Interview April 1997
with Dick Staub
Our next guest has written and performed some of the most popular lyrics and music in contemporary Christian music today. He's always been one to, uh, march to the beat of a different drummer, which is one of the reasons that I-I like him already. Uh, and after finishing a B.A. in music education, he headed off to teach on a Navajo Indian reservation, which is kind of a non-traditional path. Reunion has just released a Rich Mullins collection, Songs, and prior to that, Brother's Keeper, contains some of his most original and fresh material yet.
Q. Welcome, Rich Mullins. It's nice to have you.
A. Thanks. It's great to be here.
Q. Wasn't that a huge introduction? For just a mere mortal?
A. I'm impressed.
Q. Yeah. I know. I stumbled over it anyway. But I did, you know, work it out very carefully. Let's start with the most recent news first. What is Canticle of the Plains?
A. Well, let's see. It's kind of a long story. Are you ready?
Q. We're ready.
A. Okay. It started out when I was a senior in high school in 1974 and I saw a movie by Franco Zeffirelli called Brother Sun, Sister Moon—
A. ...and, it was interesting because the next summer I was camping out in the Ozarks and I was hanging out with a bunch of people I'd met. And there was this guy, and we started talking about movies and I said, you know, that I had seen Brother Sun, Sister Moon three times and he said, don't go back and see it again. I had a friend who was a banker and he saw it four times, disappeared, and, the guy had gotten a letter from him about you know, a couple months later, and he was living in a Franciscan mission somewhere over in Europe. And, so, uh, you know, I never did that. So, but, I became really interested in Francis of Assisi and then, you know, just trying to see what Christianity looks like not from my real narrow experience, my own narrow view of it, um. I've become really interested in the whole, monastic sort of experience and all that. And Beaker, a guy who I've co-written with for-for about ten years, and I, we were reading about that and kind of going, man, that sounds like it'd be a great time. So, the problem was, you know, we don't even have the guts to be Catholic let alone be, you know, involved in a religious order. So, we sort of started a mock order. It was a little bit of a joke. But the idea was to try to-to-to follow that kind of thinking, to, uh-- The three traditional monastic vows are the vow of poverty, chastity and obedience.
A. And we're kind of going, man, one of the problems we have is, we're sort of out here just making Christianity up as we go along. We don't have any kind of orthodox. We don't have anything that, you know-- we take the Bible verses that we especially like, and we enjoy them. And the Bible verses that we don't like we say that it was just, you know, Paul was hung up about this or culturally context or --right. And so we decided to take church membership more seriously and-and try to think of ways to be integrated more into the body of Christ. And then we decided, we had neither one of us had a date for several years at the time, so we decided, if we're going to be celibate we may as well make a religious big deal out of it. And poverty has always been uneasy, not for me, it's hard because I have trouble holding onto money. So, we decided, one of the great things, you know, it's always bugged me all this stuff about tithing, you know, because I kind of go, man, there's not a mention of it in the New Testament except in somewhat negative terms. And why is it, if money is the root of all evil, why do we think that we're doing God a favor by giving him 10 percent of it. Wouldn't we do ourselves more of a favor if we gave him 90 percent and only kept 10 percent of this evil root. And, so we tried to figure out, what do most people live on in the United States? And let's live there or under. And then the rest of the money would go to projects that we're interested in or, you know, organizations, that kind of thing.
A. So, it's been challenging.
Q. Now, how did this work itself into Canticle of the Plains?
A. Oh, that's right. Well—
Q. And what is the Canticle of the Plains?
A. That's right. That's right. That's all, background material. Well, since we weren't going to be Franciscans, but we really liked St. Francis of Assisi, we decided to reinvent him as St. Frank of Wichita.
