Brennan – the full length trailer

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Since I seem to be on a trailer kick this week, I’d like to share this one that just dropped.

By David Leo Schultz, the maker of Ragamuffin, the biopic of singer Rich Mullins, Brennan is film about Brennan Manning, the author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, the book that had a profound impact on Rich Mullins, and by extension – on all of us who loved Rich Mullins.

While I wasn’t a huge fan of Ragamuffin, I appreciated what the filmmakers were trying to do, and appreciated that they created a renewed interest in the life and work of Rich Mullins. I look forward to seeing where they take the story of Brennan, who was at least as compelling a person as Rich – maybe even more.

Also, I’m glad to see that Brennan is going to have some humor in it, which was one thing that I felt Ragamuffin lacked.

My review of Ragamuffin, in case anyone is interested.

4 Things Christian Artists Can Learn From The Life Of Rich Mullins

RichMullinscropThis weekend marks eighteen years [edit: now twenty-one] since the death of singer/songwriter Rich Mullins, who died tragically in a car accident just outside of Bloomington, Illinois on September 19, 1997.

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Rich’s life had a profound impact on me. This is true for me as a Christian, as an artist, and as a man. I’m not alone, as evidenced by the continued interest in his life nearly twenty years after he “went out like Elijah,” as well as the continued popularity of his music.

As I realized we were getting close to this date, it got me to thinking about Rich. I knew I had to write something about him, but I’ve already told the story of the time we met (A Memory of Rich Mullins), and I’ve also already written about the profound impact Rich had on my first novel, Thimblerig’s Ark (Thimblerig the Ragamuffin).

So what could I say that hasn’t already been said?

And this morning, as I walked to work, it hit me.

What would Rich have to say to Christian artists today, living in the internet age as we do, with our instant communication, immediate access to anything in the world, and the hyper-commercialization of everything from Christian music to Christian books to Christian movies? How would he have us measure success? By number of downloads? Likes or shares or follows or upvotes? Hits on a webpage? Or would it be something else?

In this blog post, I will look at Rich’s life and music with these questions in mind. I do this with full understanding that I am no expert on Rich Mullins, but I am a person who admired Rich and the way he lived his life, and the way he lived out his faith.

I hope that readers will read this post through that particular prism. And I would encourage you to take the time to listen to all of the songs I’ve linked as you read, to fully experience the music of Rich Mullins today.

4 Things Christian Artists Can Learn From The Life and Music Of Rich Mullins

1. The Value of Authenticity

One of the reasons Rich’s music resonates with so many people is the authenticity that he poured into his lyrics. While he gained fame by writing Awesome God, one of the most popular and oft-performed worship songs of the past thirty years, I’m more drawn to Rich’s songs that went to a personal level, songs that asked heart-wrenching questions, made uncomfortable confessions, disclosed relatable doubts, and repeated admissions of his flaws and his human weakness.

These were the songs that made Rich stand out from the crowd.

And especially when considering the so-called “culture wars” that take so much of our time, we need a strong reminder of the value and strength found in practicing a bit of humble self-examination, as well as a willingness to admit just how screwed up we are.

For example, take Rich’s song, Hard to Get, that tries to figure out God’s silence.

Do you remember when You lived down here?
Where we all scrape to find the faith to ask for daily bread
Did You forget about us after You had flown away?
Well I memorized every word You said

Still I’m so scared, I’m holding my breath
While You’re up there just playing hard to get

And then there’s one of my favorite songs, Hold Me Jesus, which Rich wrote after facing some intense temptation during a trip to Amsterdam with his musical partner, Beaker.

Well, sometimes my life just don’t make sense at all

When the mountains look so big and my faith just seems so small

So hold me, Jesus, ’cause I’m shaking like a leaf

You have been King of my glory, won’t you be my Prince of Peace

In both these examples, we see an artist who isn’t afraid to explore his own weaknesses and frailty, both in song and in life. This sort of authenticity made Rich a refreshing voice in the world of 80’s and 90’s Contemporary Christian Music, and it’s something we desperately need today.

Imagine if we were as open about our sins, the temptations we face, our failures, both in our art and in our lives. What if our art reflected our utter dependence on a God who doesn’t toss us aside because of those sins and temptations, but holds us closer in spite of them?

Imagine the power in our art if it did a better job reflecting our inadequacies rather than painting a picture of a people who have it all together, a people with moral and cultural superiority. What could God do with that?

