Lighthouse Interview 1996
by Brent Waters
Lighthouse Electronic Magazine April 1996
I first discovered Rich Mullins about ten years ago, and he rattled my cage. It kind of ticked me off at first - I mean, the guy made me think, for goodness sake! Who did he think he was?! His music conveyed the truth in such a way that I could no longer take it for granted. His lyrics often stood in direct opposition to my comfortable Christian clichés, and upon close examination, I saw that the clichés were wrong.
Little changed in ten years. Through albums, concerts, and conversations, Mullins continued to encourage believers to move beyond the bounds of their familiar, traditional thinking, to open themselves up to see God in a whole new light, to find Him in places they'd never expect. He extended this challenge to himself as well. In the fall of 1996, he began looking for God on a Navajo reservation, teaching music to Native American children.
Sadly, for those who loved Mullins and his music (but happily, for Rich), the God whom he sought took him home to be with Him a year later. During that last year, he continued to record and tour as time permitted, in order to support himself in his work on the reservation. In a small group discussion in Atlanta during the Brother's Keeper Tour, he commented, "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."
During that discussion, he spoke of the time that he had already spent on the reservation in preparation for his teaching. He confessed that he had a lot to learn, both culturally and spiritually, as God began to make him think. For instance, the Navajo people prize silence, so Mullins had been trying to learn that discipline. He said that he had discovered that it's very easy to just "tune out" and not listen for God's voice when we surround ourselves with music or other sounds. But with nothing to distract you, it gets hard to drown out even a still, small voice.
When I spoke with Mullins at GMA Week '96 in Nashville, I started by asking him about the time that he had spent on the reservation since the Brother's Keeper Tour.
Brent Waters: How has the acclimation process gone lately?
Rich Mullins: The more I try to acclimate, the more I find out I've got a lot of acclimatin' to do. But there are a number of really good things. One is [that] they have a whole different concept of time on the reservation than we do. Like, eight o'clock means whenever we get the sheep put up. Saying "I'll meet you at 8 in the morning," means, "I'll meet you sometime early in the morning," and "early in the morning" all depends on what time I got up. It's called time-appropriateness. Most of us Anglos go by the clock. Out there, it's much more a matter of "now is the time to do this because it's appropriate. Now it's time to put the sheep up." So, that's real different.
Another thing that I'm learning is that a lot of times when you go to the reservation, you think, "Man, this is really trashy looking." Our Anglo aesthetics all have to do with our ability to manipulate our environment. On the reservation, the aesthetic has a lot more to do with, "How can I adjust myself to this environment? How do I place myself in the least disruptive way?" It's really cool, especially since I live in a trailer, which is really different for me. It's not that I grew up rich or anything; it's just that I never thought of a trailer as a pleasant-looking place. I'm a good Midwesterner - I want a good foundation, I want a basement, the whole bit. So now, I'm going, "How can I make this a cooler place?" By being there, my thinking has changed a little to, "How can I learn to live in the space I've been given without tearing everything up? How do I learn to love sand blowing around instead of having grass?" That's part of the fun part of acclimating. So, that's a couple of the things I've been learning that I think have been really good for me spiritually.
BW: I can imagine that the lessons sometimes just leap out at you, with the contrast there from what we're used to.
RM: Yeah. That's the fun thing of putting yourself in the midst of another culture. All the things you take for granted, all of a sudden you realize, "Well, maybe not everybody in the world thinks the same way as I do." And then you also realize, "Maybe I'm not right about everything," and then you also begin to realize how unique and how wonderful our own set of hang-ups are.
It was never interesting to me that brides wore white until I went to Asia where they wear red. And then all of a sudden, I went, "Wow, what is this?" And then, talking to the people, you find out the reason they wear red is because it has to do with fertility. That's a very high value, or at least it used to be, in Asian culture. Just the same as white has to do with purity, which at one time was a value in Western culture. So, even though we don't have the same values we used to have, we still have the same colors we use at weddings. So, I think that's really interesting. Then you go to a wedding and you think, "Man, what an exotic thing that they dress their brides in white."
[Or in another situation, you think,] "What an exotic thing to have a bed, because most people in the world don't. And, when you live in a culture where everybody sleeps on a bed, you take it for granted - this is so normal and so hum-drum. Then you go somewhere, and you begin to realize that only a very small percentage of people in the world sleep on beds. You think, "Why do we have whole rooms devoted to sleeping in our homes, when for most people, sleeping is sort of an incidental thing?"
BW: Wow. After that, talking about a new album just kind of pales in comparison.
RM: [In mock haughtiness] Not my new album, man. My new album is very exciting.
BW: You have a "best of" in the works?
BW: I heard there was consideration given to going with two volumes.
