So Jennifer Knapp did an amazing job responding to your questions from last week! I am so excited for you to hear what she has to say.
If you were anything like me, you spent many a weekday morning singing along to Jennifer's “Faithful to Me,” “Hold Me Now,” and “A Little More” as you got ready for another day of high school. The Grammy-nominated folk rock musician’s earthy, raw music has always given shape to my hopes and frustrations. Jennifer’s first three albums—Kansas, Lay It Down, and The Way I Am—sold over a million copies. After taking a 7-year hiatus, Knapp announced in September 2009 that she was returning to music. On May 11, 2010 she released her newest album Letting Go with the single "Dive In".
Jennifer spent her Christian music career challenging religious cultural stereotypes both on and off stage. Candid and compassionate in heart, rock-n-roll in her confrontational style, Jennifer’s impact on Christian audiences took a new turn in 2010 when she made public her long-standing same-sex partnership. The revelation sparked much public debate amid cries for immediate rejection from Christian music leaders, retailers and fans alike. Jennifer currently advocates on behalf of LGBT Christians through Inside Out Faith. Having experienced, first hand, the devastating effects of rejection and judgment, Jennifer knows full well the challenges of being “out” in certain faith communities. However, it is in the sharing of her journey through story, music and conversation that she has discovered the healing that comes from breaking the silence.
You asked some fantastic questions, and Jennifer responded with depth, wisdom, and grace. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did!
From Ouisi: I picked up your new album a few months ago and love it. You've gone through so much maturation, and the wisdom and pain you sing about sound familiar to me, just like the eager words you sang in the first part of your career sounded when I was in high school. If I understand correctly, your journey took you to a point where you now own the fact that you can't not be gay and you can't not be Christian. For the second part of that - What were some of the moments, the thoughts, the experiences that brought you to the point of claiming your faith as a Christian?
There are times in our lives where we are witness to certain events and happenings that radically alter how we will move about our world. We have experiences where we are forever changed in how we see the world around us, how we see ourselves and how we will react in navigating our individually unique journeys. I am grateful that the Gospel spoke to me in such a way. I saw, I experienced, I left altered by a grace that I knew I could never merit nor repay. To this day, my life has never been the same.
Try as I might, the message of Christ continues to inspire and move me, even when no one is looking, even when others insist that I am “doing it wrong” or not acting ‘Christian enough’. Being in a church every Sunday isn’t why I identify as Christian. It is by my experience in ‘seeing’ Christ I am compelled to act out the mercies given me. I have been introduced to concepts like grace, redemption and love. I am a living, breathing human being whose life has been profoundly changed having experienced these acts first hand.
Over the years I have continued to question what calling myself a ‘Christian’ implies. There’s a lot to unpack there in terms of religion, tradition, history, theology--but honestly, in the end, it doesn’t matter what anyone calls me. I am and continue to be inspired by my experience with Christ. No one can take that away. The moment that any of us allows another human being to push us off of the meaningful experiences in our lives, we begin to erode in spirit.
From Rachel: Jennifer, thank you so much for your music. It's been a big part of my life, and I am so grateful for you. I'll try not to fan out too much as I ask my question: I'm reading a book by pastor Jonathan Martin in which he discusses the fact that, in our current culture, fame and notoriety are treated as necessities, while obscurity is considered the kiss of death. He writes "Our society tells us that if and when we get "there"--the job or position or degree we've always wanted, the notoriety we've always dreamed of--that's when all the important stuff will start happening. Not so. All the good stuff happens in obscurity." Is this how you feel about your seven-year hiatus from the music industry? What are some important, valuable things you learned during that time away from the spotlight? Thank you!
Retrospectively, one thing I’d say is that while it is possible to learn from the experience of being ‘in the spotlight’; it is not the most fertile soil for significant growth. The spotlight is where we celebrate and commune with what we’ve learned. The growth, the creation, self-exploration and processing, I just can’t see how we can possibly do that effectively with an audience. It’s too exposed. Being observed inherently shapes the outcome. We usually talk differently when we are being observed. We perform. That’s not bad; it’s just not the entire purpose or the end game.