Because I think we know – and I know the world knows – that the truth about us ain’t pretty.

2. The Value of Artistry

One reason Rich was able to succeed at being an artist with an overtly Christian message was the fact that he was also a seriously talented musician who wasn’t afraid to buck trends and take risks when it suited his artistic vision. This not only endeared him to Christian audiences, but also gained him respect from the secular world.

While these days it’s not so revolutionary to have unusual folkish instrumentation in music, in the synth-heavy CCM world of the 80’s and guitar-riffed early 90’s, what other CCM artist was featuring a hammered dulcimer? Who even knew what a hammered dulcimer was back then, outside of Appalachia?

Yes, Mullins was passionate about God, but he was also a consummate musician, and a master lyricist (the last two ideas he would have rejected vehemently, by the way). And since film is the artistic medium I’m most passionate about, this reminds me how I long for a community of filmmakers who really love the Lord, but who also love the medium of film the way Rich loved music, and who can talk about both with a Rich-like affection and understanding.

I long for a community of Christian filmmakers who can talk about story as well as salvation, technique as well as the Trinity, and Kurosawa as well as Koinonia.

I long for a community of Christian filmmakers who have a vision for producing well-crafted films that honor God in their story and subject matter, films that will challenge the audience in new and unique ways, and who are willing to buck the trends of faith-based filmmaking to bring that vision to the screen.

In short, I long for a community of filmmakers who will be to Christian film what Rich Mullins was to Christian music.

3. The Value of Having a Unique Voice

And the coal trucks come a-runnin’
With their bellies full of coal
And their big wheels a-hummin’
Down this road that lies open like the soul of a woman
Who hid the spies who were lookin’
For the land of the milk and the honey
And this road she is a woman
She was made from a rib
Cut from the sides of these mountains
Oh these great sleeping Adams
Who are lonely even here in paradise
Lonely for somebody to kiss them
and I’ll sing my song, and I’ll sing my song
In the land of my sojourn

There’s no mistaking a Rich Mullins lyric, especially in his last few albums.

Rich combined his love of God, the Scriptures, nature, and his own struggles and experiences in a way which made his writing apparent. The songs he came up with were the opposite of commercial, unlike anything being produced at the time by other Christian bands, and yet he was a huge commercial success.

I can’t speak for the rest of Christendom, but I can say that – for myself – I long for the authentic. I want to experience art that doesn’t provide easy answers. I want to experience art that pricks my conscience, that shows beauty and wonder at what God is doing in the world. I want art that reflects all aspects of my faith, from my doubts to my joys to my failures to my awe of the power and majesty of God.

Rich did this. With his unique voice, and vision, and view of the world, he did this consistently and masterfully.

A perfect example of Rich’s ability to create art that was deep and yet still accessible is one of his most commercially successful songs, which he co-wrote with Beaker. This is a song that – as a chorus – is still regularly sung in churches today.

Sometimes by Step, from the album, The World as Best as I Remember It, Volume Two.

Sometimes the night was beautiful
Sometimes the sky was so far away
Sometimes it seemed to stoop so close
You could touch it but your heart would break
Sometimes the morning came too soon
Sometimes the day could be so hot
There was so much work left to do
But so much You’d already done

With this song, Rich and Beaker managed to do something that seems impossible. They wrote an infinitely singable chorus that sang the praises of God, and then surrounded it with verses that vividly and beautifully painted a picture of the worship of that same God.

As artists, we need to seek out the unique voice that we’ve been given, and not be afraid to apply it to what we create. This is especially necessary if we are laboring in a commercial field, because just as God used Rich in all his uniqueness to do something nobody would ever guess (Rich definitely doesn’t look like a rock star), He can use any of us.

As Rich wrote…

And you never know who God is gonna use
A princess or a baby
Or maybe even you or me.

4. The Centrality of the Love of God

My final point may seem evident, but it needs to be said.

If you are a Christian artist pursuing art that is labeled “Christian” or “faith-based” or even “spiritual” for any reason other than in response to the love of God, then there’s a good chance that you are in the wrong business.

Are you looking for fame? Then you should move to Hollywood or New York and give it a go just like everyone else. Don’t try and piggyback on the niche popularity of Christian books or music or theater or film or (fill in the blank) in an attempt to be the Next Big Christian Thing.

