By Nathan Myrick
“Our God Is an Awesome God”
by Rich Mullins
The Faith We Sing, 2040
Few songs defined contemporary Christian music (CCM) from the 1980s and '90s as comprehensively as “Awesome God” by Rich Mullins (1955-1997). With a singable, theologically confident chorus and driving, catchy melody, “Awesome God” continues to be sung by countless congregations around the globe today—more than 30 years after its initial recording. Yet there is perhaps no more controversial figure in contemporary Christian music history than Rich Mullins, and the history of the song makes little sense unless considered as a piece of his larger oeuvre. Neither story can be told without also telling the story of Mullins himself. (See complete lyrics at https://genius.com/Rich-mullins-awesome-god-lyrics.)
“Awesome God” was originally a single from his third record, Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth. Released by Reunion Records in 1988, “Awesome God” became Mullins’s signature song; indeed, it became one of the signature songs of the burgeoning contemporary worship music (CWM) movement, being voted the third best contemporary Christian song by CCM Magazine in 1998 (Powell 2002, 616). As such, it is no stranger to controversy; recently a colleague used it as an example of the generally poor quality of lyrics in contemporary worship music. Critiqued for both the awkward text in its opening stanza (“When he rolled up his sleeves, he wasn’t just puttin’ on the ritz”) and the subsequent repetitiveness of the chorus’s unrestrained triumphalism, it has been an icon or lightning rod or even straw man (depending on your perspective) for many of the discourses that configured the “worship wars” of the late-twentieth century, the explicit or paraphrased scriptural quotations that make up the song’s lyrics notwithstanding: “He reigns in heaven above with wisdom, power, and love” (Rev. 7:12); “Kicked ’em out of Eden” (Genesis 3:23); “Shed his blood” (Romans 5:8; I Cor. 15:3); “He spoke in the darkness and created light” (Genesis 1:3; 1:14); “Judgment and wrath he poured out on Sodom” (Genesis 13:10); “Mercy and grace He gave us at the cross” (Galatians 6:14; Philippians 2:6).
There has even been controversy about the nature of the controversy of the song. The feature film Ragamuffin (2014) depicts the song as a subversive jab at both the Christian recording industry and the singing practices of Protestant churches, essentially saying to the first, “You want a hit? Well here ya go,” and to the second, “Since your theology is so poor, here’s a poor song for you to sing.” However, such depictions do not necessarily align with the memory of those within the recording industry who knew Mullins and produced his music. Michael Blanton, the head of Reunion Records who produced Mullins’s albums, attributes the song’s quirkiness to the character of Mullins himself:
He . . . never thought about doing something for church music, he just never thought about that. He was truly writing for the ragamuffin, the guy out there that loves avant-garde music (Michael Blanton, Interview with author).
Blanton demonstrated this rejection of the film’s depiction of Mullins’s intentions by telling a story about his conversation with Mullins concerning Amy Grant’s “Sing Your Praise to the Lord,” which Mullins had written:
When I first met him, he had this song, “Sing your praise to the Lord,” that was his first—that was on Amy’s [Grant] El Shaddai/Age to Age album. So I was at a water park, and a girl came up to me and said, “I’m a stewardess for American Airlines, and someone said you’re Michael Blanton,” I said “yeah,” and she gave me a cassette on Rich. And on there was this ten-minute version of “Sing Your Praise to the Lord,” and it just takes forever; it’s this great build up, but it takes forever to get there. So I called Rich, and said, “I’d like to talk to you about being a writer and an artist, and would you come down to meet with us here in Nashville. And by the way, I’m thinking about having ‘Sing Your Praise’ be a song for Amy.” And, [then] I said, “But, we’re prolly gonna shorten this intro that you’ve got, just to make it a little bit more acceptable. But we’ll still keep it long. We’ll still make it five minutes or so—five or six minutes—it’s just not gonna be the ten or twelve minutes. What inspired you to write a song like that?” He said, “Well, it’s just like sex. You’ve gotta have a really good foreplay before you get to the climax.” And I went, “Oh boy, who is this guy?!?” So, literally, when you listen to that song and think about it from that angle, he was not trying to be weird about it, he was just saying, “You know, this is the same thing; why can’t our love relationship with God be like, there’s some foreplay and then a wedding?” (Blanton)
Blanton’s reflection fits well with those of others who knew Mullins professionally: one executive referred to him as “a weirdo with one good song” during our interview. Indeed, the man was quite eccentric. Born on a small farm in rural Indiana in 1955, he grew up attending a Friends (Quaker) church with his mother, and he exhibited a unique outlook on life that countenanced creativity as a chief virtue. As a young adult, Mullins dabbled in evangelicalism, but never seems to have been entirely comfortable in that tradition—as evidenced by his later interviews (Staub, 1997, for example).
During his career as a recording artist, Mullins met laicized Roman Catholic priest and author Brennan Manning, and the two began a long friendship. Manning, a famous and self-professed alcoholic whose work had a deep impact on Mullins, assumed a pastoral role in Mullins’s life, with the younger man naming his band “The Ragamuffin Band” after Manning’s titular persona from The Ragamuffin Gospel (1990).
