I first encountered the music of Rich Mullins as a kid, when my younger brother got a tape of his album Pictures in the Sky. Although I wasn’t initially drawn toward Mullins’ musical style, I — like many — took notice when “Awesome God” became a smash hit.

However, it wasn’t until the release of The World As Best As I Remember It, Volume 2 that I became a real fan. “Sometimes by Step” was a beautifully written song about faith in the midst of struggle and doubt. I connected with that song and that album deeply. The release of A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band was the clincher for me: from that point on, Rich Mullins was far and away my favorite musician. I attended his concerts, bought everything he released, and even purchased his music videos.

When I had a chance to coordinate and promote a Christian concert during my sophomore year at A&M, I knew immediately that we had to bring Rich to our campus. That’s how, in April 1996, this star-struck kid found himself riding in Mullins’ Jeep, on our way to eat together at The Black-Eyed Pea. We ate with a group of roughly 15 students. During the few hours we spent together, I found that his personality off-stage was essentially what I had seen on-stage. First, he was friendly. He went around the table and asked every one of us about our studies, our home towns, and our favorite music. Second, he had an offbeat but charming sense of humor. To be honest, he told some mildly off-color jokes. He seemed to enjoy lightly teasing and shocking our religious sensibilities. Third, he was as talented from up close as he was from far away. I stood in the wings of the stage that night and watched in awe as he played the piano, guitar, and hammered dulcimer with near virtuoso skill. At times, his fellow musician Mitch McVicker stood off-stage, and he was clearly just as surprised and in awe as I was. The depth of his songs, the power of his preaching, and the skill of his playing were simply unmatched in Christian music.

I’m still unaware of any Christian musician who writes or plays like Rich did. I’m also unaware of any Christian musician who better captured in song the “reckless raging fury that they call the love of God.” When I listen to his music, I feel like I’m getting a small glimpse behind the veil of God’s love and power. It’s as if Rich knew something about God that I don’t, and was kind enough to let me in on it for the duration of a 3-5 minute song.

I provide all of this background as context for my evaluation of the new movie Ragamuffin, based on Rich’s life. (In case you don’t know, Rich Mullins died in a car wreck in 1997, at the age of 41). The film is currently being screened at churches and small venues across the country.

It’s clear the filmmakers had a single underlying goal, to demonstrate how radically the unconditional love of God transformed Rich Mullins. They were also determined to show that God can use broken vessels. Rich’s father is portrayed as a difficult man, a farmer who worked hard but struggled to express tenderness and love to his children. Because of this deficiency and other early rejections in his life, Rich struggled throughout his life with loneliness, anger, and even alcoholism. Despite those struggles — and in part because of them — he wrote unbelievably powerful songs that changed lives like mine.

Here’s what the film does well: Rich is portrayed as an ordinary guy who was effective primarily because of God’s hand on his life. None of his sins or struggles diminished the very real presence of God’s Spirit in his music and life. I found myself in tears at one point during the film, when Rich comes to terms with the deficiencies of his earthly father and accepts the unconditional love of his heavenly Father.

Here’s what I think the film did wrong: Rich is often portrayed as a man without grace, kindness or humor. (So is his father, but that’s beyond the scope of this post). If I lacked my previous familiarity with his life and music, I would have walked away with a negative impression of the man. It has taken me a few days to process what I felt and thought during the film, especially since it centered on one of my heroes. However, I think the filmmakers, in an attempt to avoid “sainting” Rich, have erred too far in the other direction. There were a few moments of kindness and light in the film, but they were too few and far between.

There are clearly good reasons why even Rich’s close friends and family consistently talked about him with a sort of reverence, why they followed him across the country and back to play with him and listen to him. He inspired loyalty and trust, and I would have been interested to learn more about exactly why he inspired those feelings in people. There was a depth to his life and writing that the film could have emphasized better.

All that to say, if you are a fan of Rich and his music, this is worth viewing, if only because it provides a different perspective. If you are unfamiliar with him, I’d recommend getting to know him a bit first. Listen to both of his compilation albums (Songs and Songs 2, the titles of which give you a bit of perspective on his sense of humor). Find a copy of Here in America, and watch the concert and interview DVDs. You’ll see a bit of a different man than the one portrayed in the film. Then, if you want to learn a bit more about his struggles and how God prevailed through them, find a screening near you and watch the movie.

Artists and poets like Rich are often quite complex and difficult to understand. The challenge we face is learning to appreciate them for who they are, without canonizing or demonizing them. Watching this movie and thinking about it has been a good exercise for me in learning those skills.

And whatever you do, go buy his albums and listen to them if you want to encounter the love and power of an awesome God.

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