Jars of Clay Breaks the Mold

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Jars of Clay is often accused of "going secular." The group, which takes its name from the New Testament (II Corinthians 4:7), is the hottest Christian rock band in the country, playing accessible, alternative rock that's been compared to that of the Wallflowers and even the Counting Crows.

But is Jars of Clay still "Christian" if their videos appear on MTV and they play in mainstream venues where alcohol is served?

"In the eyes of some," guitarist Stephen Mason told Christianity Today's Campus Life magazine, "we aren't making good decisions and choices.

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"But we are on our knees and asking the Lord to show us the best way to go. If he wants us playing in churches and using our music to encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ, that's really fine. But we've just seen doors open and we can't help but believe it's been God opening those doors."

Those "doors" are leading to mainstream success. Their self-titled debut has sold more than 2 million copies since its release in 1995. Their second album, "Much Afraid," debuted at No. 8 on the Oct. 4 Billboard's Top 200 album chart, outperforming albums by such artists as Sarah McLachlan, the Spice Girls, Oasis, and Third Eye Blind, and setting a new record for the Christian music industry with more than 100,000 copies sold.

Jars of Clay's latest video features the song "Crazy Times," which is about a person somewhat deluded with life. "You've seen the proof," the song goes. "But you're still crying wolf. You'll never believe. It seems like it's always the crazy times. You find you'll wake up and realize. It takes more than your saline eyes. To make things right."

The song is not really religious and is very poplike in its makeup, save for a few, heavy guitar moments. "Much Afraid" was produced by Steve Lipson, who has worked with Sting, Annie Lennox, and Simple Minds.

"Some of the songs [on 'Much Afraid'] more overtly deal with spiritual things, some don't," says Matthew Odmark, who plays guitar, mandolin, and also sings. "The record is kind of looking at different levels of life from our perspective of who we are and our perspective of Christianity."

At most of their concerts, the band explains its name to the audience. "Jars of Clay," a reference to the frailness of mankind's physical self, is from a Bible verse penned by the Apostle Paul. Band member Charlie Lowell thought of the verse when the group was forming at Greenville College, a Christian school in Illinois. "But we have this treasure in jars of clay," a modern translation of the verse goes, "to show that his all-surpassing power is from God and not from us."

"I always want to talk about our name," songwriter Dan Haseltine has said, "because I want the audience to know where our gift comes from." Odmark says that Haseltine and the other band members have mixed feelings about being labeled a "Christian rock band."

"We're a Christian rock band in the same sense that a band that has Buddhists in it is a Buddhist rock band," says Odmark. "Where we get uncomfortable with that [Christian rock band] label is that Christian music is its own kind of thing, especially here in the States, and with it carries all these huge stigmas, especially with people who aren't that familiar with it."

With help from producer Lipson and others, Jars of Clay is reaching beyond the historic boundaries of Christian music. Still, the band occasionally performs at religious events. On Oct. 10 in San Francisco, Jars of Clay played at Billy Graham's Crusades event. The group's current tour, which started Oct. 4 in Amarillo, Texas, runs for two months in secular venues. "We feel like this tour is a bit of an arrival for us," says Odmark.

* For tour dates and other information on Jars of Clay, go online at www.jarsofclay.com/

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