“He reigns from heaven above with wisdom, power, and love,” I remember singing, practically shouting, along with the congregation as we sang “Awesome God.” It was our anthem on Sunday mornings, at Vacation Bible School, and at Wednesday night youth group. I don’t recall ever getting to see Rich Mullins live in concert, but his music is part of the soundtrack of my life. I will never forget the shock I felt on that morning in September 1997 when our local Christian radio station announced Rich had tragically died.
Over the years following, I experienced tragedies of my own and found myself turning to Rich’s music. I learned that his “Ragamuffin Band” name came from Brennan Manning’s book Ragamuffin Gospel, which I promptly read and loved. I remember wondering what Rich Mullin’s life had been like and what led him to be such a great songwriter theologian.
I finally got my answer when a film based on his life was released in 2014. Ragamuffin is the poignant retelling of Rich Mullin’s life, sorrows, victories, and of course his music. Personally, I have often been disappointed by many “Christian movies,” but this film is not one of them. It has a compelling story and a fabulous soundtrack (hard not to!). Michael Koch is quite convincing as Rich Mullins—I thought they had dubbed Rich’s singing voice but it’s actually the actor’s own. The film leaves a bit to be desired from a production perspective, but a measure of grace can be extended knowing they worked with a low budget of about $500,000. Overall, it presents a narrative of hope intertwined with the unexplainable heartbreak and complexities of life. This film does not attempt to sanitize the reality of pain. Some viewers may find certain dialogue a little unbelievable or preachy, but ultimately this is a film certainly worth watching.
I was surprised to learn so much about Rich Mullins through this film. I didn’t know about the complex relationship he had with his family or about his broken engagement or his battle with alcohol. I’m not entirely sure how much of Rich’s struggles were publicly known at the time, or how much I didn’t know because I was so young when Rich was alive. Either way, I was gripped by these details of his life. They gave an even richer context for the transparency, bravery, and hope of his work.
In some ways I feel like my pilgrimage has unintentional intersections with Rich’s. I’m from New Mexico, the state where he lived on the Navajo reservation (the film incorrectly says it was the Arizona side). I did mission work in Thailand, as did Rich. I have often found myself in the depths of heartache and depression, as he did. In my career and ministry I have often challenged the status quo, much like he did. But more than any of those things, I feel a personal connection to the beautiful message of songs such as “We Are Not as Strong as We Think We Are,” “Creed,” “Calling Out Your Name,” and most frequently throughout my life, “Verge of a Miracle” and “Hold Me Jesus.” I wonder if Rich ever had any idea that his music would form the prayers of hearts for decades, even after he got to “go out like Elijah.”
The movie’s tagline, a quote from Rich, is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago: “In the end it’s not gonna matter if you have a few scars, but it will matter if you didn’t live.” Perhaps Rich’s life, words, and songs from decades ago matter now more than ever. As I continue to see the headlines in our 2016 post-election America, I’m finding Ragamuffin and Rich Mullin’s music to be a welcome salve. What a beautiful reminder that even in the middle of our brokenness Jesus is there.
This film is rated PG-13. Parents should be aware that there are scenes that include smoking and drinking, as well as mild cussing. The strained dynamic between Rich and his father could also be troubling for some viewers.
For those interested, the same production company just released their film Brennan, about the life of Brennan Manning. There is also a “Ragamuffin Camp” retreat that the production company holds once a year (more information at http://colorgreenfilms.com/camp/