RM: There was, but we decided not to, because we just did that two-volume thing a while ago, and it's just so huffy. At some point, you kind of go, "That's a little pompous." I think it's embarrassing. Plus, I'm not really sure I have two albums worth of songs that merit being called the best. [Laughter]
I think the "best of" idea is really silly, because I've never put a song on an album that I didn't think was my best one. Everyone asks, "Do you have a favorite [song]?" Well, whatever song I'm working on at the moment is my favorite.
But, the criteria we decided to go with for selecting songs for the album was just what songs have done really well on the radio, because that's some indication of how people have responded to a song; but that's certainly not the only indication. If I was going to do an album of my own favorites, there would probably only be a few songs off of this album that would make it. "Awesome God" would not be on that particular.... No, I think maybe "Awesome God" would be. [Laughter] You know, the thing I like about "Awesome God" is that it's one of the worst-written songs that I ever wrote; it's just poorly crafted.
But the thing is that some times, I think, that when you become too conscientious about being a songwriter, the message becomes a vehicle for the medium. This is a temptation that I think all songwriters have. I think a great songwriter is someone who is able to take a very meaningful piece of wisdom - or of folly or whatever - and say it in a way that is most likely to make people respond. But, what you want them to respond to is not how cleverly you did that; what you want them to respond to is your message. Boy Like Me, Man Like You is an example of a song where we were talking about the incarnation, and Jesus Himself - what a hard thing. Even having grown up in the church - in spite of periods of rebellion (which have been interspersed throughout life, not only in adolescence) - that's something I still am bamboozled by. How is Jesus fully human and fully divine - fully, fully two things? It was the idea of how do we communicate something that is important, but something that we don't even grasp? That's how "Boy Like Me, Man Like You" was written.
You don't normally sit down when you write a song and say, "I think I'm going to write a song on the end times. "Generally, your main job as a writer is to remain open to the moment. So, if you want to be a writer, you necessarily have to be an existentialist. A lot of people think you can't be a Christian and an existentialist. I don't think you can be a Christian any other way. But, that's why a lot of people think I'm a liberal. Well, they'll have to get over it.
BW: Can you think of a song that you'd pick that won't be on [the "best-of" album]?
RM: I love the song "Bound To Come Some Trouble." A lot of people even freak out that I would say that. They would go, "You are way conceited." But, it's a lot of work to write a song. Why would I go to all that bother to write something I didn't like? Any writer that tells you, "Oh, I don't like that song," is lying through their teeth. Of course they like it; otherwise, if you don't like a song, you don't finish it. Or you finish it and you go, "I don't like it, but this is a good line," so, you steal it and use it in a different song. So, false humility is one of the ugliest things in the world, I think.
BW: I read that you're also going to do "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" the way you intended it.
RM: Yeah. Well, I always make a joke. But I have to say - you know, I'm not a fan of a lot of people, but I really like Amy Grant - and I love that she did that song, and I even like the way she did it. The way she did it is really enthusiastic. That's another example of a song that is not well-written. If someone sent me a demo tape and that was on there, I would go, "Wow, this is a really young person." But, that's another reason I wanted to record it myself. At one time I was so much younger and I wasn't so interested in being a good writer. One day I was working on a Bach fugue, and I just didn't want it to end - "Sing Your Praise" came out of all that. That's why, in its original version [laughter], it was about seven minutes long, because I just kept going. I was just hoping if maybe I resurrected that song, I'd resurrect something of myself I've lost in the course of these ten years, or however long I've been at this. I don't even know how long I've been at this.
BW: The question several years ago was, "Who is this 'Beaker' guy?" I think the question soon will be, "Who is this 'Mitch' guy?"
RM: Mitch and I met at Friends University. We were in one of James Smith's classes together, and we were in a discussion group. It's not like I was looking for someone to work with. But, there were a lot of qualities in him that I thought were very complementary for me. I tend to be very chattery (as you've noticed), kind of uptight, kind of nervous. I wouldn't say I'm high-strung, because people generally say, "Man, you look like you're in a coma." But, it's just because there's all this internal junk going on. I mean, I'm in the midst of a hurricane here, so I can't be real attentive to what's "outside."
Mitch was just this basketball player who happened to be in this religion class I was in. I thought he was very cool, but I had no idea he had any musical ability at all. One day, I was in this [other] guy's room; there were a bunch of us sitting around. Mitch came in and someone said, "Hey, play a song," and I was blown away that this guy played guitar. And, not only did he play guitar, but he has a great voice - which I don't have, so I could use a good voice on my show. He's a really young writer, but he's a good writer. He has some very good thoughts. So, when we graduated, we decided that it was time to take our first novitiate into our order. So, that's Mitch. I think he needs to wear a T-shirt that says, "I Am Not Beaker," because everybody goes, "Oh, you must be Beaker."
