Since her debut album, Kansas, dropped in 1998, Jennifer Knapp was one of Contemporary Christian Music's (CCM) darlings: a sweet girl from Kansas who could play an impressive guitar lick and talk authentically about her love for God.
Her raw sound gave her an edge over other artists in her field, many of whom relied too heavily on prepackaged, four-chord pop melodies to sell albums to audiences desperate to find alternatives to the secular music industry. It was the late '90s, and the culture wars were still raging. Christians had a tendency to latch on to any Christian musician who could provide a different version of what was on the radio.
Because Knapp was one of those CCMers many Christians latched onto, you can imagine the shockwaves that rippled throughout the industry when she publicly came out as gay in 2010.
Rumors of Knapp's sexuality had been circulating for years, ever since she'd announced a hiatus from CCM in 2004. But with her public acknowledgement, Knapp's fans and the larger Christian communities to which they belonged began new conversations about LGBT people of faith.
Perhaps predictably, some of these conversations didn't always unfold with respect.
"Knapp positions herself as the martyr," wrote The Gospel Coalition, "facing condemnation for her beliefs, though it is she who advocates views that directly contradict the testimony and witness of Christians for the past two thousand years … Knapp's point of view appears to be liberating and compassionate. It's actually condemning and dismissive."
When Knapp herself talks about the criticism she's faced, however, she doesn't raise her voice or devolve into name-calling. She simply reminds me that one of the key teachings of Christianity is grace. "If I want to talk about grace at this point, then I really have to think about what that means," she says, explaining her decision to enter into civil dialogue with her harshest critics.
This month is a big one for Knapp, as she has both a book and an album dropping. Knapp's book, Facing the Music, offers an inside look at her own life, from her humble roots in Kansas and her beginnings in Christian music, to her departure from the industry and her return to Nashville years later. The book also emphasizes the role her faith has played through the entire journey.
Her album, Set Me Free, marks a turning point for both her career and life, as she explained it to me. She's no longer signed with a Christian label, a fact that is especially noteworthy given that she once held one of the highest honors awarded by the Gospel Music Association — the Dove Award for New Artist of the Year. Her new album also marks her return to Nashville, which is, in some sense, a homecoming of sorts. While writing the record's title song, Knapp says she had a moment where she realized, "You know what? You'll be alright."Knapp has plenty of ideas about encouraging discussions between people of faith and those who are LGBT. Head over to the interview for her 10 top pieces of advice.
Jennifer Knapp, former darling of the Contemporary Christian Music industry, publicly came out as gay in 2010, prompting numerous conversations in faith communities. But Knapp sees those conversations as ultimately good, both for LGBT and religious communities. Though she was at first reluctant to be a vocal advocate for gay people of faith, she has slowly learned to accept that role, to ask one fundamental question: how can you stand in the tension between two groups that seem so unwilling to dialogue with each other?
Knapp has plenty of ideas about encouraging these discussions to happen, and she recently caught up with me to give me a few of them. Here's what she told me.
1) Be who you are — not a headline
"Oh gosh, you know, actually I see myself as pretty ordinary most of the time. At the end of the day, what I really wanna do is perform, to feel I'm contributing as an artist. That's what I get up for everyday — being able to write, being able to create and share that with people. To me, it's not that fancy or unusual, really. I think where it gets interesting is, obviously, where my sexual orientation and my faith experience become part of the conversation.
"Who are you? What are you about? You know, everybody wants the headline. And that's a great place to start. I think very few of us build our identities off of one thing we're interested in."
2) Be careful about the language you use to talk about identities
"One thing I've had to learn to navigate that the process of writing this book helped set into focus: yeah, one thing may interest me and is a really significant part of my life — for example, music — but I don't necessarily have to travel with that in all the ways people expect. If I have a career in music, wonderful, I enjoy that, I appreciate that. But the truth is, I'm probably gonna write and create music regardless of whether or not anyone is interested. It's part of my way of navigating this earth. And it's the same thing with my sexual orientation.
