Monday, April 29, 2013

Manning to Mullins, and So On

On April 12, Brennan Manning died.  He was a Christian writer, best known for writing “The Ragamuffin Gospel” (though he wrote about 20 other books, as well).  Outside of Christian circles, Manning was not widely recognized.  Why his works didn’t “crossover” into mainstream culture, I don’t know.

But those who liked him like him a lot.  It's debatable whether Brennan Manning would even crack a list of the 50 most recognized Christian authors of the last 50 years; but in terms of “admiration garnered per fan,” Manning would rank near the top.  This intense admiration is exemplified by a couple of descriptions of Manning that I stumbled across on the internet: “The Grandfather of Grace” and “Our Ragamuffin Pope.”

In the mid- to late-nineties, I was on the Brennan Manning bandwagon.  I read and loved “The Ragamuffin Gospel.”  For a few months, he may have been my favorite author.  And I still do love his works and his message, by the way.  Though I have not devoured everything he has ever written, I am someone who appreciated him and his message, and was influenced by it.

It wasn’t until later that I discovered how much Manning had influenced me.

It turned out that Manning had made quite the impact on Rich Mullins.  Rich Mullins was a Christian singer/songwriter throughout the 1980’s into the mid-nineties.  Many people with the credibility to say such things regard him as one of the greatest lyricists in the history of contemporary Christian music.  If his music and career had been shifted back in time about 15 years, he would probably be regarded as “the Bob Dylan of CCM” (except by people who consider Bob Dylan to be the Bob Dylan of CCM, but that’s another debate).

Mullins died in a car accident in 1997 at the age of 41.  It was shortly after his death that I stumbled across a story that is now legendary in Christian music circles.  In the early 1990’s, Rich Mullins was driving through Kansas when his friend insisted that they listen to a particular book-on-tape: “The Ragamuffin Gospel,” by Brennan Manning.  Though Mullins was already a Christian who wrote and recorded profound and popular songs about God, he testified that this was the moment that the grace of God finally penetrated his soul in a way that it never had.  Mullins was so impacted that he renamed his band “The Ragamuffin Band," and included the phrase in the title of his next album.  He also wrote a forward to a subsequent printing of Manning's book.

Brennan Manning’s insights have impacted me directly and significantly.  But his indirect influence on me—through Rich Mullins—is immeasurable.  Mullins, you see, is my single favorite Christian artist.  His lyrics have impacted and influenced me as much as anyone’s—including Bruce Springsteen.

I had already been thinking about Rich Mullins in these past few weeks, because my daughters have been requesting some of his songs in the car.  My younger daughter asked me about him, and we came to talk about how he lived and how he died.  When we drive to Rockford to visit Beth’s family, we pass the spot where Mullins died back in ’97.

But when Brennan Manning died, an even greater sadness and appreciation stirred up in me again.  I started thinking about a few of Mullins' songs, and why I like them so much.

I imagine Brennan Manning would get a kick out of knowing that someone’s idea of a tribute to him in the days after his death is to list some songs of a musician that was influenced by a book of his.  I suspect he would appreciate it a lot, actually.

Instead of focusing on songs, per se, of Mullins, I’m going to list 5 of my favorite lines from Rich Mullins songs.  These lines collectively illustrate why I appreciate his artistry so much; each of these lines expresses profound truths about God and following Him; and they do it in simple, ironic, and even playful words.

LINE:  “Surrender don’t come natural to me / I’d rather fight you for something I don’t really want / then to take what you give that I need.”
SONG, ALBUM:  Hold Me Jesus, “A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band”
WHY IT IMPRESSES ME:  If someone asked me to draw from my own experience and explain what it is that he’s describing, it would take me an hour.  Even if I could reduce it to a phrase or two, it would still be cumbersome and would end with me saying, “Does that make sense?”  Here, Mullins takes this concept and explains it in what may very well be the most succinct and clear manner in which a human could possibly explain it—oh, and the words themselves happen to be rhythmic and lyrical.
SOMETHING I PROBABLY WOULD NOT HAVE WRITTEN WITHOUT HAVING BEEN INFLUENCED BY THIS SONG:  It's an unfinished fragment of a song called Mostly Just Hyde. The chorus goes: "Some days I'm Dr. Jeckyll / And some I'm mostly just Hyde / Some days I choose to follow you / Some days I can't decide."

