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Rich Mullins Top Ten Songs: Part One
An Annual Reflection
Rich Mullins was a Christian musician and writer, born in Indiana, who has made a profound impact on my life. I have written about him many times, and every year, on the anniversary of his death—September 19, 1997—I write a reflection. This year, I’m doing my top ten songs by Rich. You can listen to the playlist here.
In this post, I will offer a reflection on and interpretation of five of the songs. I will cover the other five songs in a later post. The songs are listed in no particular order.
The Jesus Record, 1998
A meditation on alienation from God, in the tradition of the dark night of the soul, “Hard to Get” is an angry song set to a slow, methodical melody that rises and falls and fails to resolve until the end.
In our moments of human hardship, God is nowhere. When our loved ones leave us. When we are desperate for someone to be with us. When we strugggle and no one is there. When we are bound by our bodies and mortality. When we cannot see any hope ahead and instead “are reeling from these voices that keep screaming in [our ears] all these words of shame and doubt, blame and regret.” He’s not there. No one is there. We are alone.
And that fundamental human state—that we are all in some deep way alone in our journey—drives Rich to see our deep need for another person as evidence of God’s presence. He surmises, “So you’ve been here all along, I guess. It’s just your ways, and you’re just plain hard to get.” His hesitation—”I guess”—betrays his own remaining resentment. It sure would be nice for God to “still” have a body so He could physically be there to comfort the lonely. But in the dark night of the soul, the silence, the disembodiment of God is no solace.
But Rich discovers, as many Christians do, that belief may be enough. If you belive God is there, He is there. Damn the evidence and need for human connection.
It is the ambivalence, the ambiguity, the tension between belief and human feeling that brings me back to this song. Rich was onto something. He found answers he wanted to find. And so did I.
Brother’s Keeper, 1995
In a rare experiment, Rich writes a story song.
There’s a party going on up on a hill, just outside a town. A band is playing. People are dancing. They’re singing, “How do you feel?” But the townspeople are annoyed by the “noise.” They call the police. “Officer Black” goes up the hill to shut the party down. But the music captures his heart, and he starts dancing. The townspeople call the officer to account. “Did you make any arrests so we can get some peace and quiet?” He says, “If it’s peace that you want, you’re gonna find it on the hill. But the silence you keep is the silence that kills.” The townspeople fire the officer, but he has no regrets, saying:
When the dancers took to the promenade Well my heart leapt high and I was unafraid Of the feeling I'd stifled for so many years Tell me how do you, how do you feel?
Rich’s point: Don’t be so uptight. Have some fun. Enjoy life. If you don’t, you’re just killing yourself.
I often need this reminder.
A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band, 1993
Rich was mildly annoyed about the insistence by some Christian music labels to have relgious themes in nearly every song of an album. I suspect with this song that Rich just wanted to write about how beautiful America is, because it is truly, profoundly beautiful. Rich writes:
And if you listen to my songs I hope you hear the water falling I hope you feel the oceans crashing on the coast of north New England I wish I could be there just to see them, two summers past I was
Rich, brother, I finally heard the oceans crashing on the coast of north New England when I moved here. And I know what you mean. It’s something else.
Besides Rich’s poetry on the natural beauty of the continent, the song begins with an outtake from recording. A band member arrives to play, only with a caveat, “Just uh… allow me to make this disclaimer everybody. I’m barely ready to do this, but let’s keeping doing it, so don’t get mad at me.” Rich replies, “Alright. Amen.” and counts off.
I’m barely ready to do this, but let’s keeping doing it, so don’t get mad at me.
That’s me most days.
The World as Best as I Remember It Vol. 1, 1991
I dunno. I always thought this was his best lyric.
This song is a series of reflections on the lives of three characters from the Book of Genesis: Leah, Jacob, and Rachel. In each reflection, Rich meditates on the tragedy of each character and interprets their personal tragedies as microcosms of the wider world; he ends each reflection: “This is the world as best as I can remember it.”
Leah loves a man, Jacob, who has taken another wife who he loves more. Yet Leah still carries a torch for him.
