None Are Stronger: Singing Along with Rich Mullins, Eventually

This post comes to us from our friend, Tim Peoples. Rich Mullins is a surprisingly difficult […]

Mockingbird / 9.9.15

maxresdefaultThis post comes to us from our friend, Tim Peoples.

Rich Mullins is a surprisingly difficult artist to categorize if you are new to recognizing grace in your life. He is so tightly associated with Brennan Manning (author of The Ragamuffin Gospel) that one can easily assume that Mullins is all grace, all the time. Another strong association—the popularity of “Awesome God”—can cut the opposite way, positing the Contemporary Christian Music listener to associate him with Worship Top 40 radio. The Rich Mullins Superfan, i.e., me, has yet other confusing aspects of the singer’s life to deal with: his absolute repudiation of the Christian Industrial Complex (including the worship music component in which he participated), his iconoclastic views on social justice, and his repudiation of the world via teaching on an American Indian reservation combined with a strict stipend set at the average yearly wage in the United States (less than $30,000).

For me, the bit of tape that most exemplifies the contradictory aspects of Mullins’s music and biography is a lead-in to “None are Stronger” on the posthumous, B-sides + rarities album, Here in America:

What God called you for, and what God called you to, is to make a difference in the world.

You know, there are a lot of people who have never heard the gospel of Christ. Somehow, I have a little bit of trouble when I see people spend fifteen, sixteen bucks a hit to hear some flashy Christian group say ‘Jesus is Lord’ to the tune of fifteen bucks a person when there are people who live not far from here who can’t even afford to buy a Bible….

I don’t believe that God chose you and blessed you so that you could heap those blessings up upon yourself. I believe God chose you and you and you and every one of you others, because He wants to make a difference in this world….

And you know what, people? You ain’t going to make a difference by building more bombs. And you ain’t going to make a difference by putting on more makeup and showing up on more television shows. And you’re not going to make a difference by having the loudest P/A or the biggest crowd at your concerts. You’re gonna make a difference when you lay down your life, and in complete submission to God, choose to die with Him in service to other people.

We can see a number of the various contradictory strands listed above in this admittedly ranty sermonette that are directly relevant to the evangelical community at the time, the 1980s through Mullins’ death in 1997. Evangelicals during this period were heavily influenced by suburbanization and the ascendency of the Religious Right, and the unfortunate results—those that Mullins consistently railed against—were nationalism, rigid conservative moralism, and prosperity gospel (cf. the Gospel) theology. In the above intro to “None Are Stronger,” therefore, he probably managed to piss off most of his audience, at least for a while. In about one minute, he denigrates Christian entertainment, suburban disregard for the poor, Americocentrism, and military strength. He seems to offer shifting one’s focus to social justice and wholly rejecting various laws of the evangelical church.

But when you think about it, there seems to be quite a bit of law in what Mullins is saying, too. He is not the youth pastor saying to suburban kids, “Now, Jesus was telling the rich young ruler to abandon wealth, but he’s not really saying that to us; it’s an illustration to convey a broader point.” Mullins honestly believed that the American church had to stop focusing so much on acquisition and political power to be faithful to the Gospel.

For a long time, I’ve been trying to live out the Good Social Justice Christian mandate that I heard expressed in the “None are Stronger” intro. I won’t bore you with details, but it hasn’t worked. Over the past few years, I’ve picked up a greater appreciation for grace as a replacement for consumerism, performancism, and vaguely-defined liberal guilt.

A key turning point for me was reading Brennan Manning’s last book, All is Grace, especially the following passage:

This book is by the one who thought he’d be farther along by now, but he’s not.
It is by the inmate who promised the parole board he’d be good, but he wasn’t…

This book is also for the gentle ones who’ve lived among wolves.
It is for the younger and elder prodigals who’ve come to their senses
again, and again, and again, and again. It is for those who strain at pious piffle because they’ve been swallowed by Mercy itself.
This book is for myself and those who have been around the block enough times that we dare to whisper
the ragamuffin’s rumor—
all is grace.

Reading All Is Grace and recognizing the full extent of Manning’s lifelong alcoholism, described for the first time in detail in the latter book, set me on a path to reconsider what my spiritual goals should be. In reconsidering the way I should live my life, I started reconsidering the way Mullins—who is sincerely one of my heroes—lived his life. The recent movie Ragamuffin provided helpful context, arguing that Mullins and Manning both struggled with (and mostly lost to) alcohol abuse.

But the key for me was listening to a completely different song, “Thy Mercy, My God,” sung by Sandra McCracken:

Thy mercy surpasses the sin of my heart
Which wonders to feel its own hardness depart […]
All praise to the spirit, whose action divine
Seals mercy and pardon and righteousness mine.

The hymn’s language is so passive, expressing the hope that God Himself, not our effort, has already made us whole and will lead us where we need to go (Phil 1.6).

“None Are Stronger” and its intro had been bouncing around in my head for a while, and I finally understood how passive Mullins’s language is in both. “You are called,” he says in the intro, not “you accepted Christ.” In the song itself, he sings about Jesus, David, and Moses as examples of true humility, and for the latter two he focuses on what God gave them instead of what they did for God. His verse on Moses, in particular, is the counterpoint to my long-time misperception that Mullins was inspiring me to pious social-justice action:

And I know that you know about Moses,
And how he left the Pharoah’s courts
When he saw the injustice
Done to the people, the people of the Lord
And though his fears drove him to hiding,
The Lord his heart with courage soon endowed
‘Cause none are stronger than the humble
And few are weaker than the proud

Moses did leave Pharoah’s courts, but he was also running for his life because he killed an Egyptian. His merit lay not in his own actions; all that he did was through resigning himself to God Himself. Mullins, therefore, is not pushing a humble-yourself-to-enlightenment snake oil. He’s telling us to give up all of our pretensions of control and power. This is why his scope of condemnation is so broad; most of what American Christianity valued then and values now is aimed at enhancing our status rather than diminishing it.

I have also followed that road for so long, but Rich Mullins, for all these years, has been trying to tell me, along with his friend Brennan, that all is grace—all of it, even the weakness, pain, awkward moments, grief, disappointment, and my own daily realization that I thought I’d be farther along by now, but I’m not. I’ll let Rich have the last word:

I’m reeling from these voices that keep screamin’ in my ears,
All these words of shame and doubt, blame and regret;
I can’t see how You’re leading me,
Unless You’ve led me here;
To where I’m lost enough to let myself be led.
And so You’ve been here all along, I guess;
It’s just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get.