© David R Banta

© David R Banta

Consider that Rich, at the height of his music career, when his records were selling thousands of copies, decided to do something that most people would consider to be suicide for a CCM musician. He left Nashville and moved to Wichita, with the ultimate goal of moving to a native American reservation where he would teach music to kids.

And he did it in response to the love of God.

Are you seeking to gain fortune through Christian art – profiting off the generous dollars of your brothers and sisters in the name of ministry? I’m not talking about just trying to put bread on the table or pay back students loans, but actual fortune for the sake of fortune. Profiting off the cross of Christ.

Consider that Rich, not wanting to be tempted by the immensity of his success, arranged that all of the money earned from his music would come to his church, and the church would pay him a living wage, and then give the rest to charity. Reportedly, Rich never knew (and didn’t want to know) how his music sold, or how much money his concerts earned. He reportedly just didn’t care.

And he did this as a response to the love of God.

Now, with all that being said, I think that probably, if Rich were able to speak to us today, he would tell me to stop focusing on him. He would tell me to stop wasting time dwelling on his accomplishments, or his songs, or his life.

I think that Rich would probably tell me to start focusing on the one thing that really matters most: The love of God.

The reckless, raging fury that they call love of God.

And so that is where I will end this blog post, focusing on the love of the One for whom Rich lived, and created, and sang.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
I cannot find in my own
And He keeps His fire burning
To melt this heart of stone
Keeps me aching with a yearning
Keeps me glad to have been caught
In the reckless raging fury
That they call the love of God




Rich Mullins Interview • Ichthus Festival, 1996

In the midst of the 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge, I think a little Rich is called for, as refreshment.

Sorry for the quality of the recording.  It was, after all, the 90’s.

[on moving away from Nashville to a Navajo reservation to teach music to kids] I just kind of got tired of the white evangelical middle class sort of perspective on God and I thought maybe I would have more luck finding Christ among the pagan Navajos.

If I were going to be a good car, if Mr. Ford had invented me and I wanted to bring Mr. Ford glory, what would I do?  I wouldn’t go conquer countries, I wouldn’t plow fields, I would simply be a car.

If I believe that God is good, which I think as a Christian we must, then I have to believe that my life is good whether or not I like it, whether or not I find it particularly pleasant or easy or exciting or what.  If God is good, and if life is a gift that we are given from God, then I must learn to accept my life.

I kind of tend to think that we should be God’s person in the place where we are, and if God wants you to go to Egypt, he will provide eleven jealous brothers and they will sell you into slavery.

Man, I miss him.

40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media • Day 3

Anyone get why this picture is here?  20 points to the first person who can tell me in the comment section.

Anyone get why this picture is here? 20 points to the first person who can tell me in the comment section.

Here it is, the end of the third day of my challenge to consume only Christian media, and I’ve survived.

Not only survived, but I’ve actually learned something, I think.

I’m ashamed to say it, but taking part in this challenge has brought home to me the obscene amount of media that I consume on a daily basis, without even realizing it. As if waking up from a dream, I clearly see now that from morning until night, I’ve got somebody else doing their level best to manipulate or influence me in some way.

“Buy this product! Be scared of this threat! Believe this ideology! Curse this leader! Praise this celebrity! Think like I do! Achieve! Agree! Purchase! Comment! Consume!”

watch-tvThe craziest thing about this is that just a few years ago, we were taking in a fraction of the media that we consume now. Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, we had four television stations, a morning newspaper, a collection of books, magazines, and records, and on the occasion of something really good to see, an infrequent trip to the cinema.

Now, we carry all of those things around in the device in our pockets.

And we’re constantly staring at the little screen.

And taking in the noise of it all.

Having nothing but Christian media to consume has forced me to turn my back on 95% of the noise, and my subconscious desire to see the vacuum filled has been foiled time and time again these last three days. It’s certainly not been from a lack of trying, but from a lack of much to interest me coming from the world of Christian media.

51VzxrUA+NL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Yes, I have found some things that I like.  I’ve enjoyed listening to a few good podcasts (Steve Brown, etc; More Than One Lesson; Christ and Pop Culture); I’ve started what seems to be an interesting novel (The Green Ember by S.D. Smith); I watched The Song (read my review here); and I began developing the habit of waking up every morning to Skye Jethani‘s daily devotional – which also includes a good reading of Scripture.

I’ve also spent hours wading through all sorts of Christian media that hasn’t interested me in the least.  Some, because of the content, and most others because of the quality, or lack thereof.

