When he embarked on his Christian music career, he was just emerging from more than 10 years of darkness. “From my junior year of high school until age 30, I felt tormented all the time. I didn’t like myself, and I didn’t like anybody who was around me. Part of the reason it was so dark was that it was dull. During this time, however, Rich’s faith also seemed empty. “I never tried to be an atheist. That never made much sense to me. I knew I wouldn’t make a good atheist. But I do remember thinking I just wouldn’t have anything to do with God. Yet, even then, I felt driven back to God. I wanted intimacy with Him.”
Mullins, who died at age 41, recorded more than 80 songs during his lifetime. His music was prayerful and reflected Jesus’ heart for the marginalized. Mullins wrote from the perspective of a sinner yearning for God.
On Loving Like Jesus
Jesus said whatever you do to the least of these my brothers you’ve done it to me. And this is what I’ve come to think. That if I want to identify fully with Jesus Christ, who I claim to be my Savior and Lord, the best way that I can do that is to identify with the poor. This I know will go against the teachings of all the popular evangelical preachers. But they’re just wrong. They’re not bad, they’re just wrong. Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in a beautiful little house where you have no gays or minority groups anywhere near you. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken.
I have a hard time understanding how people who live with so much, as we do, think that they can get by without judgment when people live like this (Guatemala city dump). And not that we are ever going to be able to alleviate poverty, ’cause some people choose poverty – I mean it’s their chosen lifestyle. But there are people right here next to us that have not chosen this. And if we turn our backs on them, we are turning our backs on Christ.
I think someday there will be a judgment, and I’m not trying to say that we can earn our way into heaven, I’m not saying that we can earn what Christ has freely given us. But when we identify with Christ, when we take on the name of Christ, when we become a Christian, I think that means that our lives should be infused with the character of Christ. And the character of Christ is that of a wildly, ridiculously generous and compassionate Man, who says, I will love you regardless of your response. I will love you. I will continue to hold my hand out to you, regardless of whether or not you grab it.
If we want to bless the Lord, this is the way to do it. He doesn’t need our applause. What He, I think, must feel blessed from is when we actually participate in His nature.
On Being Used By God
Those people who did the greatest things for God were the people who weren’t trying to do anything at all. They were just simply being obedient. Those are the people God can use. We all want to be useful to God. Well, its no big deal. God can use anybody. God used Nebuchadnezzar. God used Judas Iscariot. Its not a big deal to be used by God and the shocking thing in the book of Mark, and the reason why it is so shocking is because Mark is the briefest of all the gospels but he has these terrific little details and one of the little details is that it says, “and Jesus called to Him those that He wanted.” And you realize that out of the twelve people that He wanted, only one was essential to His goal in coming to earth. The other eleven people were useless to Christ but they were wanted by Christ. And I kind of go, I would much rather have God want me than have God use me.
On the Bible
The Bible is not a book for the faint of heart. It is a book full of all the greed and glory and violence and tenderness and sex and betrayal that benefits mankind. It is not the collection of pretty little anecdotes mouthed by pious little church mice. It does not so much nibble at our shoe as it cuts to the heart and splits the marrow from bone to bone. It does not give us answers fitted to our smaller minded questions but truth that goes beyond what we even know to ask. I don’t think you read the Bible to know truth. I think you read the Bible to find God, that we encounter Him there. Paul says that the scriptures are God’s breath and I kind of go, wow, so let’s breathe this as deeply as possible.
Who said it has to be about you? Who says you have to even like it? Maybe it would be good for you to go somewhere for about an hour-and-a-half every week and have it be about anything else besides you and what you like and what you want.
I think that generosity is what happens naturally if you love people. I think Christ was ridiculous in his generosity. Had he not been so foolishly generous, I would be hopelessly lost.
I think people who are genuinely joyful are people who have an unshakable faith. They’re people who live in the reality of the presence of the risen Christ.
On His Work
God made man. He created him in His own image. He created him out of dust. He breathed into him the breath of life. Man became a living soul. He gave man sexuality. He created them male and female. And he gave man work. And I am just doing my work. I am not trying to write great albums. I’m not trying to write great songs. I’m not trying to do any of that. What I’m trying to do is be faithful.
But I think that part of our identity as human beings is that we have work, that we have things to do. And I am gifted as a musician. I am gifted as a writer and so I have to do that out of obedience. I am not gifted as a singer. I have a weird voice. I have a terrible speaking voice and when I sing its not as weird as when I talk so I should probably sing more and talk less. But, nevertheless, I don’t like my voice even when I am singing and people say, “Why do you sing then?” and I go, “Because it is the most reiterated command in the whole Bible.” And I figure there must be a reason why it says over and over and over, sing sing sing sing sing. I also kind of go, this is a lot easier than loving my enemies so maybe I should start with the easy stuff and maybe by the time I am really old I will have been able to tie the more complicated knot.
The hardest part of being a Christian is surrendering and that is where the real struggle happens. Once we have overcome our own desire to be elevated, our own desire to be recognized, our own desire to be independent and all those things that we value very much because we are Americans and we are part of this American culture. Once we have overcome that struggle then God can use us as a part of His body to accomplish what the body of Christ was left here to accomplish.
Spiritual vs. Aesthetics
A lot of times we think something spiritual is happening and it is merely aesthetics. That is why it always bugs me at the end of a concert someone will say, “Wow the Spirit really worked” and I kind of go, “How would you even be able to know that? It was so noisy in here tonight. How would you know if the Spirit was working?” “Well, I was really moved.” Well, that is an emotional thing. That’s not a spiritual thing. A spiritual thing is folding your clothes at the end of the day. A spiritual thing is making your bed. A spiritual thing is taking cookies to your neighbor that is shut in or raking their front lawn because they are too old to do it. That’s spirituality. Getting a warm, oozy feeling about God is an emotional thing. There is nothing wrong with it. I think there is nothing more practical than real spirituality. But nothing more fun than just a good heartfelt emotional experience of God because I think emotions are good. They are only dangerous when we come away from an experience where we were emotionally manipulated and we confuse that with being convicted. I think conviction – there is an emotion that accompanies that but it certainly goes deeper than just coming away going, “Oh isn’t God neat? Two different worlds.”
