Jennifer Knapp Balances Faith and Sexuality

Two years ago, shockwaves went through the Christian music community when Jennifer Knapp, one of the genre’s most critically lauded singers and songwriters, announced that she’d been in a same-sex relationship for the past eight years.

This time coincides with a seven-year sabbatical Knapp took after quickly becoming one of the genre’s most popular artists in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Feeling a lack of enthusiasm with music where she once felt joy, she wrapped up any commitments she had to promote her then-current album, 2001’s The Way I Am, and proceeded to drop out of sight.

Since reemerging in 2010, Knapp has released a new album, Letting Go, and taken to the road as a touring artist. She’s currently in the midst of a new touring program, Inside Out Faith, where she discusses her first-hand experiences in faith and sexuality.

Ahead of an Atlanta area concert this month, Knapp spoke with David Magazine about the balance in being both Christian and a lesbian.

Since coming out in 2010, what has the response been like from fans of yours from your days in the Christian music industry?

I always describe the response as overwhelmingly positive and it’s true. The fans are those who are obviously most familiar with my music and my legacy of expressing my experiences in my faith journey. In a way, I credit them for helping me realize the link between the past and the present. They continually inspire me to continue pouring honest experience into my music and have done nothing but respected, nurtured and supported that process. These are folks who have always understood that self-examination and honest revelation can be a costly process- not everyone is going to like what they find. But in terms of the folks in Christian communities with whom I can still relate, the ones that stick around are those who get that this process is challenging, sacred, and requires sanctuary.

Of course, there have been folks who’ve loudly written me off. Some have found a measure of pride and duty to try and “save me” from myself. Another tack is to create a vacuum of silence, to make it so that I never existed. A few major Christian retailers have actually spent significant time and money in removing any trace of me from their shelves and online stores. It’s crazy when folks are more willing to spend more time getting rid of you than investing in your potential.

Really, there’s nothing new to report about the tired and short-sighted language of rejection. What’s amazing to me is that I was prepared for worse, what I have actually have received is a much more subtle and ambiguous “disappointment”.  Unfortunately, what I am learning is how these seemingly individualized targeted public acts of corporate exclusion leak out onto others who relate to my experience.  People aren’t stupid, they realize when they see one person treat another with disdain, the concern becomes how they will be treated when they are the ones who are singled out. That’s not a conversation about sexual orientation; it’s a conversation about loving your neighbor as yourself.

I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve got some good neighbors, but not everybody has been a friend.

Along the same lines, what was the reaction of people who worked with you in the Christian music industry?

Well, there are people and there’s business. People act like people. I’ve continued some friendships without a hitch. Some, you can sense a concern of “guilt by association.” And I’ve lost some people who I thought were pretty good friends.

What’s important to realize is that professionally I’ve come from an industry designed for Christians by Christians. In a sense, that same industry also attempts to act as religious community. Most people wouldn’t be there without some personal attachment to Christianity. But there is real concern when it comes to business. Say the wrong thing in community and you could have some problems with your business. No one wants to lose their job based on which opinion they carry in the LGBT/faith conversation, inclusive or otherwise.

I say all that to point out, that I suspect there are friends that I have but cannot speak for concern over complications for their profession.  On one hand, I wouldn’t want anyone to have to lose their job by being my friend or supporting my art. But it does raise the interesting dilemma when ensconced within the framework of a religious community that aspires to love ones neighbor. Is it then a neighborly business practice to remove professional options for those with which you’d do not agree with theologically? And at which point does the “industry” define what should or should not be happening in “community?”

What do you think are the key differences in your music today, compared with your albums during your time with Gotee [Records, Knapp’s Christian record label]?

If there’s a major difference it’s that I’m not obligated to mold a concept I’m writing about into a specifically “Christian” language. In some ways, it’s like a comedian who delivers the punch line, but tells you before and after that the whole thing was a joke. Part of the joy must surely include being able to make those connections for oneself?  The Christian market place relies on narrators who speak a specific language. Not everyone speaks that language or is comfortable hearing it spoken. I’m still tremendously inspired to give music as a gift, and no doubt, the experiences and passions that I am moved by because of my faith has and will probably be recognizable to those who are familiar to the experience.

Faith has always been an integral part of your music, but on Letting Go, it wasn’t necessarily as explicit as it was on your previous albums. Was that intentional?

Absolutely intentional. I worked very deliberately to make a space for others to be able to insert themselves into the music, spiritually if that is what was required, but not religiously. In some ways, looking back, I think there were moments that I choked a flower instead of a weed. I knew that there would be a lot of dialogue about my sexual orientation and what does or doesn’t make a Christian. I guess it was just my way of taking off the halo and seeing if there was still a saint I underneath.

What was your inspiration for creating Inside Out Faith?

Two things really. The first is that I have been getting clear and passionate pleas to allow others to speak in support of recognizing LGBT faith inclusion. The fact is, I’m not a musician who works in the church anymore. But there were churches who wanted me to play, recognizing that celebrating the gifts of all kinds of people of faith is an important act of love. I realized that these were folks recognized how damaging a journey being LGBT in the church can be and they wanted to help stop the madness. It took me a while to process, but what I began to realize that there were faith communities out there that knew the value of my story and they were simply asking if I could tell it.

The second is reason is what convinced me to tell the story. After my “outing” in the press, the conversations at my shows dramatically shifted. No matter where I played, a theater, a lesbian bar or a fair, after the show I’d come out to hang with the crowd and everybody would line up to tell me their story. Person after person, some gay, many straight, some practicing Christians, people in, people out, clergy and atheists alike…so many had stories to tell about how damaging this one issue had become to their experience of faith (however they did or did not choose to practice it). Many of these are heartbreaking stories that are often difficult but also necessary to hear. They discredit the commonly accepted lie that all Christians, all religiously minded people, all of those whom God loves is for the elect heterosexual. That whether a human being is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, inter-sexed, questioning or straight, ALL are delightful and wonderfully made souls.

The battle over theological superiority in doctrine is being waged on the backs of innocent people who have done nothing more than engage in their spiritual communities with ALL of life’s questions, difficulties and, if the church is willing, gifts, joys and enthusiasm as well.

There are plenty of people in both the Christian community and LGBT community who feel that people can’t be a member of both communities. Obviously, you feel otherwise. How do you respond to people who think you can’t be both Christian and a lesbian?

My first thought is generally, that the determining factors of who I am do not rest in the hands of what others think about me. Someone can say that I do not personify their definition of what they call a Christian, but then I question that it is not ours to judge and determine another’s path to the Divine.

The reality of my personal experience is this: in terms of the faith tradition and language with which I am most familiar, Christianity is how I would begin to qualify my faith “orientation.” Despite warnings to the contrary, my loving a woman has done little to dampen my passion and enthusiasm for exploring the mystery of faith and spirituality. I choose my faith, and it has been an equally challenging and rewarding experience. My sexual orientation however, seems to have chosen me. These things are two qualities among many that form my narrative. In my experience, though paradoxical to some, they are not mutually exclusive, but often can be significantly complimentary of each other. They are elements of the whole me.

Do you have any plans on releasing a new album in the near future?

I’ve got a plenty of music, now I’m just looking for the time. I’m playing a fair bit of the new stuff now, sort of breaking it in. Hopefully I’ll get into the studio and have something out by early next year.

Have you considered re-recording some of your older songs for a new album, whether combined with new material or just consisting of classic Jennifer Knapp songs?

The only way any old stuff will get recorded is if I happen to be playing it for a live recording or something. But if that’s a way of asking if I’ll ever entertain creating a space for overtly themed “sacred” music in the future, then I’d say it’s a possibility. At this point I’m learning to never say never.


Jennifer Knapp performs on April 19 at The Village Church in Hapeville at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available

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