The spotlight is a fickle beast. It’s rewarding to find avenues to express our mastery over what we’ve learned. Reaching for achievement is a great motivator when you’re breaking your back perfecting your trade. To complete, sell, and talk about a book. Or sing, record and perform a record to a cheering crowd. I can’t lie. It’s powerful, fulfilling stuff to be able to be ‘the guy’ responsible for moving the room. But I think there’s a backside if you go into those situations looking to be the object that is celebrated. Being observed is often too great a temptation to imitate the style of characters we want to be rather than investing in the hard work of mindfully becoming our unique selves. Save the spotlight for the celebration, for the moments where connecting MUST occur to move forward.
Maybe it’s the difference between performing as a kid and getting older, but I view ‘the spotlight’ as a far more public property that I ever did earlier in my career. I learned that some things, you just have to learn in private. That what you say in those public spaces becomes a shared portion of our gathering together. It’s a public trust.
So what did I learn? I learned that I must find a way to nurture my spirit in solitude, away from the audience. It’s important for me to spend time in contemplation, discovery, and in practice, learning what I purpose or intend when I am afforded that sacred public space. The celebration, if there is any to be had, is simply being able to come to a point where we are capable of sharing that experience with the outside world without prejudice toward or fear of others. The personal journey evolves into an ability to be hospitable, if not hopefully, loving toward others. I didn’t know that I was learning anything while I wasn’t performing all those years, but learned to describe it later, when I tripped onto Nouwen’s depiction of the differences between loneliness and solitude. (Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out) It is in those (thankfully) obscured places where we have the opportunity to objectively better ourselves, make peace with who we are without the fear of failure or judgment. It seems incredibly self-centered, but surprisingly, it can lead to an amazing reaching out toward connecting with others.
I'm sorry if that all sounds too esoteric. But it underpins so much of where I’m at today. On one hand, if all you want is some kind of recognition for how awesome you are at your particular skill or level of intelligence, then the only option is to be undeniably good at what you do. So yeah, practice happens out of the spotlight. You practice what you do until you are flawless at that one phrase, that one act--perfect in your descriptions of one event or area of expertise. But I think there’s more to life than just the executables.
The spotlight or the communal exhibitions of our human experience are necessary. It allows us to connect with others, build and reaffirm community. It can be a healing process or practical act of human expression in being ‘known.’ It’s a point of celebration of our achievements and passions. But it must be put into perspective. These are but moments-glimpses; a poem, a song, a photographic still frame in what is the long and rich story of our lives. To aspire to only that moment is to miss out on all the extravagance of life. It’s what we do into the lead up and aftermath to those moments that says more about us than fifteen minutes of fame ever will.
From Kristin: Hi, Jennifer! I think you are great. I would like to know: what is the most encouraging (and maybe surprising) thing said to or done for you by fellow Christians since your coming out?
I don’t know if I could boil it down to one thing said or done, but rather a couple of surprising salient points I didn’t recognize until my sexual orientation became a public conversation.
First, is that there is theological, ritual, community and leadership support inside nearly EVERY denominational tradition of Christianity that actively affirms and upholds LGBT faith inclusion. Before you write off an entire denomination, you have to recognize that even among the leadership of some more conservative traditions (read ‘evangelical’ if you like), there are active support groups and organized churches openly affirming, welcoming and engaging LGBT people and those who would see themselves as allies. It is simply a lie that coming out means the end of finding a spiritual community in which to worship and grow. Yes, it is true, that the support you need may not be inside the present four walls where you live, but there is a great big old world out there of people who love you. Start here.
The second surprise is the obvious need for many inside the Christian community to well and truly get this all out in the open. There is some very serious wounding going on here that is incredibly important not to minimize. It’s not just for LGBT people, but for an entire generation of Christians who believe that the faith we inherited--the Gospel we have experienced-- may still be relevant. I did not expect that I would be a witness to the severity of need for the ‘church’ to find some kind of peaceful resolution to this horrible religious cultural war. I can’t help but think that many Christians recognize how often we abuse perfectly innocent, seeking individuals and ostracize them for failure to live out the prescriptions of orthodoxy. To me it’s a generational questioning of religious relevancy. When we acknowledge there are experiences in our lives, in our nature, that we cannot change, do not wish to change, may never fully grasp or comprehend its need for change? How then will my faith be relevant if God cannot love me just as I am, when all I have left to cry is ‘have mercy on me?’