But I think this has been a good thing.  Even though there’s not much to interest me, I have been impressed by how many Christians are still out there creating.  This, I believe, is to be celebrated.  Rather than just consuming the noise, they are trying to create something that offers a counterpoint to the noise.

After all, there is the off chance that God will do what He did so often in Scripture, and use our weakness to show his strength, and even our often unimpressive media to draw people to Himself.  Does that mean He desires us to make bad media?  Of course not.  Might it mean that He wants us to do our best, depending on Him along the way?  I think so.

Yes, God uses some pretty foolish things and pretty inadequate people to point others to Himself.  Who knows?  He might even be using this blog!  Wouldn’t that be something?

To celebrate that idea, I leave you today with one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite singers (Christian or otherwise). Enjoy, and be about the business of being creative – no matter what you do.

By the way, I’d just like to point out that it’s been about one year since I published my first novel, Thimblerig’s Ark.  My own attempt to create a counterpoint to the noise.  I’d love to hear what folks think about it!


Beware of Christians – Thimblerig’s Review

The other day, I came across the trailer for an upcoming film called Believe Me, which has this logline: “Desperate, broke, and out of ideas, four college seniors start a fake charity to embezzle money for tuition.”


This film caught my eye because it is being marketed as the anti-faith-based film – a movie made by Christians that tells the kind of story most faith-based filmmakers aren’t willing to tell.  It is a movie that the filmmakers aren’t interested in labeling a “Christian movie”.   In an interview with The Christian Post, director Will Bakke said emphatically, “to be clear, ‘Believe Me’ is not a Christian movie. Christianity is the backdrop to the story, but there’s no hidden agenda or altar call at the end of it.”

When I read this interview, part of me was intrigued.  After all, it sounded like these guys were trying to do exactly what I’ve been challenging the readers of this blog that Christians needed to be doing – making good films that don’t necessarily have “a family-friendly, faith-based, Dove Foundation approved” label slapped onto it.  A film that might actually attract people from outside of the church, and plant a few seeds through excellent storytelling rather than bashing them on the head with didactic on-the-nose preaching.

You know, kind of like Jesus used to do.

Radical idea, eh?

But then my cynical nature popped up, and the warning lights started flashing.  After all, what if these guys were playing some sort of game?  What if they were conning us, just like the characters in their film?  What if they were just a group of guys who really weren’t interested in the Christian faith, but who were savvy enough to recognize that there were a LOT of Christians out there who haven’t jumped on the sub-par faith-based film bandwagon?  That there were lots of us looking for an “anti-faith-based” film made by Christians?

What if they just saw that there was money to be made by saying all the right things, but not really believing them?

So, being the good blogger journalist I’m endeavoring to be, I decided to do some research.  I scoured their website, where I saw that these guys were pretty creative and seemed to be a bit on the hipster side with their retro Mad Men suits, but what I didn’t see was anything that confirmed or denied what they were saying in the interviews.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 1.04.35 PM

I realized I would have to go a step further, and check out one of their previous films in the hope that I might get some confirmation, one way or the other, which led me to download Riot Studio’s 2010 provocatively-titled documentary, Beware of Christians.

Beware of Christians is a film made by four young college-aged Christians who decide to spend five weeks backpacking across Europe, talking to people and each other about their thoughts on God and the following seven topics: identity, materialism sex/relationships, church, wealth/poverty, media/entertainment, and alcohol.  The film opened with one of my favorite quotes from Brennan Manning, which caught my attention and started me wondering if the Riot Studios boys might be Ragamuffins, too:

“The single greatest cause of atheism today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and deny him with their lifestyle.”

It was a good sign, and so I pressed on.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 1.16.42 PMFilmed as if the viewer had just walked up on a conversation in progress, we’re introduced to the four affable young men: Alex, Will, Michael, and Matt, sitting around a table surrounded by darkness, but bathed in a single light.  They are typical early 20-somethings, talking alot, often about nothing at all, but surprisingly sometimes about much, much deeper things.

Through a series of quick shots, they share the reason for this documentary – to get away from all of the influences and distractions of their American Christian lives to try and figure out what Jesus wants from them.

And so they fly off to Europe for five weeks to try and wrangle this out.

This thought came to me pretty early on in the viewing:  When I was in college, why the heck didn’t I think of flying off to Europe with my friends and making it into a documentary?

But I digress.