LINE:  “Oh, Eli / There’s a sanctity in your innocence / A certain beauty and no uncertain strength / that brings me to the faith / I don’t know if I / If I am climbing to or falling in.”
SONG, ALBUM:  Eli’s Song, “Brother’s Keeper”
WHY IT IMPRESSES ME:  The last part of the lyric—“If I am climbing to or falling in”—is another one of those perfectly succinct capturings of something.  I’m like, “Yeah, that’s exactly it—but I never would have thought to say it like that.”  But the phrase before that—“A certain beauty and no uncertain strength”—is insightful and playful.  I enjoy using the language itself to engage connoisseurs of lyrics.
SOMETHING I PROBABLY WOULD NOT HAVE WRITTEN WITHOUT HAVING BEEN INFLUENCED BY THIS SONG:  I've tried a handful of times to use linguistically-in-tension phrases to create a vibe.  A very in-passing example of one of my attempts is in Home, when I wrote "barely caring and barely giving a second thought to a single thing..."  "Second" contrasts with "single".  To what effect, I'm not sure, but it's fun.  :)
LINE:  “If I stand let me stand on the promise / that you will pull me through / and if I can’t let me fall on the grace / that first brought me to you.”
SONG, ALBUM:  If I Stand, “Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth”
WHY IT IMPRESSES ME:  The words are simple, and I fear they may even be written off by some as clichéd, but I think they are an elegant declaration of loyalty through whatever may come his way.  They are very much like marriage vows to God (Mullins never married), and Mullins has the credibility to infuse this straightforward proclamation with boundless sincerity.
SOMETHING I PROBABLY WOULD NOT HAVE WRITTEN WITHOUT HAVING BEEN INFLUENCED BY THIS SONG:  This one is finished but not yet posted.  It's called "I'll Follow You," and the Mullins-influenced line is "You pulled me from the darkened depths / So for all my days I will trace your steps / I will follow you."
LINE:  “I can’t see where you’re leading me unless you’ve led me here / Where I’m lost enough to let myself be led / And so, you’ve been here all along I guess / It’s just your ways and you are just plain hard to get.”
SONG, ALBUM:  Hard to Get, “The Jesus Record”
WHY IT IMPRESSES ME:  Most of what I said about “Hold Me Jesus” and “If I Stand”.  I read these words in the liner notes of the CD case on the day the album was released, while standing by a display case in the Christian book store in the mall (I think I just dated myself in about 5 different ways).  I got to this line and cried.  This album was released posthumously, so the sadness of knowing that Rich wouldn’t be writing anymore lyrics for me combined with the poignancy to trigger my emotional outpouring.  To this day, I may consider this to be the single greatest lyric I have ever read.  Structurally, the song follows a Springsteen-esque pattern of replacing a traditional chorus with single returning line/image at the end of each verse (“Jungleland” and “Tunnel of Love” come to mind as two examples).  Mullins’ recurring phrase is “hard to get,” but the striking twist that he pulls off is switching how it is used in the last verse.  In the first two verses, he accuses God of playing hard to get, like a lover who wants to be “got” but enjoys the chase.  The last verse—which may be more tragic than hopeful if the song were removed from the context of its album—Mullins seems to abruptly break off the chase, essentially blurting out, “I just don’t get you” (i.e., “you are just plain hard to get”).  The reader/listener realizes that the images in the preceding verses were all jabs, setting up for the knock-out punch at the end of the song.  Once I picked myself up off the ground, I tipped my cap, acknowledging the genius of a man who used every artistic tool at his disposal to create the most gutwrenching lyric imaginable.
SOMETHING I PROBABLY WOULD NOT HAVE WRITTEN WITHOUT HAVING BEEN INFLUENCED BY THIS SONG:  Also finished but not yet posted, I've got an entire song called "Will You Reach Me" that is my most conscious attempt to model the entirety of a poem after the work of someone else.  Here's the bridge: "You were right there when I found you, but now it seems you're lost / While you count up my faithless tears, I'll recount the cost / If this test of faith is over now I think we'd both agree I failed / I admit I need your grace to pass--must you keep your presence veiled? / 'Cause now hopeless desperation oozes out of me like sweat / Are the promises of heaven all that in this life we'll get?"

