Stepping Out in Faith

Rich Mullins - Stepping Out in Faith

by Paul Denison

Eugene Register-Guard September 29, 1995

Whether it's working with Navajos or writing troubling songs, Rich Mullins goes his own way as a Christian singer and songwriter.

He considers himself a born dissenter and a natural cynic. He'll laughingly tell you that he finds the Old Testament better reading than the New because it has more violence and sex. He's not too keen on dogma or fire and brimstone.

But, he's one heck of a Contemporary Christian singer and songwriter.

"He isn't just some guitar-strummin', piano bangin' praise and prayer singer," says one of Rich Mullins' Eugene fans. "He puts a very odd twist on many of his songs, and isn't afraid to wander into some hard-edged topics, yet creates some of the most reverential songs done in the past few years."

He also practices what he preaches.

In "Brother's Keeper," the title song on his current album, Mullins alludes to a period of community service he is about to begin at age 40.

Mullins received his bachelor's degree in music education from Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, in May, and plans to begin teaching Navajo children this fall at a mission school in Window Rock, Arizona.

In a telephone interview last week, Mullins said he hopes to stay for a decade. Why so long? Because the two schools he's looking at have no music programs at all now, and it takes at least 10 years to build one that will last. Because the frequent turnover of teachers in reservation schools injures the kids' self-esteem. Because when he's 50 he'll still have plenty of time to do whatever else he wants to do.

That "whatever else" almost certainly will include writing and recording music, and even touring, as Mullins is now, with Ashley Cleveland and Dove Award-winner Carolyn Arends on a 65-city tour sponsored by the International Bible Society.

Mullins has been nominated 10 times for a Dove Award, the Christian music equivalent of a Grammy, but has yet to win one. In 1991 Billboard magazine Gospel Lectern column, Bob Darden wrote that Mullins is an unlikely candidate for crossover pop music success or even Christian radio mega-success because his music is "too arresting, too troubling."

But Mullins has had seven successful albums since 1986, has had eight No. 1 hits on radio airplay charts and has written three hits for Amy Grant. His song "Awesome God" was voted one of the most popular Contemporary Christian songs of the decade.

In that 1988 song, Mullins' God has "thunder in his footsteps and lightning in His fists" and pours out judgment and wrath on Sodom, but also gives mercy and grace at the cross. In his 1995 song, "Cry the Name," God comes like a thief in the night to unbind the shackles around his heart.

Although Brother's Keeper wasn't conceived as a theme album, you can find one along these lines in the songs "Let Mercy Lead," "Hatching of the Heart" and "Eli's Song," two of which were inspired by and addressed to young children.

"There's a joy in your abandon," he sings to Eli. "Like the cowgirl balerina / Leaves that ride / the Wild and Holy Bucking Wind that the Sky / Sent through you to blow away these walls I've built / Walls of selfishness and walls of guilt / that leave me free to be a child"

Mullins' childhood had much to do with his religious outlook today. "When I was real little, my mother was a Quaker and my dad was not particularly interested in religion, period," he said. "Then my dad realized his own need for church or for Christ or for the whole ball of wax, but he couldn't get into Quaker things because they're pacifists and my dad's a hillbilly."

So the family started going to a nearby conservative Christian church, as a compromise. "Quakers believe that all of life is sacramental, so the idea of communion and baptism was a little hard for my mother to swallow," Mullins said.

Never sent out of the room during family discussions about religion and politics even when he was a child, Mullins says he learned almost by osmosis that ideas were to be taken seriously and differences were to be discussed with mutual respect even when agreement was impossible. He makes a distinction between tolerance, which implies that ideas don't matter, and respect, which implies that they do.

"I've never stopped being curious about how everyone thinks," Mullins said. Among his heroes: Anglican C.S. Lewis and Anglican-turned-Catholic G.K. Chesterton, and Elizabethan Catholic musician and composer William Byrd.

"If the way is strait and the gate is narrow, I want my peripheral vision to be as broad as possible," Mullins said. "If my vision is wide, I'm upping the chances of finding that strait and narrow way. Truth is very narrow, but its pursuit calls us to be as open as possible."

The words and images in Mullins' songs come from the Bible, from theologians and philosophers, from life in general and Mullin's life in particular.

Some of Mullin's music, such as "Promenade" and "Quoting Deuteronomy to the Devil" are downright jubilational, guaranteed joy-bringers.

But much of his music is confessional. He wrote "
Damascus Road" the night his fiancee broke off their engagement; knowing he was headed for a bout of depression, he decided to make "an honest effort to say, 'Blessed is the name of the Lord.'"

It's a touching song even if you don't know the circumstances.

"I was hung in the ropes of success when you stripped away the mask of life they had placed upon the face of death / But if my darkness can praise your light / You give me breath / and I'll give you my life / to sing your praise."

Despite his obvious idealism, and his decision to approach his Navajo teaching assignment as an education for him as well as his pupils, Mullins says he has to be constantly on guard against his own cynicism.

Where does it come from? "I think Richard Nixon had something to do with it," he said. "You buy into the God and country thing, and then you find out that the pastor cheated on his wife, that politics is more about money than life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that rock'n'roll is more about money than it it is about peace, love and having fun. You just have things pulled out from under you one plank at a time until you become very cautious about everything.

"If I meet someone who's touting a political idealogy, I say to myself he's an opportunist; yet I go around touting religion. I'm cynical about myself. But at some point I have to realize that this is my natural inclination, and it's there for a reason, so I don't have to hate it; but I do have to keep it in check. You have to decide to fight it. Cynicism is far more killing than even alcoholism, but there's no 12-step program for it."