Over the weekend, Corina and I watched the new movie based on the life of Rich Mullins – Ragamuffin, a biopic that chronicles Rich’s rise in the Christian music industry and describes his ongoing struggle with sin and redemption until a car accident claimed his life in 1997.
If you’re not familiar with Rich Mullins’ music, you have missed one of the few bright spots in contemporary Christian music over the last few decades. “Awesome God” is an evangelical staple, but I suspect few Mullins fans consider the song to be his best or their personal favorite. I find myself going back to “If I Stand,” “Creed,” and “Elijah.” Then there’s “Hold Me Jesus” – an authentic cry to the Savior that neither wallows in despair nor covers up the pain. Mullins paved the way for Caedmon’s Call, Chris Rice, and Andrew Peterson (see my conversation with Andrew about Rich’s impact on his music).
Rich Mullins was a sinner and a saint, like all believers in Jesus, and this movie does a good job showing us both aspects of Rich’s life.
The storyline of the film makes Mullins’ complicated relationship with a disapproving father the centerpiece, a relationship that hinders Rich from fully embracing the love of God for him. From beginning to end, the need for fatherly affection, both human and heavenly, carries the story of Rich’s life along, with his biggest hits interspersed throughout.
In the way they tell Rich’s story, the filmmakers satisfy the curiosity of fans who want to know “the stories behind the songs” while not allowing Rich’s career to overshadow the deeper, often problematic elements of his relational and personal struggles.
If you are looking for an idealized or sanitized portrait of Rich Mullins, don’t watch this movie. Here’s a chain-smoking man with salty language and a propensity toward alcohol abuse who sees himself and everyone else in desperate need of God’s mercy and grace. At the same time, here’s a man who gave away almost all of the money he earned, spent time ministering to the broken who lived on a Native American reservation, and pointed people away from himself and toward the church for spiritual nourishment.
It’s the rawness of Rich’s admission of sin and his provocative words about grace that disarm the viewer, just like he startles the listeners of his music. In one scene, a radio host asks Rich about a song he wrote for Amy Grant, “Doubly Good to You,” which communicates gratitude for God’s good gifts:
And if you find a love that’s tender
If you find someone who’s true
Thank the Lord
He’s been doubly good to you
The radio host, acknowledging a painful break-up in Rich’s past and his subsequent life as a single man, argues that the song is cruel for the way it implies God hasn’t been doubly true to Rich. To this, Rich responds: “God is not obligated to be singly good to any of us.”
Grace. Unmerited favor from an unobligated Giver.
It’s the truth that opened Rich up to the wonders of creation (“Calling Out Your Name”), the fragility of fallen humanity (“We Are Not as Strong as We Think We Are”) and the necessity of God’s “foolish” mercy (“Let Mercy Lead”).
Rich Mullins is still something of an enigma. His life isn’t a paragon of virtue or a sterling example of “the victorious Christian life.”
But at the heart of his story and music is good news for the sinner, the “beggar on the door of God’s mercy.” And that’s why his music appeals to a ragamuffin like me.
Watch the Trailer for Ragamuffin here.