What C. S. Lewis said, and what I’ve come to suspect is being very true, is, that the thing that is common, is the thing that is most like art. It’s when a writer, when a painter, when a musician, is able to take that thing that you’ve always suspected and give it words, that’s when you respond to it.
He also told us to subdue the universe, that we were to… and I don’t think that He meant by that, to exploit it. I think that what He meant by that was that we were to try to create order out of chaos, that we were to try to organize things. The first job He gave Adam, interestingly enough, was the job of naming the animals. Which… and the word there for naming really means categorize, sort of. It kind of says, call out what they are. Tell me what these are. So, I think work is a very, very holy thing. And I take work very seriously. I think that most of us think that spiritual exercises are what you do once you get home from your work. But I think that what you do at your work is just as spiritual in your, you know, in that twenty minutes that you have set aside for reading Oswald Chambers or whatever. So for me, my songs are not a matter of something that God has given me. I am very thankful 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 up in wherein I was taught to listen, wherein I was taught to appreciate things. And 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, man, there was enough great music written by the time Bach died, that none of the rest of us ever needed to take 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. And if you are 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.
Someday we’ll be called to give an account. And I don’t think our crown will be the music we wrote, I don’t think our crown will be the words 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, on truth, those are the things I think – and how that affects lives. And how we made Jesus visible.
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.
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 think creativity is a very Christian thing. I think that, at least Christians, have a very distinct understanding that if we are created in the image of God that means we’re going to have an impulse, or whatever you want to call that, to create. And so, you kinda go, “When people are creative on whatever level, there’s something Godly about that. Even if it is corrupted and sick; like there’s something Godly about us even though we’re corrupted and sick.
On the Role of an Artist
What I mean is I think an artist’s obligation is to honestly, as honestly as possible to reach into themselves and pull out whatever is there that is human that people can relate to, and set it out. And if people want to buy it, then buy it! If people don’t want to buy it, then don’t buy it. But I, as an artist, have no right to criticize you because you don’t happen to like what I have found that is human in me.
The wonderful thing about building something is when you do music, you’re never done. The longer I’m involved in music, the more I really think that music is a performance, it’s a performance art. It’s not a product thing. It’s kind of like that question: When a tree falls in a forest does anybody hear it. You kinda go, if you wrote a song out on paper, if you recorded a song and nobody listened to it, would there be music there. And of course I don’t know the answer to that, but I know if there is music there, there’s no point in it being there. That when it really connects is when somebody hears it.
When I saw the life of St. Francis, this film… I was kind of going, that’s really what I want to do. I mean, I really do want to live in poverty, I really do want my life to mean something. I really do want to imitate Christ, and live according to the rule of the Gospels, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And so I guess I have tried to do that throughout my life, but what I realized at some point is that you can’t do that outside the context of a community. That Christianity is not a solo ‘date,’ it’s a communal faith.
On American Christianity
I really struggle with American Christianity. I’m not really sure that people with our cultural disabilities are capable of having souls, or being saved.
Tollbooth: Cultural disabilities?
Mullins: We could call it that. People who grow up in a culture that worships pleasure, leisure, and affluence. I think that’s where the church is doubly damned when they use Jesus as a vehicle for achieving all of that. Like, if you give a tithe, He’ll make you rich. Why? Are you hacking Him off or something? If you give a tithe, you get rid of ten percent of the root of all evil. You should be giving ninety percent. Cause God can handle money better than we can.
But what may be important is the idea that you might be able to challenge someone to think outside the lines of conventional, evangelical Christianity. You might be able to challenge someone and encourage them to realize that maybe God is bigger than the conventions of middle-class American “Churchianity.” And I’d really like to encourage you to do that and to not be afraid of it. I think that a lot of people are maybe just a little afraid and I’d just like to say what angels say to people when they meet them – they say, “Don’t be afraid.” What you have to say – you need to say it, not because it’s right, but because it’s in you to say. Let people read it and figure out for themselves where they’re at. And the more free you are to think and the more brave you are in your communication of that, the more you’re going to encourage other people to begin to think and to be able to be brave. Not so that we create yet another generation of people who are totally sold on themselves, but so that maybe we can break out of the ideas that we’ve got ourselves stuck into by following the masses – following the group.
And beyond that, I would also like to encourage you to stop thinking of what you’re doing as ministry. Your ministry is the way that you love people. And you love people when you write something that is encouraging to them, something challenging – those kinds of things. You love people when you call your wife and say, “I’m going to be late for dinner,” instead of letting her burn the meal. You love people when maybe you cook a meal for your wife sometime, because you know she’s really tired. Loving people – being respectful toward them – is much more important than writing or doing music.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard, there’s this Chinese guy that used to work at a deli, or at a little bakery shop, pastry shop, across the street from where Billy Sunday used to preach in Boston. And people by the thousands were going to hear Billy Sunday preach. Between services this little coffee shop would be jam-packed with people who had just been to church, and the people were so cruel to this kid. He was a college student, he was trying to get along. He didn’t speak really good English and people were very angry at him because of that. People didn’t leave good tips and people would leave chunks of trash on the floor after they’d eaten. He was so sickened by Christians and Christianity that when he went back to China and became Chairman Mao, he was determined to wipe the church out of China.
What I’m wondering is what would have happened if people who were going to church, people who were discussing sermons would have been generous to him, would have been kind to him, would have in their dealings with him reflected the love of Christ? Sometimes we think that our writing and our music is so important that we have the right to run over people.
