Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

'So Much to Sing About': A Trip to Africa Produces a Holy Shake-Up, and a New Tune, for Jars of Clay

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

'So Much to Sing About': A Trip to Africa Produces a Holy Shake-Up, and a New Tune, for Jars of Clay

Article excerpt

Jars of Clay may not have been the most famous group to perform at this summer's Live 8 event in Philadelphia, but its members had a leg up on the other celebrities present: They actually knew what they were talking about when it came to Africa.

In fact, Jars of Clay may have been the only artists in attendance--aside from U2's Bono--who run their own humanitarian organization. They were also the only band that makes its home on a contemporary Christian record label. And, unlikely, as it may seem, these two distinctions are interrelated. According to lead singer Dan Haseltine, the Grammy Award-winning band's commitment to social justice has always fueled both its music and its ministry--and vice versa. Now their synergy of faith and action has led to the creation of an agency called Blood:Water Mission. which works in Africa for relief of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

This is not what you might expect from a band with Jars of Clay's pedigree. For more than a decade, Jars has been the most popular group in Christian music. Though not quite elder statesmen--the bands four members are, after all, in their 30s--they are certainly among the industry's leading men. But although its roots are in Nashville, the band has never been content to stay put. Throughout its career, Jars has quietly, determinedly upset the stares quo of the evangelical subculture, challenging its inhabitants to think--and, subsequently, act--differently.

In the late '90s, this meant garnering Grammy Awards and mainstream radio hits at a time when the primary purpose of Christian music was to provide a safe haven from "the world." Eventually, other evangelical musicians followed Jars of Clay's lead, "crossing over" into the mainstream in a phenomenon that has continued to this day. Even then, the band pushed the boundaries of what "Christian music" could look like, questioning popular lyrics that seemed to focus only an individual's relationship to God.

"If as artists our role is to look at the world and describe it, our description has to be full of the inconsistencies and the injustices," says soft-spoken front man Haseltine, the poet-visionary of the group. "I started looking into the global community, and it just seemed like there's so much to sing about, so much to talk about, whether it was religious injustices, where people were tortured and beaten because they believed in something the government didn't believe in, or poverty and the fact that it even exists in certain areas when we have so much. There's so much to sing about, so much to care about, and it's the artist's job to engage those things."

In a religious climate that encouraged bands to keep mum about causes not "approved" by the subculture, singing about such things--not to mention talking openly about them--was no easy feat. While Haseltine in particular had been intrigued by issues of poverty and persecution for years, record executives were less than thrilled with his interests. Label representatives, Christian and otherwise, warned Jars that such on-stage chatter would be perceived as too political and result in "career suicide."

Eventually, says Haseltine, this restriction's measurable cost to their integrity eventually trumped its potential cost to their career. But unlike other Contemporary Christian Music artists who began lending support to explicitly Republican causes, Jars of Clay vehemently resisted a partisan agenda. "Over the years, we really got tired of being lumped in with so many things we didn't believe," he says. "As the political process seems to be narrowing in on 'Republicans are all Christians, Christians are all Republicans,' we decided we don't really want to fall into those categories. It seemed like there almost needed to be some desperate measures taken to show that the gospel of Jesus, the one that we believe, calls us to a way of living that doesn't really fit in either a Democratic or Republican line, and it is also something that provokes us to incredible risk. …

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