"I'm really curious about the language we use when we talk about sexual identity. I think it's important to know who you are. But at the same time, I tend to stop short of [pause] ... like, oh, I'm a lesbian. Like, I walk to the store, and say, 'How am I gonna shop like a lesbian? How am I gonna write book like a lesbian? Sing this song like a lesbian?' That's really not a guiding principle to me. Imagine if Oscar Wilde were writing today — it'd be, like, oh, he's that gay author! We wanna put him in some kind of headline: Oh, this is who Oscar Wilde is. But I don't imagine that Wilde got up everyday and went, how do I write a gay book?
"At the same time, I do have to lend credibility to the fact that it does significantly affect the way people perceive me, and the way I perceive myself."
3) If you're going to talk about grace, make sure you live it
"What my sexual orientation taught me is that when others are offended by it — if others in faith communities are offended by it — then I really had to hesitate in quickly passing out judgment, saying, oh, you're antigay, you're a bigot. I really feel uncomfortable with the idea that someone not understanding me is my enemy, as opposed to someone who hasn't yet had the experience to be comfortable with other people who are different than they are.
"I realize that is a topic that's really difficult to get into talking about: when someone says there's something wrong with you, your instant response is to wanna fight back. But the faith part of that made me take stock. What do I believe? What does my faith say about me? What do I want that faith to have taught me about the way I treat other people. It's really helpful. And it's kind of the way I've had to examine why I practice my faith.
"My sexual orientation is immediately questioned among conservative groups when I claim both sexual orientation and faith. I don't go into that lightly. But if I wanna talk about grace at this point, then I really have to think about what that means — to be a person who gives grace and a person who receives it. It's not just something I've learned — hey, this is great, you've gotta forgive, be nice, and love people in their shortcomings. It's practicing an everyday reality. You have to really put your money where your mouth is. I'm not sure that without my sexual orientation I might have taken a moment to understand that."
4) Dialogue needs to be encouraged
"There's a common theme among LGBT people of faith — that feeling of being caught in between two forces that don't wanna agree with one another. I've experienced it, where my friends who understand religion don't understand my sexual orientation, and my friends who accept my sexual orientation don't understand my relationship with religion or faith. It's an interesting place to be.
"We're not all wholly made up of one idea or one passion or one focus. Just because a person is gay doesn't mean they give up spirituality. Just because a person concentrates on religion or belief doesn't mean they give up their sexuality either.
"We have to find ways to take the opportunity and go, how do I get friends on one side or the other to see the ways we're similar as opposed to arguing about the ways we aren't?
"I don't know a systematic answer except the compassionate one: we've gotta be able to create safe places for LGBT people of faith to come out and continue telling uplifting stories to tell how faith and sexual orientation have been an amazing part of their journey. Tons of people have told me that their faith has actually helped their coming out process."
5) Faith communities need LGBT voices
"I always think it's interesting when someone thinks I'm gonna step up and go, 'Behold I have good news!' Just because I happen to be in the same mess as everyone else. To be honest, I don't have a magic solution to all this stuff. Once I recognized my sexual orientation, I was willing to talk about it inside my faith communities. All of a sudden I've got what appears to be a controversy, if not a mess on my hands.
"The question is: how do we listen to each other? Is this a problem to be solved? This is where my experience as an artist has been helpful. All I can really do at the end of the day is tell my story and listen to other people tell theirs. There's a lot of value going back to the very basic idea of listening, being present. One interesting story inside Christian communities is that we haven't always heard from LGBT voices. We're just starting to. There have been tons of Christians coming out in recent decades, but we don't always hear about them. We try to silence that voice. We feel uncomfortable, we don't know what to do, or we know we have theological disagreements.
"For me, I can think of nothing worse to kill somebody's spirit than to tape their mouths shut. In a sense, to say you don't exist, you don't matter, your story isn't worth telling. I'm constantly reminded of the Harvey Milk days where he said, 'You have to come out.' In many ways, that's still a challenge no matter where you're at."
6) If you don't find the trail in front of you, blaze it
"One of the visuals is paving a trail. There's really no set course in front of us that says you will be invited in your church to marry your same-sex partner. Not that it doesn't happen — it happens every day, in every denomination, believe it or not. Including evangelical and Catholic churches. There are loving LGBT couples being supported by clergy, even if the denomination as a whole isn't adopting that.
