If ‘Ragamuffin’ were too polished, perhaps the message of God’s radical grace to imperfect people would fall short.I was just beginning to emerge from a dark, unrelenting depression when The Jesus Record was released shortly after Rich Mullins’ death in a traffic accident in 1997. The album was comprised of ten songs about Jesus in two formats. On one side of my cassette copy was the raw demo that Mullins recorded on a battery-powered cassette player at an abandoned church; on the other side were contemporary Christian musician covers of the same songs. The songs resonated with the pain and loneliness we must wrestle with in our relationship with a wild, loving God. They thrummed with real grace for real sinners. They made me love Jesus. At the time, I didn’t know much about Mullins’ story or why his music affected me so strongly. After watching Ragamuffin, the 2014 Rich Mullins biopic from writer/director David Schultz, I think I understand better why his music rang true.
The thread running through Mullins’ life was of loneliness and loss. As a child in rural Indiana, Mullins realized he was not cut out for his father’s life of farming. His father loved him but failed to understand Mullins’ artistic temperament and repeatedly wounded his spirit. When Mullins grew up and went to Cincinnati Bible College, he began to understand his faith better and made friendships that lasted a lifetime. He also fell in love with a young woman named Jess; they had a ten-year relationship and eventually became engaged. But when Jess wanted a simple life outside of the spotlight, and Mullins was offered a chance to go to Nashville, she broke up with him. Mullins was devastated and never fully recovered from this loss. Mullins was eventually successful in his Nashville Christian music career but was lonely and dissatisfied. He moved away from Nashville’s lights to Wichita, Kansas, to be with his wise father figure, Maurice Howard (played in the movie by Rich’s real friend and Maurice’s son, Sam). Sadly, Maurice died shortly thereafter, another devastating loss for Mullins. Having been often abandoned and alone, Mullins was sometimes needy and overly dependent in his friendships. He also battled alcoholism in the midst of his despair.
Mullins’ pain allowed him to write lyrics like these:
You who live in Heaven
Hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those who love
And who get hardened by the hurt.
—“Hard to Get”
Surrender don’t come natural to me
I’d rather fight You for something
I don’t really want
Than to take what You give that I need
Despite his flaws—which are not whitewashed by the film—Mullins was able to speak outside the commercialized product placement of the CCM scene. When a record label executive, in an attempt to be helpful, suggests, “maybe if you just had happier lyrics,” Mullins responds, “I’m not trying to be a Christian pop star, guys. I’m just tryin’ to say something true.” During another conflict, after Mullins has offended a number of Christians through his straight talk from the stage, a label executive tells him, “You’re there to make fans, not enemies.” Mullins responds, “What can I say? That’s what happens when you’re honest with religious people.” At the same time, the film does not sanitize the fact that Mullins sometimes spoke out of youthful pride.
Mullins believed strongly in God’s heart toward the poor and lowly. He actually arranged with his accountant to be paid a yearly allowance of the average working salary in America, choosing to give the rest of his large income away. He never even knew how much money he made. At one point, Mullins said,
[T]his is what I’ve come to think. That if I want to identify fully with Jesus Christ, who I claim to be my Savior and Lord, the best way that I can do that is to identify with the poor. This I know will go against the teachings of all the popular evangelical preachers. But they’re just wrong. They’re not bad, they’re just wrong. Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in a beautiful little house where you have no gays or minority groups anywhere near you. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved, and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken.
The pivotal event of Mullins’ life takes place when he encounters Brennan Manning, the author of The Ragamuffin Gospel and Abba’s Child. In the film, Manning says that God tells us, “‘I dare you to trust that I love you, just as you are, not as you should be.’ Because none of us are as we should be.” Manning was a recovering alcoholic, just like Mullins. He was instrumental in bringing healing to Mullins through his mentorship and the radical message of grace. Manning also helped Mullins heal from his longstanding wounds in his relationship with his father, thus opening the way for a better relationship with his heavenly Father.
Mullins tells Manning, “I can count on one hand how many times I’ve heard the simple proclamation of what the Gospel is really about.” Manning replies with the “Ragamuffin Gospel”: “Ragamuffins are the unsung assembly of saved sinners who are little in their own sight and aware of their brokenness and powerlessness before God. A ragamuffin knows he’s only a beggar at the door of God’s mercy.” This view of God’s grace affected Mullins for the rest of his life. His writing still reflected the pain of being human but also the untamed grace of God. He once said, “We are not saved because we’re good. We’re good because we’re saved.”
Ragamuffin is not a perfect movie. For instance, its lead, Michael Koch, takes over half an hour to begin to own his role, and I still sometimes didn’t believe him as Mullins. But when Koch sits down to a piano or picks up a guitar and begins to make music, I do believe. And the power of that music—along with the power of a man who was willing to witness to the raw grace of God shown to sinners in desperate need of His mercy—brings me back twenty years to that dark period in my life.
Indeed, if Ragamuffin were too polished, perhaps the message of God’s radical grace to imperfect people would fall short. In one concert scene, Mullins quotes Picasso’s adage that “[g]ood taste is the enemy of great art.” After all, insists Mullins, “Good taste has everything to do with being cultured and being refined, and if art has to do with anything, it has to do with being human.” He goes on to add, “If you’re half as cultured and refined as most Christians wish you were, He [Jesus] would be useless to Christianity.”
In this artistically imperfect movie, I found myself encountering God’s love directly. I found myself remembering when His grace began to break over my troubled soul when I was a teenager. In the years that followed, I have come to understand grace better theologically, but in the obfuscations of my seminary degree and the unrelenting pace of life, sometimes I forget that first raw shock of grace unmerited. Mullins’ music brings me back to the aliveness of those moments. It gives words to my lament, and it nourishes me with the Gospel.
As an adult now, I can connect with new aspects of Mullins’ beliefs and writing. I also have come to reject Christian commercialization and to appreciate the artist’s attempt to “just say somethin’ true.” As a writer, I too struggle with the tension between making my message accessible to the “market” and simply saying something meaningful that people can take or leave. Most of all, I resonate with a heart that knew the dark night of the soul and who came to know God better in the midst of that darkness. Mullins became our modern-day Psalmist, walking in the footsteps of the one who wrote,
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)