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.
God is in places that are broken, that are in need of repair and fixing. I have to believe that God is in the [Christian] music industry because it's very broken and needs redemption.
Your single "Flood" became a mainstream hit in the late '90s. During this time, the fact that the band had Christian roots was hidden. Do you ever wish the band didn't have the Christian label attached to it so it would be easier to get your music out to more people?
Yeah. There was a time where we were very confused by the kind of Christian perception of us. When we started out, we made a record and had it out on a mainstream label as well as a Christian independent label and played in bars and clubs. We never really talked in between songs--we never preached, we never gave an altar call or anything like that. Our songs [were] on mainstream radio, and so for all practical purposes, we were doing everything that any other mainstream band would be doing, and nothing that would necessarily call us out to be evangelical and overt Christians. Certainly we had hoped that when we would go to a venue our role was not to preach the Gospel, but to love the people who we were hanging around. That was where we felt like our focus had to be--it was never about an outward agenda. And yet, when we'd go into a town, the first thing that we would read in an entertainment guide is "Bible-thumping holy rollers Jars of Clay come to town."
There's this liberal media that are kind of their own parasite. We didn't have a label, so they had to create this label so they knew how to move against us, or move away from us. It was probably easy because they heard we were Christians to throw that on us and to create it into something that was unrealistic and ultimately offensive to the mainstream or the secular world. We don't care to have an agenda when we go into a town. We don't feel like the Gospel is something that needs people to defend it.
We're not an evangelical band and yet we're able to--at this point--go "Yeah, we're Christians, so what? Do you like the record? Is the music good? Have we created something substandard in any way?" If you're writing a review of the record, talk about the music. "Is it communicating something well, even if it's not something you agree with?"
Tell us a little about your organization the Blood: Water Mission.
Blood: Water Mission is probably the part of my world that's taking up the most time. It's been exciting and I'm really grateful for it. It's dedicated to providing clean blood and clean water for the people of Africa who are suffering under the weight of the HIV/ AIDS emergency. Our main goal is to get them clean blood and clean water through building sustainable relationships.
There's this great gap between First and Third World--these ideas that say that because a person is born into poverty, they're not as smart, not as creative as a person who lives in the Western world. We want to dismiss those myths, and help build relationships between people so that they can actually see that most often an African's issue is not that they're not as smart or as creative, it's simply an issue of resources. When we can provide resources that allow an African to build their own community up, to dig their own wells, to provide their own vocational training, to build their own schools, and build relationships between Americans and Africans, then that's when real sustainable change is going to happen. You have to let Africans be the heroes. They know what's best for their communities-we don't.
The biggest way we're [building relationships] right now is called the 1000 Wells Project. It's based on an equation that $1 U.S. equals clean water for one African for one year. [The project] has taken one person and connected them to one person. We're trying to build or repair 1000 clean water wells in different parts of Africa.
Do you not think our government is doing enough to help the crisis in Africa?
I think our government is doing a lot. I don't think it's the government's job though. I don't necessarily feel like it's even a question of whose responsibility is it. It's more a question of who gets to have the privilege to be a part of this.
There's still is a section of the church that [believes] HIV/AIDS is because of sin and so what we need to do is just let them die, let God kind of shed his wrath on the people of Africa. That's been an excuse for a lot of evangelicals not to help. It's a sad thing that the church is looking for excuses not to get involved.
There's this story about Jesus where he goes along the road and he finds this blind man and Jesus' disciples are with him and they ask Jesus questions like, "Is this man blind because of his sin? Is he blind because of his father's sin? Is there something that he's done to deserve this blindness?" And Jesus looks at his disciples and he says, "No, this man isn't blind because of his sin. This man is blind so today you will see the hand of God's mercy reach down and heal this person. Your life will be shaken and your faith will grow."
God is saying, "You, today, have the privilege of seeing God meet somebody in their suffering. You get to know God in a way that you wouldn't know God otherwise. When Jesus talks about how He won't always be there but we'll always have the poor, I tend to believe that's a statement of consolation that we will always be able to see God's character reach into suffering. That impacts our life and allows our faith to grow. When we find excuses not to enter into that privilege, we miss out.
Why do you think God allows suffering in the world?
I believe that it is something that has happened after the fall of man. When sin entered the world we had the kind of pain that we have. The world isn't right. It isn't the way it's supposed to be. But our role as Christians affected by the Gospel and captivated by grace is to push back the effects of the fall. Our hope and our goal is that we're building community, we're becoming a body [and] learning to love people well. That's subversive to what the world is doing right now. The world is very much about the individual and breaking people apart and breaking down real communication.
It would be a great tragedy for us to just dismiss suffering because to dismiss it, you'd have to remove the cross as well. Jesus died on the cross, he didn't die on a featherbed surrounded by people waving branches at him. He endured great suffering. And that's part of it. If we're to become like Christ, [we have] to enter into suffering and that is by design.
Do you have a favorite prayer?
The one that I seem to pray more often than not is, "God be merciful on me a sinner. Thank you for grace." Those are the kinds of prayers I think I gravitate towards and "Lord, help me to hate injustice and love mercy. And help me to be reminded that I can't do that on my own."