Just please remember that we don’t.
- So many people at the end of the twentieth century in evangelical America have bought into the idea of believing in yourself and all that. Which I just kinda go, “Man, what would be more miserable than if I really thought that I was my greatest hope?” And what is more liberating than realizing that I am not the greatest hope I have. That in fact, there is a hope that is so great, so far beyond me that except for His grace, I would never experience it.
- And I kinda go, it seems to me like the world believes that we’re supposed to esteem ourselves, but the teachings of Jesus are that we’re supposed to forget ourselves. And I think once we realize what a little gnat you really are, you’re easier to for get. And so then it’s way easier to say, so it doesn’t really matter if I don’t hit the ball, I’m gonna swing. It doesn’t really matter if I don’t get the ball in the hoop, I’m gonna shoot anyway. It doesn’t really matter if the song that I’m writing isn’t any good, I’m gonna write it anyway.
- Because even if it’s a flop, tomorrow morning the sun’s gonna come up just the same. Even if it’s a flop Tomorrow evening it’s gonna get darker and darker, chances are there will be stars. The world will go right on no matter whether I succeed or fail. So I am suddenly free in a world of amazing possibilities. I can try anything I want to try, because nothing is really at stake. And all this stuff we get caught up in, the idea of prestige, money, people recognizing you on the street. All those things become pretty secondary.
- And the job of the Christian, which is why writing is so much like praying, and why praying is so vital to a real Christian spiritual life. The job of a Christian is to keep themselves open to God and always recognize that God is greater than we are. And that nothing happens outside of His will. Some things He causes, some things He permits, and there’s a whole lot of theology behind that that people love to argue about. I kinda go, the long and short of all of it is that if I believe that God is good, then I need to accept whatever happens to me in life as being a gift. And allow Him to take some of the things that hurt, allow Him to take some of the things that sting, some of the things that I think are going to kill me – allow Him to take those things and make of me the person He wants me to be. It may not be the person I want to be, but it’ll be the person He would want me to be.
- I have to laugh sometimes when people refer to this music thing as my ‘ministry.’ I don’t consider it a ministry; I consider it my tent-making.
That whole evangelical discipleship thing really turned me off, as most evangelical things do. I was just so depressed from meeting all these kids that were turning into caricatures of great old men or great old women, these great saints. People were thinking [that] the way to become spiritual is to imitate the lives of really spiritual people. Well, in Catholicism, spiritual direction is something like discipleship, only their idea is that you don’t become like me, you become like you. In Catholicism – and this is one of the places in which Catholicism is much more appealing to me than Protestantism, and certainly, more than Evangelicalism – our identity as being a creature, as being someone uniquely created, is much more “in your face” than in Protestantism. Protestantism is kind of like “Christianity lite” to me. It’s kind of like we want to be Christians, but we really take science more seriously than we take Christianity. We take what we think we know more seriously than what we believe. And I think there is nothing more useless to me than what we now know because tomorrow we’re going to “now” know something completely different and contradictory.
I think it would be ridiculous to say that we live solely by faith and that reason doesn’t have anything to do with faith. But, your reason grows out of your faith, and if your faith is in the ideas of the enlightenment – which Protestantism, I think, is kind of saddled with that – then your reason will grow out of your faith. And the ideas of the enlightenment are that anything that is true is also scientifically verifiable. Well, any imbecile can tell you that that is not the case.
In spiritual direction, the idea is that God purposed you into this world, that there is a purpose that is unique, and that you have an identity that is unique, and it is sacred to God. That’s one of my favorite things. The whole thing in Revelation about “what will be given to he who overcomes.” One of the things that will be given to those who overcome is a white stone with a name, known only to God and the person to whom the stone belongs. You know, I’m not a big believer in proof-texting, because I think you can go to the Bible and prove anything you want. But, somehow that speaks to me in a – once again – existential way. I hate to use that term because I’m not one of those guys, but in terms of what becomes relevant and incorporated into our person, this verse says to me, “God knows who I am; I don’t.”
I think a lot of people have never heard of Francis of Assisi, or they think of him as some ecology nut or some eccentric wacko from the 12th century who was cute and endearing. Actually, when I think of revolutionary characters in the history of the rise of Western culture (or whatever you want to call that), Francis of Assisi was a major, major player. The thing that was so dynamic about him was not that he preached to birds – although he did, and that’s a wonderful part of who he was. It’s not that he lived in utter poverty, although that’s an interesting part of who he was. The thing, I think, that filled his life so much that it changed poetry, it changed our ideas of social justice – I think much of our ideas about social justice have been influenced by the Franciscans – I think the dynamic in his life was not his ideas, or even his order or even the rule of his order. But the dynamism came from [the fact] that here was a man that really fell in love with Jesus, and that was the all-pervading power in his life. For all the jazz about “I love Jesus and Jesus loves me,” if this is the case, why do our lives look so…. How can you be in love with Jesus and be so boring? You know what I mean?
Because, you know, when you fall in love with somebody, you get this rush and you stay up all night, you party all day, you go to work and you feel great. You’ve got this, like a chemical rush. Man, to be in love with the Almighty – maybe not a chemical rush like when we fall in love with other people – but if it happens in a spiritual realm, isn’t that even more powerful? So, I don’t buy all this jazz when people say, “Well, I just love Jesus.” The problem is that none of us really love anything or anyone except ourselves. [“I love Jesus” is] a very bold thing to say. How would you or I love Jesus? We’re incapable of love unless He gives us the ability to do that. Looking at Francis, here is a man who allowed God to make him a great lover, which would be a wonderful thing to be. So, we’re using Francis as a model of someone who really fell in love. Somebody for whom, like Jesus said, “My bread is to do the will of the Father.” I think that happened to Francis; I don’t think it happens to many other people.