LINE:  “…the Lord takes by its corners this old world and shakes us forward—shakes us free / To run wild with the hope / The hope that this thirst will not last long, that it will son drown in the song not sung in vain.”
SONG, ALBUM:  Calling Out Your Name, “The World as Best as I Remember It, Volume One”
WHY IT IMPRESSES ME:  This song is front-loaded with imagery, and springboards from that imagery into theological insight--which culminates with this lyric.  It's a great and hopeful image.  From a more "nuts and bolts" perspective, I love the slightly unconventional sentence structure in the first part.  Placing the prepositional phrase "by its corners" in between the verb ("takes") and the object ("this old world") is NOT typically how one would speak this sentence; but lyrically, both the flow and the clarity are enhanced, and the mood conveyed is all the more whimsical.
SOMETHING I PROBABLY WOULD NOT HAVE WRITTEN WITHOUT HAVING BEEN INFLUENCED BY THIS SONG: In "Highway 1" I tried to blend imagery with insight, as Mullins does here.  I went for the same thing in the song that I wrote for Grant and his family.  Additionally, in that song I used some alternative sentence structure, like in the last verse: "All these stories, songs, and scriptures, conversations, prayers, and pictures / instead of sharing time with Grant it’s these things that we share.  /  But then, through them, God’s bestowing all the things that where Grant’s going  /  he won’t need—like faith and hope—but that we will until we're there."  Shawn and Emily let me know that they appreciated my efforts, and I'm glad for that.  It's funny that way: without the efforts of Rich Mullins, I may have settled on writing a nice note to try to capture my feelings.  It was from reading songs like Calling Out Your Name that I thought, "You know, maybe I could convey what I'm thinking in a poetic and/or lyrical manner."

The influence of Manning-to-Mullins, Mullins-to-The Hungry Preacher is hardly linear.  It is a web, and it involves hundreds of voices, all of which ultimately derive their influence from God.  I am grateful for the impact Manning has made on my life, directly or otherwise.  Like I said, I am sure that he would get a kick out of seeing how uncontained his influence was.  He is missed, but his impact remains.



  1. I'll offer my favorite Rich Mullins lyric: "I've seen on the highway of a million exit ramps / two-legged memorials to the laws of happenstance / waiting for four-wheeled messiahs to take them home again / I'm home anywhere, if you are where I am."

    There are so many fantastic morsels in these lines: two-legged vs. four-wheeled, rhyming "exit ramps" with "happenstance," the alliteration of "for four-wheeled." More than that, this lyric has become especially meaningful to me the longer I've lived outside my homeland. I'm never quite at home in the country where I live, and yet I know I will never be quite at home when I return to the United States, either. This song reminds me always of my real home. I have a picture in my mind of Rich driving past the beggars on the side of the road and suddenly being overcome with the presence of the Lord, suddenly not having to wonder if he'll ever feel at home himself. Maybe it never happened, but it gives me hope.


  2. Yes, good stuff. The lines you site exemplify most of the characteristics about Mullins' lyrics that I like.

    In a round-about sort of way, your comment here got me to finish my latest post. My thought process went something like, "That's nice that someone read this and had some thoughts about it. You know, I should post one of those lyrics of mine that I referenced in this post. Oh, I know--I'll post the one that is already finished, but that I haven't posted yet. Actually, you know what? I'm going to finish one of them and post that one." The rest is history. So thanks for the round-about challenge. :)

    I hope you're doing well. Good hearing from you. I expect you to have the entire Mullins catalogue translated into German the next time I see you.


  3. Like Mullins, I was already a Christian when I found "The Ragamuffin Gospel", but a small group study on that book back in 1996 really kickstarted my understanding of the Gospel. I try to re-read it every couple years.