The Common Good
November 2005

So Much to Sing About

by Kate Bowman Johnston | November 2005

A trip to Africa produces a holy shake-up, and a new tune, for Jars of Clay.

'So Much To Sing About'

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 band’s 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 status 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.”

AND SO, FIVE years after their radio hit “Flood” catapulted them into the mainstream spotlight, Jars of Clay broke their silence, speaking up for forgotten demographics using the biblical vocabulary of justice and mercy. At first they took up the banner of the international persecuted church after a visit to underground congregations in China. The band urged its audience to pray for fellow Christians and support organizations that distributed Bible translations clandestinely, actions still palatable to the young evangelicals who made up the bulk of their fan base.

It was not until Haseltine went to Africa in 2002 that the group’s fledgling interest in justice issues became a passionate vocation—and one that presented a much greater challenge to its audience. At that point, Jars of Clay had already begun talking from stage about AIDS efforts by World Vision after the large development organization furnished the band with a startling statistic. “World Vision said, ‘Look, we just took this poll. We asked evangelicals if they would help a person who was suffering from AIDS, and only 3 percent said they would,’” Haseltine remembers. World Vision wanted to “have people talking to the church community” in response to the misinformation and apathy still surrounding AIDS, a charge Haseltine took up with vigor. But, he says, “after a year of talking about it, I still had only a statistical, academic kind of knowledge about what was going on in Africa.”

That changed when Haseltine made an offhand comment to his friend Larry Warren, the head of African Leadership, an organization that trains pastors as well as provides grassroots development resources to them. Inspired by the band’s recent involvement with World Vision, Haseltine told Warren, “Yeah, I think I’d really like to go to Africa one day.” Then, as Warren offered him numerous itineraries, Haseltine found himself “postponing it and postponing it, because I knew that if I [went] to Africa, it was going to change my life, and it was going to disrupt the current scenario of the way I lived and worked. And sure enough, it did.”

Haseltine credits this holy shake-up to the fact that he was traveling with a small nonprofit agency, which allowed him to engage the continental crisis on a personal scale. The stories he tells from the experience center around individuals he met, such as an airport employee who had contracted AIDS despite his relative affluence, and the communities he visited, including a township where no one over age 15 remained, so complete was the devastation. So when, on the plane back home, Haseltine began thinking about how he could respond to what he’d witnessed, statistics were the last thing on his mind. Instead, he started with what the people told him they needed: clean blood and clean water.

Haseltine found an unexpected corollary for the needs of his African friends. “I was trying to think about what would exhibit Christ’s sacrifice for [humanity] that gave [humanity] life, and it was his death. And the exhibit of that life was when they pierced his side, and blood and water flowed,” Haseltine says. “And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s amazing, that the symbol of his sacrifice was blood and water. Could that not be the symbol for these people?’” There on the plane he wrote down the name of a new venture, Blood:Water Mission.

At first, the name was all he had to go on. As a musician rather than an activist, he had lots of ideas without the resources to give them hands and feet. Additionally, his bandmates, who had stayed home, lacked the zeal of Haseltine’s firsthand experience. But as Haseltine told them about the trip, the three began to warm to the idea of focusing on AIDS as the centerpiece of their social vocation. Eventually, they traveled to Africa as a group. “At this point, I think we all have agreed that the identity of Jars of Clay in the future seems to be wrapped up in Blood:Water Mission.”

SINCE HASELTINE’S FIRST visit to Africa three years ago, Blood:Water has become a bona fide relief agency with a community-oriented approach to its work. Partnering with existing organizations such as Lifewater International and Africare, the agency is heavy on the “water” as a means to improved health for AIDS patients, drilling wells in townships throughout Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa with the goal of building long-term investments in those communities. So far, Blood:Water Mission’s “1,000 Wells Project” has built 42 wells in eight countries—all of which, Haseltine says, were funded through donations of audience members at Jars of Clay’s concerts.

So much for career suicide. Haseltine says the band’s largely college-aged audience is ready to engage complicated issues such as AIDS. And during concert visits to campuses—from Harvard to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University—Jars of Clay has hosted symposia to help educate students and provide opportunities to talk about the crisis. Drawing on the principle of “transformational education” taught by Steven Garber, an academic known in evangelical circles for a book about young adult Christians called The Fabric of Faithfulness, Blood:Water will expand this fall to connect American university students with African students, and in turn, African communities.

The willingness of college students to dive headfirst into such relationships and grapple with their complexity is partially a function of their disenchantment with the isolated church in which they were raised, says Haseltine. “One of the things that keeps coming up in the Christian community is this idea of safety—safety in our music, in our bookstores, in just the way we live our lives,” he says. “But the gospel has never been about safety. There’s a church that seems to be rising up, a younger church that hasn’t been satisfied with the way the church has worked in the community at large. They’ve gone, ‘Okay, here’s the gospel, but this kind of insular, self-gratifying church culture is not really for me.’ I think they’re waking up to that and saying, ‘This is what we feel the gospel is provoking us to, and it is taking care of widows, orphans, the needy, and the sick. And as much as we’re about spiritual things, we know that these are tangible ways God lives and breathes and moves.’”

DESPITE THEIR ACTIVISM, the band’s members have not forgotten their primary vocation as musicians. This spring, they released an album of reworked hymns called Redemption Songs—which may, at first glance, seem out of character for the band. Why focus on the ethereal when the everyday provides “so much to sing about?” Why not write about their experiences in Africa?

Haseltine explains that when the band was doing research for the album, they found that hymns provided an ancient-future vantage point on the incarnational nature of faith. “I don’t think that every one of our songs is going to be about social justice—and in fact, it’s difficult to write those kinds of songs without coming across too preachy or even a little campy,” he says. “For us the connection is the real stories, real people in the world. When I was digging into the stories of hymn-writers, I discovered that they were asking, ‘Where is God in the midst of suffering? Where is God in the midst of our pain? What does the gospel say about this?’ These are amazing questions, and ones we really need to deal with. They certainly connect with what’s going on in Africa.”

Kate Bowman Johnston was the student activities coordinator at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when this article appeared.

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