From Eric: Jennifer, thanks for doing this! One thing that bugs me on a regular basis about Christian music is that so much of it seems incredibly derivative with regards to secular music trends. In other words, we see a secular band with a distinctive sound (Mumford and Sons is a good example) and perhaps six months to a year later, there's a band that sounds an awful lot like Mumford and Sons singing generic praise and worship lyrics instead of whatever the secular artist was singing about. As an artist, what pressure was put on you to conform to popular music trends versus spending time cultivating your personal sound? Do you know of any other artists who struggled with the kind of "six months behind the times" issues that seem to prevalent in Christian music? Are there other ways being a Christian music artist feels like it pigeonholes you as an artist?
It seems simple enough to say, but I think it’s often overlooked, is that CCM’s genre is not a style of music, but rather it is a very specific message. With that perspective in mind, I think it becomes easier to see why CCM often defaults to reflecting the musical trends of the time rather than encouraging artistic growth. When I’m confronted with people who don’t know what CCM is, I describe it like this: Music made for Christians (cultural expression), by Christians (quality control/consumer confidence) with an added purpose of making more/stronger Christians (evangelism/discipleship). That’s not to say that there are not incredibly talented individual artists, writers and producers contributing to the genre; there are. It’s just that the ultimate obligation is to the mission of message and not culturally significant art.
Every artist working in that vein has a certain obligation to fulfill the contract of message first and at whatever means necessary when it comes to style delivery, and frankly, shouldn’t be surprised if it ever comes up. I still don’t know if it was unusual or that I was fortunate, but I worked with a label that protected my space to explore, create and convey my Christian experience with little interference. Honestly, I never expected to have a career in CCM. I just couldn’t bring myself to abbreviate my faith experience into a resolved representation of what Christianity was supposed to look like. Ironically, much of my writing was an expression of how I just couldn’t find peace in using the same language as everyone else. And when I did overtly talk about the Jesus I saw and experienced, it seemed ‘unmarketable’ that I started to feel like both a spiritual and artistic failure.
It’s ridiculous for me to simply blame the CCM industry for this. I hate always feeling like CCM is a genre to criticize. What other genre on the planet affords such a space to freely and unabashedly celebrate God with such enthusiasm? It has no choice but to be classed apart from other kinds of music. But there in lies the rub:
If CCM is nothing more than a marketing tool for Christianity, then it will never allow for the full cultural expressions of human failure that true artistry demands. This is why, time after time, those artists who actually write about the experience of being human in the sight of Christianity reside near the fringes, dancing with the secular world that is fluent in the art of self-expression. It is why we recoil when asked to conform. It is a suspicion that those who express the truth of our darkness are on some mission to distract from the victory of the Cross rather than liberate it.
In this sense CCM reflects our Christian culture very well. It is our Christian culture to invite those to tell only the story of victory and spare the gruesome details of the scarring war. We can reside if we are made clean and presentable, those who are still writing their story must wait for absolute victory before they can share it with others.
From Matt: Jennifer, I have had the pleasure of interacting with a few Christian musicians through the years that have gone public with their same sex partnerships - like Sean Doty and Ric Alba - as well a few insiders in the CCM business. It seems like these public revelations are not really that surprising to most people paying attention. In your opinion, are most Christians truly ignorant of the LGBT Christians in their midst, or are they trying to ignore them hoping they will just go away? Also, I get the impression from Doty, Alba, and others that there are many more LGBT Christian musicians than we know about - as long as they just don't go public, they will be accepted. But if they go public, the reaction becomes pretty harsh. Thoughts on this, and maybe could you share your experience?