A. And, so we invented this whole character and we were kind of going, let's just make up a guy. I mean, if you took those elements of Francis' life that made him a real, big --that made him the sort of character who probably single-handedly caused the Renaissance—
A. What would he look like if he had lived in nineteenth-century America?
Q. Nineteenth or twentieth century?
A. Nineteenth. In the 1800s.
Q. Okay. Okay.
A. I have a real-a real problem with that, too.
Q. Yeah, well that's the numbers thing. The money thing is numbers, too.
A. Yeah, so, you know we figured he'd live on the frontier. He'd live on the edge.
A. ...Probably be more interested in a just dealing with Native Americans, than like say the government.
A. Of course, who wouldn't be? Etc., etc., etc. Only we had a real problem figuring out what's he like? Like what does he look like? What does he sound like? How does he move? Then I went back to Friends University to-to finish up my music ed. degree, and I met Mitch McVicker—
A. And I went back and I said, "Man, I just met Frank."
A. So, Mitch has joined us now. But at the time I didn't even know he was a musician. I just knew that he had a quality about him that seemed very much like what Frank would be like. And, we studied him. And, we built, the character, you know, of Frank of Wichita on--
Q. On Mitch.
A. On Mitch.
Q. This guy sitting right over here.
A. Yeah. Yeah. Doesn't he look saintly?
Q. So this is a--Tell me about the production?
A. We wrote ten feature songs--
A. --just because we're pop Christian artists and you always put ten songs on an album.
Q. (Laughter) A formula.
A. Yeah. Formulas are nice, though.
Q. Yeah. Well they give some bookends, some definition.
A. Right. And you get a formula down and then you can fill in the blanks... And it starts with his conversion which happens at the end of the Civil War.
A. ...and, then we've put a whole lot of metaphorical stuff in it. He-he takes off on a journey to Deneh Bekeyah, which is where the Navajos are from.
A. And, they're searching for this place that they think is imaginary. And then, in the end, they don't even get there. But they realize they've been there all along. So it's very--
Q. A little Pilgrim's Progress kind of thing in there.
A. Yeah, it's kind of "foofy" I guess. I don't know.
Q. No. No. No. It's--
A. I have no idea.
Q. Now you've already talked a bit about what it says about your own spiritual sojourn.
Q. You're trying to get to some first things, some basic things, some important things.
Q. Where did the thing about the Navajos come from in your life?
A. Uh, because I live with them.
Q. But I mean how did you--where did that come from in the first place? Why did you decide to do that?
A. Well, because I wanted to go to Asia, but it was so far away. And I spent a summer there. And the thing I enjoyed about being in Asia was that I noticed--and this is of course a real oversimplification of what really happened. Sorry. I talk with my hands. But what I basically noticed was that the Asian Christians had underlined all the wrong parts of the Bible. You know, like persecution and that stuff. Well like instead of underlining the part of you must be born again, which Jesus said one time to one guy who was--
A. --specifically hung up on being a Pharisee--
A. ... they underlined the part that said sell what you have and follow me. And I was going yeah, and then all the good Christian-American people were trying to straighten them out and say, -no-no you're supposed to have some kind of ecstatic experience and build your faith on that experience. And they were saying no, it's not about experience, it's about obedience. And there's this thing going on and I started going, I don't know which side is right, or if either side is right, or if the truth is actually somewhere beyond all that. But, the thing that happened for me was.. being there.. Like one of the things I noticed in Asia was that in Thailand brides wore red.
A. And I understand they do in China, too.
A. And, of course, red to us seems like... the color of adultery. But to them, it's the color of fertility. Well, it's interesting to me that in China families are only allowed to have one child now I understand.
A. But they still wear red at their weddings. Which is very similar to in America, how brides still wear white here although, you know, a significant number of them aren't necessarily pure.
Q. I think you're on a really exciting --and most people would agree, alternative, for our culture-- spiritual journey.
A. One of the places where I feel really called right now is... because I've been, talking a lot with Brennan Manning, who's a huge hero of mine--
Q. Oh, great-great guy.
A. And it's amazing to get to actually meet a hero.
A. But he's like hammering me saying, "Your identity has become from your understanding that you are beloved by God. And if your self-concept is based on what other people think of you or what other people think of your work, or what you think of your work, or the fact that you may see yourself as being intelligent or talented or whatever, or you may see yourself as being addicted and unfaithful. If your identity is locked into your plusses and minuses as opposed to locked into the reality of the love of God, you're going to have trouble all your life." Of course, I think you have trouble all your life anyway.
