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    We Have This Treasure in Jars of Clay

    An album by Dime Store Prophets released at the peak of contemporary Christian music still speaks to me about how to express my faith.

    By Aarik Danielsen

    April 22, 2022
    • Kevin Baird

      Thanks for taking me back. Growing up in the bay area and getting to see the Dimestore Prophets/ Tremolo living through the struggle for authenticity always awoke deeper faith in me. The songs that most often challenge and change us are the ones yearning for truth in all the nooks and crannies we find it. "Desperate" to this day is one of my favorites. Thanks for taking time to write. kb

    • bill canonico

      i was born in 1951. having grown up attending conservative evangelical churches and youth groups in the '60's, then being involved with similar churches for many years since, and having been a music lover from the time i was very young, and a singer and songwriter over many years in that environment, it seems to me that the approach to writing lyrics and communicating one's faith has often been forced by that segment of the church into and through a very narrow opening. artists like mark heard, t-bone burnett, tonio k, bill mallonee and bruce cockburn were looked at as outsiders and even pariahs for the most part, because too much of their content was personal and confessional, and not doctrinally conservative or preachy enough. others, like the rez band, who were very evangelistic and [i thought] also very good, were much more acceptable. for me, much of this boils down to how God wants us to do express what he and our lives with him mean to us. as for me - i write love songs, nature songs, songs about old friends and family, songs about death....whatever crosses my mind, without worrying about inserting christian content or messages. in my life, i try to follow the 2 great commandments. i want people to know God loves them and wants what's best for them, but i don't feel compelled to communicate that like a broadcast spreader on a lawn. i don't know how relevant these comments are. i just got up, had some coffee, read your very good article, and felt like responding. rather than deleting the whole thing, i'll send it. bill canonico

    Deep called to deep, then turned up the tremolo, in the songs of Dime Store Prophets. The Oakland, California band loosed its debut album in 1995, peak hours for contemporary Christian music (CCM). Upon arrival, the quartet felt like familiar strangers.

    The album cover itself reads like a nimble bit of activism. A man – maybe a vagabond passing through in a second-hand van, maybe the latest preaching sensation at the Full Gospel Church downtown – wears a sandwich board bearing the record’s title. Whoever he is, he fulfills the image the band’s name conjures; and his message rings simple and scandalous: Love Is Against the Grain.

    The words sound like a poet’s ad-lib, maybe a verse nestled within The Message translation – not the creed of a Christian band in the mid-nineties, when slogans as song titles were shorter and sweeter, written to go down easy. But Dime Store Prophets would spend a dozen tracks proving and punctuating the earthy beauty of that banner.

    Singer Justin Stevens approached the microphone like a not-so-minor prophet – not the type to warn of impending wrath (though a strong wind blows through several songs), but one called to convince God’s people of his steadfast love as they wobble through the world, reborn creatures on new, spindly legs.

    These songs beg the Holy Spirit to soak a thirsty earth, quote Isaiah and the Gospels, extend empathy to the worst of sinners. During a popular moment for purity anthems, the band delivered two meditations on sex and regret, owning the male gaze and offering actual charity; the best of the pair, “Baby’s Got a New Dress,” estimates what Jesus’ finger-in-the-sand scribbles from John 8 might sound like against pealing guitars.

    Love Is Against the Grain ranks among the most soulful, specific expressions of faith issued on a Christian label. Yet the album includes exactly two references to God, zero mentions of Jesus. What does it mean to say that this is Christian music? And what is it, all these years later, these songs still need to teach me?

    I overthink the relationship between the words Christian and writer. Alarms sound within whenever my work steers toward the prescriptive. I fear what my head might tell my hand to do, scratching out calls to assent and action. Even originating from a renewed mind, this sort of writing flattens the dynamic life of God dwelling with man. And it sounds a subtle signal – to follow the way of some Middle American writer barely translating holy mysteries into his own life.

    Preferring the descriptive, I pray that visions of the seamless sacred reveal themselves in expressions of everyday wonder. God is no less present in my work than with writers who name him in every sentence; he simply shows up at different moments, taking different shapes. He projects his image upon my wife and son; his breath blows storm clouds across the Midwestern sky overhead; his divine music hums in the background of every scene. He proves himself present everywhere, and I write to collect the evidence.

