For part one in my series on Rich Mullins, go here.
For my article on the upcoming film about Mullins
For my interview with Mullins' producer Reed Arvin, go here.
I believe music can change the way we see, hear, and feel about the world. This essay is a personal reflection on one such instance, an instance I want to celebrate and share with others.
I had just purchased a cassette of Rich Mullins' 1993 album A Liturgy, A Legacy, & A Ragamuffin Band at my local Christian book store. I got into the car with my mom and grandma (my Granny), pulled it out of its squeaky cellophane wrapper, popped it into my yellow Sports Walkman, and listened to it in the car while my mom went through her round of afternoon errands. I became transfixed. I did not even care that we had to make a stop at the fabric store, a trip I usually loathed. I just stayed in the car and listened.
I had heard a few of the album's songs on radio before ("Creed", "Hold Me Jesus", "Hard"), but the way radio stations cut off the first and last seconds of songs meant I had never heard them in their fullness before, especially not in the context of the whole album. The album had already been out almost a couple of years by that point, but as a teenager who was finally coming into some money of his own, I had been catching up on Mullins' catalogue, most recently devouring the almost as excellent The World as Best as I Remember It, Vols. 1 & 2. I had great expectations for this current tape, this album about "liturgy", whatever that meant. As it turned out ALAL&ARB ranks with only three other albums which took me by complete (and jubilant) surprise upon my first listen (the others being Keith Green's The Ministry Years Vol. 1, Radiohead's Kid A, and Sufjan Stevens' Illinoise).
It all begins in media res in the dusty warmth of a room filled with musical instruments and cherished friends idly chatting with each other and noodling on their instruments. It was a room in which it seemed those friends had been playing music together for time immemorial; a room thick with sound and camaraderie. Amid the chatter and noodling up speaks who I assume is Rick Elias, saying with reticence "Just so we all know, I'm barely ready to do this." Then Mullins breaks in with "Hey man, that's the way we all feel." Someone then counts off the music and with Mullins and his band we begin the journey of exploring our sacred (the "liturgy") and secular (the "legacy") heritages together. The first song, "Here in America", is perhaps the most beautiful American-themed Worship Song ever written (if there is such a thing), and most likely the only one that has ever worked thematically (delving into the complexities and contradictions of "patriotic worship music" is for another conversation altogether). The song itself though is a bit subdued; it does not announce itself with any grandiosity. It seemed this was going to be another simply great Rich Mullins record, if a bit more organic in sound than his past work.
The next song, however, "52:10" with its hypnotizing piano arpeggios, whip-cracking snare drums, and the prophetic vocal cries bursts into a new sonic landscape, one Mullins had not explored on his albums before. This was not typical "worship" music as we were accustomed to hearing it; Mullins and his friends were taking us to a new region altogether. From there the songs on the first half of the album, the "liturgy" half, go on to explore the beauty of God's creation which groans in praise of its maker (the Celtic-tinged "The Color Green"), the brokenness of a searching pilgrim with nowhere else to go but the feet of a savior ("Hold Me Jesus"), the bold celebration found in affirming one's faith (the dulcimer led "Creed"), and the bittersweet complexities of celebrating Communion together as God's imperfect yet grace-filled people ("Peace"). The second half of the album, the "legacy half" although a bit weaker musically (the Mark Heard cover of "How to Grow Up Big and Strong" specifically does not hold up well over the years), still contains some classics, from the riveting instrumental "78 Eatonwood Green", the everyman confessional of "Hard", and the sweetly naive Christmas song "You Gotta Get Up".