And her friends say, "Ah, he's a devil" But she says, "No, he is a dream"
Rich tries to get deep inside each character’s head, into their motivations, their fears and desires. He shows us how popular opinion—how the situation looks from the outside—does not always reflect what it feels like on the inside. Jacob did Leah dirty. That’s what her friends say. But Leah does not see it this way. Her love is more real to her than the judgments of others. This is the human condition.
Jacob has won the heart of two women and is starting a—big—family. He was good at the strategy of starting, but maintenance of family life and marital love is another story.
And he finds it's one thing to win 'em And it's another to keep 'em content And he knows that he is only just one man
Jacob, who had once been a success, now fails at his role as husband and father. Facing his own inadequacies is too much, so he turns to the bottle. His friends chide him. But he’s fine with it. This is how he has chosen to cope. This is the human condition.
Finally, Rachel mourns children she could not have. She has desires for them so strong she can see them—and they disappear.
And then Rich offers what I think is his most enigmatic, poignant, and sad lyric:
Seems that love comes for just a moment And then it passes on by And her sky is just a bandit Swingin' at the end of a hangman's noose 'Cause he stole the moon and must be made to pay for it And her friends say, "My, that's tragic!" And she says, "Especially for the moon"
To have love and to have lost it—to have it ripped away from you, stolen. And to mourn that loss. That is the human condition.
Who’s the bandit? Who’s the moon? I’m not sure. A friend of mine once offered her interpretation that the moon referred to Rachel’s womb, so the stolen moon referred to her stolen children. And so it’s appropriate that she mourns most of all that her children could not live and feel their mother’s love. That seems like the best reading I’ve heard.
What Rich does with his lyricism is make human the saints and legends. He wraps them in skin, pushes them out of the light of glory, and makes you face them as people like you. Makes you see yourself in them. He forges these bonds of human connection in words. And he connects even you and me right now.
Rich Mullins, 1986
I became a Rich Mullins fan shortly after his death in 1997. As this was before music streaming, if I wanted to listen to his entire back catalog, I had to collect his physical albums. Most of his albums were readily available for purchase at most Christian bookstores. But his first self-titled album was very rare. I only ever found it once, and that’s where I bought it.
I don’t remember exactly the store—but I remember the space. The CD display was a large, white wooden box with the opening facing the ceiling, the spines of the plastic CD boxes facing out around waist-level. To search the display, you had to flip through each thin CD box with your fingers, working systematically one by one, sometimes in groups if there were multiple copies of the same album. The whole box was situated near a large—maybe floor-length?—window in the store, with the sunlight from the city street pouring in. I found Rich’s name and began to flip boxes, one by one. Suddenly, I spotted it—finally the album I had been looking for for years. The album cover, unlike all the others, was kinda goofy:
When I finally got to listen to it, I was surprised. Rich’s music is characterized by a lot of acoustic guitar, piano, and hammer dulcimer instrumentation. He has a style—he would be in the mellow, folk rock tradition today. The first song, “A Few Good Men,” started with an electric guitar with a clear effects pedal on it. And then—a synthesizer. Dear God, what was happening? I looked at the copyright. 1986. Oh ok. I guess that makes sense. Still… weird.
For a Rich Mullins song, “A Few Good Men” is mediocre. It’s even, in terms of themes, counter-character. Rich’s music is about exploring human fraility, the beauty of nature, the ever-present influence of the divine. He has a few songs that really challenge traditional masculinity. “A Few Good Men” is about men who are “brave and strong,” and yet, it speaks to me in this moment in my life.
Show me someone who makes a difference Show me someone who's brave when he needs to be I just need to see Someone who cares enough that he would risk his life For the love of what he's come to believe But you say that a man like that wouldn't last in a world like this Well I believe that the world won't last If a man like that don't exist
I have attempted, in recent years, to practice a careful public quiet on controversial issues. Who knows if it was wisdom or cowardice? Reasonable minds can disagree. But I have decided in the past year or two to slowly, still carefully, voice what I see as dissenting views in various areas of my life where I was previously judiciously silent, at least publicly. I want to be a man like Rich’s speaker: to “make a difference” and to be “brave when he needs to be.” Because I agree that “a world won’t last if a man like that don’t exist.” Courage, my Stoic training teaches me, is a virtue of great importance. And this song is an anthem I return to as inspiration—with all of its cheesy instrumentation and lyricism.
It’s fun, and it energizes me. Maybe it will do the same for you.