Everything is Spiritual
Music is applied math. That’s all it is. It cracks me up when people make this whole spiritual to-do out of it. Yeah, it’s spiritual in the same sense that baking a cake is spiritual. Everything is spiritual.
One of the wonderful things about Carl Barth’s whole thing about preaching is, he said, “preaching is not so much me telling you what I think about what the Scriptures say. Preaching, good biblical preaching, is simply a proclamation of the Good News.” And so often in Christianity, we’re trying to make Christianity more attractive. John Fisher said one of the most profound things I’ve ever read. He said…I can’t remember the exact quote, but something along the lines of “Why be cute when you are beautiful?” And I think a lot of our energy as Christians, we’re trying to make Christianity more appealing to people when Christianity is the most naturally appealing thing in the world. What is more appealing than the idea that we can be loved? What is more appealing than the idea that we will be given the power to love? What is more appealing than the idea that we can experience peace in the midst of turmoil? What is more appealing than all of these things? Rather than trying to become propagandists, when we simply become people of God, when we are simply what He made us to be, then people will be drawn, rather than our trying to figure out some cool way to present Jesus that will trick people into being believers. You can’t be tricked into the Kingdom of God.
But one of the things that struck me was, when I think of when God wanted to reveal Himself to me, when God wanted to speak to me, how – He spoke through the prophets, and He spoke in different ways. He speaks to us through nature, and He finally spoke through Jesus. Which is a perfect revelation of Himself. Jesus is an extension of God.
You know, you talk to people who are really anti-Christian, and you go, “Boy, you got a point. The church has done some really awful things and you’ve got a point, the Bible doesn’t always make sense, and you’ve got a point, I can’t prove that God exists to you. But here’s the thing: if you know God, the rest of it sort of flows from there.”
Anyone who’s ever been in love’s been wounded by it. My thing is, if you’re going to be wounded by something, it might as well be by love. And if you are too scared of being wounded to love anybody, then you’re worse than wounded. You’re dead. And so, this is sort of a blessing you’re giving to someone who’s far away from you, someone you want to be with, and you say to them “Hey, there’s gonna be some hurt in life. It’s either gonna be inflicted on you by someone you love, or it’s gonna be inflicted on you by yourself. I hope it comes to you through someone you love.” The real tragedy in life would not to be wounded by love, but it would be to have never loved because you were so afraid of being wounded. The real tragedy in life would have been to have missed life because you were afraid of dying.
A lot of the time we think of the idea of self-sacrifice being this morbid, “Oh, I’m gonna be a martyr for Christ” thing. When you realize, wow, what a wonderful thing that I should be able to give my life away on something so rich and so wonderful. What is my life that I want to keep it, in view of what I gain by giving it up? And so it’s kind of a prayer, it’s kind of a worship, it’s kind of a lot of things, and it sounds so silly, that’s what I love about it.
I think there’s a book by Fulton Sheen called The Life of Christ and he talks about the temptations of Christ in the wilderness, and how Satan didn’t offer Christ anything God didn’t want Christ to have. There’s nothing wrong with food. There’s nothing wrong with power. There’s nothing wrong with glory. These are all things that were waiting for Christ. But what Satan offered him was a shortcut to those things. Satan said, “you can have these things without suffering. But let me show you how to do it, rather than doing it God’s way.” And one of the problems I think we have in the Christian church today, one of the problems I have in my own life anyway, is that we want to do godly things but we want to do them in a worldly way. We want to have God’s will in our terms and you can’t do that. You either follow God…if you follow God, you go the path He leads. You don’t say “Well, God, I’ll meet you in Indianapolis.” You follow Him all the way to Indianapolis. You go the way He goes, the route He goes.
Because that is the route He wants you to take. And that route is going to take you, necessarily, through some suffering. You have to die to yourself. People always want to argue, “You have to be baptized to be a Christian. You have to be a member of a church.” They want to argue about all this stuff about Christianity. If we take the gospel seriously, you have to die to yourself to be a Christian, to be spiritually vital, to be spiritually alive. Why don’t we take the gospel as seriously as we take everything else? If you want to inherit the earth, you’d best be meek. If you want to be filled with righteousness, you’d best hunger for it. Jesus, when he was dealing with the devil, it was there in the desert, in the 40 days of fasting that the victory was won. And it was 3 years later on Calvary that it was actualized. But the decision was final there in the wilderness. Christ accepted suffering. Christ accepted the plan of God for His life. It was there that Christ closed all the doors to any other possibility. And I loved in the play “Godspell,” how during the crucifixion, these demons come up to Christ and they’re saying “Give the word and these stones will become bread.” “Throw yourself off of this temple and the angels will come and rescue you. Do this and I’ll…” I mean, they quote the temptation of the wilderness. And I thought that was a great piece of insight on the part of whoever came up with that. I suppose Steven Schwartz. And Fulton Sheen then says the same thing, when he talks about Christ in the wilderness, that Christ accepted his identity as the Lamb of God and said, “I will not be a social reformer. I did not come to distribute bread. I came to be bread. If I’m going to be the bread of life, then I’m going to have to be broken.” When Christ said, “I will not throw myself off this temple to see if the angels will rescue me,” it was because he knew he wasn’t going to take himself off of the Cross. He said “I will not put God to the test. I will allow God to test me. I will allow God to prove himself in my life. I’m not going to make God jump through hoops. I’ll let Him hold the hoops and I’ll jump where He says.” And when Christ said “I will not bow down and worship Satan,” the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory were forever His. And he didn’t leave us out of the deal. Because of the suffering he endured, we get to be His Kingdom. We get to be His Glory.