On the one hand, I appreciated that these four guys were earnestly asking questions, and I appreciated that they seemed willing to dig deeper into the things they’d been taught growing up in the Bible belt.  Too many Christians never take that step, blindly believing what they’re taught.  This makes for flabby, sheep-like Christians who typically end up following a charismatic pastor rather the Good Shepherd.  These misguided sheep also don’t have a problem flocking to poorly made “faith-based” films because the films hit all the right beats that reaffirm their place in the flock.  In Beware, I was impressed both by the questions these four asked, and the fact that they were willing to search – not for something to replace their faith, but for how to be authentic Christians.

On the other hand, it was obvious from the get-go that I was not a part of the intended demographic for this film.  The filmmakers plainly made this film for their peers – churched kids in their late teens or early twenties – not married dads in their mid-forties.  This meant that as I watched the film, I had an increasing awareness that I’m years away from the stage of life of the intended audience, and while I don’t claim to understand everything about the Christian faith, I have already been through much of the same soul-searching, but it’s been a while.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 1.31.06 PMThe result?  Half the time I wanted to pat these guys on the back in support of the spiritual journey they were documenting, and the other half the time I wanted to smack them upside the head for their goofiness and general immaturity.  Really?  Dressing like gladiators and fighting with toy swords at The Coliseum?  Stealing your friend’s postcards and lying about it?  Does twenty years of life really make that much of a difference?  I suppose it does.

Perhaps an unintended consequence of watching Beware of Christians was a renewed respect for the folks who are called to minister in campus organizations like Intervarsity, Crusade, or FCA, or those called to teach on university campuses.

To speak to the quality of the film…

This is the second film that Riot Studios produced, and so while the film was reasonably well-cut, and the pacing was fairly brisk, the finished product was still a bit rough and I felt like it could have done with some trimming.  For example, it seemed like they tried to create a little conflict between a couple of the guys with the previously mentioned stolen postcards running gag, but in my opinion, this was a darling that should have been killed.  It didn’t add to the film, and just made Alex and Will look a bit like jerks.  Just let the guy send his postcards!

Overall, I would recommend the film for youth groups or university ministries, as those demographics would probably appreciate the antics of the leads, but more importantly, the film could be a great launching point for discussion about God, life, and the Christian faith.  The quartet does a good job of raising questions, and I was gratified to see that they consistently look for answers in the right place.

And the best part for me is that now I won’t go into Believe Me with any reservations about the spiritual foundation undergirding the filmmakers.  I feel reassured that they will probably be doing their best to produce a well-made film that will contain an important nugget or two of truth, even without a hidden agenda or alter call.  And I hope beyond hope that it will be the anti-faith-based Christian film that I’ve been waiting for.

And considering that Believe Me has Nick Offerman in a supporting role, I think there’s a pretty good chance that it will be just that.


A Word on Artistry for Christians from Rich Mullins

On Sheila Walsh’s Heart to Heart show back in 1992, Sheila asked Rich Mullins what the point of his concerts were – what he hoped to convey.  Rich – sporting a real happenin’ hairstyle – answered:

You know what I think, mostly music.

A lot of people think that as a Christian musician, when I write a song I sit down and say, “What really spiritually significant thing can I say here?” and I really don’t believe in doing that. I really think that you just try to write really good songs. And if you are a Christian then your faith is going to affect everything you write.

So it’s not a matter of sitting down with a little agenda and coming up with a song that is very spiritual. I think if you’re anything like a spiritual person then your writing will be spiritual writing. If you’re a Christian that will affect whether you’re a carpenter or a plumber or a housewife or a secretary or whatever. If your faith doesn’t have some impact on your work, it’s probably because you have no faith.

This is a perfect response, and applies to those of us trying to write movies, books, poetry, plays, or any other art form as people of faith.

It’s a great interview, and you can watch the whole thing here.

A Ragamuffin’s Review of Ragamuffin

I finally had the opportunity to watch Ragamuffin, David Leo Schultz’s Rich Mullins biopic, over the weekend.  As any regular reader of this blog should know, I’ve been a self-proclaimed ragamuffin for many years now, and so I’ve been highly anticipating this film for months.  This is going to be a very honest and open critique, because I personally appreciate when a review of Thimblerig’s Ark is honest and critical in a positive way.  I am going to do the same for Ragamuffin, in the off chance that the review might make its way back to the filmmakers, in hopes that it might encourage them, and be a benefit in their next cinematic outing.