    Still, at an essay’s end, my eyes return to its beginning, skimming sentences, tallying utterances of Jesus’ name. Thought bubbles collide over my head, spilling their questions: What weighs more: certainty or mystery? Does a name matter more than the Spirit it unlocks? Am I a Christian writer or a writer who is a Christian? I wonder if these questions would even occur to me without growing up in proximity to peak CCM.

    Stretching from the 1990s through the first moments of the new millennium, peak CCM represented the final days of Christian labels – like their mainstream counterparts – rifling through deep pockets, amplifying artists, and hedging creative bets through means such as high-concept music videos.

    This extended cultural moment threw open cathedral doors, allowing Christian music to ring out into the masses. Here, Jars of Clay – a band taking after a lesser-known Pauline expression – could pierce Billboard charts with an acoustic anthem weathered by Genesis floodwaters. And Sixpence None the Richer, its identity borrowed from a C. S. Lewis passage, could soundtrack one of the decade’s blockbuster teen comedies with a bijou ballad about kissing “out of the bearded barley.”

    What does it mean to say that this is Christian music? And what is it, all these years later, these songs still need to teach me?

    While Christian music brooks criticism for riding the last possible tailwind of mainstream trends, the tendency mattered less during peak CCM. Four years after Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” rocked the music world off its axis, DC Talk released “Jesus Freak” (and its titular album) in 1995. From early drum hits to its whisper-becomes-a-roar dynamic, the song bears serious resemblance to Nirvana’s generational anthem. It also defined an era of Christian music.

    DC Talk followed Jesus Freak with the 1998 album Supernatural, traveling again in the groove of its mainstream forerunners even while encouraging its listeners to buck the mainstream. Tastemakers like Nirvana and Counting Crows coped with their breakthroughs through musical statements on the fearful nature of fame. “My Friend (So Long),” song five on Supernatural, lived in a similarly self-referential space.

    The track, DC Talk’s Toby McKeehan confirmed in a newspaper interview, traces the ascendance of a fictional member who leaves the band to make it on the outside. (Robert Christgau, the “dean of American rock critics,” suggested the song referred to radio-rockers Collective Soul, a hypothesis that left that band’s frontman, Ed Roland, amusingly bewildered in a 2018 Stereogum interview.) The accompanying video ranks among the most bizarre and inventive artifacts from peak CCM.

    As DC Talk lodges concerns about its newly-minted friend – showing up in the “top 40 rack” and Rolling Stone, no longer singing “Jesus is the way” – the band’s members appear on screen, their vital signs dimming in ambulances and hospital rooms. Between a soulful vigil scene and the entrance of dancing undertakers, the video – like the song – includes a snippet of “Jesus Freak.”

    There is no mistake in the message: DC Talk exhorts everyone within earshot, especially itself, to inch back from the precipice of popularity, remaining tethered by faith. (In fact, Supernatural was the band’s own last album; its three members each went on to various solo projects, with occasional reunion concerts.) Not a new concern, the discourse reaches back to the first disciples divining the difference between “in” and “not of” the world. Similar funnel clouds of conversation touched down at the appearance of Jesus rock pioneer Larry Norman – is the music Christian enough? Do you hear Jesus in it?

    But peak CCM sharpened the question, with sacred cows moving through pastures the color of money. As another DC Talk track, “What If I Stumble,” asks:

    Is this one for the people?
    Is this one for the Lord?
    Or do I simply serenade for things I must afford?
    You can jumble them together
    My conflict still remains
    Holiness is callin’
    In the midst of courting fame

    As scores of teenagers like me were wrestling with the questions of Christian identity and purpose for the first time, such lyrics seemed to grant a backstage pass to the artists’ own struggles. The Christian message they may have felt called to impart was in some ways inherently at odds with the music industry’s need to create celebrities to sell. Their pressure to become capitalist products to proclaim the faith threatened their own genuine connection to it, and while we could appreciate the irony, it offered few assurances to our questioning spirits.

    The CCM that stuck to my soul trafficked in a quieter confidence, that God weighs the heart and knows what it’s up to. This was the way of songwriter Rich Mullins, whose clear eyes and vagabond soul left him content to be “caught in the reckless, raging fury that they call the love of God”; the tempo kept by Caedmon’s Call, a Houston band playing notes of providence in the everyday mundane.

