but it was not empty. The songs filled it. With today's production techniques, when even a mediocre tune can be transformed into something almost listenable, a good song is its own reward.
Somewhat riskier was the decision to surrender the bulk of the evening to the premiere of the musical The Canticle of the Plains. Though written by Mullins, McVicker and the guitarist who goes by the single name Beaker, it was performed in its entirety and somewhat unevenly, by an all-collegiate cast. This put Mullins in an awkward role.
"It's really bizarre doing a warm-up act on yourself," he told the audience.
Of course, it's more bizarre for ticket buyers who purchase a $15 surprise.
Though loosely based on the life and ideals of St. Francis, The Canticle of the Plains is set in post-Civil War America. Accordingly, St. Francis of Assisi becomes St. Frank of Wichita, a man out of step with his times, who nevertheless wins a curious following, including the expletive-spitting, one-armed Lefty.
Some of the musical's more poignant moments are those that touch on race relations, such as those involving a young African-American man who, if he must wait for better things, would just as soon not have to wait for them in Mississippi, and those that take up the plight of displaced Native Americans.
To round out a politically correct agenda, much of what is wise and transcendent is conveyed through the voice of three women - one white, one Native American and one African-American and elderly.
The central point, however, is countercultural. Frank's quest for higher ideals carries him into the forgiving love of Christ.
As the evening passed into its third hour, Mullins and McVicker took the stage for an abbreviated closing set.
Mullins stepped to the microphone, smiled and gave folks a gracious out. "It's late," he said. "This would be a good time to go home."
The audience knew better. The show was just beginning.
Copyright 1997 by the Chicago Tribune