Monday, September 28, 2015

James Bryan Smith’s “Rich Mullins”

If one had to name the most influential musician in Christian contemporary music of the last 40 years, the answer might be Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Stephen Curtis Chapman, and several other well-known names. But the musician who influenced them, and had an impact that is still reverberating 18 years after his death, is Rich Mullins.

Song after song, hit after hit, Mullins was as known for his music as he was for his rather iconoclastic reaction to fame. He shrugged it off. He saw himself as a broken vessel, redeemed by his Creator, and his music reflected that belief.

And millions of people identified with that music. “My God is an Awesome God,” “Step by Step,” “Creed,” “Elijah”  – songs written and recorded by Mullins and recorded by scores of other musicians. Some have already made their way into contemporary hymn books.

Mullins was also known for his friendship with Brennan Manning (1937-2013), and was counseled by Manning the last few years of his life. Mullins adopted Brenann’s “Ragamuffin gospel” for the name of his band, and how he described himself – a ragamuffin.

Mullins’ influence extended into my own family. I can remember how the news of his death in an automobile accident in 1997 affected both my wife and my oldest son, who was then in high school. For them and millions of others, Mullins’ death was more than the death of a favored musician or even a friend; it was like losing someone whose music touched their hearts and souls.

In 2000, James Bryant Smith wrote a biography of Mullins, Rich Mullins: A Devotional Biography: An Arrow Pointing to Heaven, and he did it in an unusual way. Rather than the more common chronological account, Smith wrote the biography as a devotional. Perhaps for that reason, the work has remained current.

With an introduction by Brennan Manning, the biography is structured around 10 devotional themes: family, creed, the love of God, trusting in Jesus, creation, struggle and pain, simplicity, sin and temptation, loving one another, and death and the life to come. The discussion for each theme combines, biographical information, interviews with people who knew Mullins, some of Mullins’ own writings, quotations, and the words of Mullins’ songs. With such disparate elements, the biography could have come across disjointed and cobbled together, but it doesn’t; it stays centered on Mullins and his faith.

James Bryant Smith
This was a widely popular Christian musician whose typical concert clothes were a t-shirt, jeans, and bare feet. Early on, he fronted at concerts for big name Christian bands; by the end of his life, the singer and songwriter who typically performed in church settings had eclipsed them all.

The most telling line in the book, among many telling lines, is this, and it speaks volumes about Mullins and his work: “Rich Mullins was not encumbered by the need to succeed; he was captive to the need to create.”

Smith received his M.Div. degree from Yale University Divinity School and his D. Min. degree from Fuller Seminary. He is a professor of theology at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, and leads the Christian Spiritual Formation Institute there.

Rich Mullins: A Devotional Biography is a profound way to do two things simultaneously: learn about the life and music of a man who became a legend, and examine one’s own life in the process.

Brandon Heath and Third Day sing "Creed" by Rich Mullins

Rich Mullins in concert, singing "Step by Step"


TravisMizzou said...

So many songs of his that still touch millions to this day. Great post dad.

Robert Treskillard said...

Thanks for sharing, Glynn! I was not aware of this biography and will have to check it out.