Mullins and producer Reed Arvin (along with the inaugural version of the "Ragamuffin Band") reached a peak on this album, in recording technique, song composition, and song arrangement. The result is in some senses the pinnacle of what could be called a "Christian album", which to me means an album of inarguable musical excellence and inspiration coupled with the utmost artfully crafted "Christian" themed lyrics. Even writing '"Christian" themed' makes me squirm a bit, but Mullins pulled this off lyrically all throughout his career, nowhere more powerfully than on Liturgy. The lyrics so obviously come from a Christian person, no one could ever mistake this as a more generic "singer-songwriter" album, and yet the overt Christian lyrics are so naturally performed that they avoid the banalities that so often plagues the genre known as "Contemporary Christian Music". Thus, when Mullins sings "I believe what I believe is what makes me what I am..." we do not even begin to doubt him. Relatedly, the lyrics also lack the clever abstract masking of Christian themes found in much of the present's "Christian" singer/songwriter/indie-folk music. Meaning, it seems as if today the default approach for "Christian" artists is to have lyrics that at first do not appear on the surface to be Christian, but after multiple listens become obvious they are saying something about their faith or God. Neither veiled nor overt Christian lyrics are inherently bad or good in and of themselves, but they can both be frustrating in their own ways, the former making the journey to meaning too arduous, the latter making it too easy. Mullins, on the hand had the rare gift of giving us some tough lyrical meat to chew while also making his points easily graspable. Reed Arvin, in my upcoming interview with him, put it this way: "He was the best writer in Christian music, and remains so to this day. He is untouchable lyrically. He possessed that particular combination of gift and fearlessness that equals genius."
The lyrics are powerful enough on their own, but none of these songs would matter were it not for the music that carries the lyrics. Perhaps the songs do not seem as bold twenty years on as they did on first listen, but they certainly seem no less extraordinary as compositions and recordings. The songs themselves have become so embedded in my life that I only need to listen to a few seconds of each song to be transported to another place, such as the dulcimer motif of "Creed" or the piano intros of "52:10", "Hold Me Jesus", and "Peace". However, at the risk of seeming a lazy writer, here I will refrain from giving in-depth descriptions of the music. I actually find it tedious to both write and read about what music sounds like; that it is in actuality disingenuous to the form ("talking about music is like dancing about architecture" as they say). Suffice it to say the songs on A Liturgy, A Legacy, & A Ragamuffin Band deserve your time and require your full attention in order to absorb the beauty, truth, and goodness contained within them.
When I first bought the album I did not even know how to say the word "liturgy", pronouncing it with a hard as opposed to soft "g", let alone did I know what a liturgy actually is. But over the years this album, along with Mullins' other works, has shaped my faith, even to the point where I now attend a "liturgical" church. After a time I learned that the Creed was more than a Rich Mullins song but was actually an ancient testament of our shared faith as believers in Jesus. But Mullins, along with a handful of other thinkers, artists, and friends was the one who started me down this road. The album even meant so much to me that I boldly gave it as a gift to my older brother, knowing he liked such "good" "secular" music as Billy Joel, James Taylor, and Van Morrison. When, after seeing it sit on his shelf still unopened in its cellophane wrapping after several years, I took it from his home and gave it to my future wife, hoping she would see some of the things I saw in it.
This musical gift has been with us 20 years now, so let's go celebrate it. Let's throw some listening parties and listen back to the songs that changed our lives and invite some friends to listen to it with us for the first time. In a season when people are reflecting on Mullins' death and many of us are preparing to watch the biopic made about his life when the new year rolls around, it is a great opportunity to slow down and listen to his music for an extended period of time. It actually hurt me deeply that my brother never took the time to listen to the music I gave him, but despite the hurt I was compelled to move on by sharing it with someone else. I am doing the same thing now, twenty years after the music was first introduced. My hope is that it will be discovered again, that it will bring much goodness to people's lives, and that it will lead them on the path of knowing God.
As a supplement to the album I would also recommend checking out the excellent collection of music videos from the album, the Steve Taylor/Ben Pearson directed Pursuit of a Legacy, which can be purchase here but is otherwise out of print, I believe. Along with a number of music videos from the album the work also contains some extended talks with Mullins on what it means to follow Christ (such as the brief clip below).
Again, for part one in my series on Rich Mullins (some ruminations on his "Theology"),
For my article on the upcoming film about
Mullins go here.