Last year marked the 20th anniversary of Rich Mullins’ death in a car accident at age 41. To commemorate this occasion, I am writing my memories of his music — not so much music criticism as memoir-via-music. See part 1 here and part 2 here.

I love Rich Mullins because he was willing to criticize or even reject the status quo of American Christianity; he also frustrates me at times for advancing anti-intellectual views. One song encapsulates this inner conflict perfectly for me: “Higher Education and the Book of Love.”

First of all, let me admit that I’m a bit embarrassed by the intense sincerity of “Higher Education,” which begins with a monologue over static — as if it is being broadcast on Radio Free America after the secularists have taken over:

Now we are told by people who think they know that we vary from amoeba only in the complexity of our makeup and not in what we essentially are. […] They would have us see ourselves as products […]. Used in their wars — used for their gains and then set aside when we get in their way. […] Well, I do not know that we can have a Heaven here on Earth, but I am sure we need not have a Hell either. What does it mean to be human? I cannot help but believe that it means we are spiritual, that we are responsible, and that we are free — that we are responsible to be free.

I love the line “Used in their wars…and then set aside when we get in their way,” and I am amazed to hear it on a Christian pop album from the late-Reagan/early-Bush-41-era. The idea that politicians blithely commit young people to military action and then abandon them upon their return — whether by unacceptable hospital waiting times or ridicule owing to political differences — is potent and mainstream now. This opinion, however, wasn’t mainstream in 1989 — a couple years after the Iran-Contra scandal barely made a dent in the popularity of the presidential administration and a couple years before Bush 41 achieved a 90% approval rating for the first Iraq War — and it would have been practically treasonous to the Religious Right. Scrolling through the Ragamuffin Archive, the YouTube channel of Rich Mullins videos, reveals that most of the media outlets and concert venues Rich used to promote his music were squarely in the evangelical mainstream — i.e., audiences who might have been offended by his equating consumerism with aggressively militaristic policies. I feel delighted that Rich snuck this into one of his songs at the height of his popularity.

But what to do with Rich’s seemingly antiscience attitude in the introduction? “But now we are told by people who think they know that we vary from amoeba only in the complexity of our makeup and not in what we essentially are.” Rich makes me really uncomfortable here. I am employed full-time as a science writer and view evolution as fundamental to understanding the world around us. I’ve worked in precision oncology, the attempt to target new drugs to specific patients based on genomic sequencing — a technique that uses the principles of evolution to save lives. The rest of the song doesn’t make things any easier for me, because Rich suggests that college science courses contribute to amorality:

Well when I went to college
They said boy get this straight
You’re just a tailless monkey
You’re a hairless ape […]
There ain’t no values no morals
There’s no rights and no wrongs […]

Chorus: Don’t give me that
I want the truth
Don’t say for fact
What is only your point of view […]
We best get back to what was written
In the Book of Love

Listening to this portion, I want to scream that yes, in terms of taxonomy, we are all primates; also, no, accepting that fact is not a rejection of all moral principles. This aspect of Rich — his casual creationism — challenges the sentiments elsewhere in the song that I agree with. For example, I can affirm “Don’t say for fact / What is only your point of view” in the chorus, because I know that Rich has in mind preachers who state that their interpretations of Scripture and political views are absolute dogma. To counter this problem, Rich frequently — implicitly and explicitly — redirected his listeners to worship and the Scriptures as a hedge against manipulation by self-appointed experts in places of power, e.g., prominent evangelicals insisting on a single view of God and politics. But his antipathy also extends to scientists teaching at colleges and universities. I can’t think of a clearer example of false equivalence.

There isn’t a way out of this conflict for me. I can’t say, “Well, Rich’s political views are well-informed, but he must not have known much about science.” It’s not as if his politically-charged lyrics quote Locke, and I doubt very much that he was completely ignorant of how science works. Rich was famously obstinate as well, so I can’t delude myself into believing this was a record-company decision. If the record company had that much sway over “Higher Education and the Book of Love,” they would never have let Rich say the line “Used in their wars.” I have to regard both the leaning-toward-pacifism and leaning-toward-creationism sides of Rich Mullins as equally valid and representative of who he was. Rich isn’t the only artist with whom I have a complicated relationship, either. Steve Brown peddles true grace but is also an out-and-out 7-day creationist. Michael Spencer was a pro-science hero of mine, but I can’t personally affirm his conservative views on politics. And David Zahl is awesome, but he ruined the end of Mad Men at a speaking event (jk, I probably was never going to watch it).

I don’t think that inner conflict over Rich Mullins’s music would seem unreasonable to Rich himself. If the movie Ragamuffin is at all accurate, then Rich struggled with who he was inside versus what he showed the world through his songs. For example, like his friend Brennan Manning, Rich apparently suffered from alcoholism and depression. Rich therefore wrote raw and honest songs that hint at this part of his life — “Hard to Get” and “Brother’s Keeper” come to mind — but I wonder how a triumphant praise song like “The Color Green” or “Sing Your Praise to the Lord” sounded to him in the midst of a bender or a depressive episode.

Rich Mullins’s songs are special not because they are all internally consistent, but because we get such a complex picture of the artist across his discography. Listening to Rich over many years has given me a tiny dose of humility, and I am glad I understand now that Rich was not the purely anti-evangelical zealot that I once considered him to be. It is easier to accept that I may be wrong or confused or self-contradictory (sometimes) if I believe that my heroes wouldn’t sign up for every single thing I believe. Thank you Rich, for being yourself.