One of the really interesting stories to me is the story of Chief Joseph and after they’d cheated him out of everything, and they’re putting him on a reservation, they said “Why don’t you want to go to the reservation? If you go to the reservation, we’ll give you schools.” And he said, “We don’t want schools.” And the government of the United States said “Why don’t you want schools?” And Chief Joseph said “If you give us schools then churches will follow.” And so the United States government said “You don’t want churches?” And his father, Chief Joseph’s father was a Christian and Joseph was baptized in the church and rejected Christianity, and he said, “No, we don’t want churches.” They said, “Why don’t you want churches?” And this is a very telling statement, he said “When we have churches it will teach us to argue about God.” And we can argue about a lot of things, I know, but we shouldn’t argue about God. It’s very difficult for me to understand why the church has been so reluctant to speak with Native Americans about Christ in whose name their land was stolen. Maybe there’s a little bit of shame or something. Which might even be appropriate. But the past is past and people need the Lord. And I think when an injustice has been done, people need to go the extra mile. You can’t undo what’s been done, and there’ve been injustices done to people of all races and all creeds and etc. But I think that there has to be some kind of healing. And I want to be a part of that.
A rather shaggy-looking character, just 18 years old, with torn jeans (against the dress code) and bare feet (Heavens!) sat down at a rickety piano and spun tales of faith and wonder with music that I knew even then called for a much wider audience. Mullins and I became friends first and later “family” through nearly 2 decades of teaching, working, and laughing together – through the thousands of miles on the road that eventually led 5 of us to Wichita over 6 years ago.
I am a teacher. It’s who I am, the calling that God built into me. And our calling defines both who we are and what we do.
I come from a long line of teachers – my granddad and others in my family. Even though my dad was not a formal teacher, teaching was still a large part of who he was and continues in me. I want to teach music because I love people more than music, but I know the power of music. I know that all people, especially kids, can win at music. Life lessons are learned in music… it’s like all the practicing musicians do, most of practice involves being willing to fail. When you have finally made all the mistakes you can, you succeed! You can’t do anything else but succeed!
Music is powerful; people – even those who think they can’t sing – respond to music. I want to pass that on to young people. They’ll be surrounded by music all of their lives, I’d like to open the doors of good music to them – teach them to listen with some discernment.
And the Navajos?
RM: They first interested me because they are a shepherding people. So much of the Bible was written to or from people who were a part of that life. It’s a culture I want to learn to know. Also, I’m nearly 40 and still single. You know, there is little point in being single if you don’t take advantage of some of the more positive points of singleness, like being able to move to a remote place to teach. And I don’t want to wake up old someday never knowing anything about life other than living in middle class America.
“The difference between me and most Protestants” notes Mullins, “is most Protestants have no problem at all saying, ‘The Lord told me this’ or ‘The Lord told me that’, but they won’t believe that the Lord speaks through the Pope. You know, at least this guy has some credentials.”
“I read the Pope’s newest encyclical (The Splendor of Truth: Veritatis Splendor) and to me it was shocking. It was a wonderful breath of fresh air that someone says, ‘There is such a thing as truth, and it is a beautiful thing. So until we learn to long for it and set everything else aside, our lives will not make sense
In the last few years, we’ve, Beaker and I have had quite a, I think, spiritual pilgrimage. You know, first of all, moving into reading the Bible for what it really says rather than what we think it says. Going back and really trying to take a second look at the whole thing, rather than just, when we get to the parts of the Bible that don’t make sense to us rather than just glibbing over them, let’s really look at that seriously. And that was quite a challenge.
You know, everywhere you go, people are badgering you to change your beliefs. And one of the things that we both realized, is that, boy, you cannot answer to everybody. And in an attempt to make Christ our Lord even more, we really tried to plug into a local church here in Wichita, which is part of the denomination that I grew up in. And really study what that church believes, and then really try to follow as closely as we can in our own lives, those beliefs.
And in the process, what we’ve done, is gone through and said, “Okay, here are all of the issues that people want to argue about,” and “here are all the hot buttons, here is where the controversy lies. What do we believe is really essential in Christianity? Where do we think the ‘meat and potatoes’ of our faith really is?” And what we came up with was strikingly like the Apostle’s Creed. And our church is a very non-creedal church, we don’t recite any creed in our church. And, the church is, in fact, a little proud of being non-creedal. But when we looked at what we, together and separately, had said, “Boy, here are the things that we cannot compromise on…”
You know, I don’t have to worry too much about what I believe about, say, whether you should tithe, or whether you should give 100%. I don’t have to worry a whole lot about whether you’re allowed to go out on Saturday night, or whether you’re supposed to stay in on Saturday night. These are not things that make or break our faith. “Here are the things that are absolutely essential, and here are things that we can’t jimmy on. These are the things that we can’t compromise. These are the things that, if we were to lose this, we would no longer have a faith that is genuinely grounded and rooted in historic Christianity.”
And looking at our list, and then looking at the various creeds that the people of the ancient church had come up with, we went, “Wow! It is wonderful and remarkable that the Truth… when you let the dust settle from all the other nit-picky things that people want to spend their lives arguing over, when you let all that settle… the Truth really looks very much the same in the 20th Century as it did in the 1st Century, or whenever the church first began to formally state its beliefs.”
His response to being an American in the ’90s
“I don’t think you can do anything except love it. And I think love is a lot of hard work. Not so much because things are hard to love but because we’re not very good lovers. I think love is something you have to give yourself over to, you have to just finally say, ‘I will stop seeking a reason to love something and I will voluntarily allow it to be bigger than I am.'”
[Because] when I get down to it, the bottom line of every confession I have to make is, ‘Lord, I don’t really want to love you. I don’t even have the desire to do that.’ And unless God intervenes, I never will.”
It’s interesting, because after my second album I was so disillusioned with Christian music, and with my own role in it, that I just went, kind of, wow, I really wanted to say something that was real, and that was authentic. And what I’m finding out about myself is that I’m trying to say things that are cute, and I’m trying to win an audience to me, rather than point an audience to Christ. And having become concerned about that, I realized, man, I really need to refocus – which, I think the story of my life is the story of refocusing. It’s the story of setting down on a great road, on a great path, and then all of a sudden realizing, wow, I’ve really swayed. So I need to stop everything, I need to look at where I’m going again, and then get there.
