The Jeans-and-T-Shirt Orthodoxy of Rich Mullins

Editors’ note: 

Earlier this fall, a group of amazing musicians gathered at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville to play through Rich Mullins’s A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band, note for note. Andrew Peterson, who pulled the show together, asked Russ Ramsey to write an essay for that evening’s program. 

The house lights go down and a restrained whoop goes up. This is the best we Midwesterners are willing to offer, which, for us, is plenty. We take our seats on the cushioned pews as the local Christian radio personality walks to the mic at center stage.

The DJ makes a few jokes, gives away a couple CDs, and tosses a shirt just like the one he’s wearing. Then without further adieu, he gives a slight bow to the side of the stage: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Rich Mullins and the Ragamuffin Band!”

Rich walks out, alone. He takes a seat at the hammered dulcimer just to the right of the drums. He’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt—no shoes. His hair is long. Without saying a word, he picks up the thin, spoon-shaped hammers and begins to play the unfamiliar instrument. The audience is mesmerized by the strange, beautiful, percussive sound. Then Rich leans in and sings, “I believe in God the Father, almighty Maker of heaven and Maker of earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten son, our Lord.”

As Rich sings through the rest of the Apostles’ Creed, his band takes their places, unnoticed until they come in at the chorus, where Rich sings: “I believe what I believe is what makes me what I am. I did not make it. No, it is making me. It is the very truth of God, not the invention of any man”—a line he borrowed from the beginning of G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

Dropping the Charade

Simple orthodoxy. Jeans-and-T-shirt orthodoxy. This is what Rich Mullins (1955–1997) brought to so many people. And we needed it. There, in the late ’80s through the mid-’90s, when Rich was on the road, the American church struggled to own a simple and honest faith with room for struggle, doubt, and questions. Though I can’t speak for all Christians everywhere, I can say that many of the churches I knew felt a constant pull to present Christianity as the religion of the “put together.” We wanted to come across as victorious, moral, right, trustworthy, well-dressed, and happy. Except we weren’t. And we were growing weary of the pressure to keep up the charade.

Rich was a Scripture-soaked voice crying out in the wilderness, “Drop the charade. Give up on the idea that you can impress God with your conduct. Accept the glorious fact that all you need to know about his affection for you can be found in the gift of his Son.”

Embracing a Simple, Unpretentious Faith

Almost every concert Rich performed was in a church. That was how Christian music worked in those days. Rich seemed to genuinely love the church. As much as he may have wanted to change it, he counted himself part of it. His gracious humor and obvious affection for his audience showed that he understood he was calling for the slow turning of a large ship.

Getting people to admit they were more like fools than sages would take a patient, careful, loving hand. But this was his mission. So he showed up to work in his jeans and T-shirt, which I believe was a carefully chosen costume—an ironic put-on to help his audience receive his call to drop the pretense. Every song asked us to embrace a simple faith, read Scripture through the eyes of a child, and behold the majesty of God. Enough with the pretending.

Wearing Need on Our Sleeve

I was in the room when the DJ welcomed Rich to the stage that night. It was during a time in my life when I was first beginning to own my faith. I was learning what it meant to take the name “Christian” and wear it in public. I looked to Rich for help, as so many others have done. A through-line in Rich’s lyrics was this idea that to own one’s faith is to own one’s struggles. The gospel would make no sense to the watching world if those who claimed to believe it strived to live as though they had no need of it. I needed to hear this message. I needed someone to give me permission to wear my need for Christ on my sleeve. Rich gave it.

I was in seminary when Rich died. His 1993 record, A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band, was as important to my education and formation as a young pastor as any book on theology. I still listen to it often—and his other work, too. I’ve not yet mastered the art of authenticity. Or empathy. Or humility. So here 20 years after his death, I still return to the music of the bard in the jeans and T-shirt—not just for entertainment, but for help.

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