Sojourner Patriotism: What Rich Mullins Teaches Us About National Belonging

24 years following Rich Mullins’ death, what can we learn from him about national belonging?

The Appalachian Mountains, “waking with the innocence of children”

“And I’ll call you my country, and be lonely for my home”

***

On this day in 1997, Rich Mullins was killed following a car accident in rural Illinois. He was 41. The news sent shockwaves across the Christian music scene, the English-speaking church, and beyond. 

I grew up listening to Rich Mullins through my Dad, right around the time of Rich’s death. I’m not sure what album he bought first, but I remember The Jesus Record, Songs and Brother’s Keeper being played on our living room CD / Vinyl turntable, and via the CD player on caravan trips through France. Before university, I remember branching out and listening to A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band. And only in recent weeks, at the instigation of a fellow pilgrim, have I picked up the two volumes of The World as I Remember It

It was Rich’s heartfelt passion and honesty that made the first and lasting impression. These hallmark qualities of Rich’s faith have brought me back to his music time and again. As Hannah Rich has recently argued, such genuine faith has often put Rich at odds with the mainstream Christian music industry of his day, and ours. For Mullins, faith had to be “active” to be truly alive (as Rich commented upon moving to the Navajo reservation on the Arizona border: “I can make records for the rest of my life and talk about love, but it won’t mean anything until I love somebody”. Faith spoke truth to power. It was not personal and private but political. It was honest to God about its doubts (the demo version of Hard to Get was a dear friend to me through many a long, dark night of the soul at university). It was also honest to God about its joys. This faith challenges our many false dichotomies, all of our “vain imaginations / and misguided pieties”. 

On the 24th anniversary of Rich Mullins’ passing, I want to focus on a slightly different paradox within his music. This is the curiously neglected theme that I consider to be a leitmotif running throughout his works—the experience of home. For Rich, the theme of home relates deeply, though not straightforwardly, to experiences of national belonging, since both have to do with one’s roots, the stuff of which we are made. In what follows, I want to briefly consider the following question: what might Rich Mullins have to teach us about national belonging and patriotism, about belonging to home and, conversely, the experience of homesickness? I will suggest that there are two animating experiences which exist in tension within Rich’s account of home: the first is the passionate desire of the lover who celebrates the particular place to which she belongs; and the second is the homesick longing of the sojourner who is lonely for his true home with God. 

Continue reading “Sojourner Patriotism: What Rich Mullins Teaches Us About National Belonging”