After having established himself in the contemporary Christian music market, Mullins moved to Kansas in 1988 (the same year “Awesome God” was released) to begin studying at Friends University. After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in 1995, Mullins moved to New Mexico to live with the Navajo Nation in Tse Bonito, part of the Window Rock Reservation in the Four Corners area. Perhaps through Manning’s influence, but certainly through his fascination with St. Francis of Assisi, Mullins began exploring Roman Catholicism, and he had completed the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults at the time of his death in an automobile accident in 1997.
Mullins was critical of “anglo evangelicalism” in his final years, and he believed that the American obsession with consumer goods and financial wealth impoverished Christian faith. As a response, he set up a board of directors for his finances and had his checks sent to his lawyer, who then distributed the funds as the board directed. Mullins accepted only the average median salary for a laborer in the U.S. at that time; the rest of the money was given to the several charities that Mullins supported. His life and unique approach to faith and artistry are often cited as the inspiration for an individual’s career or life choices. Shane Claiborne cites an encounter with Mullins at Wheaton College as a profound, life-changing event that set him on the course to radical discipleship (Irresistible Revolution 2006, 96-112).
Mullins wrote “Awesome God” during his dalliance with evangelicalism. Purportedly penned either at Rock Lake Christian Assembly camp in Michigan (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oep3Tx7X3BQ) or during a drive between Tennessee and Missouri (https://www.songfacts.com/facts/rich-mullins/awesome-god), the details of the song’s composition are sketchy. As is often true of the work of touring musicians, a song will incubate for several weeks, months, or even years, before it coheres into something recognizable to the writer. It seems this was the case for “Awesome God” as well.
Mullins himself was ambivalent about the song’s origin, and he was often quite critical of the song’s quality (see his interview with Brent Waters in Lighthouse Electric Magazine, 1996). Much of this self-critique seems centered on the triumphalism of the chorus and the poor poetry of the verses. Moreover, comparison with the rest of his oeuvre—especially his later material—reveals a simplistic approach to theology that is challenged in later songs, such as “Brother’s Keeper” (1995) with lyrics like:
Now the plumber’s got a drip in his spigot
The mechanic's got a clank in his car
And the preacher's thinking thoughts that are wicked
And the lover's got a lonely heart
(See complete lyrics at https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/richmullins/brotherskeeper.html)
Other songs, such as “The Color Green” (1995), offer stirring meditations on grace. (See lyrics at https://genius.com/Rich-mullins-the-color-green-lyrics) Theologian Anthony D. Baker (2017) suggests that Mullins “scandalously use[d] familiar religious language” to describe his observations of nature, such as an “oak who welcomes [the] birds as raising arms in ‘a blessing for being born again.’”
Michael Blanton noted in our interview that Mullins “probably understood grace better than all of us in the entire Christian thing.”
Yet Mullins also acknowledged that God was acting in and through “Awesome God,” despite his dissatisfaction with its artistry and theology. While many (myself included) are tempted to lay hold of the piece as evidence of one thing or another (such as bad theology, contemporary worship music, or critiquing the Christian music industry), sometimes it is good to step back and recognize God’s activity beyond the limitations of our own opinions and preferences.
Sources and Further Reading
Anthony D. Baker, “As Best as I Can Remember Him.” The Other Journal 28 (Environment Issue, 2017), https://theotherjournal.com/2017/09/19/best-can-remember-rich-mullins.
Michael Blanton, Interview with Author, April 5, 2016.
Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).
April Hefner and Lindy Warren, “Requiem for a Ragamuffin.” CCM Magazine (November 1997), https://www.kidbrothers.net/articles/ccm-nov97.html.
Mark Allan Powell, Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002).
Dick Staub, “Interview with Rich Mullins,” April 1997, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0Gm9Y-7UIA.
James Bryan Smith, Rich Mullins: His Life and Legacy: An Arrow Pointing to Heaven. (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000).
Brent Waters, “Rich Mullins Interview,” The Lighthouse Electric Magazine (April 1996), http://www.kidbrothers.net/words/interviews/lighthouse-electronic-magazine-apr96.html.
Trevin Wax, “Learning from Rich Mullins – a Ragamuffin at the Door of God’s Mercy,” The Gospel Coalition, http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/learning-from-rich-mullins-a-ragamuffin-at-the-doorstep-of-gods-mercy.
_____. “Telling the Ragamuffin Story of Rich Mullins: An Interview with Director David Leo Schultz,” The Gospel Coalition, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/telling-the-ragamuffin-story-of-rich-mullins-an-interview-with-director-david-leo-schultz.
Nathan Myrick, a native of Warroad, MN, received his M.A. in theology from Fuller Seminary, and PhD in church music from Baylor University. His research focuses on musical activity and human flourishing in the context of Christian communities. He has produced two musical albums and numerous articles and book chapters. He is currently assistant professor of church music at the Townsend School of Music, Mercer University, Macon, Georgia.