Now, they're out with a new album, "Redemption Songs," which marries ancient hymns with a modern sound. Lead singer Dan Haseltine spoke to Beliefnet recently about the Christian music industry, the band's non-profit Blood: Water Mission, and how they're not the "Bible-thumping, holy rollers" the media makes them out to be.
You never liked Jars of Clay being categorized as a Christian band. But your new album "Redemption Songs" is overtly Christian. Has your view changed in the past couple of years?
No, I don't necessarily think so. A lot of the reasoning behind our restlessness with being called a Christian band was more that the term Christian means so many things to so many different people that it is an almost non-descriptive phrase. If you're going to call us a Christian band then at least let us know what type of Christian you're calling us. Being called a Christian to some lumps us in with Benny Hinn or a televangelist. To [others], it might lump us in with Bono. Talking about Jesus is something that makes more sense. You can talk about his subversive nature and his desire for relationships and loving people well-- things we actually do believe.
We've been looking at this worship movement that's gone on over the last couple years and Jars of Clay has really been outside of it, except for maybe one song here and there. We finally felt like this was a chance for us to share our experience--the things that inspire us in worship and the songs that have reoriented our hearts to the Gospel.
You've said that you write songs less "about faith but more songs because of faith." The songs on your other albums, for the most part, aren't overtly Christian. Do you think that songs about faith are less appealing to the Christian market nowadays and songs that have faithful undertones are becoming more accepted and successful?
That's a good question. I don't really know. I think in the process of writing songs and making music, we hold true to the fact that an artist's role is to look at the world and describe it. In my lyrics, the world I describe is formed by faith. The Gospel is a foundation of my world and so everything looks different and I describe it differently than other people would. When we dove into this hymns project, the songs that we were gravitating toward were testimonies of people who were wrestling with, "Where does the Gospel meet suffering and doubt and pain and tragedy?" It's them being able to say, "God, we trust you. God, we believe in you. God, you are holy." Not because they're trying to describe their faith, but they're saying, "This is my belief, this is what is real in my life." And I think that's the perspective we love and why we gravitated toward hymns.
You identified with them more?
Absolutely. I'm not that inspired by a lot of the contemporary worship songs that keep going back to "God, I'll do this for you, I'll say this, I'll speak this, I'll act this." What I need is not to hear more about what I'm going to do, but about what God has done and who God is and who I am in light of that. What I do is secondary, if lowly, to what God has done and where God is reaching into my life.
"Redemption Songs" includes in-your-face messages about God and Jesus and faith, which is a lot different from the music your audience is accustomed to. Did you want to appeal to a new audience-the worship audience?
We definitely wanted to be able to contribute to the worship audience. There is a part of the post-modern church that is desperately trying to rid itself of what might be called organized religion. But they've cut themselves off from a lot of the good, rich traditions of the church.
What we hope to do is present this record and say "These are people [from] 300 years ago [who] are asking the same questions that we're asking today." They're important questions and we benefit from hearing how people wrestled with them and what conclusions they've come to or couldn't get to 300 years ago. That's the roots of our faith. The roots of these traditions are what actually give us the ability to move forward.
What's your favorite hymn from the album?
I've got different ones that I love for different reasons. I love "Nothing But the Blood" because the Blind Boys of Alabama are on there with us. I absolutely love what they brought to that song. One hymn that I keep going back to [and] I've grown to love is, "Thou Lovely Source of True Delight." That was written by a woman named Ann Steele. [She] has written a lot of hymns and was a person very well acquainted with tragedy. She fell when she was in her late teens, maybe early twenties, and it left her [housebound] for her life. Beyond that, she was engaged and the day before her wedding her husband drowned in a lake.
She comes at these songs really saying, "God, where are you in the midst of this?" And she's almost a Job figure [when] she's saying, "Blessed be the name of the Lord. Should I not take both the blessing and the curse? What is it in me that seems like I don't deserve both?" Her writing is really inspiring.
What's wrong with the Christian music industry today?
There's a lot of different things that don't seem to be working that should in the music industry. It's a hard thing-selling the Christian message [in pop music], because pop music is telling people what they want to hear and packaging it in a way that's familiar to them.
The Gospel is the most offensive thing anybody would want to hear. It's telling you that apart from God you are nothing, that you need God in order to exist, in order to have life. And pop music would say, "Yeah, you're amazing." It wants to build us up when the Gospel wants to tear us down in a way that says 'You need God. With God you are everything, without God you are nothing.' How do you marry that with pop music? It's a contradiction in and of itself.