Q. You got to think, you might as well get it right.
A. Yeah. It's like--
Q. If you're going to go through it.
A. Yeah. I guess I -- you know me and Beaker were talking about this one time. Because we've been best friends now for about ten years and I think I'm closer to him than--If we were any closer, you know, people would be suggesting therapy but we were talking about - why is it that we can be this good of friends and we're still both lonely? And what we've realized, from talking to all my married friends, what you begin to realize is companionship isn't a cure for loneliness. The loneliness is just part of being human and companionship is merely its own reward. It's just what it is. You have a friend. It doesn't mean that.... they don't make you more physically fit, they don't make you richer.
Q. What are you seeing in-in Christian culture today, in the sub-culture that concerns you, that makes you step back and say ... this doesn't seem right.
A. I think my biggest concern is that we have, more faith in our understanding of Jesus than we do in Jesus. Does that make sense?
Q. Talk about it.
A. I think that the reason why God said first, "Don't have any other gods before me," and then He said, "Don't make graven images," is because as humans we always have a tendency because we're flesh and blood, and, part of us, I mean, what we see is what we take into us. Does that make sense?
A. And, so when we, I think we all have that tendency to create an image of God, a lot of times our image of God is a projection of ourselves.
A. I think the reason why a lot of us see God as being judging and keeping score and that sort of thing is because that's what we do. And so, the God that we worship is not the God who is the word, who reveals himself in the Person of Jesus. But the God that... we put this face of the Breck lady Jesus that we see in church all the time. We put that face on our character and we worship it. And we wind up in trouble. I think, G. K. Chesterton says that I love, he was talking about, how people think that, that logic will keep us sane.
A. And he said, you know, he says actually that the opposite is true. Logic drives us crazy. And then he said this thing that I love. He said, "A poet is happy to get his head into the heavens. A mathematician wants to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits." And I, you know, Mitch and I were just talking on the way up, if you think you've got it, if you-if you think you get it, you haven't got it.
A. That God is always going to be bigger than what we imagine Him to be. God is always going to be bigger than what we understand Him to be. And a difficulty I have with my own faith and the faith of a lot people around me is that, if you're a Calvinist, then you assume Calvinism is right. And I kind of go, Calvinism has good points and has, you know--
Q. Five of them.
A. At least. But it's not the whole truth.
A. And uh, you know, Armenianism the same way.
Q. But, you know, part of that is that American Christians are really uncomfortable with ambiguity. We want to have everything in a formula, in three steps, five. You know, we want a formula, and if God is really infinite-
Q. --and immeasurable, then you can't do that with God. And the minute you start doing that with God, you've left something out. So when we come up with these kind of air tight--This is one of the things that I love. When I went to seminary I discovered that I could never be a systematic theologian because systematic theologians want to take everything and make it fit.
Q. And then I started seeing that somebody that wanted to study this chapter and this chapter and this chapter, and see the points, where they fit, and then these parts left over say, well that's from God, too. I don't know what to do with it, but that is from God, too. I started realizing that it doesn't all fit, because God won't fit in the Word. What we have in the Bible is a revelation of God, but it's not all of God. And--
A. It's as much of God as he wanted us to know.
A. And I kind of go, you know, this is exactly like my Dad. There were things about my Dad I didn't know when I was five. I knew that he would provide for me.
A. I knew that as long as I lived in his house I had to go by his rules. I mean, there were things that he let me know. But I didn't know that my Dad had done this when he was a kid, or done that when he was a kid. I didn't know that there were-there were dreams that he didn't tell me about because as a five-year-old I couldn't have understood them. I couldn't have appreciated them.
Q. Now you were raised in a Christian home?
Q. And in a church environment. But you're a very independent thinker. How did that happen?
A. I think the church really nurtured independence, I mean, independent thinking. I think, my Mom was Quaker, and my Dad couldn't stand Quakers because he just doesn't get along with pacifists. And um--
Q. A pacifist and a war maker. What a great combination.
A. Yeah, which explains why I'm schizophrenic, but, um--
Q. A peaceful warrior.
A. My Dad, when-when he became a Christian we started going to the Christian church because the handy thing about being Quaker is you can go anywhere you want. I mean it's more of a discipline than a set of--
A. --of doctrines. But in all of them we were always encouraged and, you know, this is where I don't understand why people are in favor of multi-culturalism and independent thinking-- those kinds of things-- always want to attack the church. Because I kind of go, man, when I was a kid, we were always encouraged to express our faith and to find ways to express it, and we were never stifled in that.
