Rich Mullins

by David Wang

Catholic Register April 1997

Rich Mullins is one of the most consistent artists in CCM music today. He released his first album in 1986 and has released an album almost every year since that time. He has twelve Dove Awards (the equivalent of the gospel Grammies) and his song "Awesome God" was voted one of the top 3 most popular CCM songs of the decade. It is one of the top 10 praise and worship songs being used in church services today. He is considered to be one of the most literate and knowledgable artists in the industry. I would suggest any of his albums but my personal favorites are "The World as Best I Remember It, Vol. 1", "A Liturgy, A Legacy And A Ragamuffin Band" and his latest greatest hits package, "Songs".

Rich Mullins can also be very enigmatic. He turned away from the lucrative life of a successful musician and moved to a Navajo Indian Reservation to become a music teacher. Despite being revered among Protestants for his inspiring songs, he talks about Catholic experiences, such as Lent, during his concerts, and is quick to criticize "Bible thumpers". In a recent interview in Syndicate magazine, he defended the Pope and the Catholic church. His most recent album features Catholic imagery on the album cover, prompting many Protestants to speculate that he has undergone a secret conversion to Catholicism. I had an opportunity after a recent concert to ask Rich Mullins about some of these issues.

DW: You have been releasing albums for about 10 years now. How have you changed over the past decade since the start of your career?

RM: Hopefully, you mature a little bit in 10 years time. In some ways, I have made almost a full circle. At first, being very skeptical of the Christian music industry, then getting involved in it, then being angry about it, then being resigned to it, and finally realizing that even Daniel worked in Nebuchadnezzar's court...

DW: Angry about it?

RM: Because there is a lot of phoniness in it and a lot of things which I think are not Christian.

DW: How has the CCM industry changed in the past 10 years?

RM: I don't think it really has changed. I think that the attitude of a lot of Christians has changed towards it. When it started out, it was a lot more evangelistic. It was concerned with how to use contemporary music to speak to a contemporary audience and reach them for Christ. Christian kids, instead of seeing this as an opportunity to take Christ to their friends, saw it as a way to identify with their own generation and their own little subculture, ad still remain Christian. What we are seeing now is people being more concerned about being contemporary and not concerned enough about being Christian.

DW: Some of your songs (Awesome God, Step by Step) are played worldwide in church services everywhere. How does it feel as a Christian musician to have your art translated into something bigger than merely art?

RM: It's a little overwhelming. First, I feel that I am very fortunate to be able to make a living doing what I love doing. I don't think a lot of people can do that. That by itself is a blessing, but to have your songs sung in churches is a huge honor.

DW: There is a lot of intriguing things about your music, especially coming from a Protestant. For example, your song "Screen Door" talks about faith requiring works, which must raise some Protestant eyebrows.

RM: Especially for Lutherans since it quotes from the Book of James, which Luther wanted to kick out of the canon.

DW: Your latest album "Songs" are full of pictures with Catholic themes, such as the Our Lady of Lourdes. Has there been a negative reaction to this?

RM: I don't think so. I really don't know. I did get a letter from one guy who asked me why I have a picture of Mary and whether I think Mary should be prayed to. I am going to write back and say my other albums have pictures of me and I don't think I should be prayed to.

DW: Why the Catholic themes?

RM: I just kept finding that a lot of the authors that I liked happened to be Roman Catholics. That was kind of intriguing. You know how, when you grow up in one tradition, every other tradition looks so romantic and exciting to you. I remember that, as a kid, I'd walk to my piano lesson and I would stop at St. Andrews and would be overwhelmed by how beautiful all that stuff was. I think, from early on, I have been interested in Catholicism because there are things about it that are unanswerable. As well, because of my involvement in the Pro-Life movement, I began to meet more and more Catholics and became friends with a priest in Wichita who was very unapologetic in his answers to my questions. A lot of the stuff which I thought was so different between Protestants and Catholics were not, but at the end of going through an RCIA course, I also realized that there are some real and significant differences. I'm not sure which side of the issues I come down on. My openness to Catholicism was very scary to me because, when you grow up in a Church where they don't even put up a cross, many things were foreign to me. I went to an older Protestant gentleman that I've respected for years and years, and I asked him when does faithfulness to Jesus call us to lay aside our biases and when does it call us to stand beside them. His answer to me was that it is not about being Catholic or Protestant. It is about being faithful to Jesus. The issue is not about which church you go to, it is about following Jesus where He leads you. If God leads you to the Catholic church, then you follow Him. So, the last couple of years now, I have been in Limbo about the whole thing. For me, it all comes down to the Eucharist. Is it really Jesus and is He present there? I think, after some pretty honest searching, I've come to a few dead ends that I am not going to be able to bridge by getting more information. It will just require a little more faith on my part, and it is not there yet.

DW: Regardless of where your path is leading you, your music has become a bridge for ecumenical discussion. Have you had any thoughts about furthering your role in some of this ecumenical discussion?

RM: I just co-wrote a musical based on the life of Francis of Assisi except now he is a 19th century cowboy instead of a 12 century saint. We went to St. Timothy's congregation in Phoenix and played it there. About half the cast was Protestant and half the cast was Catholic. We found that, after a few nights of rehearsal, people began to ask each other about their beliefs. It really opened up a lot of great discussion. I think that a lot of Protestants think that Pentecost happened and then the church disappeared until the Reformation. So there is this long span of time when there was no church. That can't be if Jesus was telling the truth.

*Note: The interview is sometimes mistakenly credited to Artie Terry, but was conducted by David Wang in Toronto, Canada on March 22, 1997.

Copyright 1996-2015. Eric Townsend All Rights Reserved. Do not reproduce or publish without permission.