Jars of Clay -- guitarists Matt Odmark and Stephen Mason, keyboardist Charlie Lowell and singer Dan Haseltine -- formed when the members were college students nearly a decade ago. A few songs cooked up over spring break in 1994 led to a triumph at the Gospel Music Association's national Spotlight 1994 talent competition, which led to a label deal and a tour playing to youth groups across the country. This series of breaks eventually resulted in the 1995 release of the groundbreaking Jars of Clay, which bore the crossover single, "Flood." The edgy track (one of two on the record produced by Adrian Belew, known for his work with David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails) caught the ears of listeners on both sides of the Christian fence.
"The mainstream attention we got with that first record wasn't a calculated move," says Lowell. "Once we tasted that, it seemed to give us more purpose and more excitement about what we did. It began driving the band a little more, and it intrigues us to be believers in Christ and to be outside the church. I guess it's kind of risky to not play the churches and play for people who aren't Christians."
Not that playing to the converted is a risk-free proposition. For those who haven't dusted off the Good Book in a while, the band takes its name from 2 Corinthians 4:7, which speaks of God's gift of grace to mankind, which holds "this treasure in jars of clay, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us." This is a pointed reference, given the Christian-music industry's intolerance of Christian artists' humanity. When contemporary Christian-pop stalwart Amy Grant divorced her husband, Gary Chapman, in 1999 after sixteen years of marriage, then began dating and subsequently married country singer Vince Gill, Christian radio stations pulled her music from rotation. They claimed that they were adhering to scriptural commands to withdraw from those who bear false witness. "Many people feel she has been disobedient to what the Bible teaches in that she doesn't have biblical grounds for a divorce, such as adultery on the part of her spouse," said John Styll, editor of CCM magazine, the Rolling Stone of contemporary Christian music.
A few years prior to that, the Christian-music industry was rocked by a scandal in which Christian solo artist Michael English and Marabeth Jordan, a member of the group First Call -- both married to other people -- fessed up to an affair that had resulted in the conception of a child. English was dropped by his label, Jordan was fired by First Call (she later miscarried the baby), and the music was pulled from the airwaves amid a cacophony of accusations, reprisals and finger-pointing. In mainstream rock music, an artist might sell a few extra records if he boffs someone who isn't his wife or who hasn't reached the age of consent; if a Christian artist does the same, it can cost a career.
This reality creates tension for Jars of Clay, which claims to have a low (indeed, nonexistent) "Jesuses-per-minute" rate in their lyrics yet speaks unabashedly from a place of faith. Is Jars a Christian-rock band agreeing to bear the baggage of that label, or a rock band that happens to be Christian? "A lot of what we do is ask questions and bring up issues through our music," Lowell explains. "I think one of the best things that [guitarist Odmark] said recently is that we don't really write songs about our faith or trying to prove our faith. We write our songs because of our faith. We don't have an agenda to convert people or to say, 'Look, this is how it all works, this is what you should believe.' We're coming [more from a position of] 'These are the things we struggle with.' We like to ask questions more than give answers."
Lowell describes Jars of Clay as straddling the line between mainstream rock and those who rock fully for Jesus. What separates Jars from a group such as U2 is an involvement with the Christian-music business, despite the fact that a Jars song more closely resembles U2's music than the tunes of the evangelical, self-proclaimed "Jesus freaks" in DC Talk. "U2 is probably one of our biggest inspirations, for what they're doing and what they're saying, but they've never really been associated with the industry," says Lowell. "They're an amazing band and they write a lot about their faith and their beliefs through their music, but it's a little more subtle and maybe a little bit more vague."