Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) is a mixed bag for me. By which I mean, it’s as if you took a whole bunch of things from music and religion that I don’t like and mixed them together in a bag.
One prominent exception, however, is Rich Mullins. I remember the exact time and place I first heard one of his songs—“The Other Side of the World,” from his 1988 breakthrough album Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth. The music was folky and stripped-down yet full of irresistible hooks, the vocals and lyrics not sappily pious or overproduced but honest and human in the singer-songwriter tradition. It spoke to me. I became a lifelong fan.
I say that literally, for Mullins’s life ended in a car accident in 1997. On a deserted stretch of Illinois highway not only did Christian music lose one of its brightest lights, but he himself may have been denied the conclusion of a long spiritual journey. For some accounts at the time suggested that Mullins—who had been taking instruction in RCIA and confessed to interviewers his “scary openness to Catholicism” —had been planning to enter the Catholic Church.
It’s not hard to believe. For years Mullins had been something of an eccentric in CCM’s conservative circles, not just because he played the hammered dulcimer or because he was prone to mocking Evangelical stuffiness, or even because he dropped out of the scene for a time to teach on a desert Navajo reservation. His music had increasingly begun to raise industry eyebrows with its Catholic influences. He recorded an album that mimicked the structure of the Mass; he wrote a catchy a cappella ditty that warned, “It’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine/Faith without works, baby, it just ain’t happening.” He quoted Chesterton and John Paul II (“Most Protestants have no problem saying ‘The Lord told me this’ and ‘the Lord told me that,’” he once quipped, “but they won’t believe that the Lord speaks through the pope. At least the guy has some credentials”) and produced a stage musical about the life of St. Francis of Assisi.
Above all, perhaps, his music was imbued with a Catholic sensibility towards nature and grace. He saw in the created world (especially the fields and plains of his Midwestern upbringing) a reflection of God’s beauty and goodness:
Be praised for all your tenderness
By these works of your hands
Suns that rise and rains that fall to bless
And bring to life your land
Look down upon this winter wheat
And be glad that you have made
Blue for the sky and the color green
That fills these fields with praise
In dynamic contrast with his love of God’s world, Mullins also had an almost monastic sense of the world’s passing ethereality. Many of his songs reveal a bittersweetness, a sense of loneliness and disconnection, a feeling of being caught in an uncomfortable spot between time and eternity. No happy-clappy health-n-wealthy gospel for him; he felt keenly that “the stuff of earth competes for the allegiance/I owe only to the giver of all good things,” as he sang in his early hit "If I Stand." Later he would sum up the paradox—that the world is beautiful and yet fleeting, that heaven is our true home but on earth we have a job to do—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’ll be longing for my home
I wish that I could take you there with me.
The old monks’ motto, Frater, momento mori—“Brother, remember your death”—would have suited Mullins just fine. Indeed, the anticipation of death, of “crossing the river” into eternity with God, is another constant theme in his music. In light of his premature passing, lyrics like these take on a chilling—and edifying—context:
I know the river is deep
I found out that the currents are tricky
I know that the river is wide
And the currents are strong
And I could lose every dream
I dreamt that I could carry with me
But I will reach the other side
Please don't let me have to wait too long
Another hour deeper in the night
Another mile farther down the road
We could be closer than you know…
I chose to write about Rich Mullins today not only to offer a respite from ubiquitous (and somber) Catholic analysis of recent Supreme Court decisions regarding same-sex marriage, but also because Mullins fans around the world, including yours truly, are at present abuzz with anticipation over Ragamuffin, a feature film dramatizing the singer’s life and career. Here’s the trailer: