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Rebuking the 'idol of safety,' Jars of Clay returns to classic hymns

AUSTIN, Texas-The slogan for most Christian radio is 'it's safe for the whole family.' What does that really mean? You don't have to think?" That was the protest of Jars of Clay musician Dan Haseltine when he and the band's other three members-Matt Odmark, Stephen Mason, and Charlie Lowell-sat down with WORLD before a concert here to talk about their activities.

When Jars of Clay released "Valley Song" on the Furthermore album in 2003, it heard back from some Christian radio stations that the lyrics were too dark for their listeners. "Valley Song" deals with the unexpected death of a band member's sister-in-law, and some listeners didn't want to hear a song about death: Not safe, not comfortable, not listener-friendly.

In Redemption Songs, the band's new, seventh album, Jars of Clay again does not play it safe. The band could rest on its three Grammy and six Dove awards and do more of the same, or it could pump out a harder rock 'n' roll image. Instead, it has reached into the past to produce a worship album that infuses the modern sound of bluegrass, blues, and soul with the poetic and theologically deep lyrics of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century hymns.

Dressed in blue jeans and the band's T-shirts, the band members explained why: Mr. Lowell, the quiet keyboardist with a tattoo of a Roman cross on his right wrist, said the hard message of the old hymns is "so raw, and yet we need to hear it daily." Mr. Mason, the bassist, spoke sarcastically about the contemporary church's "idol of safety" as he squatted in a wooden-arm, caneback chair, like a little kid: "The gospel doesn't call us to a radical life of sacrifice, but how can I get all of my debt into one manageable payment to save well for my kid's colleges?"

Rejecting modern praise music, Redemption Songs revives old hymns that focus on man's desperate need and the centrality of "who Christ is." Mr. Odmark, the guitarist, argued that "modern Christian music is focused on what we contribute and what we bring to God-I sing this, I give this-where hymns just have a way of saying 'I am evil, born in sin / Thou desirest truth within.'" That's why he likes hymns like John Newton's "Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder."

Jars of Clay began (like many bands) in a college-dormitory basement, then did the unusual crossover from Christian radio to mainstream-radio pop charts, alongside bands like Creed and Sixpence None the Richer. The group developed an acoustic quality that alternative rock stations embrace, and firmly rejected the digital-plastic feel and disposable message of popular rock bands. But that's not all the four band members reject: As they sat in a chairs-and-couch circle in a University of Texas lounge, they criticized Christian lives that are "safe," "controlled," "micromanaged," "risk-free," and "a list of do's and don'ts."

Jars of Clay hopes to motivate many of its 20-something fans to travel to Africa and battle AIDS. The group in 2003 founded the Blood:Water Mission, a nonprofit organization promoting cleaner water and decreased transmission of the HIV/AIDS virus. (The UN reports 70 percent of AIDS victims live in Africa, say band members; every 14 seconds child in Africa is orphaned by the death of a parent infected with AIDS and is likely to turn to begging, stealing, and prostitution to survive.)

All four band members wore blood-red wristband bracelets that read "Blood:Water." The Jars of Clay goal is to help more Africans have blood free of the HIV virus and water free of parasites and bacteria that cause undue suffering. In the process, the band members themselves, according to Mr. Haseltine, are seeing the importance of "knowing God in a different culture, a different time period, under different circumstances than we would know ourselves and finding that the gospel is true over there and consistent."

Timeless treasures

People on both sides of the music wars in America's churches should listen to Redemption Songs, the Jars of Clay's latest release (March 2005). Contemporary Christian music fans will hear cutting-edge music that-contrary to much of what they are used to-has deep, rich devotional and theological content. And traditional music purists will hear that it is indeed possible to use contemporary sounds in reverent, historically orthodox ways.

Jars of Clay is one of the coolest rock bands made up of Christians, respected in both CCM and secular circles. What they have done is record songs using the lyrics of traditional hymns.

Not that Redemption Songs is just contemporary singers doing the old-time hymns. Of the 12 songs on the CD, only five use arrangements of the traditional melodies. The other seven use new music, composed either by Jars of Clay or other current artists. But the music, for the most part, is at the service of the text. What we hear are the classic words of John Newton, John Wesley, Paul Gerhardt, and others, in a new idiom. Sometimes hymns have become so familiar that we stop paying attention to the words and no longer notice just how powerful they are. With these new treatments, we hear the timeless lyrics as if for the first time.

"I Need Thee Every Hour" and "Nothing But the Blood of Jesus" come across with intimate intensity. The traditional musical structure of "It Is Well with My Soul"-with its metrical stanzas, rhythmic refrain, and stylized repetitions-has the same simplicity as a rock tune and adapts perfectly to the new style with hardly any change.

Some of the hymns here are so traditional that, ironically, they will be new to many Christians today. The album's first cut is Psalm 51 from the Reformed Psalter of 1912. (Band members belong to the Presbyterian Church in America, and the liner notes include "special thanks" to Reformed University Fellowship.)

Other less-familiar hymns, all put to new music, include "God Will Lift Up Your Head" by the great Lutheran hymn writer Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) and "Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder" by John Newton (1725-1807), better known for "Amazing Grace." The emotional range and lyrical beauty of such nearly forgotten hymns are evident from the titles: "O Come and Mourn with Me Awhile" by Frederick W. Faber (1814-1863); "Thou Lovely Source of True Delight" by Anne Steele (1716-1778).

Many churches, trying to be more relevant, have thrown out hymns in favor of "contemporary" music, by which they mean praise songs written back in the 1970s in styles that have been out of date for three decades. Leaders of churches trying to reach today's young people need to realize that vapid sentimentality is currently out of fashion, even in pop music. They might do better to employ songs that have a darker but honest recognition of suffering, that express more complicated emotions, and that are grounded in an objective reality. Like hymns.

-Gene Edward Veith

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.