- I think that everyone thinks that if you have struggles in your life, it’s because you’re not really filled with the Holy Spirit, or you’re not really reading your Bible daily, or you’re doing something wrong. I think life, by nature, is a struggle.
- You know, whether or not you believe in the health, wealth, and prosperity doctrine, the ideas of that have kind have polluted almost all of our thinking about Christianity. Where we think that a really great Christian is that Christian who does not struggle with temptation, that Christian who can’t wait to get up in the morning and spend four hours praying and reading out of the book of Leviticus. We think, boy, that’s what a really mature Christian looks like.
- Well, I’m looking at Paul, kind of going, here’s a man who obviously was filled with the Spirit, a man who obviously had studied the Scriptures, here is a man who had had an authentic encounter with the living Christ, and he prays to God and says, “Lord, I beg you to take this thorn from my flesh.” (Which we don’t know what that means, and you can guess anything you want to guess – I don’t think it matters or we would have been told.) “Lord, I’ve been praying for you to take away this infirmity of mine, and you haven’t.” And God looks down at him and doesn’t go, “Yeah, it’s because you’re so spiritually immature!” God didn’t look down at him and say, “Well, it’s because you don’t have enough faith.” God didn’t look down from heaven at Paul and say, “Well, you know, if you would just get up earlier and pray a couple more hours in the morning,” or “If you would just memorize another ten psalms.” He didn’t say any of that. He merely said to Paul, “Hey, My grace is plenty. My grace is sufficient.”
- And so, I think, many times we are afraid to drop our guard, because we’re afraid that people will think that we are spiritually flakes. Well, the truth is that we are. And so are they. And we’re all trying to fake each other out. And the song, “It’s Hard To Be Like Jesus,” is kind of like looking at yourself and going, “Whew, what a relief! I don’t have to fake it anymore. I can admit that I don’t always feel like not honking at the person who is stopped in front of me at, you know, won’t go through the green light. I don’t have to pretend it’s not hard for me to make the best choices that I can make.”
- The honest truth is, it is hard. And it will probably remain that way for a good long time. Not that there’s no joy in the Christian life. And I think, part of the joke of the song is the “His eye is on the sparrow, and the lilies of the field I’ve heard / and He will watch over you and He will watch over me so we can dress like flowers and eat like birds.” I deliberately wrote that, because I think what the Gospel of Christ does, is it challenges us at every level.
With “Step by Step,” if I had to make an overall statement, it’s that faith is walking with God. The biggest problem with life is that it’s just daily. You can never get so healthy that you don’t have to continue to eat right. Because every day I have to make the right choices about what I eat and how much exercise I need.
Spiritually we’re in much the same place. I go on these binges where it’s like “I’m going to memorize the five books of Moses.” I expect to be able to live off the momentum. The only thing that praying today is good for is today. So, with “Step by Step” and “Sometimes by Step,” it’s not what you did, and not what you say you’re going to do, it’s what you do today.
G. K. Chesterton said, “Anything worth doing, is worth doing badly.”
My take on this is, for those people who are too weak to handle celibacy, God gives a spouse. People who are too weak to handle a spouse, God gives celibacy. So, I’m pretty comfortable, and I wouldn’t mind being married. Especially from 10 to 2. I’m happy…, but I also believe that if you’re not happy where you are you’re not going to be happy anywhere. If I have a problem, I’d like to be able to be aware of it before I get married, because I’d hate to enter into it with the illusion that if I get married I’ll never be lonely again. Or the illusion that someone will always love me. I know a lot of very lonely married people.
I went back Tuesday to my lesson after I had played Sunday, and my teacher said, “How did you do?” and I told her, “Everybody said they loved it, everyone said I did great.” And she said, “Well, then you failed.” I was crushed, but she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Richard, when you play in church, you are to direct people’s attention to God, not to your playing.”
Well, what I write certainly isn’t as good as what I read. The thing I find attractive in people I like to read is that they’re just brave enough to say what they really think. I think we all get hung up in saying something that is unique, but we may miss saying something clearly, or accurately. It’s like C. S. Lewis said, “The idea is not how unique your idea is, or how unique your expression is, the idea is to take what is common and to freeze it in a moment.” And that’s kind of what I relate to in the writing of other people.
My goal – the thing that I respond to in writing and the thing that I would like to accomplish – would be to say things exactly as they are; to give the most accurate description possible. So many people are distressed by [the song] “Jacob and Two Women,” and I respond, “then the Bible must be very distressing to you.”
I think that we live in a real information and answer-oriented world, and the thing that I’m discovering from reading the Bible is that it’s not always what they taught us in Sunday School. For instance, I was taught that Esther was a queen, but reading the account myself I’ve learned that Esther was the head harem girl. Our attempt is to make Esther into a nice woman, but that’s not accurate.
It’s a matter of priorities: [Frederick] Buechner says, “Your calling is the place where your deepest joy and the world’s greatest needs cross.” For me, the greatest joy that I have is knowing that I do have a Father who loves me, and that he doesn’t love me in a passive way. That he loves me so much that he sent Christ to take away the guilt of my sin and that it is a real thing, that it really did happen.
If I will experience joy in this life it will be when I let other people know that there is a God who loves them, and he has taken away the sin that separates them. There is no greater joy than just that proclamation.
You know, there are people who would kill to get to do what I get to do. There are people who are very competitive and who really want to do what I’ve had the privilege to get to do for the last ten years or so. And I’m kinda going, well, give them a shot. Get out of the way.
There are not a lot of people who want to move into a situation like in any kind of mission situation. There are not people who are competing to, gee I wanna go to the most remote part of the world that I can find and live in a hut, which I think sounds kind of exciting, I guess.