Q. I don't know if you've ever heard this before. (Laughter) This is called "How To Grow Up Big and Strong."
A. Yeah. You know, Mark Heard wrote this song.
Q. Is that right?
A. And I loved it so much I-I've always wanted to record it. I'm not sure I did a good job but--
Q. No, it's great. It is great. Rich Mullins is with us. We were just talking about kind of observing what's happening in Christian culture, and let's look at broader culture. There's a guy named E. R. Dodge that wrote a book uh, that was titled, Pagan and Christians in an Age of Anxiety. And he was talking about the first century as an age of anxiety. And I love that title because I think it fits today, too. People are anxious today. But when you look at culture today, broader culture, not the Christian subculture, but at the broader culture, and-and let's focus it on American culture. What are some of the things that you see in American culture today that-that concern you and particularly any that you feel the gospel really does address? So there's this disconnect between who we are and what we're trying to say to this culture and where this culture is and what they need.
A. Well I, you know... the big word for me is cynicism. It just seems like people have despaired of a lot. And there-there are two reactions to that. One is to, you know... like I basically feel like the enlightenment has played itself out. And it's done all the damage it can possibly do. I mean, I don't know how much more damage the idea of that logic is kind of supreme is going to do, but I think we got to the bottom of logic, and-and it doesn't really cover the material. And so people have either escape it by becoming increasingly sensual so they're more, you know--in the church which is what I'm more familiar with. I mean, you know -you look at all these movements where there's a lot of emotional ecstatism and you look at the-the-the pro-life movement and you kind of go, man, this is all about creating a safe little environment for you and your wife and your gloriously perfect children. There's a large return of people to a more liturgical -- going back to liturgical stuff. And when I talk to a lot of people who are involved in that, it's purely the sensual drive. It has everything in the world to do with the good feeling they get when they sit through a good liturgy. And you kind of go man, there's great things about a good liturgy. There's great things about a solid family. There's great things about having an emotional, experiencing your faith emotionally, and all that. But all these things are kind of a way of saying it doesn't really make sense so how can I feel it?
A. And then you see the rise of cults and you kind of go, I think people are just kind of --we've become so doubtful that we're kind of going, man, how do we --life is full of uncertainty, which it is. Um, how do we get around that?
Q. Uh-huh. That is a great point. Do you think the Christian faith is rational?
A. Well, I--
Q: I mean, what place does reason play in a Christian's life, in a kind of a post-modernist or --As you say, the enlightenment has kind of burned itself out. It really is that God can't be experienced either just through your mind or through your heart, isn't it?
Q. I mean it's that God really wants all of us, body, mind, and spirit. So there is a place for reason, but it adds limitations.
A. Yeah. It's like, you know, it's like having thumbs. It's nice to have an opposable thumb, but that doesn't really help you if you're trying to ride a bicycle.
Q. Whenever I--when you think about your own gift and calling as a musician, I like to ask musicians this, and I asked Toby McCann this from DC Talk, and he says, "Well, I'm a musical missionary." And Michael Card said, "I'm a teacher and exhorter." And just last week I asked Steve Green and he just blurts out "I'm a revivalist." (Laughter) And I said, you know, "Where did you come up with that?" And he said, "I don't know. I've never thought of it before. That's just the first word that came to my head." When you think about what your kind of spiritual calling is as an artist, does it define itself in some word that-that-that would fit, you know, exhorter, teacher--
Q. Clown? (Laughter) Court jester. It's a new spiritual gift. Well Keith Green used to say he was the elbow in the body of Christ--
Q. --because he always liked to be going like that to people.
Q. I mean, when you are, as an artist, thinking of yourself also in terms of having some sort of impact on people, who is it that you primarily want to speak to?