BW: That order [to which you referred] is "The Kid Brothers of Saint Frank"?
RM: Yeah. The most non-evangelizing order in the world. [Laughter] We don't want new members. It's really just sort of a joke. But, every now and again it strikes us as something very amazing that we're only toying with.
Beaker and I both first got really interested in religious orders. I had read a book called Exploring Spiritual Direction by Alan Jones. 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. Even Jim Jones could prove his points from the Bible. But, somehow that speaks to me in a - once again - existential way. Ihate 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."
In Exploring Spiritual Direction, Alan Jones talked about the idea of spiritual direction which is from the Catholic tradition. In that, your spiritual director basically helps you sort through our own idea of who we are, to get past that and to come to experience ourselves as God created us, and as God thinks we are, which would be the equivalent of holiness. To be who we are created to be would be to be holy. In this book, he talked about the three traditional monastic vows - poverty, chastity, and obedience. This was mind-blowing to me. Because growing up Protestant, I always thought of a monastery as a place where cowards went, people who can't deal with the world. When you really begin to research some of this stuff, you find out that these are some of the bravest people. Anyone who decides to face themselves head on is a very brave person. That's where some of the roots of our interest in monasticism came. Also in the movie - and granted, it's a Hollywood thing - Brother Son, Sister Moon. "When I saw that thing, man, I wanted to be Francis of Assisi.
Did that answer your question? Did you even ask a question?[Laughter] It's dangerous to interview me! I never know where I'm going.
BW: [Fortunately, Mullins had answered several of my questions. It just took me awhile to figure out which ones, and to cross them off my list. Our conversation wandered a bit before returning to the topic of St. Francis.]
RM: 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.
The cool thing is one big Franciscan value is the idea of community. That's why it's a blast to have [Mitch and Beaker working with me], because it feels like a community if there are more than two people involved. When it's just two people involved, it's just like a good friendship. But with three people, it begins to take on the shape of a community.
BW: [Our conversation wandered again, and we came upon the fact that, like Mullins, my wife was to begin teaching in the fall. Unlike Mullins, she teaches high school math. Or maybe not so unlike Mullins....]
RM: Well, 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. Which is another hang-up I have with Protestantism, and even more specifically with Evangelicalism. It's more like Manicheism than anything else. This dualistic system that says that everything physical is evil, and the only good things are spiritual things. And I go, "Wow! John wrote a good bit of what he wrote to counter that kind of thinking." And yet, all these Bible-believing, Bible-thumping born-again-ers are going around professing the very thing that John tried to put out.
BW: [Our conversation wandered once more - big surprise - and then turned to the subject of authors.]I know you really dig G. K. Chesterton. You turned Carolyn [Arends] and me onto him. We were discussing Orthodoxy earlier today. Other than Chesterton and Jones (who you mentioned earlier), are there any other authors you've come upon recently that you really like?
RM: Well, I'm still a big Brennan [Manning] fan. In fact, I'm so excited because he came to visit me today. So, when we're done, I'm going to take off with him and go get a great big sloppy dessert.
You know, I haven't run into any new authors lately. There are so many good writers, it's just amazing. I did read Joan Of Arc by Mark Twain. This is what I love about reading: I read Joan Of Arc, and I didn't have any idea who the Palladins were, and so they're talking about the Palladins and then this friend of mine said, "You need to read the Iliad and the Odyssey. "Man, I tried to read that at one point and it was so dry, I thought I was going to puke. So he said, "You just need to read an epic poem; you just need to do that if you want to go to Heaven." So, I decided I'd read Song Of Roland, because I knew that was a piece of writing that Lewis loved. So, I read the Song Of Roland, and I found out who the Palladins were! Here's this connection. Here we are in the Dark Ages, and Christendom is trying to get on its feet, and then I read this book called How The Irish Saved Civilization, which is a little known fact. The Irish had a major contribution between the time Rome fell and the time Europe was on its feet. So, all that was really interesting. It was really fun to read some of European history, because you know, being out in "Navajo-land," it's not something that comes up real prevalent in conversation. It was fun to look at that again. And, it just makes you want to read, "how did we go from there to here," which is the fun thing about reading.
In terms of new authors I'm really big on, I just can't think of any. I am meeting more people who will admit that they don't like Doestoyevsky, so I feel so good about that. [Laughter] Man, I have tried. I would like to be in with the literati, but if I have to read that to be there, I'll just stay out. I don't get it. There are moments that are brilliant, but then the rest of it... I know that I'm just too dumb to get it because all the writers that I like love Doestoyevsky. Someone said, "Well, you need to read it in Russian." Right. Maybe in another life.
BW: I think that's it. Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?
RM: [Laughing] Nope. I have no interest in divulging any more information than I already have. If you can't hang me with what I already gave you, there just ain't enough rope in the world.