Today is Rich Mullins’s feast day in our house, the 23rd anniversary of his 1997 death in a car crash. Mullins was complicated and decidedly imperfect, but he’s a saint for our family for several reasons: he loved God passionately, he was exceptionally generous and lived simply while giving away everything else, and he kept learning and growing. Also, Beth fell in love with me while listening to me play Mullins’s songs on the piano at the grad student house where we both lived in 2007-08. That’s why our third child is named Richard Francis, and it’s why Mullins’s words, “Saints and children, we are gathered…” inspired the title of my blog.
Mullins was a pop singer to be sure, but his music holds a passion and longing for Beauty, sometimes found in rugged messiness, and sometimes in orderly perfection. For the orderly part, he loved to play and talk about J.S. Bach. If you listen to this link, at about the 1:30 mark you hear something familiar to fans of Rich Mullins and Amy Grant: https://youtu.be/R0nZjkh-U7I.
Mullins used Bach’s Fugue No. 2 in C Minor as the intro for “Sing Your Praise to the Lord,” which Amy Grant made famous in the early 1980’s. You can also find videos of Mullins playing other Bach pieces in concert. Here’s a video from less than a week before he died in 1997. I don’t know if I’d stand by everything Mullins says here, but it’s a nice peek into how he saw the world: https://youtu.be/rzQm_XF81eQ.
I don’t know if Mullins would agree with me, but I think we can just sidestep the question whether the church “owns” or “gets credit for” various parts of culture. There are always different currents mingling in larger streams, and you can’t always separate what was “from the church” and what was “from the world.”
I don’t think that should be a problem for Christian education. God made all of the world as a Beautiful and Good thing, and people who are searching for what is Beautiful and Good and True will often land in similar places, whether they are Christian or otherwise. Ancient philosophers compared the order of music to the movement of the stars in the skies, and linked them all to the realm of the Divine. A modern secular writer named Douglas Hofstadter won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for a book tying the work of Bach, along with M.C. Escher, to patterns found in mathematics and computer science.
The Order and the Mess
Genesis 1 also paints a picture of an orderly world at the start. Yet this orderly world is also the place where our messy lives happen, and the messiness is something Rich Mullins loved to talk about. Mullins said in concert one time that “God ain’t got no taste,” which is why God can love every one of us. He named his band the “Ragamuffins” because he believed that God’s embrace of human brokenness is at the heart of the Gospel. That theme was also evident in the way Mullins played his music, where he fell out of tune or out of tempo from time to time, and sometimes forgot the words to songs he had written, all while singing with a voice that grew increasingly gravelly over the years from an evident habit of smoking.
And yet, Rich Mullins kept coming back to Bach, who is perhaps the greatest example of a squeaky-clean family-man composer who spent decades perfecting his craft and dutifully composing music that is perfectly orderly, and even admired by mathematicians. How does this fit together?
Loving the Order and the Mess
The two great Christian commandments are Love God and Love Neighbor, which means God wants us to love what is perfect and what is imperfect at the same time. This is very hard to do.
It’s always hard to celebrate ideals and still embrace what is imperfect. Our society often fails this test on big questions like family structure and body image. The temptation is to either throw standards to the wind, or else stigmatize those who don’t match the standards. The really hard thing is to hold the two halves together in love.
What about in music? I have been working over a year on the first half of a Bach piano piece called the Gigue movement from his fifth French Suite. It is really hard, and I just can’t play it perfectly––I always mess up somewhere. But I never get tired of working on it, because Bach has composed such a perfect piece.
So what is my great joy in playing it? Right now, it’s in trying to do it perfectly even though I can’t. It’s in reaching for a perfect goal as an imperfect person.
(Bach, of course, would have played it perfectly. I wonder if that’s why he dropped in a couple of discordant notes here and there, so that the piece could at least feel like it was still striving for something more perfect than itself.)
Holding the Two Together
Parenting and homeschooling are the same way. I have ideas of what I would like my kids to become, and what I would like to become as a parent, but we love each other each day when we don’t meet the ideals. And every day for school I try to hold up what is Beautiful and Good and Perfect for my kids to see and to work toward, but we love each other––and hopefully are learning to love our studies––even when we don’t learn and master it all. One way I like to think of it is this, especially with music: practice as if the only goal is perfection, but perform as if the only goal is joy.
Rich Mullins was decidedly rough around the edges as a person and a musician. If having the heart to embrace “ragamuffin” music and people was the only thing he had taught us as a Christian saint, I could live with that. But he also was not afraid to celebrate and strive for the perfection of Bach, even when Mullins didn’t meet it in his own music. That leaves us with a saint who shows us something even more special: he embraced the Perfect and the imperfect at the exact same time. I think the thing that allowed him to do it was love.