SW: Perhaps I ask this of myself more than of you… Something I wonder is if there’s any sort of escapism in that. Because when my husband and I went to the Philippines and we watched what was happening in the garbage dump there. And flying back, Norman said to me, ‘I wish we could give up all the trappings of our life in America and go and live there.’ But I actually felt it would be more of a challenge to live where we live in a way that brings honor to God than just drop it all and go…
RM: And I really believe that if you’re not living in a way that is honoring to God where you live, that moving isn’t going to change that.
I think it’s very natural. I think that it is impossible to be a Christian outside of the context of the church. I think that when we are incorporated into the body of Christ that that’s where we’re supposed to be. We were never intended to be a lone self floating away any more than an arm is supposed to be a lone limb disconnected. That we’re only Christian inasmuch as we’re connected.
If you’re a Christian, that will affect whether you’re a carpenter or a plumber or a housewife or a secretary or whatever. If your faith doesn’t have some impact on your work, it’s probably because you have no faith.
I’m definitely not at peace with trying to sell comfort. Because I think no one can serve two masters. People are either going to seek comfort in life… They’re either going to seek pleasure and the easy way to get through life without any bumps or they’re going to seek out the truth. If you seek out the truth, you’re not going to have a comfortable and pleasant life. So you can take one or the other, but you can’t have them both.
There are many things in the Christian faith that are hard to get a handle on, and one of the things that I struggle the hardest with is believing that God really loves me. It’s too good to believe, but it’s true. Whether I can believe it or not.
The fact is, I think if you took the whole Bible and you shook it around and melted it down and said, ‘what is the essence of what this whole thing is saying,’ I think it would just be that God loves you very much. That God in fact is crazy about you. I kinda read that, and I go why, why, why? And like Job, God doesn’t give me an answer.
A friend of mine, Brennan Manning, said that when he gets home, he believes that perhaps all Christ will look him in the face and say, “Did you believe that I loved you? Did you really believe it?” Because if you believe that, it changes everything.
Yeah, and to the degree that you can believe it, it changes things. I know that more so now at 36 than I did when I was like, 15. At 15, I think I was still trying to win God’s approval. And at 26, I had given up. I had gone, oh, wow, how can he ever like a schmuck like me? And at 36, I realized you know what, it’s not me.
Your friends that have kids and on their refrigerators they have those really horrible scribblings that their kids do. And they’re really proud of them. And you look at them and you go, how can you possibly put that up in front of other people for them to see.
SW: I can tell you don’t have children.
RM: Right, well you can’t! And you can tell that God does. Because I think that a lot of us think that someday we’re going to become the VanGogh of Christianity. That we’re going to paint something truly, truly beautiful, and God is going to be so impressed that he’s going to hold us up and say, Here’s an exemplary Christian. But you know what, I think God just likes people to scribble however awful it comes out. And then he goes, this is my kids’.
I think that we don’t like people to disagree with us, because we’re really afraid that maybe we’re not right. And maybe we’re still hung up about being right and wrong. Which was the original sin. Rather than wanting to know God, God said basically, you can know Me or you can know everything else. And man said, well, we want to know everything else. We want to know right from wrong so we can decide for ourselves.
And I think that people in many ways still come to Christianity and see it as being a moralist religion where we have this little set of rights and wrongs. And if you do all these things, then you’re a Christian. And if you do these things, then you’re a good Christian. And if you do these things, then you’re a great Christian. And if you become a missionary, then you’re a saint.
I think that Christ, when he said, love one another, was basically saying, ‘you know what, you can either concern yourself with the details of what this means or you can center yourself on the intent.’
And I love what Chesterton said, he said, ‘When we bind our hearts, we free our hands.’ And I think that’s very true. That the more we can live in a right relationship with Christ and with God, the less we have to worry about, gee, is this right? Gee, is this wrong?
You hang out with people long enough and you pick up their qualities. And so I think that in Christianity much more than my going through the Bible and saying, now where are all the scriptures that support my position on when the millennium is going to happen.
If I go to the Bible and say what is the heart of this? What is God trying to say to us here? If I believe that this is God’s revelation of himself. And as a Christian I think I have to. Otherwise I have no basis for becoming a Christian. Then what I have to say is what is God like? What from the scriptures can I understand that God is like?
If these are the reliable and authoritative witnesses to the word of God, who is Christ, then when I come to recognize Jesus, what will he look like? And how can I come to look like him?
We live in a very information-oriented kind of society. And we have a very information-oriented way of thinking. Education… when you read in Proverbs, when it talks about wisdom, it’s not talking about someone who is very well educated. Wisdom is a character thing. And being a fool is a character thing. It doesn’t mean that you are uneducated. It doesn’t even mean that you’re stupid. It means that you have weak character. And I think character is more important than having a real rigid, little list of dos and don’ts.
I’m not saying today’s Christian music has no value, I’m just afraid that we miss the real value of it, and use it for something it’s no good at. It’s value lies in its ability to point beyond itself to Christ.
‘If I am going to be resurrected some day and stand before God, and live forever with Him after only 90 years or so here on Earth, then my relationship with God has got to be my top priority.’ That’s when I decided to go to Bible college, and that type of thinking has led me to a lot of decisions since, because nothing else makes sense. I keep looking at people who have chosen other priorities, and maybe their life isn’t necessarily more miserable than mine, but it’s certainly no better. In many ways, I have a far better way of living.
It’s very dangerous to be alone though, and I’m very grateful I don’t have to be anymore, ’cause I was alone when I was in Nashville. I made the mistake of not locking into a church body right away, ’cause I think we are not Christians alone, we are Christians in a body of Christ. I was attending a church, but I had not incorporated myself into a body of believers in such a way as made me accountable.”
