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Higher Powered

Living as a person of faith involves a constant process of balancing belief and doubt. Sometimes the kinds of doubts that eat away at faith find their way into song -- such as U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" -- and inspire listeners who are doing their own searching. But a group like Jars of Clay, which readily identifies as a Christ-centered band, faces challenges that Bono probably doesn't: Not only does it face the cynicism of non-believers, but the band must also contend with the expectations of the Christian-music establishment, whose power over artists isn't limited to the spirit world.

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."

So what does it mean for a band like Jars of Clay -- which deals in doubts more than proclamations -- to work within a spiritual tradition that tends to blame doubts on a lack of faith? "I think that the church has lost a lot of people because it's taken that view, that you need to not question what you believe, to not ask, just believe it," Lowell agrees. "Or believe harder. If you're having trouble, then pray more.

"When we got together in college, we were all taking everything we'd grown up believing and, not necessarily throwing it out, but holding it up and seeing if it held to be true. It takes that kind of struggle to know if something is really real or not." Ralph Waldo Emerson encountered the same struggle as a minister, eventually proclaiming that "Faith makes us and not we it, and faith makes its own forms." Jars of Clay is certainly a product of faith making its own forms, and has, as a result, encountered its fair share of scrutiny and criticism for following that path.

"There are always people telling you that you should be doing things differently, that you're not quite doing it the way God would want you to do it," says Lowell. "That's hard to hear, but at the same time, I think we're confident enough in what we've seen and what we've learned to keep doing it."

But is that really the case? To be truly effective, artists must keep the attention of those who are most in need of their message -- meaning, in this instance, the mainstream audience that flocked to Jars of Clay after its initial success. But many of those fans have fallen away in recent years. "Flood" was a hit single seven years ago: The song received airplay on alt-rock stations nationwide, as well as generous rotation on MTV, and it reached a wide span of both secular teens and Christians. But the band has watered down its sound over the course of its past three records (1997's Much Afraid, 1999's If I Left the Zoo and this year's The Eleventh Hour), effectively cutting itself off from non-believing crowds. The perception among many mainstream music fans is that after its first big hit, Jars of Clay seemed to drop off the radar. The band no longer tours with Sting, Jewel or Lenny Kravitz -- acts with whom it shared stages in its early days; instead, it has been paired with younger contemporary-Christian artists such as Jennifer Knapp and Shaun Groves. For the most part, Jars' current following is made up of youth-group members and CCM-type listeners.

"We call them Jarheads," says Lowell with a chuckle, describing the intense young Christian fans that the band encounters on the road. "It looks different than the typical teenager, TRL thing. Rather than swooning girls, it's more of a 'Your music has touched my soul and I'm going to follow you to these shows' thing. It's a little more intense and maybe a little more intimidating. We want music to touch people in a deep place, to affect them, to meet some of their needs, maybe."

Despite trying to avoid "the noisy vocabulary of religion" (as stated in the liner notes to The Eleventh Hour), Jars of Clay seems to be toeing the Christian line a bit more than in the past. Compare the lyrics from its best-known song, "Flood" ("Downpour on my soul/Splashing in the ocean, I'm losing control/Dark sky all around/I can't feel my feet touching the ground") to those from the more recent single "I Need You" ("Do I want shelter from the rain or the rain to wash me away?/I need you/You're all I'm living for"). While some doubts (and a fascination with water imagery) remain, the latter track is sunnier in both sound and attitude than its predecessor.

Still, there's a healthy, if tempered, skepticism in the band's music that separates it from the blind-faith musings of many of its church- oriented peers. The Eleventh Hour, Jars' fourth release on Essential (a branch of Jive Records) and its first fully self-produced outing, is full of ruminations on adultery ("Scarlet," which is also an allegory for Christ's redemptive blood), co-dependency ("Whatever She Wants," about a vampiric woman who saps her partners' emotions) and the death of a newlywed ("Fly," a cheery little ditty based on the true story of a wife who succumbed to cancer six months into her new marriage). It's the kind of album that could be a balm to those with rattled, post-9/11 faith. While all the material was finished by last August, the lyrics suggest Jars of Clay's members aren't so different from those who wondered where God was that September morning; the lyrics reveal a general understanding, however, that God never claimed to be Superman, swooping in from nowhere to keep evildoers from their business.

"Does God run away from every act of evil?" Lowell asks. "I have to believe and I do believe that he was there [that day], and that he continues to use what was very evil and very unnecessary in all kinds of amazing ways, in families and in our nation. It's wild to see him use something awful for his loving purposes."

Jars of Clay understands that faith-shaking incidents can also be faith-making incidents, despite the fact that the way it has chosen to deliver its message is vulnerable to criticism from both sides of the divide that separates believers from non-believers. It is a risky proposition indeed to publicize your spiritual misgivings in an industry that thrives on marketing a particular brand of faith. Sometimes it is the uncertainty that shapes the faith, and Jars of Clay lets doubters know that they are not alone.

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Melanie Haupt