My review of Ragamuffin can’t begin without my mentioning the enormous amount of respect I have for David Leo Schultz, for the vision, passion, and endurance he brought to this project.  It’s appropriate that Schultz’s film company is called The Color Green, not only because of the Mullins reference, but also because this was a grass roots project from the get-go.  It is inspiring to see what he and his team accomplished, starting from an inspired idea, bringing it to fruition in a very professionally made, beautifully shot film.   You can read a great interview with David here, that gives more depth to the choices he made with this film.

RichRagamuffin chronicles the life of Rich Mullins, the outspoken singer/songwriter who worked (reluctantly) in the Christian music industry for several years in the 80’s and 90’s until his untimely death in a jeep accident on September 19, 1997.  With his open and authentic personality, his propensity to speak truth to power, and his bare footed concerts, Mullins made a huge impact on young Christians at that time.  You can read about an encounter I had with Mullins on a previous post here, but suffice it to say that he was a huge influence on my life as well.

I’d rather not take the time to summarize the events of the film, as I’m figuring most people who have read this far have actually seen Ragamuffin.  I’d rather just go ahead and speak specifically to the things that I thought were done well with this film, and the things I think could have done better.  But I want to preface this with the confession that it would have been nearly impossible for me to approach a biopic about Rich Mullins with no preconceptions, and without seeing it as a creative myself, imagining what I would have kept, and what I would have done differently, if I had been making this film.

That being said, let me start with the things I enjoyed about Ragamuffin.

1)  The passion of David Leo Schultz. 

I’ve mentioned this already, but I don’t think I can say enough how much admire that Schultz successfully took his vision from his imagination to the screen, against all odds.  He had to convince Rich’s family, his friends, raise the funds, put together the cast and crew, and then he took it out – church by church, just like Rich used to do.  I hope that everything else I say in this review will be seen through that lens of respect and admiration.

Screenshot from Ragamuffin

Screenshot from Ragamuffin

2)  The cinematography of Ryan Bodie. 

When I think of Rich and his music, one thing I think of is wide open spaces, and this film had no shortage of beautiful shots of windswept wheat fields, dusty plains, and stunning desert vistas.  Another great image is the swinging light bulb which we see first when young Rich has messed up his father’s tractor, and which comes to represent the broken relationship between Rich and his father.   For some reason, this technique made me think of the video for one of my favorite Rich Mullins songs, Hold Me, Jesus.

3)  The Evolution of Awesome God.  

I like the way we were teased with the development of this, by far the most well-known of Rich’s songs.  It was a good reminder that as talented a songwriter may be, songs take time, and often will sit at the edge of inspiration, just waiting for the right spark to be pushed over the edge.

4)  The choice of the father/son relationship as the anchor of the film.  

You can see threads of this relationship woven through many of Rich’s songs, and considering David Mullin’s involvement in the film (Rich’s brother), I have to presume that the portrayal was fairly accurate, if not perhaps heightened for dramatic effect.  Either way, Rich loved his father, admired his father, longed for his father’s acceptance, but didn’t feel it.  The film handles this nicely, and the resolution of the issue is what enables the film to end with Rich at peace.

5)  The unapologetically real portrayal of a famous Christian man who had very real struggles.  

The movie effectively hit three of the points I made in my article, What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking.  In that article, I said Christians should be freed to make movies that are not safe, movies that challenge the audience, and movies that ask difficult questions.  Ragamuffin certainly did these things in spades, and David Leo Schultz couldn’t have made an authentic movie about Rich Mullins without them.  I didn’t like seeing Rich smoking and getting drunk, but those struggles were a part of his life and needed to shown or the film wouldn’t have been authentically Rich’s life.  I think this was mostly effective because the filmmakers didn’t  glorify the struggles, and I doubt that anyone walked out of Ragamuffin thinking that they wanted to emulate those parts of Rich’s life.  I’ve struggled with addictions myself, and I found strength and comfort while watching Rich’s struggle.

6.  Rich making it rain in a concert.

I was so glad to see this included.  This was one of my best memories from seeing Rich in a big concert.  And, in the film, it was one of the rare times when Rich actually looked like he was having a blast.  Very, very cool that it was included.

Thus ends the part of the review when I discussed the things I liked.  Now to the things I wished had been different…

1)  Michael Koch as Rich Mullins.  