Listen, the fact is there have been, are and will continue to be gay people who contribute to CCM both on and off the stage. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ can be an acceptable working environment for some, but has also been used as legitimate financial weapon at times to enforce individual silence in exchange for job security. The reality is that any artist, clergy, youth pastor, Christian radio station DJ or worship band drummer who dares comes out in our current Christian climate will suffer some kind of loss. The extent to how devastating those losses can be range from catastrophic to survivable. What’s most frightening about it is that you can never fully predict just how bad it could get. Does one tell the true story of where their faith sustains hope? Do we manufacture a deflection, or worse--lie?
For what it’s worth, I think the marketplace is only an economic reflection of what has been playing out in our faith community for decades. It’s unfair to only blame the retailers, program managers and clergy for executing a troubled theology of qualified Christian membership. At some point, even I have been guilty of following along, thinking I was doing my Christian duty. We’ve been encouraged to distance ourselves from ‘backsliding’ Christians. We’ve been encouraged to abandon churches that are 'too liberal'. We've been taught it is an evidence of our Christian faith to boycott businesses who profit from artistic contributions of these same kinds of characters. The problem is that the result of wholesale rejection and silence seems to delay the inevitable need to deal with the real issues.
Being gay in this climate is almost guaranteed to bring about this socio-religious phenomenon, but we’ve been perfecting it for years through much less obvious differences of opinion. We all have some character trait, physical attribute, or even theological heresy we don’t fully express in our faith communities for fear of being treated this same way. It’s not until the cost of that silence overwhelms us that we take the risk to find communion with others and hope to survive it. To the outside world and those who fall victim to this behavior it seems that Christians have no love for those who don’t ‘measure up’. The struggles, differences, joys and sorrows of our genuinely lived lives cannot hope sustain the accomplishment of utterly flawless holiness. To me, the saddest exhibitions of these kinds of acts are when they are perpetrated against those who cannot change who they were born to be.
The good news is that this mode of operation is clearly unsustainable. As more and more people ‘come out’, the more and more allies we find. I truly believe that one day a Christian artist will find national success having started their career as openly gay. And it will be so because that artist had the undeniable support of their local church from day one.
From Iris: How has being gay helped you serve Christ better? Can you tell us of one experience where your coming out has served as an encouragement or life-changer for someone else?
I don’t know that I’d use the language ’to serve Christ better’. If anything, my reticence in using a phrase like that today is probably evidence of the fact that I’ve had a lot to process about what it means to be ‘Christian.’ I don’t think I’m by any means unique, when I say that as a gay person taught from an evangelical tradition, you have little choice but to seriously evaluate your position as ‘Christian’. My sexual orientation just isn’t up for debate, but my faith was definitely a choice that I could make. If homosexuality is in any way an evidence of spiritual failure, then the conscientious Christian must examine the possibility. I did, sincerely. And while I’m keenly aware that there are those who theologically oppose my person being fully celebrated in the narrative of the Gospel, the undeniable fact remains: I am still here. I don’t know if this makes me ‘better’ in any sense, but it makes me aware that divinely prescribed grace cannot be earned. In that case, I’m back where I started, when I first got on my knees. The best that I can do is start by recognizing that what measure of grace I have received is only repaid by passing that grace onto others. I don’t think being gay has taught me this, but rather, I’ve always wanted to be willing to accept the parts of me that I cannot change and still have the courage to accept grace.
It’s a strange circle indeed. Because I’ve had to run the gauntlet where many Christians would proclaim there is no fruit that could come from such a rotten tree, but I’m convinced otherwise. I used to spend hours after a show signing autographs on t-shirts and CDs. I felt like I was a pin-up girl for Jesus, supposedly a model of what a Christian woman was to look and act like. No wonder why people were disappointed, I was destined to fail, as I am hopelessly human. But now, after a concert, or a meeting in a church where I talk about what I’ve been through...I don’t sign autographs that much any more. Instead, I find that I’m listening for hours to so many other people whose stories are similar to my own. We are drawn together because each of us is reaching out for evidence that our faith might still be relevant to our daily lives. Some are gay or have stories of someone gay they know who have been deeply wounded by the church, but mostly, we’re just folks who know that our faith is significant. We have been altered, hopefully for the better, by our experience with the Gospel. And now that we see just how human we really are, we’re grateful. I’m grateful. I honestly don’t know how much more life-changing an experience you hope to discover than love.