I watched the 2014 movie, Ragamuffin, a couple of nights ago. Ragamuffin tells the story of award-winning Christian Contemporary musician Rich Mullins. It goes from his childhood, through his success and the time that he spent on a Native American reservation, up to his tragic death in an automobile accident in 1997.
I was familiar with Rich Mullins’ music before I was familiar with Rich Mullins himself. If you attend an evangelical event of praise and worship, you will probably sing at least one Rich Mullins song, and maybe more. The songs that I particularly remember are “Step by Step” and “Awesome God.”
Rich did a concert at my undergraduate institution in the 1990s, and I went to that. We sang “Awesome God.” He did his simulated “rain” trick, in which people in the audience simulated the sound of rain by snapping their fingers and slapping their thighs. What was ironic was that it actually did rain after that! Someone told me that Rich Mullins’ response to that was, “Yeah, that was awesome, wasn’t it?” He sounded to me like a nice guy, not the sort of celebrity who puts on airs.
Rich Mullins did not just sing at the concert, but he also shared his reflections about faith and life while he was playing the piano. He was honest and funny. I remember him sharing about how he can develop his own worldview of how life is, and then the Bible comes along and unravels it! He referred to that verse in Psalm 137 in which the Psalmist blesses those who dash babies’ heads on rocks. (The Psalmist is wishing that this might occur to Babylonian babies, since the Babylonians had done the same thing to the Israelites.) “Imagine sharing that at a pro-life meeting!”, Rich said.
Later, listening to the radio, I gained more insight into how Rich Mullins did not just talk the talk, but walked the walk. Rich donated most of his money to charity. He also lived on a poor Native American reservation, teaching music there and helping people out. It was sad that he died in that automobile accident in 1997, at the young age of 42.
The movie, Ragamuffin, looks into the side of Rich Mullins that I did not know about. Yes, he was friendly, open, and approachable. But he was also very lonely, to the point of being needy. He had friends, but he felt hurt when a friend went somewhere without telling him. He was what people in Alcoholics Anonymous would call “restless, irritable, and discontent.” And, speaking of that, there were seasons in which he drank a lot, even when he was a Christian celebrity. He had unresolved issues with his father, since the two of them did not get along. He and his college girlfriend also broke up, but he still loved her and did not marry after that.
Rich was not easy to work with because he wanted to do things his way, rather than conforming to the Christian music business’s expectations. People thought his songs were too brooding and that his running commentary at his concerts was too controversial. (The songs that I knew never struck me as particularly deep and brooding, but some of his songs apparently were.) His business superiors tried to appeal to the “toys” that Rich got to buy to get him to conform, but it got to the point where those things did not matter to Rich anymore. As one of his managers said, “Someone who doesn’t want anything is a dangerous person.” But Rich was searching for something: authenticity, healing, and fulfillment.
He did not spend all of his time feeling sorry for himself and having an existential crisis, however. He sought out mentors. One mentor was the father of his college roommate, a likable, humble fellow, and a strong Christian. Another was Brennan Manning, a preacher, author, and recovering alcoholic. Manning popularized the term “Ragamuffin” (someone who realizes he needs God’s mercy) and taught Rich that God loved him as he was, not as he should be. Rich also served people at the Native American reservation, and his own brokenness helped him to minister to others at his concerts. For example, he played and sang the song, “Hold me Jesus, I’m shaking like a leaf.”
Rich obviously did not have everything together. Perhaps that is what made him accepting, honest, and open with others.
His brother is in the movie, playing the DJ who interviews Rich Mullins. I thought that the DJ looked like Rich but realized that he couldn’t be him because Rich died about a decade ago. But it was Rich’s brother Dave.
I found this movie worth watching. It is a bit long: two hours and seventeen minutes. But it was an interesting look at the man. I am still sad that he died.
Wikipedia’s article about Rich Mullins may give you more insight about Rich and his significance. The article links to some articles that suggest that Rich, soon before his death, was thinking of converting to Catholicism. (That stands out to me because I remember a Catholic friend telling me that he liked Catholic liturgy rather than “Awesome God.”) See also wikipedia’s article about Brennan Manning.