"But somehow, it's like laying new ground. I don't get the luxury of having somebody pave that path right in front of me. It takes a lot of weed whacking. It's back breaking work to bend down and put a new paver on road. But just because we don't see the path in front of us doesn't mean there's no path to take. You're the trailblazer. And it takes a lot of patience, but if there's not a road there, I say build it.
"And know there are people inside your faith community to stand beside you. We're starting to see clergy stand beside young gay men who say, 'I wanna marry a dude in front of my friends and family who understand the spiritual significance of our commitment.' That's a beautiful thing! And if you're not the first guy to do it, then what about the people behind you who won't do it?
"The conversation might be awkward to start because nobody's talking. But you can be the person to raise your hand. You can be that person."
7) It's never easy to be the first one to raise your hand
"No, if you'd have asked me to do it I'd have told you take flying leap. Not because I don't think it's valuable. It's so interesting sometimes to be the first person to raise your hand in room. I'm clearly not the first Christian to come out. But I really think back to 2010 when I first came out, the negative storm I anticipated was enough to make me hesitate. In 2008, I would've said that's not a role I can step into.
"At the same time, I didn't know the positive things that happen when you make yourself available to other people, and other people respond and tell you their story. There's a solidarity to that.
"There are still days when I say, 'Why am I here? Somebody else do this, please!' It's hard work to be vulnerable, and to be the target — even for moment. But I'm really grateful for the way I came out."
8) It all comes back to love
"I hadn't yet identified as gay, but I was getting frustrated working inside CCM because my theology was changing, and it was different from the people around me. At that point, it was, Christians don't drink. Well, I drank, and so I wasn't a good Christian. I had this whole list of things not to do. That list became so burdensome to me that I got to a point where I said, 'I clearly am not what you want me to be. If this what it takes, if I have to be some theological genius, or some kind of saintly figure in order to be approved of by God, then God either takes me or he doesn't.' And I was angry about that for a while. OK. God can't love me. Fine.
"The pivotal moment for me circles back around to my fear of being rejected by God. What kind of great figure is this God that can't love me? That was the switch. Of course, God has to love me in my most vulnerable, even if I don't know if I want to be better person. He still loves me.
"That expands to my relationship with my friends and family, and my partner, and myself. Am I a valuable human being? Am I worthy of love? That's a non-negotiable position. Of course, we are all worthy of being loved regardless of what you fill in the blank with: gay, white, female, from Kansas, a rock star, on and on."
9) Getting a paycheck from the faith industrial complex sometimes forces you to keep quiet
"The Christian music industry is just as diverse as you'd hope it to be. It's not just made up of conservative evangelicals who don't agree with homosexuality. It's made up of all kinds of people that run the spectrum from conservative to extremely liberal, even more liberal than this little gay Christian can be.
"What happens when we work in this corporate faith is that we don't necessarily always talk about things that rock the boat. That was one of the reasons I found it difficult to continue with the Christian music industry. It's really frustrating to walk into a room and have everyone think I'm there to convert the masses to Jesus Christ. I'm really just out to be your friend, or I'm out for a conversation, rather than a conversion. As a 27-year-old, I found that frustrating. I had to conform and pretend to be that person so I could still have a job and friends. You're not gonna get a place at the table in public if you rabble-rouse too much."
10) You know what? You're gonna be alright
"'Set Me Free' is a song on my new record that I wrote after coming back to Nashville in 2010. I was in the middle of just starting to get comfortable being the object of conversation every time I walked into my room. There's a line in the chorus, and it's not terribly poetic: 'if you don't love me, set me free.'
"There was a moment in writing that when I said, you know what? You're not gonna be able to please everyone all the time. You'll make friends, you'll lose friends. You'll be alright.
"That moment of writing does stand out to me. Even though I didn't know what was ahead of me: advocacy, having religious conversations again, or even a career. But that was a moment of me sitting in my room, saying, 'Yeah, you'll be alright.'"