Koch did fine with the acting, and progressively well with the singing and playing, but I just couldn’t buy him as Mullins, as much as I wanted to, until the last thirty minutes.  I didn’t – by any stretch of the imagination – expect Schulz to seek out a Mullins doppleganger, but I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the actor playing Rich being this big, buff, handsome man.  On the outside, Rich was incredibly average, which made the deep power of his words and his songs and his story that much more powerful.  Every time I saw Koch’s broad shoulders squeezed into that white t-shirt, I thought he was much better suited to play Superman, not the everyman who was Rich Mullins.

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 11.45.05 PM

2)  The nearly complete lack of joy.  

This was also something I had couldn’t overcome.  My limited experience with Rich Mullins was that he was a man who had his struggles, yes, but he was also a wickedly funny man with an often surprisingly sharp sense of humor.  This was part of the reason why he had young men like myself willing to drop everything to be around him!  Yes, he was wise and deep in his understanding of God.  Yes, he struggled with his personal demons.  But this is also the man who wrote a song referring to God as the maker of noses; who wondered if the little girls giggled when the young Jesus walked past; who considered the story of Rachel and Leah an awfully dirty trick.  This is the man who put the cup game on stage long before Anna Kendrick did it in Pitch Perfect.  The real irony for me in this is that director David Leo Schultz got his start as a comedian, and he somehow made Rich Mullins seem like he was only a tortured soul.  That is perhaps the biggest pity of all to me.

3)  The egocentricity of Rich Mullins.

I want to be careful about how I write this section, because the truth is I didn’t know Rich past the one time I met him with several other guys, but it really bothered me that Rich was so Rich-centric in the film, which made him pretty unlikable.  For example, did Rich really use the occasion of singing in a church to make the public decision that he was going to go to Nashville?  While Rich may have come to Morris’s Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 11.51.45 PMfuneral drunk, did he really come back into the room later to talk to the son of the man who died and use the occasion to only talk about himself?  Did Rich really insist that the young men who toured with him inform him on every little move that they made?  The answer to all of these questions might just be an unreserved “YES!  He did all of those things!”  But I have a real difficult time aligning the Rich Mullins of Ragamuffin with the Rich Mullins I came to know through music, interviews, and my one meeting over cake and Koolaid.

4)  Miscellaneous nit-picky things.  

These are smaller items, but they did detract from the film for me.  First, I didn’t buy the way the father cussed.  It seemed forced.  Second, Rich’s hair changed in illogical ways throughout the course of the film.  I do know that Rich had several different looks, but this came across more as an issue of when certain scenes were filmed rather than an attempt to convey different looks.  Third, I’m not a fan of narration in film, and I think the film would have been tighter if it had just been straight up narrative.

In Conclusion…

While I am genuinely happy that this film was made, while I know that it has touched many people in profound ways, and while I think that it was a giant leap forward in many ways for films made by Christians, it just wasn’t the film that I had hoped it would be.

Like I said at the top of this review, I approached this film with so many of my own thoughts about the life of Rich Mullins that David Leo Schultz had a pretty tall order to not disappoint me.  In many ways, this reminds me of when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace came out, and people had nearly twenty years of anticipation built up.  How could Lucas not disappoint?

And so Ragamuffin receives three very solid golden groundhogs for being a risky film that challenges its audience and asks some hard questions. But it loses two golden groundhogs because it is so obviously made for the church that I don’t think it would play well out of the Christian subculture, and – in my opinion – while Rich Mullins’ story is compelling, Ragamuffin could have benefitted from a bit more script doctoring to make the story tighter, especially in the second act, which seemed to drag.

Golden Groundhogs

A Memory of Rich Mullins

This evening I finally had the chance to watch Ragamuffin, a biopic of Rich Mullins that came out earlier this year, and want to assemble my thoughts about the film before I write my review.

But watching the film brought up a favorite memory of a time when I had the opportunity to sit down with Rich over cake and cups of cherry Koolaid in a little church in Birmingham, Alabama.  Please allow me to fill the time between watching the film and writing my review by doing a bit of reminiscing.

Was it the spring of 1996?  I believe it might have been.  A student at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, I was in my mid-20’s, single, and a huge fan of the music of Rich Mullins.   One afternoon I was sitting in the computer lab at school when a couple of friends rushed in and asked if I wanted to go to a free concert that night at a local church.

“Who’s performing?” I asked.

“Rich Mullins,” they answered, excited.

