JARS OF CLAY aren't exactly an overnight sensation, but the band's four Gen-X members come close: Their 1995 self-titled debut has sold 1.5 million copies, the best-selling debut in Christian music history.
“It's always been one surprise after another,” says Dan Haseltine, singer and lyricist for the band, whose new CD, Much Afraid, was released in September and has already been certified gold for sales exceeding 500,000 copies.
“We started out in college writing songs basically for us and a few of our friends,” he says. “Now we're starting to do international touring in Singapore, Australia, and Japan. We're kind of going, ‘Whoa!’ We never expected our music to get beyond the four walls of our dorm room.”
But things have gone far beyond Greenville College in Illinois, where three of the four Jars members majored in contemporary Christian music before their ship came in.
Last year they performed 300 concert dates, including a few as the opening act for rock superstar Sting; Flood, the break-out single from their first CD, was in regular rotation on cable music stations MTV and VH-1. Their version of David Bowie's Heroes played while the final credits ran on last year's action flick Long Kiss Good-bye. And they've received generally positive coverage from secular publications like Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and Spin.
The band's vast appeal may be because the Christianity espoused in Much Afraid isn't the triumphalistic, victorious variety heard in most modern Christian music. Instead, the CD, which is named after the main character in Hannah Hurnard's 1955 allegory, Hinds Feet on High Places, portrays believers as weak and vulnerable.
Songs like Frail and Weighed Down help explain why the band took its name from the Apostle Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians: “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us,” wrote Paul.
“We're trying to deal realistically with what people are going through in society today,” says Haseltine.
“There is that triumph where Jesus did rise from the dead and conquered death and sin. So there is triumph there. But in the world we live in, all that a lot of people hear about is triumph, and that you become a Christian and all your problems are solved. That's very far from the truth.
“We try to paint the other picture. Humanity is a frail thing. There are a lot of heartbreaks and different things you encounter. In the midst of that, you can find hope. But that doesn't mean you won't have struggles.”
Also contributing to the success of Jars of Clay are memorable melodies, tight vocal harmonies, and a creative mix of folk, pop, and alternative rock elements. And on Much Afraid, part of which was recorded in London, they add layers of Beatles-style arrangements to the mix.
“Steve, our guitarist, is a Beatles fanatic,” says Haseltine. “Plus, there's kind of a resurgence of British pop … and I'm sure that's had an influence on our writing.”
But most intriguing is Jars's win-some way of expressing their faith without clichÈs or inside-the-Bible-beltway lingo.
“The topics we deal with are universal in many ways,” says Haseltine. “And we're not only singing to Christians, so why would I want to write a song that uses all this language that only Christians would understand? That would be shooting ourselves in the foot.”
But he's quick to add the band has no “agenda.”
“An artist spends most of life in a prison tainted by his experience. Ours is tainted by our experience of being in church and being Christian. Hopefully, people who hear us are going to go, ‘Wow! That was a good song!’ And we hope some people get some hope out of our music. Anything else is great.”
Jars's mix of conviction and creativity also has endeared them to believers who have otherwise turned a deaf ear to most Christian music. Nina Williams, a spokeswoman for the band's Nashville-based Essential label, estimates that two-thirds of the band's sales are in Christian retail outlets.
Meanwhile Amy Grant, the pioneering Christian singer who single-handedly took contemporary Christian music out of the gospel ghetto, sells the majority of her albums in mainstream outlets.
Grant's pop-folk Behind the Eyes, the 15th and latest CD in her 20-year, 20 million sales career, was released about the same time as Jars’ Much Afraid. But Behind the Eyes doesn't mention Jesus, and has consistently outsold Much Afraid in mainstream stores. Jars of Clay, who sing about Jesus with a capital “J,” out-sell Grant in Christian bookstores.
Like Grant, the members of Jars of Clay have experienced the loneliness that comes from building bridges to those outside Christian circles. For example, one Christian fan posted this panicked message at the band's web site (www.jarsofclay.com): “I have heard a rumor that Jars of Clay has played in venues where alcohol and drugs have been abundant. Is this true? Please, someone, confirm/deny this story!”
The band also has heard from angry non-believers who bought a Jars CD and were upset that something they thought was so cool turned out to be, gulp, Christian!
Says Haseltine, “A lot of agendas get thrown at a band when you call it Christian.”
Steve Rabey writes for Religion News Service.