Rich Mullins Played Evangelical Court Jester | Sojourners

Rich Mullins Played Evangelical Court Jester

Outtakes from the photoshoot for Rich Mullins’s debut, eponymous album. Original photos by Mark Tucker, courtesy David McCracken.

During the course of reporting, it’s normal to find that not every brilliant quote or anecdote will fit in the article I’m writing. These quotes end up on “the cutting room floor,” a term borrowed from the film industry where editing a movie would leave film strips literally abandoned to the ground.

While writing “Rich Mullins Was the Misfit Christian Music Needed” for Sojourners Sept-Oct. issue, I found the cutting room floor especially crowded, particularly with anecdotes about Mullins’ humor.

As I looked closer, I realized these weren’t just funny stories about the songwriter of “Awesome God.” Mullins wasn’t just witty among friends. He also used his humor as a tool to share his sharp criticisms, deep contemplations, and controversial ideas with largely evangelical audiences that were increasingly looking for Christian music to be a space that confirmed their assumptions.

“I always like to say my songs are not particularly inspired — the scriptures were inspired — my songs are provoked,” Mullins once told a chapel service at Wheaton College. “And I know God gives a lot of people their songs, but you know I hear a lot of those, and I understand why He gave them away.”

While it’s easy to read Mullins as simply criticizing the talent of his fellow artists in contemporary Christian music (CCM) — which he was quick to do — he’s also decentering Christian art as equivalent to God’s revelation. Mullins saw and experienced what some might call the idolatry of Christian musicians; he wanted to remind his audience that he and other CCM artists weren’t holier than anyone else.

“People often listen to a lot of contemporary Christian music and I’m not always sure I get why, cuz I play it and I know there’s not a lot to most of it,” Mullins said at a different performance.

Mark Robertson, Mullins’ friend and bandmate, commented that Rich’s willingness to make himself bear the brunt of his humor, was what made it tolerable that he could be so cutting toward others. David McCracken, said Mullins would “laugh at himself first and foremost.”

Beth Lutz, Mullins’ close friend and college bandmate, summed up well what all my sources said: Mullins could be “a pain in the ass,” but the struggles and frustrations were not just balanced by his orneriness, lightheartedness, and hysterical laughter, they were what helped make it all worth it. And, too, Mullins knew this about himself: “If you make me laugh then I know that I can make you like me,” he sang on “We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are.”

In that spirit, here are a few of my favorite moments of Rich Mullins’ jokes and humor.

1. “Well, it’s just like sex.”

Perhaps one of the better-known anecdotes is the story of Mullins’ first hit, “Sing Your Praise to the Lord,” recorded by Amy Grant. The song is lyrically simple, but a musical whirlwind; it opens with more than a minute of Bach’s C Minor Fugue before breaking into the melody. The original version, according to Blanton, was around 10 minutes long. When Blanton asked Mullins why he wrote such a long introduction for a CCM pop song, Blanton told Discipleship Ministries that Mullins responded: “Well, it’s just like sex. You’ve gotta have a really good foreplay before you get to the climax.”

2. Mullins helps his brothers finish their ice cream

David, one of Rich’s younger brothers, told Sojourners that when Rich arrived home from school, he’d scoop out bowls of ice cream for himself and his brothers David and Lloyd. “Now let’s race to see who can eat it the fastest,” Rich, many years older than his brothers, would finish his fast, then turn to the others. “Hey, Dave, Lloyd’s beating, you want me to help you? … Hey, Lloyd, Dave’s beating you. Do you want me to eat some of yours?” By the end, Rich would eat two-thirds of what had been proportioned out.

3. The pursuit of happiness, according to Rich Mullins

In the 1990s, Mullins wrote a column for Release Magazine. In his spring ’92 column, Mullins wrote his nine steps in the pursuit of happiness. The first? “Forget about finding happiness. Happiness is not worthy of your search.” Later, Mullins instructed readers to bake a cake, regardless of how good a baker they were. Then, in successive order, he told readers to offer the cake to their enemies, then their friends. If they didn’t have enemies or friends, they were to bring it to an elderly care home. “If the cake is good you will no longer be without friends. If the cake is terrible you will no longer be without enemies.”

4. Keggers at Wheaton College.

During a performance at Wheaton College, Mullins couldn’t help but poke fun at one of the most powerful institutions in evangelicalism. Since Mullins was leading the morning chapel, he was asked to make a number of announcements. There was an upcoming chocolate festival. “My understanding,” Mullins said, “is this is as close to a kegger as you can have at Wheaton, so eat up.”

5. What inspires Mullins’ songs?

“A lot of people ask what inspires songs, which always depresses me as a writer,” Mullins told his audiences. “If you can’t tell, I evidently didn’t do a very good job. But mostly, to be real honest with you, what mostly inspires writers is bills.”

6. “Ain’t No Book Sold”

For a period of his life, Mullins attended Black churches. “If you ever do that, you’ll never come back to a white church and feel the same way about it… it’s kind of like dead fish city,” he said. Mullins wrote “Ain’t No Book Sold” inspired by what he learned from Black gospel choirs. In shows, he would attempt to teach the song — a call and response — to his largely white listeners. Prodding his audience to sing with more emphasis, Mullins said they had “about as much soul as some of my tennis shoes after 10 years.” In other performances he’d exhort: “If you can’t be good, be loud anyway!”

7. Music and insecurity

Laughing after he forgot the lyrics to one of his own songs, Mullins said: Don’t you hate it when you go to a concert, and … a lot of times performers have those insecurities and junk, and they’ll say … ‘Ah... Now I’m going to do a little song and it goes something like this.’ I always want to go, ‘Look, buddy, I paid exactly 10 bucks to hear that song. I want to hear exactly what it goes like!’”

8. Subverting hierarchies with thank you notes

Before the release of Mullins’ fourth studio album, Never Picture Perfect, McCracken had the tough job of tracking down liner notes and album credits for the label Reunion Records. Toward the end, all that was missing was the acknowledgments. “[I] finally got them, typed them up, [and] handed them off to my boss who came storming into my closet office and said, ‘He can't do this! I won’t allow it!’” McCracken told Sojourners. Mullins, looking out for those at the bottom of the hierarchy, had written a thank you to “David McCracken and his staff at Reunion,” and listed staff in reverse order, those lower in power first, and then those at the top of the label. Mike Blanton, one of the co-owners of Reunion, thought it was hilarious. “It’s his record. He can do whatever he wants,” McCracken said Blanton replied, and the thank-you remained.

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