I just mean that, well, I think when you look at Genesis, when God created man, that there are some really significant little snips there. And one is that God created man in His own image. And I don’t know what that means exactly, but I’m sure it’s significant – that God breathed the breath of life into him, and he became a living soul, and I think that’s something, that. And that God gave man sexuality, that He created male and female, and that our sexuality is a part of who we are. And that He told man to work. And I think that when we work, we’re doing what we were made to do. And we are actualizing our identity here. Does that sound heavy, or what? (Sandi laughs.) I mean, does it sound like I’ve been reading those self-help books? Which… I don’t read them (Sandi is really laughing here) because I think it’s… I think self-help is the most ridiculous idea ever. So how can you write a book about a stupid idea? (Sandi continues laughing.) It’s kind of foolish.
Most of those get thrown away because they’re no good. But I write a page of journal about every night. And you just write. If you’re a writer, you write. You know, just like if you’re a carpenter, you would drive nails. So, I’m a big believer that… it’s kinda like… there’s an old story about this man who walked into a… there’s a real famous artist, and this guy said, “I need a picture of a rooster.” And so the artist said, “Okay, well, I’ll work on it. Come back in a month.” And he came back in a month, and he wasn’t done. And he said, “Well, I’ll need it in a couple weeks.” So he came back in a couple weeks, and he still wasn’t done. He said, “Well, I’ll come back in three days.” So he came back in three days, and he still wasn’t done. And he said, “Well, man, I’ve gotta have it now!” And so the artist just whipped right away, just whipped up this INCREDIBLE picture of a rooster. And the guy said, “That took you ten minutes to do. Why didn’t you do it before?” And he said, “Well, look over in that trash can. It’s full of roosters.”
“You know I’ve been drawing and drawing and drawing. And this is what you get.” You know? And you just write, and you write, and you write. And some things you write are not gonna be very good. Some things you write are gonna be very good. The ones that, generally, I feel real good about, are songs that do feel a little more inspired than just, you know, “Well it’s time to sit down and write now.”
SW: I was going to ask you about that. How much of what we hear on your albums are really ‘of you’ or really ‘of inspired?’ You know, I was talking to Michael Card yesterday or the day before; and he was saying that he really enjoys sometimes going back and just listening to his music because then he realizes just how much it’s ‘not of him.’ Do you ever come up with that?
RM: I feel like my mine is pretty much ‘of me.’ (Sandi laughs) Um, I…
SW (interrupting): What role, then, does God play in that, though? I mean, obviously, you’re giving Him credit, still?
RM: Right. The same role that He played when He gave carpenters arms. That man, part of our identity is our work. That God created man, which makes man a spiritual being. That God gave man work to do, which makes man a working being, a creative being… and God gave man sexuality. One third of our identity, as we can understand it from the first chapter of Genesis, is that we work. And so, I think God created me with the need to work, He created me with talent to work with. And so I offer the very best that I can come up with, up to God. And I think He gets a big jar out of it. Not ’cause it’s great, but because I’m His kid. And He goes, “Wow, look! He’s working! He’s doing what I created him to do!”
Well, I think that’s the whole… the whole book of Job is about a man who suffered. And I think it’s very interesting that Job endured all that suffering and did not complain – that the only thing that drove Job over the brink was the consolation of his friends.
SW: ‘Friends’, right.
RM: And then he went to God and wanted to know why the righteous suffer. And Beuchner points out, God never gave him an answer. That God merely gave him Himself. And when Job had encountered the Almighty, the questions lost their power over him. And I think that a lot of us are real interested in some easy answers, and some “Wow, if I can, if we can come up with some kind of an easy answer to make life comfortable…” We’re much more interested in answers than we are in the Truth. And the Truth is always going to be a mystery. It will always be a paradox. It will always be a little beyond our grasp. And if we’re uncomfortable with that, that’s okay, because a little bit of discomfort will keep us moving. (humble laugh)
You see, mankind has for thousands of years looked inwardly to find out who he is or where he is or what he’s all about or where he’s going. And he has never been able to find the answer within himself. And the entire Bible is a history of God trying to tell us who we are – trying to tell us who we are in Him and who we are without Him.
Contemporary people, modern people in contemporary society, do not like being told anything by anybody, but I think that it’s time that we began to listen to the voice of God. Because apart from it we have nothing but decadence, we have nothing but decay. And the building, the structures that we have come up with that we hoped would give some sort of shelter to ourselves – they have begun to disappear, they have begun to decay, they are falling apart and the world is left in a lurch.
This is why I’m so glad that we have a Bible. I’m so glad that we have an authoritative answer to our questions. Not because I’m unwilling to search for myself, but there’s a point where searching becomes pretty meaningless if there’s no hope of finding. And I think what the scriptures do is they give us the hope of finding things.
I think the biggest problem is not necessarily the Christian music. The problem is that we in America trust institutions so much that we have all these other organizations doing the work of the church. And because they do this, the local body is robbed of the joy of actually involving themselves personally.
sometimes I find it hard to pray
I think that’s why I wrote so many prayer songs
good taste has everything to do with being cultured and refined
art has everything to do with being human
that’s why I love the bible. the humans in the bible are not very refined
people would always say when I was a kid and say cheer up, God loves you
I would say big deal, God loves everybody
that don’t make me special
that just proves that God ain’t got no taste
and I don’t think he does
God takes the junk of our lives and he makes the greatest art in the world out of it
if God was cultured, if he was as civilized as most Christians wish he was, we would be useless to Christianity
because God is a wild man
and I hope that over the course of your life you encounter him
I’ve given up trying to find answers in the Bible and learning to look in there for the weirdest character of all of them who is God almighty himself. Who is bizarre from our whole point of view that someone can be so totally other and so completely by Himself and yet he could want us badly enough to that he would become like us in order to help us become like him. If you want a religion that makes sense, I suggest something other than Christianity, but if you want a religion that makes life, I think this is the one.