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Open jars

Culture | Rebuking the 'idol of safety,' Jars of Clay returns to classic hymns

Issue: "MS-13: Criminals next door," June 18, 2005

AUSTIN, Texas-The slogan for most Christian radio is 'it's safe for the whole family.' What does that really mean? You don't have to think?" That was the protest of Jars of Clay musician Dan Haseltine when he and the band's other three members-Matt Odmark, Stephen Mason, and Charlie Lowell-sat down with WORLD before a concert here to talk about their activities.

When Jars of Clay released "Valley Song" on the Furthermore album in 2003, it heard back from some Christian radio stations that the lyrics were too dark for their listeners. "Valley Song" deals with the unexpected death of a band member's sister-in-law, and some listeners didn't want to hear a song about death: Not safe, not comfortable, not listener-friendly.

In Redemption Songs, the band's new, seventh album, Jars of Clay again does not play it safe. The band could rest on its three Grammy and six Dove awards and do more of the same, or it could pump out a harder rock 'n' roll image. Instead, it has reached into the past to produce a worship album that infuses the modern sound of bluegrass, blues, and soul with the poetic and theologically deep lyrics of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century hymns.

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Dressed in blue jeans and the band's T-shirts, the band members explained why: Mr. Lowell, the quiet keyboardist with a tattoo of a Roman cross on his right wrist, said the hard message of the old hymns is "so raw, and yet we need to hear it daily." Mr. Mason, the bassist, spoke sarcastically about the contemporary church's "idol of safety" as he squatted in a wooden-arm, caneback chair, like a little kid: "The gospel doesn't call us to a radical life of sacrifice, but how can I get all of my debt into one manageable payment to save well for my kid's colleges?"

Rejecting modern praise music, Redemption Songs revives old hymns that focus on man's desperate need and the centrality of "who Christ is." Mr. Odmark, the guitarist, argued that "modern Christian music is focused on what we contribute and what we bring to God-I sing this, I give this-where hymns just have a way of saying 'I am evil, born in sin / Thou desirest truth within.'" That's why he likes hymns like John Newton's "Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder."

Jars of Clay began (like many bands) in a college-dormitory basement, then did the unusual crossover from Christian radio to mainstream-radio pop charts, alongside bands like Creed and Sixpence None the Richer. The group developed an acoustic quality that alternative rock stations embrace, and firmly rejected the digital-plastic feel and disposable message of popular rock bands. But that's not all the four band members reject: As they sat in a chairs-and-couch circle in a University of Texas lounge, they criticized Christian lives that are "safe," "controlled," "micromanaged," "risk-free," and "a list of do's and don'ts."

Jars of Clay hopes to motivate many of its 20-something fans to travel to Africa and battle AIDS. The group in 2003 founded the Blood:Water Mission, a nonprofit organization promoting cleaner water and decreased transmission of the HIV/AIDS virus. (The UN reports 70 percent of AIDS victims live in Africa, say band members; every 14 seconds child in Africa is orphaned by the death of a parent infected with AIDS and is likely to turn to begging, stealing, and prostitution to survive.)

All four band members wore blood-red wristband bracelets that read "Blood:Water." The Jars of Clay goal is to help more Africans have blood free of the HIV virus and water free of parasites and bacteria that cause undue suffering. In the process, the band members themselves, according to Mr. Haseltine, are seeing the importance of "knowing God in a different culture, a different time period, under different circumstances than we would know ourselves and finding that the gospel is true over there and consistent."

Timeless treasures

People on both sides of the music wars in America's churches should listen to Redemption Songs, the Jars of Clay's latest release (March 2005). Contemporary Christian music fans will hear cutting-edge music that-contrary to much of what they are used to-has deep, rich devotional and theological content. And traditional music purists will hear that it is indeed possible to use contemporary sounds in reverent, historically orthodox ways.

Jars of Clay is one of the coolest rock bands made up of Christians, respected in both CCM and secular circles. What they have done is record songs using the lyrics of traditional hymns.

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