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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.

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Melanie Haupt