As many long term readers of this blog know, I am a huge Rich Mullins fan. I have listened to his music since the 1980's. When I discovered him, I was in medical school and had just recorded my first song with my hammer dulcimer. I thought I was doing something new and revolutionary, adding HD to contemporary Christian music lyrics. After I heard Rich, I quietly decided that I would "hand my pinball crown to him" realizing he was already doing what I dreamed of doing.
Years later, Rich's pursuit of simple living and Franciscan spirituality started me on a journey that would eventually lead to my reversion to the Catholic faith. I later discovered that Rich was pursuing becoming Catholic and was a week away from entry into the Church before his untimely death. After his death I kept his photo on the top of my hammer dulcimer and would ask him to pray for me before every concert as I opened with an original dulcimer tune in the style of Rich.
Now fast forward to this spring when Rich's brother and a movie producer released "Ragamuffin: The True Story of Rich Mullins." I was initially excited to see the movie though I was concerned that there would be little to no mention of his desire for Catholic conversion.I ( I had written to his brother David after I became Catholic and he told me "Rich had no intention of ever becoming Catholic.") As a matter of fact, his journey to the Catholic Church was surgically removed from the story and one would never know that Rich spent his last days going to daily Mass on the reservation.
Unfortunately, as I watched the movie, I saw a side of Rich that was carefully hidden from his record buying public all these years. The Nashville CCM industry did a wonderful job making sure know one knew the double life Rich was leading. One can only wonder why is brother now felt the need to tell the true story. Was he always jealous of Rich? Is it that the record royalties are all dried up now?
I was devastated by the time I walked out of the little storefront church showing the film. What I learned about Rich is that he had a lifelong struggle with alcohol and possibility other substances and was prone to fits of rage and often alienated those closest to him. As a physician, I recognize that Rich probably suffered from chronic depression worsened by his unresolved conflict with an abusive father. He self -medicated by chain-smoking and binge drinking. However, in between his episodes of debauchery, he would be onstage making young people believe that he was pursuing God with all his might. He often criticized folks in his concerts for relying on comfort and believing in the American "prosperity gospel. " Yes, he presented himself as a flawed individual, yet he continued to preach from the stage and "minister" to those who attended his concerts. He is now being held up as a great example of how God loves and uses a flawed and "complex" individual. Many are reviewing the film saying it gave them hope.
The problem is the "True Story" never presented the real story. Rich was an alcoholic with undiagnosed and untreated mental illness who was a gifted songwriter and became a celebrity among the contemporary evangelical culture. The Real Story
is that at some level Rich knew his way of practicing Christianity was not providing him the grace and strength to overcome his addictions. He knew he was living a double life. This ultimately led to his pursuit of Catholicism and his desire to go to confession and receive the Eucharist as outlined in this letter
from his friend Father Matt McGuiness. Rich knew there was something more to Christianity and thankfully started to pursue it through learning about the Catholic faith. Sadly he never got there on this side of the veil. The movie never even touched on Rich's pursuit of Catholicism and thus the "True Story" ended up as a sad and sordid tale of a gifted Christian artist trapped in mortal sin, desperately trying to change, but not knowing how. It was not redemptive in any sense of the word.
My biggest criticism of the movie and the Ragamuffin Gospel in general is that those who follow it will do just as the movie showed- never getting past their sin, never repenting, just accepting that "Jesus loves me the way I am." Of course, "while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" and He loves us as the Father loved the Prodigal son covered with mud and pig excrement. But, He then asks us to come to his house to be forgiven and change the way we live. The movie never showed that Rich was trying, through his pursuit of the Franciscan lifestyle (ie Catholicism), to get his life together. I believe his desire to leave the Nashville music/ party scene and ultimately end up attending daily mass on the Reservation was proof of this trajectory. It is extremely sad and disturbing that his brother would make a movie showing the darkness and duplicity of Rich's troubled life ignoring the very truth that would have made all the difference in the world for him.