Lords of the new church

What do you get if you start with rock and roll, and take out the sex, irreverence, abandon, swagger, arrogance, anger, and grit?

Toad the Wet Sprocket and Hootie & the Blowfish swiftly come to mind, but the correct answer is “Christian Contemporary Music,” better known in the faith biz as CCM. Its biggest acts sell hundreds of thousands of albums, pack arenas around the country, and stockpile Dove Awards, but they operate in a parallel dimension, barely registering a blemish on Paris Hilton America.

That fact was reinforced in the middle of Jars of Clay’s December 13 show at Community Bible Church. While the veteran God-rockers played songs from their new Christmas CD, the capacity crowd of 3,500 sat politely and dutifully clapped whenever a group member talked about hope and peace and serenity. But, finally, one woman in the front couldn’t contain herself any longer. “You guys are awesome!,” she shouted, in what was the CCM equivalent of drunken heckling. “Thank you for that,” mumbled JOC singer Dan Haseltine, his voice dripping with sincerity. At Christian-rock shows, even the interruptions are greeted with kindness and even the hooligans use child-proof language.

In short, this was Mike Huckabee’s America. Both Jars of Clay and concert headliner Third Day addressed the crowd with the kind of aw-shucks humility and reflexive self-deprecation that Huckabee has patented on the presidential campaign trail. In fact, if you looked closely, you could spot a few “HUCKABEEliever” bumper stickers in the church parking lot after the show.

The auditorium was packed to the most distant balcony seats, and many devotees had little choice but to stand in the aisles. The lobby included booths for Women of Faith, Christian-pop radio station KLOVE, and the charitable organization World Vision. One middle-aged couple walking between the booths sported matching black-and-silver Spurs knockoff t-shirts, with “Worship Jesus” in place of “San Antonio Spurs.” No hint of a generational gap could be found, with adolescents, teenagers, twentysomething couples, and geriatrics all rocking in unison.

In a sense, there’s not much to separate Jars of Clay and Third Day from each other. They’re both veteran bands, on the CCM circuit for nearly 15 years. They’re both slick, polished, and distinctly middle-of-the-road, with JOC recalling the gentility of the band America (they’ve even covered “Lonely People”) and Third Day striving for the smooth jangle of Matchbox 20. They both rank among the best-selling Christian bands and they’re both currently on the road (together for the first time) promoting Christmas albums.

But there’s something about Third Day that stirs the faithful in a way that Jars of Clay can’t match. Maybe it’s the faint Georgia-country twang of singer Mac Powell, or the way his raven-tinted, emaculately groomed facial hair makes him look like a cross between Alabama singer Randy Owen and a young Tom Selleck, but these dudes had us at “Amen.”

The congregation sat and somberly listened to Jars of Clay, responding with an occasional head nod. When scarf-wearing, sleigh-bell-shaking singer Dan Haseltine preached, “We’re here to tell you there is peace, because the gospel is true,” the applause was warm, if muted. But from the moment that Third Day kicked into “O Come All Ye Faithful,” on the heels of an inspirational introductory speech from the band’s road pastor, the worshipers were at their feet and lifting their hands in ecstatic praise.

”I’d like to dedicate this song to all the old-school Third Day fans out there,” Powell announced as his bandmates launched into ”King of Glory,” with lyrics projected on video screens at the back of the stage. As the song built to a climax, Powell addressed Christ directly with some spoken-word testifying: “We want to have a good time. We want to celebrate. But most of all, we want to feel your presence!”

Every major rock band has at least one line that makes people issue a collective roar, whether it’s the Who’s “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” or the Pretenders’ “Not me baby, I’m too precious, I had to fuck off.” For Third Day, the roof-raising applause line came when Powell assured his messiah, “Don’t be afraid, ’cause in three days you will rise again.”

All the seasonal talk of peace was intriguing because Third Day proudly opened for Dick Cheney — a betting-man’s longshot for the Nobel Peace Prize, to be sure — at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Cheney might have been bemused by the night’s lone capitalist critique, in an amiable lecture from Third Day bassist Tai Anderson about the spirit of the holidays: “You feel like going to the mall is your civic duty. You’re supposed to come through for corporate America in the fourth quarter.”

Before we mistakenly thought we’d wandered into a Noam Chomsky book reading by mistake, Third Day set us straight with a rousing “Angels We Have Heard On High.”

You have to wonder if it’s a burden for even the most devotional to constantly write, sing and talk about nothing but their love for Christ. Do they occasionally feel tempted to write a song about cars or school or wisdom teeth?

It’s easy to forget now, but when U2 arrived on the scene with their 1980 album, Boy, they were vocal about their faith and were widely viewed as a “Christian band.” But Bono was always a bit too messianic to take a backseat to anyone. He wanted to be your savior, he didn’t want to sing the praises of some other savior.

That’s squarely in the rock tradition, but seriously at odds with the Christian-rock approach. At times, though, all the head-bobbing grimaces and ain’t-we-nasty power strums on the guitar can confuse you. So when Third Day’s Powell wrapped his leathery pipes around a line like “I caught a glimpse of your splendor” and followed it with an impassioned “Show me your glory,” I found myself half-expecting a libidinous Steven Tyler follow-up, like “and would you mind if I videotaped it?”