Jars of Clay is definitely the former, and their music is probably best described as the latter (okay, maybe folky-pop, but that's not a plus in my eyes, either). So I started thinking about why it is that I like them so much anyway.
The key, I've decided, is several-fold. Let's start with the reasons I wouldn't like them: Christian & folk. I'm not against either of those paradigms, they've just never been my thing. [beginning generalizations. please note that I am aware that these are generalizations, and that there are, in fact, many that do not fit them, and don't waste your time flaming me]. I'm not into Christianity, not just because I don't believe it, but because it is so often preachy, and the preaching lacks a depth of thought that I require in order to listen to an argument. Often, it consists mostly of threats & guilt & annoying people until they agree with you...none of which is a way to win me over. Combine that with the whole faith thing (i.e.: you should believe this because somebody somewhere wrote it, and because I believe it) and you've pretty much lost me.
Come to think of it, I don't like folk because of a lack of depth, too. Not, in the case of folk music, a lack of depth of information, but rather a lack of musical depth. I like my music multi-layered, rich, full, complex (which explains why I often like bluegrass, but not most folk). Folk tends to remind me of AM radio. Tinny & flat. Not my thing.
Jars of Clay breaks both of these molds (at least in their first CD, I've not listened to any of the others yet), and they add what turns out to be a very important factor to me: passion; in this case the religious variety.
See, they're Christian, and they make no bones about it...but they're not preaching (at least not to my ear). They're telling us, not just about their beliefs, but about the struggle that it can be fitting their beliefs into the material, modern world. They're singing about the sheer joy of belief, about passionate love for a concept and the symbols of that concept. They're singing about the overwhelming despair that comes when you simply cannot go a step further, no matter how badly you want to...and the comfort of someone or something being there to help you push through, somehow, when you're sure you've gone past your limits. They're singing about the desire to give everything you are..everything...for what you believe in. Finally, I think they're singing about how point of view often alters one's understanding of the world.
All of those things are universal human concepts, even when the religion is stripped away from them, and I relate to them. Mind you, I'm less optimistic that anything is out there waiting to "save me" in my hour of need. I've had too many things that I considered hours of need already, and I've never been able to attribute it to some higher being or purpose, but merely to people. I'm Heinleinian in the attitude that religion can be a great comfort and a great crutch, but that you can't have that and still look at the real world (I'm paraphrasing from what I suspect is Friday...first person to get me the actual quote gets a gold star and a hot fudge sundae, next time I see ya). That there's a reality of coldness and reliance on alone-ness that many can't handle, which is why religion is so popular. The Jars of Clay song Flood embodies this concept for me, as does the Morphine song Empty Box and the scene in Titanic (an otherwise execrable bunch of schlock) when the camera draws back away from the noise and light of the doomed ship, further and further, until all you can see is this tiny light in the middle of endless nothingness. Nothing says alone quite like the vast, dark night ocean.
In other songs, they're incredibly passionate about wanting to give everything to and for their beliefs. That's something that I can appreciate, because that's how I feel about people I love, and about a cause or two. It runs deep, and I can't always explain it verbally, but it's the swelling immensity of realization that self-sacrifice for what you love is an option in your mind. It reminds me of Orson Scott Card's Saints, and of Tanya Tucker's Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone). It means giving up your life, your family, your home...everything, whatever it takes to do what you can for what you believe. Even if you never see it's fruition. Even if you die in misery. Even if no one ever knows what you've done. A true leap of faith, not knowing if there's anything to catch you, or even if there's anything beyond the chasm.
That kind of passion (that is: the kind often identified as religious because it is so all-encompassing) I can understand and respect; even relate to, whereas the guilt/threats/"annoy them until they go along with you sort" smack of a kind of attempted coercion that my anarchist soul rejects outright.
Jars of Clay are passionate and honest, and don't fall into the bullying-faith trap. Add to that the complexity of the music; which blends violins, cellos, percussion & penny whistles or recorders with a solid base of simple guitar music...and now, after all that philosophy, my liking them isn't such a mystery.