I laughed.  “Guys, I listen to WDJC every morning on my way to school, and if Rich Mullins were coming to Birmingham “Buckle of the Bible Belt” Alabama, I would know about it.”

“It’s sort of a secret concert,” one of my friends whispered conspiratorially.  “It’s only for people who work with youth, and so the church didn’t advertise it publicly.”

In the end, I decided to go, even though I figured I’d walk into the church to find some overweight, middle-aged, southern gospel evangeli-singer who happened to share a name with my favorite Christian artist.  But being young and single and in seminary, I didn’t have anything better to do.

About five of us piled into a car and drove to an unfamiliar part of Birmingham where we parked in the lot of an innocuous Baptist church.  The dozen or so cars already there confirmed to me that we would not be seeing the Rich Mullins that evening.  But, of course, we couldn’t come this far and not make sure.

We entered the nearly empty church, introduced ourselves to the woman at the door as seminary students and youth workers, and sat down to see what would happen.

About ten minutes passed, and then the door at the front of the sanctuary opened, and a short barefooted man walked in, followed by a tall, lanky blonde guy.  I’m sure we were all sitting with our mouths wide open as we saw that it was not – in fact – an overweight, middle-aged, southern gospel evangeli-singer.

It was the real deal.

It was Rich Mullins.  The Rich Mullins.

We were sitting in the third pew, just a few feet away in a church with about twenty other people, as Rich and the blonde guy (who turned out to be Mitch McVicker) walked up to the mic, slung on their guitars, and Rich started talking.

He sang and told stories, he talked about the need for Christian music to actually be about Jesus,  and it was about ninety minutes of mid-20’s single seminary student heaven.

But the best part was yet to come.

When the concert was over, we approached him cautiously, not exactly sure how to talk to our hero.  As we approached, he turned and smiled and stepped over to us with a smile on his face.  After telling him that we loved the concert, one of us nervously stammered that we were all in seminary (which I’m pretty sure he called cemetery, but I could be wrong), and so then he asked us our church background.

Since Samford is a Southern Baptist affiliated university, most of the guys were from that denomination, and they said so.  When they told him, he laughed and said, “Hey, do you know why Southern Baptists don’t have sex standing up?”

Time stopped.

Did the guy who wrote Awesome God and Sing Your Praise to the Lord really just ask us about Southern Baptist sexual positions?

Of course, we just sort of shook our heads, not sure what to say.

With an impish twinkle in his eye, Rich Mullins delivered the punchline.

“Because they don’t want God to think that they’re dancing!”

The woman who had greeted us earlier walked up, probably wondering what brilliant remark Rich Mullins had made that had caused the five nice young seminary boys to break out into laughter, and told us that we could join Rich for cake in the fellowship hall, if we would like.

“Yes ma’am, please and thank you!” we enthusiastically responded, and then followed them down the hall to the fellowship hall where we were able to sit on folding chairs and enjoy cake and cherry Koolaid with Rich Mullins.

We each took turns asking him questions, and he was incredibly patient and personable, talking to us in turn, telling more jokes as the night went on.  It didn’t occur to us that this was the man’s life – sitting with fawning 20 something Kid Brothers of St. Frank wannabes – answering the same questions over and over again.  But it probably didn’t occur to us because he seemed to enjoy it so much, too.   He was overflowing with good graces, authenticity, and openness.

What a night.

Looking back on how we left that evening, I can see why he always had so many young guys gathered around him.  From that brief time, I could tell that he was the kind of person you wanted to hang out with, because he was so inviting, so full of humor and wisdom, so full of life.

My review of Ragamuffin will come in the next couple of days.

Mom’s Not Dead, for Real! The Movie

Mom's Not Dead for Real


“Mom’s Not Dead for Real”

Kendrick, an older bearded student studying philosophy at Reed College, has a vivid dream one night that heaven is for real. When he wakes up, his wicked professor, Dr. Hercules, mocks his beard and his dream, telling him that his mom, Debra, had gone out with some friends the previous night and died… and NOT gone to heaven.

Of course, the pure-hearted Kendrick refuses to believe it, and sets off on a hero’s journey to find her. Using information from the snakeskin given to him by his uncle Hannibal, Kendrick builds an ark, and as he, Trace Adkins, and Hermione Granger sail off to find his mom, wacky hijinks ensue.

Will Kendrick be courageous enough to face the group of fireproof rock giants who have taken his mom, or run the risk that she could be left behind in a shack… forever?