    And self-forgetfulness shaped the songs of Dime Store Prophets. Stevens sang like Kerouac carrying a pocket New Testament – gathering stories on the road, he folded them into the pages of a better story.

    These artists never obscured Jesus’ name. Mullins addressed the Son of Man like a friend, and Caedmon’s Call worked out the language of sovereign grace in its songs. Dime Store Prophets hit the scene on 5 Minute Walk Records; once home to artists like Five Iron Frenzy and Justin McRoberts, the label took its name from the notion that five minutes dedicated to daily devotion would yield intimacy with God. The band invoked him within the first minutes of its 1997 follow-up, Fantastic Distraction, describing a junkie who “tripped and fell on Jesus” – fare not quite becoming either mainstream or Christian radio.

    Man leaning against bars with a sandwich board reading "Love is against the grain."

    Dime Store Prophets' Love Is Against The Grain album cover

    To them, Jesus was the name above all names and the silent power actively holding the universe together. Love Is Against the Grain is filled with songs about being held together, songs that wear Holy Spirit –consciousness like a coat with its collar turned up to break the world’s chill.

    The voice of God cuts through “Daddy’s Gun,” in a timbre only someone who has tasted bread and wine can hear. Singer-songwriter Justin Stevens channels the divine like a chisel against resolute despair, first pronouncing, “You’re hard as hell to talk to, child / The hardest yet I’ve found.” Then against the crescendo of life’s squalls, the Spirit expresses itself not in the storm, but in a whisper: “Shine on / Would you shine on, child?”

    The band sucks up gospel air, its rib cage stretched and straining against the chest, then exhales sermons I now preach to myself, prayers I repeat to absolve myself, promises I mumble to console myself. When I ache for another world, I know “I’m lonely, but I’m not alone.” Naked and fumbling to cloak myself in good intentions, I sing “If it ever comes down to this / I want to be faithful.”

    These songs cannot be explained apart from the shape of the cross. They whisper words that instinctively rise up in the soul, articulating truths I wouldn’t embrace till adulthood. Hundreds of sermons and countless days slouching toward holiness later, I recognized these tone poems for what they were – echoes of the Good News, right there in songs recorded twenty-five years ago.

    This music stretched my imagination to sense Jesus everywhere, even when his name goes unsaid. Arriving like a hopeful down payment, it guaranteed I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living and be swept up in mysteries that cannot be sufficiently spelled out. If the hum of God sounds ceaselessly, artists like Dime Store Prophets prove Christian music cannot be confined to a genre or business model. It rings out wherever the life of Christ is absorbed, spurring the pilgrim to sing from the overflow of the heart – about a day’s disappointment, a lover’s touch, a baptism by fire, anything lived out coram Deo.

    I may be lonely, but I’m not alone. Other artists create from the unburdened places in their souls, places massaged by the Spirit. They neither fear nor demand the adjective “Christian” applied to their words, but trust the true and pure to sound itself out. My memory and courage inevitably fail me and I live out a lyric from “Whirlwind,” the closing track on Love Is Against the Grain:

    And sometimes when you see me
    You’re going to point and laugh
    Saying there goes a man with high ideals
    And a burden on his back

    But the God who looses himself throughout the universe like an endless electric current will make himself known in my work and yours; through direct proclamations and praise as well as expressions of lament and desire.

    If I write of still winter mornings or a poem’s curve, sleepless nights watching over my son or those rare, earthbound moments of love minus condition, may you hear Jesus behind it all, breaking through to remind us both of the promises he’s keeping.

    May you hear him, even if I can’t express the gospel in so many words or punctuate a God-carved moment in Jesus’ name. What goes against the grain of both “Christian” and “mainstream” art often reveals the dimensions of his glory in the most wrenching, beautiful ways imaginable. My favorite Christian music tells me so.

    Contributed By aarikdanielson Aarik Danielsen

    Aarik Danielsen is the arts editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune. He writes a regular column for Fathom Magazine, and his work has appeared at Image Journal, Entropy, Think Christian, and more. Follow him on Twitter: @aarikdanielsen.

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