A. Yeah. I've never written a song for anybody else or anything, except a couple times when I thought I was in love.
Q. And then you could write about other -- So your songs are basically things that you're writing about yourself and what you're learning yourself. And this is back to what Brennan Manning said, "If nobody else likes it, that's okay."
A. Yeah. Yeah. Because, you know, that's the great gift that I think my folks gave me was my Dad was, while he was an elder in the church he was also a very human man.
A. And his thing was you may not like me, but this is who I am. And you can take it or leave it. If you don't like it, you know, you can go live with your Uncle Dick or something. But the thing I-I most respected about my Dad was that he was an excruciatingly honest person. And what I found when he finally died um, boy everybody felt the same way about him. I mean it was a very cool thing. There was a friend of mine, or not a whole lot of a friend actually, he kind of came on the scene after I had left home. But he was was youth pastoring a church and he was a homosexual. And he finally really came to a crisis about this. He was going, "Gosh I feel like I'm a phony because I, you know, I go to church and I tell kids all this stuff." And then he had, you know, at the time was seriously considering striking up a monogamous sort of relationship. I'm not sure if you can call that a marriage or if you shouldn't call it -- I don't know what to call it. But anyway he -- of all the people in the world, he went to my Dad, who was -- My Dad was this hillbilly kind of redneck guy, and he said, "You know, what should I do?" And my Dad said, "You need to decide what's most important to you and do it. You can't do everything. And you know what the Bible teaches and decide if you can live with the Bible or if you can live without it." And uh, I thought that was kind of I -- first of all, I didn't find out about that until my Dad's funeral. And I was--
Q. You're kidding. You never heard that story?
A. No. I was in total shock when he told me that because I always just thought my Dad was a you know this such - this macho, redneck kind of American wholesome kind of guy. I thought man, you know, I had friends that were homosexuals. I would never tell my Dad you know, because I thought he'd you know, freak out. And that was the kind of person he was. And I think that the wonderful thing about my Dad was the last --he had a-he got carbon-- My Dad was, like I said, very kind of a hard man, kind of spoke his mind, that kind of thing, and he got carbon monoxide poisoning at his work and almost died. And came back from that experience and realized that there was some real reconciliation needed between him and some of his children. And he went to one of my sisters, who was especially somewhat estranged, and really began to work on that relationship. And it was really amazing to see my Dad do. A year later, he had a stroke. He recuperated from the stroke and went back and began to work on some other relationships where there had been problems. A year later he was stung by a bee and had an allergic reaction. Ended up in the hospital. Came out of that. In the course of those three years, I watched God take a guy who had been a faithful Christian, but a very hard, crusty kind of Christian, and I watched God systematically take him apart. And the wonderful thing was my Dad was no less himself, but he was more himself because of what God did. And it deeply, deeply uh, affected me because what I began to realize is, you know, God doesn't give up on us does he? That He will go to any extremes to help us become the person that He created us to be.
Q. When you look back over all of your work, and you say that your songs are written to yourself, which of your songs still speak? Or do you ever go back?
A. Ooh, that would be a hard one because that's um, uh--
Q. Kind of a case-by-case, day-by-day--
A. Kind of a case-by-case, day-by-day kind of thing.
Q. I'll tell you why I asked the question. I'm probably not a typical talk show host because I basically kind of have a rule that I'm not going to talk about something I don't want to talk about.
Q. So if I was you, if I didn't feel like singing "Awesome God" for the three billionth time, I probably wouldn't want to do it. But the audience wants that.
Q. And-and so you're stuck in that thing as a talk show host. Everybody else wants to talk about this. But that's not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about this. Do you know what I mean?
A. That's why I'm careful about writing songs because I'm going to be performing this for several years, I better like it. Which is why I don't understand why you know, people will-will pretend to be humble about their work. They'll say, "Oh, it's not really a very good song." And my question is to them, why did you bother to write it? Writing is a lot of work.
A. I mean, I'm just not going to do something that I don't think is good.
A. And I happen to like my songs.
Q. Yeah. I like your songs, too.
A. And I don't think that's conceited, I just think it's honest. I mean, it-it is too much trouble if you don't like it.
© Dick Staub, CRS Communications.